logo for the-romans.eu

There was no cast of Roman priests


There was no cast of Roman priests. It was a job performed by magistrates, who were elected for life. Originally a magistrate could only hold one priesthood, but this changed with Julius Caesar. Initially only patricians could become priest. After ca. 300bc also plebeians could be elected.

There was a great variety of Roman priests, all with their own specific task:

Pontifex
The pontifices formed most important group. They made the religious laws, acted as judges in religious matters. The Pontifex Maximus was the chief of the pontifices. He also disciplined the Vestal virgins, who belonged to college of the pontifices. The rex sacrorum, who performed  the religious duties of the old kings was also a member of that college. Initially there were 4. After 300bc 8 pontifices and 4 of them had to be plebeians. Sulla would raise the number to 15.

The title Pontifex Maximus still exists today: it's the title of the pope in Rome. The early christians adopted a lot more habits from the Romans.

  Flamen Flamen
Flamines were more specialized Roman priests. Each was dedicated to one god. There were three major flamines:

 

The Flamen Martialis was clearly dedicated to Mars
Flamen Quirinalis  to Quirinus the deified Romulus.
Flamen Dialis worshipped Jupiter. He and his wife had to live with a lot restraints:

And so on. Imagine that Julius Caesar who in his young days had been appointed Flamen Dialis and Sulla when he came to power not had cancelled all appointments, how the world would have looked like. Later Julius Caesar would buy his priesthood. He bribed himself an appointment to Pontifex Maximus.

There were also 12 minor flamines. For only ten of them the god's names are still known: Carmenta, Ceres, Falacer,Flora, Palatua, Pomona, Portunus,Volturnus,Vulcanus and Furrina.

Salii
The college of the Salii, another group of 12 priests, was formed by 12 young nobles who were dressed in broided tunics and special shields. They were to sing and dance in honour of Mars.


Fetiales
Fetiales were Roman priests responsible for the rituals associated to declaration of war and peace-treaties. When something happened between two (or more) states, first the fetials were sent to demand compensation. If that state refused, which often was the case the senate and the people would decide wether to go to war or not. When it was decided to go to war, the fetiales would ride to the border of the enemy territory to perform a ritual that ended with throwing a blood tipped spear across the border.
See Livius (1.32) and here

This worked fine as long as the borders were nearby Rome. Later when the borders were too far off, the ceremony took place in Rome itself. The Romans would take a lot of trouble to make (believe that) every war  was a just war (bellum iustum) even when that was (often) not the case.

Augurs
To learn the will of the gods, they were  consulted before an important decision was taken. This consultation for approval was carried out by the college of augurs. One might call them birdwatchers. The augurs would observe a part of the sky and report everything the birds did up there. It is obvious that they could easily cheat with these Roman omens.
There were 4 augurs. Until 300 bc all of them being patrician, from then on also plebeians and the number of augurs was increased to 9. Sulla would increase the number to 15.

Haruspex
Haruspices were Etruscan priests specialized in reading entrails of sacrificed animals. They were also specialized in explaining the will of the gods from lightning.


footer for Romans  page