The story of the Potitii is inextricably intertwined with that of the Pinarii. According to legend, a generation before the Trojan War, Hercules came to Italy, where he was received by the families of the Potitii and the Pinarii. He taught them a form of worship, and instructed them in the rites, by which he was later honored. The priesthood of this cult was carried out exclusively by members of these two families, as a sacrum gentilicum.
The position of the Pinarii in the cult was traditionally inferior to that of the Potitii, and they were excluded from partaking of the entrails of the sacrifice, supposedly because they had arrived late to the sacrificial banquet given by Hercules. The historian Michael Grant suggests that the cult was originally introduced to Italy by the Phoenicians, and was devoted to one of the Phoenician gods, who afterwards became assimilated with Hercules.
For nine hundred years, the Potitii and Pinarii held the priesthood of Hercules, until Appius Claudius Caecus, during his censorship in 312 BC, induced the Potitii to instruct the public slaves in the sacred rites, by the payment of 50,000 pounds of copper. It was said that this act of impiety induced Hercules to send a plague, which within thirty days carried off the entire gens, consisting of twelve families and thirty grown men; and Claudius was struck blind, which was the source of the cognomen Caecus, meaning "blind". The Pinarii, who refused to relinquish their priestly duties, maintained the worship of Hercules until the latest period.
The disappearance of an entire gens was extraordinary, as was the lack of any magistrates or other persons of importance belonging to such an ancient family. This has led to speculation that the legend referred to some branch of another gens known to history, such as the Valerii Potiti. But at the same time it was possible for a family to exist for centuries without attracting any notice, and the ancient historians are unanimous in making the Potitii a distinct gens. The historian Niebuhr suggests that, if the story regarding the destruction of the Potitii is based on fact, they may have perished in the great plague which raged in 292 B.C., some twenty years after the censorship of Caecus.
It is not altogether certain that the entire gens perished in this disaster; the legendary account says that thirty grown men were killed, but perhaps some children survived. Although hardly any members of the gens are known to history, a Publius Potitius is mentioned several times by Cicero as one of the guardians of the son of Publius Junius, custodian of the temple of Castor, who died in 80 B.C. Five years later, the boy's guardians and stepfather became embroiled in a dispute with Verres, who extracted considerable sums of money, supposedly to make extensive repairs to the temple, which in fact was in sound condition. There is also a funerary inscription from Tichilla in Africa Proconsularis, dedicated to Marcus Potitius Aurelianus, aged eighty-five.
Potitii in popular culture
The Potitii are the focus of the novels Roma and Empire, by Steven Saylor. These novels follow the history of Rome, up to the reign of Hadrian, and concern the fortunes of the Potitii and Pinarii, through the passing down of a family heirloom.
- Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, William Smith, Editor.
- Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita, i. 7.
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romaike Archaiologia, i. 38-40.
- Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, Saturnalia, iii. 6.
- Michael Grant, Roman Myths (1971).
- Maurus Servius Honoratus, ad Virg. Aen., viii. 268.
- Sextus Pompeius Festus, epitome of Marcus Verrius Flaccus De Verborum Significatu, p. 237, ed. Karl Otfried Müller.
- Macrobius, Saturnalia, iii. 6.
- Johann Adam Hartung, Die Religion der Römer (1836), vol. ii., p. 30.
- Barthold Georg Niebuhr, History of Rome, vol. i. p. 88.
- Karl Wilhelm Göttling, Geschichte der Römische Staatsverfassung (1840), p. 178.
- Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, i. 6, 7.
- Macrobius, Saturnalia, iii. 6.
- Niebuhr, History of Rome, vol. iii. p. 309.
- Grant, Roman Myths (1971).
- Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Verrem Secundae, i. 50-58.
- Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, CIL VIII, 1381.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Smith, William, ed. (1870). "article name needed". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.