Ancient History and

Exploring the Ancient Past

The Pontifex Maximus

By Natasha Sheldon

By the Imperial period, the role of the Roman Pontifex Maximus was synonymous with the emperor. But what were the origins of Rome’s ‘chief priest’?

The Colleges of the Roman Priesthood


Roman state religion was composed of various priestly orders or colleges, each who performed a different role in Roman society. They included:


  1. The augurs who took the auspices.
  2. The quindecimvirs who supervised incoming foreign cults.
  3. The septemvirs who organized public banquets for the gods
  4. The Vestal Virgins, who tended the sacred hearth of Rome.
  5. The Fratres Arvales, who may have been an agricultural cult but by imperial times were mainly concerned with the imperial cult.
  6. The Soldales Titii whose role was obscure.
  7. The Fetiales who were concerned with war and treaties.
  8. The pontifices.

The College of the Pontifices


 The college of the pontifices oversaw Roman state religion. They were responsible for sacrifices, games at festivals, adoptions, burials, lineages and sacra familiaria- the inheritance of religious duties.


 Most importantly, the pontifices were the keepers of the sacred law, on which they could act as advisers for both state magistrates and private individuals. But they had no authority over the state. Whatever the priests suggested, the state had the final say.


The Origins of the Pontifex.


The chief of the college of pontifices was the Pontifex Maximus. The origin of the name is obscure, it’s meaning being ‘he who makes a bridge’. This bridge may have been actual or metaphorical, no one can say for sure. But he certainly acted as a bridge between his college and the senate, being their spokesman in the house.


But the Pontifex Maximus was not the chief priest of roman religion. In the archaic era, that  role was held by the King. With the abolition of the monarchy, it passed to the rex sacrorum, the priest who took over the religious role of the king. The rex and the three major flamines   took precedents over the Pontifex. But that was soon to change.


 Religion in the Republic.


This is because the role of the college of the Pontifices began to evolve in the republic. Originally an exclusively patrician order, it became open to plebeians in 300BC under the Lex Ogulnia. In addition, the selection process for the Pontifex Maximus  changed. From the mid third century onwards, instead of being voted for just by his college, he was selected by  17 of the 35 roman tribes (Livy 25.5.2).


 The result was to create a more socially inclusive order and one whose head was elected by popular vote. Because of this, the Pontifex Maximus became the most important and influential priest in Roman state religion.


 The Imperial Pontifex.


By the end of the republic, as well as being, according to Dumezil ‘'the trustee of sacred knowledge: the calendar, the formulas of invocation and prayer proper’, the Pontifex Maximus  was not only above the major flamens and chief vestal virgins, he was selecting them.


Because of the popular appeal, the pontifices had become the priestly order to belong to if you were an ambitious politician eager for popular success. Julius Caesar was a member, as was his heir, the emperor Augustus.


It was with the rise of the Emperors that the Pontifex Maximus truly became Rome’s chief priest. He now had precedence over all the colleges of Roman state religion. But he was no longer voted for by the people. For from Augustus until Gratian in 367AD, the role of chief priest was always held by the reigning emperor of Rome.


Price, S and Kearns, E (2003). ‘The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion’. Oxford University Press.

Livy, ‘The History of Rome’

Dumezil, G (Trans Krapp, P) (1996) ‘Archaic Roman Religion, (vol 1 and 2)’. John Hopkins University Press.


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