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The pontiff ( ancient Greek ἱερεύς hiereus ) was a sacred official (imprecisely referred to as a priest ) in the Roman Empire . The pontifices were brought together in a body, the Collegium pontificum . The pontifical college was the authority that was responsible for performing all ceremonies and sacrifices according to the patrius ritus . They were assigned all the tasks of regular state worship that were not otherwise specifically ordered. The head of the quorum was the Pontifex Maximus .

Etymology and prehistory

The etymology of the word pontifex has not been finally clarified. The most widespread is the folk etymological derivation from the Latin pons ("bridge") and facere ("make") with the interpretation as "bridge builder". The first mention of this meaning can be found in Varro . Dionysius of Halicarnassus agrees with Varro and mentions that as late as 7 BC The pontifices were responsible for the maintenance of the bridges over the Tiber , although they also had the most important religious functions. Attempts have been made to explain the problematic discrepancy between the etymological meaning of the word pontifex as an engineer or carpenter and the official function of the office in various ways. Judith Hallett (1970) presented several Roman offices, the old titles of which were retained even after the introduction of the new Roman function. Theodor Mommsen (1905) derived the legitimation of the pontifices directly from their work as bridge builders.

Hallett also introduced the theory of an older meaning of the word pons , for which, however, no direct Roman sources exist. A derivation from the Indo-European root results in a possible meaning of pons as “way”, analogous to the word pànthah in Vedic Sanskrit . It is therefore conceivable that the word pons in Latin has retained its secondary meaning as “way” or “path”, of which the bridge will also have been a part. This is also indicated by the fact that the word pànthah was used in the religious or spiritual sense as a synonym for the unknown and treacherous path. The word pons may have been associated with a feeling of magic and mystery, but not in the form of an invocation to higher powers, but as an “independent mechanical force” with which the pontiff tried to influence nature. Similar roots in the occult and magic can be found in ancient Roman rituals such as the aquaelicium or the argeorum sacra , with the bridge on which the pontifices performed the magical ceremony was viewed as a place of overwhelming power.

Thus, the emergence of the pontifical authority in Rome is not to be sought in the building of bridges, but in the primitive migration period before the first settlement of the Palatine . The forerunner of the collegium pontificum could have been a group of specialists who “paved the way” with magical secret rites and crossed dangerous areas. Consequently, for pontifex the very likely secondary meaning of “pathway man” can be assumed, in a more direct sense as an authorized “bridge builder” over the holy Tiber and as a mediator between people and gods.

Hubert Le Bourdellès (1976) provided a serious alternative to clarifying the meaning of the word pontifex . In contrast to other priests of the religio Romana , the services of the pontifex were not dedicated to a single god, but were a service to all gods with universal competence. According to Le Bourdellès, there are two conclusions: On the one hand, the word pontifex cannot be older than the function of the office, although the function must have developed during the emergence of Rome and was part of the religious system that the rex sacrorum and the flamines - with Exception of the flamen dialis - contained; on the other hand, the element ponti- in pontifex must be interpreted with the aid of lexical works of the Latin language of the time. The latter, however, do not exist, and the dubious folk etymological explanation always connects Ponti with “the path” or “the bridge”, without doing justice to the universality and totality of the pontifical office. However, this can be achieved by tracing back to an Umbrian root, which originally contained a universal character for the loan word ponti . This theory is supported by indirect evidence in Roman literature: the derivative pontificium is mentioned in the writings of Aulus Gellius , who linked it with delibero and statuo and thus attributed sovereign decision-making power to the pontificate. Arnobius coupled the pontifex with the word potestas . Thus the title pontifex appears in the light of both a comprehensive authority in the judicial sense and an unlimited spiritual power over the Roman cults as well as an unlimited responsibility for the ius sacrum .

Other suggestions that have received less attention are the derivation of pompa (solemn procession) and the folk etymological corruption of a similar sounding, but etymologically unrelated Etruscan word for “priest”.

It should be noted that the word pontifex was created earlier than any ancient document on this subject. So it is no coincidence that even the Romans of classical antiquity knew the office of pontiff only through contradicting traditions. This explains the lack of consensus among ancient experts and historians in the documents about the origin of the office and the title.


Legend has it that the pontifices were called to Numa Pompilius . In fact, the emergence of the pontifices was probably a lengthy process, as a result of which at the end of the royal period the priesthood separated from kingship. In addition to the actual pontifices, a number of different priesthoods were part of the quorum from the beginning:

The actual pontifices were initially three priests (with the Pontifex Maximus). Over time, the number had to be adjusted to meet the needs of the growing community. The number of members was initially increased to 6 and later to 9. Sulla increased the number to 15 and Caesar added a 16th member.

In 196 BC The college was relieved by splitting off the Septemviri epulonum . As early as 300 BC With the Lex Ogulnia , the plebeians had secured about half of the positions in the college. Finally, under Augustus , the college underwent drastic changes: In 29 BC. By resolution of the Senate, he was given the right to appoint members beyond the number stipulated by law. As a result, a fixed number of members can no longer be specified for the pontifices. Augustus also introduced a promagister to the college who represented him in the affairs of the Pontifex Maximus. In addition, the Flamines divorum , the priests who were responsible for the cult of the consecrated emperors, were attached to the college.

Admission of the members

Since the end of kingship, all major colleges have been supplemented by co-optation . Exceptions were the Rex sacrorum , the Flamines and the Vestal Virgins , who were appointed by the Pontifex Maximus . The co-optation was a result of a vote among the members. In 145 BC An attempt to replace cooptation with popular elections failed, but in 103 BC The practice was changed after all. The procedure that had long been in place for the election of the Pontifex Maximus was now extended to the members of all major colleges. From then on, lot 17 determined tribes who appointed the new priest on behalf of the entire Roman people. Then the elected was co-opted by the college. Sulla rescinded this procedure, but it became 63 BC. Re-introduced. In AD 14, the election passed to the Senate. After the election, the cooptatio was carried out by a chairman from the college and the inauguration ceremony.


The main task of the pontifices was to monitor all religious regulations. At first they were supposedly - according to much later tradition - literally as bridge builders who maintained the first Tiber bridge (the pons sulicius ), at the same time responsible for contact with the river god Tiber, which is their importance as advisors in all legal - and thus religious - activities symbolized. What is certain is that, according to the Romans, they knew the mysterious world of the gods and were therefore able to advise people on all religious questions - including law. The advice was free of charge. Due to their sacred position, the pontifices dominated the rules of Rome's intercourse with the gods (ius sacrum) as well as that of the Romans among themselves (ius) . Therefore they laid their court days that knew the action formulas of ancient Rome process and the formulas for the conclusion of legal transactions. According to the view of early Roman times, as in prayer, the use of the correct words in legal matters was important. The prayer and legal formulas ( fasti ) were magic formulas according to the ideas of the time. The fasti were kept in the college's archives and were secret. The pontifices thus initially had a monopoly in legal matters, which they lost when the fasti were published. Thus the administration of justice and jurisprudence became secular. The theft is said to have been around 300 BC. To have happened; it is attributed to the scribe Gnaeus Flavius . It is also called ius Flavianum after him .

Roman Catholic Church

In the late 4th century AD, the now Christian emperors abandoned the title of Pontifex Maximus due to its pagan connotation, even if Anastasios I described himself as a pontiff in a letter to the Roman bishop in 516 and thus underlined his claim to be in to intervene in church affairs (Hormisd. epist. 12). Around the year 600 the title of Pontifex Maximus finally passed to the papacy . Sometimes today only pontiff is used as a synonym for pope. As part of the official title of the Pope, the name Summus Pontifex ("Supreme Pontiff") has been preserved to this day. Analogous to this, the bishops are sometimes also referred to as pontiffs - in the more general sense of “bridge builders” between heaven and earth or between God and man - especially when they preside over a pontifical office .


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  1. Examples of other mixed words with the facio derivative -fex are artifex , aurifex , carnifex and opifex . The etymological discussion, however, only revolves around the origin of the word part ponti- .
  2. Varro, De lingua latina 5, 83: nam ab his Sublicius est factus primum ut restitutus saepe, cum ideo sacra et uls et cis Tiberim non mediocri ritu fiant. (Probably referring to the folk etymological interpretation of the time.)
  3. Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2, 73, 1; also in Servius, on Aeneid 2, 166 and Zosimos 4, 36 the pontiff office is connected with the bridge. Furthermore, Johannes Lydos mentions the parallel between the Roman pontifices and certain Athenians - called "bridge men": γεφὐραιοι - who performed sacred rites in honor of the goddess Pallas Athena on the bridge over the Spercheios . ( De anno et mensibus 3, 21)
  4. One example is the origin of the title quaestor from quaestor paricidii , the "hunter of murderers".
  5. Th. Mommsen, Römische Geschichte (1, 219): "The six" bridge builders " (pontifices) took their name from the sacred and politically important business of building and demolishing the Tiber Bridge . It was the Roman engineers who understood the secret of measures and numbers; from whence they also had the duty to keep the calendar of the state, to call up the new and full moons and the festive days to the people and to see to it that every act of worship as well as every judicial act takes place on the right day. "
  6. Further related terms are pathya (classical Sanskrit), panta (Avestan), poti (old Slavic), pintis (old Prussian), pontos (Greek), hun (Armenian) etc.
  7. To this Judith Hallett: "Over Troubled Waters". The Meaning of the Title Pontifex. In: Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. 101, 1970, pp. 225-226: “A pons provides a way of overcoming and competing with numinous powers; the bridge-maker must have originally gained the reverence of his fellow citizens by reason of his ability to create a concrete, tangible artifact which enables one to cope with dangerous, uncertain, otherworldly situations. In short, he possessed power not unlike that of the gods in the Rig Veda, who can make as well as have a pánthāh . The sacrifice of human forms from the pons Sublicius in the festival of the Argei may thus function as a token apology for competition with the river spirits, the effigies in this case representing the lives which the waters would have taken if left unchallenged. "
  8. ^ Richard D. Draper: The Role of the Pontifex Maximus and its Influence in Roman Religion and Politics. Ann Arbor, 1988, p. 19.
  9. Cyril Bailey : "The Religion of Ancient Rome". London 1907.
  10. Draper (1988) and Françoise Van Haeperen: "Le collège pontifical (3ème sa C. - 4ème sp C.)" (in Series Études de Philologie, d'Archéologie et d'Histoire Anciennes , vol. 39, Brussels, 2002) . In ancient Zoroastrian mythology, there was the so-called Chivat Bridge, which represented the mortal, i.e. H. connected earthly sphere with the post-mortal, spiritual sphere.
  11. ^ H. Le Bourdellès: Nature profonde du pontificat romain. Tentative d'une etymology. In: Revue de l'histoire des Religions. Volume 189, 1976.
  12. See the mention of the terms Di omnes and Di cuncti in Roman prayers; also Cicero, De legibus 2, 20: Divisque aliis alii sacerdotes, omnibus pontifices, singulis flamines sunt.
  13. Further loan words in Latin to describe a universal and total concept are omnis , totus , solus and universus .
  14. Gellius 1, 3; Arnobius 2, 89
  15. It is likely that - compared to the other flamines maiores - the narrow and sometimes restrictive restrictions of the office of the flamen Dialis arose from a much older historical background. The flamen Dialis or its forerunner will originally have been an independent priesthood. The Numa legend shows that the Romans postponed the origin of the pontiff office far into the past - but in their own Roman past - and thus suppressed the long-term origin or development of the collegium . (Draper 1988)