User:Cynwolfe/Priesthoods of ancient Rome

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The priesthoods of ancient Rome were responsible for the maintenance of public and domestic religion, including imported cults that were officially recognized and accepted socially. Rome had no separate priestly caste or class, but the administration of public cults required highly specialized forms of knowledge. The state priests were drawn from the same social ranks as those who held political office, and with a few exceptions, nothing barred a priest from the career track cursus honorum. Priesthoods, however, were held for life, while magistracies were annual. A further difference is that a youth who had not even assumed the "toga of manhood" (toga virilis) might be admitted to a priestly college, but there were age requirements for magistracies.[1]

The earliest public priesthoods were probably the college of flamines, singular flamen, the organization of which was attributed to Numa Pompilius, second king of Rome.

Origins and organization[edit]

[N.B.: This section should also deal with the relation of magistracies and priestly duties. The "struggle of the orders" and the politics of priesthoods will either go here, or in a separate section.]

Public priests were appointed by the collegia. Once elected, a priest held permanent religious authority from the eternal divine, which offered him lifetime influence, privilege and immunity. Therefore civil and religious law limited the number and kind of religious offices allowed an individual and his family. Religious law was collegial and traditional; it informed political decisions, could overturn them, and was difficult to exploit for personal gain.[2] Priesthood was a costly honour: in traditional Roman practice, a priest drew no stipend. Cult donations were the property of the deity, whose priest must provide cult regardless of shortfalls in public funding – this could mean subsidy of acolytes and all other cult maintenance from personal funds.[3] For those who had reached their goal in the Cursus honorum, permanent priesthood was best sought or granted after a lifetime's service in military or political life, or preferably both: it was a particularly honourable and active form of retirement which fulfilled an essential public duty. For a freedman or slave, promotion as one of the Compitalia seviri offered a high local profile, and opportunities in local politics; and therefore business.[4]

Plutarch, Life of Marcellus 3.3: "A Roman priest was legally exempt from military service only in case no Gallic war occurred again."

Priestly literature[edit]

Domestic and local cult[edit]

In household cult, the paterfamilias functioned as priest, and members of his familia as acolytes and assistants.

Neighborhood priests presided over rites particular to divisions of the city such as the vicus, curia, or xxxxxxxxx. The highest authority within a community usually sponsored its cults and sacrifices, officiated as its priest and promoted its assistants and acolytes. The archaic office of curio maximus, for instance, presided over the Quirinalia,[5] and also the agricultural festivals of the curiae such as the Fordicidia, when pregnant cows were sacrificed, and the Fornacalia, or Oven Festival.[6] The Fornacalia had no fixed date, and though each curia might celebrate the festival separately, the date was determined by the curio maximus and posted in the forum.[7] Although the curio was a kind of priest, he had the power to convene meetings for political purposes, and each curia also had a flamen curialis whose duties were specifically religious.[8] Another duty of the curio maximus was collecting "religious contributions" from the curiae (curionium aes).[9]

Public and state priesthoods[edit]

The major flamines, dedicated to Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, and later, to Capitoline Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, were drawn from patrician families. Twelve lesser flamines were each dedicated to a single deity. Flamines were constrained by the requirements of ritual purity; Jupiter's flamen in particular had virtually no simultaneous capacity for a political or military career.[10]

In the Regal era, a rex sacrorum (king of the sacred rites) supervised regal and state rites in conjunction with the king (rex) or in his absence, and announced the public festivals. He had little or no civil authority. With the abolition of monarchy, the collegial power and influence of the Republican pontifices increased. By the late Republican era, the flamines were supervised by the pontifical collegia. The rex sacrorum had become a relatively obscure priesthood with an entirely symbolic title: his religious duties still included the daily, ritual announcement of festivals and priestly duties within two or three of the latter but his most important priestly role – the supervision of the Vestals and their rites – fell to the more politically powerful and influential pontifex maximus.[11]

Imperial cult[edit]

In Fishwick's analysis, cult to Roman state Divus, deus and the numen was associated with temples, and cult to the Genius of the living emperor was offered at his altar. In both cases, the image of the emperor focused attention on his person and attributes, and its siting within the sacred precinct underlined his position in the divine and human hierarchies. Expenditure on the physical expression of Imperial cult was vast, and was only curbed by the Imperial crisis of the 3rd century. As far as is known, no new temples to state divi were built after the reign of Marcus Aurelius.[12]

The Imperial divi and living genii appear to have been served by separate ceremonies and priesthoods. Emperors themselves could be priests of state gods, the divi and their own genius cult images. The latter practice illustrates the Imperial genius as innate to its holder but separable from him as a focus of respect and cult, formally consistent with cult to the personification of ideas and ideals such as Fortune (Fortuna), peace (Pax) or victory (Victoria) et al. in conjunction with the genius of the Emperor, Senate or Roman people; Julius Caesar had showed his affinity with the virtue of clemency (Clementia), a personal quality associated with his divine ancestor and patron goddess Venus. Priests typically and respectfully identified their function by manifesting the appearance and other properties of their deus. The duties of Imperial priests were both religious and magistral: they included the provision of approved Imperial portraits, statues and sacrifice, the institution of regular calendrical cult and the inauguration of public works, Imperial games (state ludi) and munera to authorised models. In effect, priests throughout the empire were responsible for re-creating, expounding and celebrating the extraordinary gifts, powers and charisma of emperors.[13]

As part of his religious reforms, Augustus promoted plebeians, freedmen and even slaves to serve as Augustales (priests of "the August ones") at the Compital shrines, dedicated to the Lares of the vici (neighbourhoods). This priestly office, and its connections to the Imperial household, appears to have lasted for as long as the Imperial cult itself.[14]


  1. ^ Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999, reprinted 2002), p. 183.
  2. ^ Beard et al., Vol. 1, 104 - 8: there can be no doubt that politicians attempted to manipulate religious law and priesthoods for gain; but were compelled to do so lawfully, and often failed.
  3. ^ Horster, in Rüpke (ed), 331 - 2.
  4. ^ See Gradel, 9-15.
  5. ^ T.P. Wiseman, Remembering the Roman People (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 43, note 55 online.
  6. ^ Ovid, Fasti 2.527–32; H.H. Scullard, History of the Roman World 753 to 146 BC (Routledge, 1980), p. 68 online; Kurt A. Raaflaub, Social Struggles in Archaic Rome: New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders (Blackwell, 1986, 2005), p. 109.
  7. ^ Georges Dumézil, "Interpretation: The Three Functions," in Structuralism in Myth (Taylor & Frances, 1996), p. 71 online.
  8. ^ George Mousourakis, The Historical and Institutional Context of Roman Law (Ashgate, 2003), p. 52 online.
  9. ^ Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 184 online.
  10. ^ Smith, in Rüpke (ed), 39 - 40.
  11. ^ Beard et al., Vol. 1, 18 - 34, 54 - 61: "[the underlying purpose being that] whoever bore the title rex should never again be in a position to threaten the city with tyranny." See also Religion and politics in this article.
  12. ^ Gradel, 364.
  13. ^ Gradel, 78-98.
  14. ^ Lott, 107 - 117; the replacement of neighbourhood Lares with Augustus' own would have been indelicate at the very least. The Lares Augusti can be understood as August Lares – a joint honorific with unmistakable and flattering connections to the princeps himself, rather than a direct claim of patronage.

For further reading[edit]

Suggested bibliography sought!

  • Jörg Rüpke, Fasti sacerdotum: A Prosopography of Pagan, Jewish, and Christian Religious Officials in the City of Rome, 300 BC to AD 499 (Oxford University Press, 2008)[1]
  • "Priesthoods and Priestly Careers," ANRW [2]
  • Ronald D. Ridley, "The Absent Pontifex Maximus," Historia 54 (2005) 275–300
  • Einar Gjerstad, "Discussions concerning Early Rome," part 3, Historia 16 (1967) 257–278
  • Forsythe survey [3]
  • Turcan [4]