Pontifex Maximus

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus
Augustus as Pontifex Maximus. PD Courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen


Roman Priests > Pontifex Maximus

The Pontifex Maximus was the highest pontifex or priest in ancient Rome -- like the modern Pope. Also like the Pope, once in office, the appointee held his position for life.

Pontifex may come from the Latin words for bridge (pons) + maker (from facio). The Pontifex Maximus was not a magistrate and didn't wear the striped toga (toga praetexta). When presiding at ceremonies, he pulled his toga over his head, as in the accompanying photo of a statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus.

[Source: Barbara McManus' article on Roman clothing].

The Pontifex Maximus chose the Vestal Virgins, the flamines, and the rex sacrorum, although at an early point in history, the hierarchy seems to have been different. [See Priests of the Roman Republic.]

He presided at the assembly that confirmed adoptions -- like the one of Clodius Pulcher into a plebeian family.

He kept the Roman historical annals until about 130 B.C. These were called the annales maximi (as in pontifex maximus). The events of the year were posted on a whitened board, displayed at his home, and available for the public to read. [Source: "The Significance of Numa's Religious Reforms," by Edna M. Hooker; Numen, 1963.]

The Pontifex Maximus was, in some sense, the heir of the king (rex) who once ruled the Romans, according to their legendary history. He came only from the ranks of the patricians during the first few centuries of the Roman Republic -- the period that came after the monarchy.

The holder of the office of pontifex maximus had power, but taboos restricted his behavior.

Roman emperors held the title of Pontifex Maximus.

Examples: Generally, the office was awarded to an aged statesman, but a young Julius Caesar won the office of Pontifex Maximus in 63 B.C.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is often referred to as the Pontifex Maximus.

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Glossary, N.S. Gill's Ancient/Classical History. "Pontifex Maximus." ThoughtCo, Aug. 24, 2016, thoughtco.com/pontifex-maximus-definition-121046. Glossary, N.S. Gill's Ancient/Classical History. (2016, August 24). Pontifex Maximus. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pontifex-maximus-definition-121046 Glossary, N.S. Gill's Ancient/Classical History. "Pontifex Maximus." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pontifex-maximus-definition-121046 (accessed November 23, 2017).