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Roman Priests

The Major Types of Roman Priests of the Roman Republic

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Denarius of Julius Caesar

Silver denarius bearing the head of Julius Caesar as Pontifex Maximus, struck 44-45 B.C.

G. Ferrero, The Women of the Caesars, New York, 1911. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Functions of the Roman Priests | Priests of the Roman Republic

There were many types of Roman priests during the Roman Republic.

The earliest priests are thought to have been the flamines, who were devoted to individual gods. The Flamen Dialis, who was devoted to Jupiter, was subject to many prohibitions and duties, but also enjoyed honors. He, as well as the other member of the triad of the flamines majores, the Flamen Martialis and the Flamen Quirinalis, were originally required to be patrician. The other flamines (minores) were plebeian. In time, the total number of flamines reached 15. Flamines were appointed for life, but could be forced to resign.

Another type of priest going back to the legendary period is the pontifex (pl. pontifices) who were not restricted to specific gods, but served as superintendents to the worship of all gods. The pontifices, like the first of the flamines, had to be patrician originally, with the Pontifex Maximus at their head, holding a role in law (pontifices could convene the comitia centuriata) and concerned with the proper performance of ritual. During the Republic, the college of pontifices was composed of 9 men, 4 patrician, and 5 plebeian.

A third early type of Roman priest was the rex sacrorum or rex sacrificulus thought originally to have taken over the king's priestly role. The relative importance of these priests changed over time. The Pontifex Maximus came to replace the rex sacrorum in his responsibility for the vestal virgins, but the rex sacrorum maintained his responsibility to announce the fixed festival days (feriae), written on the calendar.

There were also augures (priests who took the auspices), decemviri sacris faciundis ([half plebeian, and half patrician] who took care of the Sibylline books and were appointed for life), Sodales Fratres Arvales (9 or 12 who offered sacrifices for fertility of the field), Sodales Luperci, Sodales Salii (12 [patrician] priests of Mars Gradivus).

In addition to these priests, there were other, minor offices, some held by men, and others by women: the wives of the flamen and the rex sacrorum (flamenica and regina sacrorum) and the Vestal Virgin priestesses.

Roman Priests References:

  • Christopher Smith "The Religion of Archaic Rome," A Companion to Roman Religion, Blackwell.
  • Lacus Curtius
  • "Roman Nobility and the Three Major Priesthoods, 218-167 B.C.," by David E. Hahm; Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, (1963), pp. 73-85.

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