1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Pontifex

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PONTIFEX. The collegium of the Pontifices was the most important priesthood of ancient Rome, being specially charged with the administration of the jus divinum, i.e. that part of the civil law which regulated the relations of the community with the deities recognized by the state officially, together with a general superintendence of the worship of gens and family. The name is clearly derived from pans and facere, but whether this should be taken as indicating any special connexion with the sacred bridge over the Tiber (Pans Sublicius), or what the original meaning may have been, cannot now be determined. The college existed under the monarchy, when its members were probably three in number; they may safely be considered as legal advisers of the rex in all matters of religion. Under the republic they emerge into prominence under a pontifex maximus, who took over the king's duties as chief administrator of religious law, just as his chief sacrificial duties were taken by the rex sacrorum; his dwelling was the regia, “ the house of the king.” During the republican period the number of pontifices increased, probably by multiples of three, until after Sulla (82 B.C.) we find them fifteen; for the year 57 B.C. we have a complete list of them in Cicero (Harusp. resp. 6, 12). Included in the collegium were also the rex sacrorum, the flamines, three assistant pontifices (minores), and the Vestal virgins, who were all chosen by the pontifex maximus. Vacancies in the body of pontifices were originally filled by co-optation; but from the second Punic War onwards the pontifex maximus was chosen by a peculiar form of popular election, and in the last age of the republic this held good for all the members. They all held office for life.

The immense authority of the college centred in the pontifex maximus, the other pontifices forming his consilium or advising body. His functions were partly sacrificial or ritualistic, but these were the least important; the real power lay in the administration of the jus divinum, the chief departments of which may briefly be described as follows: (1) the regulation of all expiatory ceremonials needed as the result of pestilence, lightning, &c.; (2) the consecration of all temples and other sacred places and objects dedicated to the gods by the state through its magistrates; (3) the regulation of the calendar both astronomically and in detailed application to the public life of the state; (4) the administration of the law relating to burials and burying-places, and the worship of the Manes, or dead ancestors; (5) the superintendence of all marriages by confarreatio, i.e. originally of all legal patrician marriages; (6) the administration of the law of adoption and of testamentary succession. They had also the care of the state archives, of the lists of magistrates, and kept records of their own decisions (commentarii) and of the chief events of each year (annales).

It is obvious that a priesthood having such functions as these, and holding office for life, must have been a great power in the state, and for the first three centuries of the republic it is probable that the pontifex maximus was in fact its most powerful member. The office might be combined with a magistracy, and, though its powers were declaratory rather than executive, it may fairly be described as quasi-magisterial. Under the later republic it was coveted chiefly for the great dignity of the position; Julius Caesar held it for the last twenty years of his life, and Augustus took it after theideath of Lepidus in 12 B.C., after which it became inseparable from the office of the reigning emperor. With the decay of the empire the title very naturally fell to the popes, whose functions as administrators of religious law closely resembled those of the ancient Roman priesthood, hence the modern use of “ pontiff ” and “ pontifical."

For further details consult Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, iii. 235 seq.; Wissowa, Religion und Kultur der Römer, 430 seq.; Bouché-Leclercq, Les Pontifes, passim.  (W. W. F.*)