Roman Priests

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History, Facts and Information about Roman Priests
The content of this article provides interesting history, facts and information about Roman Priests. The most important Roman priests were called pontiffs and flamens. The pontiffs enjoyed great privileges and were generally men of rank. These Roman priests were also extremely powerful. There were four great religious corporations of Roman priests who were members of a Collegium.

A collegium was a board of magistrates or priests. The four great priestly colleges were the pontifices, septemviri epulones, quindecemviri sacris faciundis, and augurs. They were in order of importance:

  • Pontifices (also known as College of Pontiffs), headed by the Pontifex maximus
  • Augures
  • Quindecemviri sacris faciundis
  • Septemviri Epulones

A flamen (pl. flamines) was the name given to a Roman priest assigned to a state-supported god or goddess who was a member of the College of Pontiffs.

Roman Priests - The Pontiffs and the Pontifex Maximus
The Romans established a college of pontiffs (religious leaders, the Roman Priests) to regulate worship and perform the higher ceremonies. The religious ceremonies were complicated and detailed. The offices of the pontifices were to give judgment in all cases relating to religion:

  • To inquire into the lives of the inferior priests
  • To punish inferior priests if they saw fit
  • To prescribe rules for public worship
  • To regulate the feasts, sacrifices and all other sacred institutions.

The pontiffs were presided over by one called Pontifex Maximus. The title of Pontifex Maximus was shrewdly assumed by Julius Caesar to gain control of the popular worship. When the Roman republic was abolished, the emperors assumed the office of pontifex maximus, or chief pontiff, deeming its powers too extensive to be entrusted to a mere subject of the Roman state.

Roman Priests - The Augurs
The Augurs were a specific type of one of the most powerful of all the ancient Roman priests whose main role was to interpret the will of the gods by studying the omens. The ceremony and function of the augur was extremely important to the Romans and the powerful augurs would be consulted prior to any major undertaking in Roman society, both public and private, including matters relating to war, commerce and religion. The augurs would tell whether any action should be fortunate or prejudicial.


Roman Priests - The Quindecemviri - Keepers of the Sibylline Books
The Sibylline Books were a collection of oracular utterances (prophecies) which were purchased from a sibyl (prophetess) by the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus.  These Sibylline Books were supposed to contain the fate of the Roman empire, and therefore, in public danger or calamity and they were frequently inspected.  The Sibylline Books were kept with great care in a stone chest under ground in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. The Sibylline Books were therefore consulted at momentous crises through the history of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. The Quindecemviri sacris faciundis were the group of Roman Priests who had the charge of the Sibylline Books. They held office for life, and were exempt from all other public duties. The Quindecemviri had the responsibility of keeping the books in safety and secrecy. The Quindecemviri inspected Sibylline Books on the instructions of the senate in dangerous circumstances and subsequently performed the sacrifices which were required. The Sibylline books were also called Fata Sibyllina and Libri Fatales.

Roman Priests - The Septemviri Epulones
The Septemviri Epulones were priests among the Romans who prepared the sacred feasts at games, processions and other solemn occasions or public banquets. A public banquet was called an epulum. The Septemviri Epulones also assumed the role as assistants to the pontifices.

Roman Priests - The Fetials
The fetials were extremely important Roman priests who were involved with various aspects of international relations including the making of treaties and declarations of war. The fetials consisted of groups of up to 20 officials who were originally selected from the most noble families. The fetials served this office for life. They fetials could only submit advice to the Senate they were not make binding decisions. The fetials involvement in declarations of war involved the group travelling to the offending state. The pater patratus, who was the groupís representative, addressed a series of prayers to Jupiter and announced the just cause of his mission. If, after 30 days, no satisfaction was given, the pater patratus denounced the offending state and returned to report to the Senate in Rome. If the senators decided to wage war, the pater patratus and the fetials returned to the border of the enemy and pronounced a declaration of war, hurling a symbolic spear across the border. If the enemy was far away the symbolic spear was cast on to land in front of the Temple of Bellona in Rome which was legally treated as belonging to the enemy.

Roman Priests - Flamen or Flamines
A flamen was the name given to a Roman priest assigned to a god or goddess. Each flamen was part of the Pontificial College which administered the state sponsored religion in Rome. There were fifteen different groups of flamines in the Roman Republic. The most important three were the flamines maiores ( meaning major priests), who served the three chief Roman gods of the Archaic Triad who were Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, also known known as the Capitoline Triad. The flamines minores (meaning lesser priests) served the other gods and goddesses.

Roman Priests - Flamen Dialis
Among the flamines, or Roman priests of particular gods, the most important was the flamen dialis who was the priest of Jupiter. This was an office of great dignity, but subjected to many restrictions as it was believed that his every act or word may have had a magic significance or effect. The restrictions concerning the flamen dialisas included that:

  • He must always appear in public wearing festival garb
  • Fire may never be taken from his hearth but for sacred purposes
  • No other person may ever sleep in his bed
  • The cuttings of his hair and nails must be preserved and then buried
  • He must not eat or even mention a goat or other objects of an unlucky character
  • He must not ride on horseback
  • He must not stay one night outside the city of Rome.

Roman Priestesses - The Vestal Virgins
The Vestal Virgins served the Roman Goddess Vesta. The institution of the Vestal Virgins was older than the city itself, and was regarded by the Romans as the most sacred part of their religious system. The duty of the vestal virgins was to keep the sacred fire that burned on the altar of Vesta from being extinguished and to preserve a certain sacred pledge on which the very existence of Rome was supposed to depend.

Roman Priests - The Salii
The salii were a college of priests in ancient Rome and the patrician priests of Mars who was the Roman God of War.  On solemn occasions they used to go through the city dancing, dressed in an embroidered tunic, bound with a brazen belt, and a toga pretexta or trabea. On their heads they wore a cap rising to a considerable height in the form of a cone. They wore a sword by their side and in their right hand a spear or rod and in their left hand one of the ancilia or shields of Mars. The most solemn procession of the salii was on the 1st March which was the festival of Mars.

Roman Priests - The Luperci
The luperci were a college of priests in ancient Rome and the Roman priests of Pan. They were so called, from a wolf, because that god Pan was supposed to keep the wolves from the sheep. The place where Pan was worshipped was called lupercal. The festival of Pan was called lupercalia and was celebrated in February. During this festival the luperci ran up and down the city naked, having only a girdle of goat skin round their waists, and thongs of the same in their hands with which they struck those they met. Mark Antony was at one time chief of the luperci.

Roman Priests - The Feciales
Feciales (Heralds) were a college of priests in ancient Rome whose duty it was to make proclamation of peace and war, and confirm treaties. The head of their college was called Pater Patratus. All the members of this college, during the discharge of their duties when they made peace, wore a wreath of vervain around their heads and bore a branch of vervain in their hands.  Vervain was a symbol of peace and was also associated with divine and other supernatural forces. It was referred to by the Romans as "Juno's tears". Verbena is the Ancient Roman term for sacrificial herbs which were considered very powerful. Pliny the Elder describes verbena being presented on the altars of Jupiter.

Roman Priests of Agricultural Fertility - Fratres Arvales
Ambarvalia was a Roman agricultural fertility rite held at the end of May in honour of Ceres, the Goddess of Agriculture. The priests who chiefly officiated at the solemnity were called fratres arvales. The Latin word arvum means a field. The fratres arvales, who were twelve in number, were the Roman priests who offered up sacrifices for the fertility of the ground. The public ceremony strated with sacrifices and moved on to the boundaries of the city of Rome in which the twelve fratres arvales walked at the head of a procession of the Roman citizens who had lands and vineyards at Rome. During the procession, prayers would be made to the goddess Ceres. The ambervale carmen was the prayer preferred on this occasion.

Roman Priests - Curiones
The Curiones performed religious rites in each curia. For religious purposes each curia had its own place of worship, called curia, which at first may have contained nothing but an altar, afterwards a sacellum, and finally a building in which the curiales assembled for the purpose of discussing political, financial, religious and other matters. The religious affairs of each curia were taken care of by a priest, curio, who was assisted by another called curialis Flamen.

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