Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.10.16

Françoise Van Haeperen, Le collège pontifical (3ème s. a. C. - 4ème s. p. C.). Études de Philologie, d'Archéologie et d'Histoire Anciennes, 39.   Brussels:  Brepols, 2002.  Pp. 467.  ISBN 90-74461-49-2.  EUR 46.00.  

Reviewed by Marietta Horster, University of Rostock, Germany (
Word count: 1559 words

Le collège pontifical contains the major (?) part of Françoise Van Haeperen's (V.H.) PhD thesis (University of Saint-Louis in Brussels, Belgium) on the college of the pontifices which was finished in 2001. The focus of the book is on religious and socio-religious questions, mainly the participation of the pontiffs in Roman rituals, their duties and power, and their change of role in public life over about 700 years, from the last 300 years of republican times to 392 AD, when Theodosius prohibited pagan cults.1 Reasonably, the archaic period is left out since no reliable sources exist on which reasonable arguments could be based. V.H. has divided her subject in four main parts: I. the etymology of the term pontifex; II. abstract ideas and ideal representations of the pontiffs in ancient sources; III. structure and functioning of the college of the pontiffs; IV. the duties of the members of the pontifical college. Except for questions of the social and geographic recruitment and the career patterns of the priests (dealt with in part III), where she refers not to the sources but only to modern works, V.H. cites the sources in Latin or Greek, often verbatim, and gives French translations when she discusses texts in more detail.2 In the tradition of John Scheid's unequalled work on the Arval brethren and on other aspects of Roman religion and priests,3 V.H.'s book is a synthesis of one of the most important college of Roman priests and will become an often-cited book for Roman priesthoods, religious rituals, and priestly duties.

Contrary to what the name of the college of the pontiffs may suggest, this body of priests included not only the pontifices and the pontifex maximus.4 The rex sacrorum, the three flamines maiorum (Dialis, Martialis, and Quirinalis), the vestal virgins and perhaps some pontifices minores were also part of this corporate body, which in imperial times had about 37 to 39 regular members, all of them senators or members of the senatorial ordo (108-111). Some ceremonial and sacrificial duties were given to the wives of the pontifical priests, who were called regina sacrorum or flaminica Dialis etc. accordingly. V.H. does not discuss the status of these women in relation to the college of pontiffs as a whole. It seems likely that, even if they were (un-juridicially speaking) associated members of the college by marriage, they surely had no vote, had no charges within the college, and did not participate in the regular meetings. The question whether the flamines of the divinised emperors belonged to the college of the pontiffs is left open (83f.).

The etymology of the name pontifex is discussed at length (11-42). V.H. concludes from the notions of Varro, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, late antique and byzantine authors and from modern theories of Indo-European or Osco-Umbrian origin of the word that it meant bridge-maker (pons + facere), albeit probably in a wider sense. A pontifex would then be the one who smoothes the way for the gods and to the gods. The other main thesis (posse / potestas + facere) about the etymological roots of pontifex is not completely excluded by V.H. and would in fact lead to a similar meaning of the word pontifex, as the one who is able and has the potestas to deal with the gods and the holy matters.

In a short second part V.H. discusses the few texts that give a more abstract and theoretical description of the pontifices' duties (47-77). Of Varro's book on the pontiffs (cf. Aug., civ. 6.3) only little survives in Aulus Gellius and Nonius Marcellus. More information is to be found in the books of Cicero, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Valerius Maximus, in Plutarch's Numa, Festus summaries of Verrius Flaccus, and in later authors. In a very general sense, the pontifices, whom ancient authors supposed to be created by Numa, second king of Rome and (first) legislator, were competent in all questions of the sacra. They were responsible for the intercalation of days in the calendar and had duties in establishing the festal and sacrificial calendar. They judged on issues of religious behaviour and ritual. On that account, they also had supervising and arbitrating competence in regard to other Roman priests.

In Roman imperial times the so called quattuor amplissima collegia of Roman priests had the following descending order of honour: the (corporate body of) pontifices, the augurs, the quindecemviri sacris faciundis and the septemviri epulonum. Being a member of the body of the pontifical priests was very prestigious. The letters of Symmachus of the late fourth century bear witness that at least in western senatorial pagan circles being a member of the pontifical college was still highly esteemed (cf. 87f., 116f., 204f.).

The book's third part (79-214) deals with the sociological base of the collegium pontificum: the internal hierarchies, the different selection procedures, the social and geographical background of membership, the emperor as highest priest, reunions and decisions of the college of the pontiffs.

All priesthoods are well attested until Severan times. Sources prove the existence of the flamines until the beginning of the fourth century, while the pontifices are attested until the end of the fourth century (85-88). In post-severan times, the small number of pagan senators interested in becoming pontiffs led to a change in the pattern of office holding. In republican and imperial times no more than one family member of a gens was member of the college of the pontiffs, nor did one person hold more than one priesthood in this collegium (111; 113f.). Obviously these (informal ?) rules where loosened in the later part of the third century. The highest priest of Rome and of the collegium pontificum was the pontifex maximus. He had to be a member of the college of the pontiffs. During the early Republic, he selected the rex sacrorum, the vestales and flamines. The modes of elections of priests started to change during the third century B.C. From then on, the pontiffs as well as the pontifex maximus had to be first nominated by the priests. Second, they were elected by the minor part of the populus Romanus (17 out of the 35 tribes in republican times; in imperial times the senate and not the populus, cf. p.123). In a third step, they were inscribed by the collegium pontificum, and then inaugurated by the pontifex maximus (96ff.; 120-131). In republican and imperial times, the pontifex maximus could act on his own and give device to the senate, but the college could do the same without him in his absence.

All emperors became pontifex maximus until Gratian's resignation of that priesthood.5 The emperors seem to have decided more and more in religious and sacrificial issues, a power which -- as ancient literary topoi note -- only "bad" emperors utilised excessively (104f., 394f.). The duties of the absent emperors in the college and for the res publica in imperial and late imperial times were replaced by a promagister (181-186; 197-201). In the third century, the phrase "pontifex maximus" seems to have meant less the highest priest with a long tradition and specific duties than simply the sacral part of the emperor's duties. This explains why two pontifices maximi, Pupienus and Balbus, could be nominated in 238, and why later usurpers did not hesitate to claim themselves not only emperors but also highest priests (159f.; 213).

The fourth and last part of the book deals with the different functions and duties of the single members of the college of pontiffs and of the body on the whole (215-425). All priests of the college and the entire body were considered as experts in sacral law. Thus the duties like the management of the calendar with the proclamation of the monthly calendar, the fixing and proclamation of the Nones and of the monthly feasts as well as the surveillance of days declared as holy, nefas, or "black days", on which it was forbidden to start new projects or to prepare a departure, were in the hands of this college or its individual members (216-237). The body of the pontiffs was the authority in sacred matters to individuals as well as the most important councillor to the senate in ceremony and ritual. Questions of profanation, expiation, removing of corpses etc. were answered and solved by these priests (238-254; 308-340).

To my mind, V.H. has not elucidated the pontiff's duties in the comitia calata convincingly. Her explanation that the pontiffs had only an advisory function and could investigate candidates in front of the comitia is not more convincing than the older theory of the quasi-magistrative imperium of the priests who presided over the comitia (275-308).

V.H. discusses in extenso the participation of the members of the college in ceremonies and sacrifices (pp. 342-422). The mass of evidence comes from Ovid's Fasti and various works of Varro. In contrast, for the vota, the rituals and sacrifices for the emperor and the imperial family a few inscriptions or reliefs prove that members of the collegium pontificum participated in public sacrifices connected with the new regime and the new cults.

On the whole, V.H.'s book is a careful and valuable analysis of the pontifices. Shortcomings are the lack of a prosopographical part, the (consequently) weak analysis of the social networks and civil and military careers, in which she frequently makes claims without proofs, and the indices, which are not particularly helpful.6


1.   The book includes no prosopographical study is included, and the results of the questioning for social background and career patterns are mainly based on the studies of G. J. Szemler, The Priests of the Roman Republic. A Study of Interactions between Priesthoods and Magistracies, Brussels 1972; L. Schumacher, Prosopographische Untersuchungen zur Besetzung der vier hohen römischen Priesterkollegien im Zeitalter der Antonine und der Severer (96-235 n. Chr.) Mainz 1973; and G. Howe, Fasti sacerdotum populi Romani aetatis imperatoriae, Leipzig 1904. V.H. announces (114 n. 190) to publish a complete list of the late antique pontiffs. Until then Howe's compendium is still the only reference.
2.   In a few texts the French translation differs in length from the Latin text, cf. e.g. Tac.ann. 4.17.1 (p. 409).
3.   To cite only a few: J. Scheid, Les frères Arvales. Recrutement et origine sociale sous les empereurs julio-claudiens, Paris 1975; Le collège des frères Arvales. Études prosopographique du recrutement (69-304), Rome 1990; Romulus et ses frères. Le collège de frères Arvales: modèle du culte public dans la Rome des empereurs, Rome 1990.
4.   In the following part of the review the words pontifices and pontiffs are used for the pontifices in the narrower sense whereas terms like college, or corporate body are used for the collegium pontificum as a whole, including also rex sacrorum, flamines etc.
5.   V.H. gives extensive lists of known and supposed dates of the emperors becoming elected as pontifices maximi and discusses the evidence of the imperial coinage in matters of membership to the different priesthoods with due care (132-166). As regards the Gratian's resignation of the priesthood of pontifex maximus V.H. argues (166-186) quite convincingly for the date of 376, Gratian's visit to Rome.
6.   E.g. Varro ap. Non. p. 115.1 (48), Tac. ann. 4.17 and 15.22 (99 n. 112) are not included in the index nor are all the names of members of the pontiffs' college of imperial times, attested only in inscriptions (e.g. 197-199, 203).

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