Pontifex Maximus

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Orginally the Pontifex Maximus was the high priest of the pre-Christian Roman religion. A distinctly religious office under the Roman Republic, it gradually became politicized until, beginning with Augustus, it was subsumed into the Imperial office. Today, Pontifex Maximus is one of the titles of the Roman Catholic Pope.



In the Roman Republic, the Pontifex Maximus (in English, High Priest or Supreme Pontiff) was the head of the polytheistic Roman religion. His was the most important of the Pontifices (plural of Pontifex), positions in the main sacred college (Collegium Pontificum), which he directed. Other members of this priesthood included the Rex Sacrorum (king of the sacred rites), the Flamines, and the Vestales. The number of Pontifices, elected by cooptatio, was originally six, but this number increased to fifteen in the 1st century BC. The Pontifices served for life. The office came into its own with the abolition of the monarchy, when the sacral powers previously vested in the king were transferred either to the Pontifex Maximus or to the Rex Sacrorum.

The Pontifex was not simply a priest. He had both political and religious authority. It is not clear which of the two came first or had the most importance. In practice, particularly during the late Republic, the office of Pontifex Maximus was generally held by a member of a politically prominent family. Being Pontifex Maximus was not a full-time job and did not preclude the office-holder from holding a magistracy or serving in the military.

The Pontifices had many relevant and prestigious functions, such as keeping the official minutes of elected magistrates (see Fasti), and the so-called "public diaries", the Annales maximi. They also collected information related to the Roman religious tradition into a sort of corpus which summarised dogma and other concepts, similar to later compilations of law in Jurisprudence.

Template:Roman government The Pontifices were in charge of the Roman calendar and determined when leap days needed to be added to match the calendar to the seasons. Since the Pontifices would often be politicians, and because a Roman magistrate's term of office corresponded with a calendar year, this power was prone to abuse: a Pontifex could lengthen a year in which he or one of his political allies was in office, or refuse to lengthen one in which his opponents were in power. It was under his authority as Pontifex Maximus that Julius Caesar introduced the calendar reform that created the Julian calendar.

Some authors believe that eventually Roman magistrates would have gained some of the Pontifices' political prerogatives and powers. Earlier Pontifices were elected only from the noble class, but in 300 BC the lex Ogulnia admitted people from plebs too to run for the charge, so that part of the prestige of the title was lost.

In 104 BC the lex Domitia prescribed that the election would henceforward be voted by the comitia tributa; by the same law, only 17 of the 35 tribes of the town could vote. This law was abolished by Sulla and restored when Julius Caesar was Pontifex Maximus.

After Caesar's assassination in 44 BC, his ally Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was selected as Pontifex Maximus. Though Lepidus eventually fell out of political favor and was sent into exile as Augustus Caesar consolidated power, he retained the priestly office until his death in 13 BC, at which point Augustus was selected to succeed him and given the right to appoint other pontifices. With this attribution, the new office of Emperor was given a religious dignity. Most authors contend that the power of naming the Pontifices was not really used as an instrumentum regni, an enforcing power. From this point on, Pontifex Maximus was one of the many titles of the emperor. Even the early Christian emperors continued to use it; it was only relinquished in 382 by Gratian.

Today the head of the Roman religion, now the Catholic Church at the Holy See, is still called the Supreme Pontiff, and still uses Latin as an official language, and is thus still called Pontifex Maximus. See Pope and Primacy of the Roman Pontiff.

The tradition of sovereign as High Priest

The practice of religious and secular duality in the sovereign has a long history, having passed from the Roman to the Byzantine emperors, where it perhaps reached its zenith in the West. The Romanov dynasty of Russia, the Third Rome, claiming direct descent from the Roman emperors, also claimed supreme authority over the Russian Orthodox Church. The first of the Holy Roman Emperors, Charlemagne (c. A.D. 742 or 747 - 814), is said to have regretted that he allowed himself to be crowned by the pope rather than crowning himself; since his authority was supposed to come directly from God, he was in no need of a "bridge builder". Likewise, the sovereign of England is accorded the title Defender of the Faith (Fidei Defensor or F.D. on coins) as head of the Church of England. Eastern traditions, from the ancient Egyptian to the Japanese, have carried the concept even further, by according their sovereigns demigod status. The secular equivalent of the emperor as Pontifex Maximus is the philosopher-king of the Greek sages, with whom the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is said to have identified, as a stoic, and to which the Prussian king Frederick the Great and the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte aspired, both as philosophes.

Usage and etymology

In Christian circles, the term had already been used to refer to the pope as early as the third century AD, when Tertullian applied the term to Pope Callixtus I. Pontifex was apparently a word in common currency in early Christianity to denote a bishop. This is unusual in that most of the technical terms of Roman paganism were avoided in the vocabulary of Christian Latin in favour of neologisms or Greek words. Pope Gregory I was the first to employ it in a formal sense, and it has remained one of the titles of the popes to this day.

In Latin, Pontifex comes from pontem faciens, which means "bridge-maker". This was indeed an important position in Rome, where the major bridges were over the Tiber, the holy river (and a deity, at the same time); only prestigious authorities, with sacral function could be allowed to "disturb" it with mechanical additions. Other experts believe that the position, in its religious interpretation, would have provided men with a symbolic "bridge" to let them contact the gods; it has besides been noted that in ancient India similar concepts were in use in similar ages, here too ideally regarding rivers and bridges. The word has also been thought by some to be a corruption of a similar-sounding but etymologically unrelated Etruscan word for priest, but this theory is a minority opinion.

Incomplete list of Pontifices maximi

External links

de:Pontifex Maximus it:Pontefice massimo (storia romana) nl:Pontifex Maximus ja:最高神祇官 pl:Pontifex Maximus fi:Pontifex maximus


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