As with many cultures, religion and religious orders of ancient Rome were strongly associated with rule. The religious orders of Ancient Rome soon subdivided themselves into a number of separate offices such as the Flamines, Augurs and Decemviri. Following the publishing of the Twelve Tablets of law the power of the priesthood was increasingly focused on purely religious affairs, and less over over justice and law. Throughout the entire duration of the Roman Empire persons like Julius Caesar wanting to hold the highest offices of government would also want to hold a high ranking religious position. The emperors regularly held that of Pontifex Maximus which nowadays is held by the Roman Catholic Pope in Rome.
The religious orders of Ancient Rome soon subdivided themselves into a number of separate offices. This was particularly the case following the publishing of the Twelve Tablets of law and the gradual removal of the priests’ power over justice and law. This essentially relegated the religious orders to look after purely religious affairs, but was nevertheless a highly regarded and socially relevant role to have.
Most if not all the religious orders held their own registers and records such as the memorials of “Thunders and Lightnings” or the “Tuscan Histories“. Much later, at the end of the empire as Christianity took the first steps through the Middle Ages the church maintained this record, keeping tradition with a diary book recording the lives of the early Popes which has proved to be an invaluable source for historians ever since.
Each of the priestly orders and offices had a chief priest who would be elected at the Assembly of Centuries. The most important order was that of the nine augurs. These characters were principally tasked with conferring with the gods in questions of state. However, the upper hand probably lay with the Pontifex Maximus.
As has already been mentioned the chief priest was the Pontifex Maximus and this position was generally held by the King or Emperor. When special signs were required the Pontifex Maximus would take a ceremonial walk with a procession of torch bearing assistants called “Flamines” and look out for the flight of birds. Romulus, the founder of Rome, was reputedly very good at this.
Given that the king or Emperor wasn’t always around a substitute was created called the Rex Sacrorum although his position was clearly below that of the Pontifex Maximus.
Amongst the many orders we have
- the Pontifices (of which the Pontifex Maximus was the highest and most important). They oversaw other religions and the calendar of religious festivals
- the Aruspices who looked at sacrifices for omens,
- Augurs who looked for signs in birds and beasts,
- the Luperci devoted to Faun,
- Flamines who performed the religious duties for each of the major gods such as Jupiter, Juno etc.
- The Libitinarii followed the goddess Libitina, sacred in funerals
- the Salii, instituted at the time of Numa, priests attending to the rituals of war such as purification or the opening and closing of the yearly war season.
- the Fratres Arvales, to bless the fields and guard boundaries
- Feciales, Sodales, Septemviri, Decemviri and Quindecimviri.
- The Curetes or Corybantes are different names given to the priests of the goddess Cybele. They had to be Phrygian eunuchs. Lucretius gives a very good account of what their processions were like.
- Last but not least the Vestals, who are probably the best remembered. They were virgins and would be buried alive for any hanky panky.
They were instituted by King Numa so that they might undertake a number of religious duties in the King’s stead. The first Flamine offices were the Flamen Dialis, Martialis and Quirinalis. This was in direct accordance with the original Capitoline triad of gods: Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus (Romulus) which was soon replaced by Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.
In total there were some fifteen priests in the order, in the early days they were chosen out of the nobility only and must be born of a marriage contracted with the ritual of “confarreatio“.
The Flamen Dialis
The Flamen Dialis was dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. He had exceptional privileges such as the right to sit in the Senate, use the Curule chair, wear the Toga Praetexta, be accompanied by a Lictor and travel in a carriage. On his passage all work must halt in a general air of festivity.
In exchange for these privileges he had to observe a complicated series of limitations:
- He must not leave the city for a night nor leave his home for more than three days.
- He was not allowed to see or touch weapons, or the dead, nor could he participate in Roman funerals,
- Not allowed to take an oath
- Could not ride a horse
- Not allowed to see or name vines and beans.
- He could not touch iron and must shave with a bronze razor.
- His hair and nails could only be cut by a free man and after they are cut they must be buried under an auspicious tree.
- His clothing was also strictly defined, also including a characteristic spiked coif (see the coif in the above etching, from a relief on the Argentari Arch)
A lightning conductor? It is not clear why all those specific restrictions should be in place – worth some research! Perhaps the restriction on Iron could be related to it attracting lightning – Lightning was a highly significant supernatural event for the Romans specific to Jupiter (for whom the Flamen Dialis was high priest).
There is contradictory information regarding Julius Ceaser having been nominated as Flamen at the age of 17 under Marius’ rule (his uncle). It is unlikely that he would have been able to hold the actual Flamen Dialis role since it would have had to be someone of patrician rank, who’s parents had married by Confarreatio which would not have been possible for Caesar since his mother was of Plebeian rank.
The Flaminica Dialis and marriage veils
The flaminica dialis was wife to the Flamen Dialis. Amongst her duties and expectations was that:
- she was not allowed to divorce
- during sacrifices she wore a veil called a “flammeum” coloured like a flame
It is thought that the veil worn by Roman women in marriage was a representation of that worn by the Flaminica Dialis.
The Libitinarii, priests to Libitina goddess of corpses and of death were charged with the task of preparing corpses for Roman funerals at a set price. They washed, anointed them and got them generally ready for the funeral. Different tasks were assigned to different sub-orders, such as the Pollinctores who looked after annointment.
The Luperci were amongst the oldest priestly orders. They were sacred to Faun or Pan, God of the woodlands and of shepherds. Their name probably derives from the Latin word Lupus meaning “Wolf”, because the chief employment of their deity was that of driving away these beasts from the sheep.
The order was subdivided into two companies called the Fabiani for Romulus and the Quinctiliani for Remus, the names of these companies being borrowed from those of two high priests of the order. In later times a third company of priests was instituted in honour of Julius Caesar.
It is possible that the feast’s original purpose had been that of honouring the She-Wolf who had saved and raised Romulus and Remus although in all probability it pre-dates the foundation of Rome.
Plutarch suggests that the Lupercalia was a feast of purification. The feast was held in February and the very name of the month derives from februo which means “to purify” whilst the whips used in the festivity were called “februa”.
The Fratres Arvales
The order of the “Fratres Arvales” was regarded to be as ancient as that of the Luperci and to have dated back to the time of Romulus. The order was primarily concerned with the fields which it blessed once a year during the feast of the Ambarvalia as well as looking after boundaries and divisions of land as well as judging over disputes of this type. During the yearly blessing of the fields they would wear crowns of corn on their heads.
The Ambarvalia feast is interesting because similarly to the later Christian festivity it doesn’t have a fixed date in the calendar. This made it a moving feast called a “feria conceptiva” with a date fixed each year by the priesthood.
It was believed that the Fratres Arvales or Sodales Arvales order was founded when Romulus joined the 12 sons of his nurse Acca Laurentia to bless the fields. There is no written evidence although we have the supporting (mythological) evidence that the division of lands was an issue of great importance in the early days of Rome. Numa Pompilius made apportioned the agricultural lands won by his predecessor Romulus and instituted the cult of the god of boundaries, Terminus.
The order of the Salii was begun by Numa. The priests oversaw ceremonies linked to the opening and closing of the war season. It is interesting to note that the ceremonies were generally common with those of the other populations of the area.
The story goes that Numa saw a shield fall from the sky and having picked it up he had another 11 exact copies made. These shields were so sacred that they were guarded together with Romulus’ staff of augury.
On the first of March a procession would take place to open the war season. The Salii priests would carry the shields and an equal number of lances and dance about the city, clashing the shields and wheapons to wake up war. Further festivities in the same month including horse races and trumpet playing formed part of the same picture.
In October a purification feast was held to bring the soldiers and their horses back into the city free of the horrors of war.
Another order, possibly that of greatest fame was that of the Vestals or Vestal Virgins, who looked after the eternal flame of the goddess Vesta. The high priestess of this order was of such social importance that she had direct access to the emperor at all times amongst other privileges (such as special seats at the Colosseum). These privileges were balanced with equally severe punishments, such as death by being buried alive. A whole separate section has been written about them
The order was instituted by Numa and the derivation of the name pontifex is probably from the words “Pons Facere” meaning “maker of bridges” possibly by virtue of the fact that the Pontifices had made the first bridge in Rome – the Sublician bridge – and looked after its maintenance.
Tully leads us to believe that the Pontifices were entrusted with the care of the Gods and very honour and safety of the Roman people. The role of this order was to judge over all cases of religion including the conduct of priests and priesthoods. They also wrote the rules relating to public worship, the celebration of the feasts and of sacrifices.
The total number of their order was similar to that of the others such as the Augurs and Aruspices and probably started at about 4 in the time of Numa until around the year 300BC a further 5 were added. Given that the first were chosen out of the nobility the latter 5 were to be chosen out of the plebeians. By the time of Sylla the number was increased to about 15 or 16 of which the first eight were called Pontifices Majores and the rest Pontifices Minores.
The chief priest of the order was called Pontifex Maximus and was most highly regarded. In fact the title would normally be held by the king or emperor and is used by the Roman Catholic Pope to this day.
Festus defines the great priest “Judex atque Arbiter Rerum Humanorum Divinarumque” : The judge and arbitrator of (all) divine and human affairs.
Predicting the future through wild beasts and other signs was inherited by the Romans from the Etruscans who were said to be very accomplished masters of this art. The priestly order charged with this function were the Augurs. Cicero was a member of this college.
When Romulus founded the city he named three Augurs out of the noble Patrician class. One for each of the three Tribes he had divided his people into. A later king, Servius Tullius (who built the first fortified walls around the city) instituted a fourth and by the end of the Republic, six centuries later, the number of Augurs was as high as 15. The eldest of the order was chief amongst them and held the title of Magister Collegii.
The word “Augur” actually stems from the action of looking at the action or singing of birds. Plutarch tells us that Romulus was very accomplished in this art and the flight of vultures was, perhaps not surprisingly, a dominant factor in the founding of Rome.
Romulus’ successor Numa Pompilius likewise required the support of divine right in order to give his command the weight required to manage the scurrilous nature of the early Romans. He acquired this divine hot line from the very moment of his coronation.
During this ceremony of inauguration the of the Augurs stood to the left of the King on the templum or “auguraculum” on the Capitoline hill. From here the Augur could look out to the horizon in a South-Easterly direction, across the sacred area of Rome. Along the “Via Sacra” (the famous “Sacred Street” of the Forum) to the Alban hill which was the sacred mount of the ancient Italic populations of the area. The Alban hills were also where Romulus’ ancestor Aeneas had taken up residence after his exodus from Troy.
The remains of what is believed to have been the auguraculum have been found in the gardens of the church on the Capitoline hill, called the Aracoeli.
The Augur would deliver a prayer to the gods, probably invoking them all starting from Janus and ending with Vesta and ask Jupiter to approve the king’s election. At this point the Augur would symbolically divide the sky into four quadrants with his staff and look out for a propitiatory flight of birds and with a touch of the right hand to the king’s head, magically transferred the necessary divine power.
Generally speaking, the actual role of the Augurs was to read the meaning of all types of sign such as dreams or surprising events and decide whether they were positive or negative omens. Clearly this gave them a great deal of power as a result of their verdicts could have a direct effect on public and state affairs.
A number of authors tell us about these practices, Cicero is amongst them, I think he goes into some detail about Chickens. Anyhow the principal types of sign to be read were:
the Heavens, including anything to do with clouds, storms and other meteorological phenomena as well as the stars, meteors, comets and so on. Comets were generally regarded as bad omens and hey presto! what do you know: Emperor Vespasian died the same year in which one was sighted. Snigger snigger.
To be killed by a lightning bold was no good thing (surprise surprise) and in these rare events the deceased were not allowed to be cremated but had to be buried after a great deal of ceremony including the sacrifice of a sheep. The spot where it had occurred would become sacred ground and be cordoned or walled off.
Birds, either through their flight or chattering. The birds were classified into two sorts:
- the ones with fancy flying (eagles and vultures for example) and
- those with fancy chattering (crows, magpies and owls for example).
Observation of the flight of birds had to be done by a specially trained Augur standing on a high point looking eastward. In order to do the job he would wear his ceremonial garment and carry a curved staff of wood called lituus with which he would subdivide the sky into quadrants.
Birds were possibly the earliest form of augury on the basis that the etimology of the word Augur stems from the observation of birds (ab avium gestu).
As a closing note on the subject, I think that the official bird-watching spot of the ancient Romans has been dug up on the Capitoline hill, somewhere near the Tabularium.
Another bird related method was based on the feeding of Chickens. The Augur would have the chickens shut up in the coup, throw some feed into the range, let them out and watch. If they jumped at it and gobbled it all up in a gleeful feast the omen was “good” if not it was “bad”. There was a lot of precise terminology tied in with all of this of course.
From birds we move on to Animals: These could include most of the types you were likely to bump into if you looked for them such as Mice, Wolves, Foxes, Rams, Rabbits or Hares etc. What was of general interest to the ancient Roman Augur was their behaviour and direction of movement.
This is not so bizarre for the more superstitious amongst us. We do something similar to an Augur when a black cat crosses the road in front of us. I digress but I think the black cat omen is related to the Arabs who were invading Europe in the Middle Ages having black cats as pets to keep the rats at bay on their ships. End of the superstitious digression.
The last form of Augury was through unusual events and portents. Apparitions, strange voices, dreams, dropping salt or wine on the table or chancing upon certain animals.
This reminds me of some superstitions which still persist. For example, if you spill wine you’re supposed to dab it behind your ear as if it were a perfume (for some odd reason that I haven’t looked into). A all time favourite is if you drop salt on the table you’re supposed to throw it backwards over your left shoulder to blind the Devil .
As a general remark, much of the omen stuff was directly related to things being on the left or right, left handed or right handed and if my memory is correct, left handed was bad. From here we have the Latin word for left “sinister” being at the root of the modern word “sinister” (which means spooky).
As a closing note I find it interesting to remember how Augury not only played a part in the founding of Rome (the flight of Vultures observed by both Romulus and Remus) but also played a part in the start to Christianity’s race towards leading religion of the Roman Empire:
Emperor Constantine is the cornerstone of Christianity’s ascent in Rome through the ages both as a religious as well as temporal power and guess what? He converted to Christianity by virtue of a dream of the Cross and of Christ who said to him: “In this sign shalt though conquer”: in hoc signo vinces. Apparently the following day his soldiers also saw a glare in the sky in the shape of a cross.
The sign of the cross was duly put on Constantine’s war standard, he marched into Rome and thrashed his pagan co-Emperor Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge.
Clearly, this was not Constantine’s first encounter with Christianity as indeed Eusebius tells us his own father initiated him into the Christian faith as a child. But Constantine’s religious faith wasn’t overbearing: a few years before the Milvian Bridge incident Constantine had had a similar vision of the Apollo cum sun-god Mithras. Visions were clearly an essential ingredient of great (visionary) rulers.
From merely watching the beasts and heavens we move on to killing the animals as a sacrifice to the gods and then proceeding looking at various details for ominous signs. The name itself comes from “ab aris aspiciendis” – looking upon the altars.
This art was particularly well practiced by the Etruscans who it is said learned it of a boy they dug out of a field whilst plowing. Wow. At first the order was made up of twelve priests although towards the end of the Republic they were increased to something closer to 20.
Virgil gives us a relatively good and quick idea of what it was like in his Georgics.
Of the various details you might watch out for you would remember to check whether the animal itself was walking willingly to its death or looking a little nervous.
After the beast had been sacrificed and opened up you would have a good look at the colour, shape and knots within its guts and organs. I understand that discovering a double liver was considered very bad and apparently Julius Caesar had offered two Oxen shortly before his murder and both of them proved to have no hearts: VERY VERY BAD SIGN JULIUS!
You shouldn’t forget to have a good look at the supporting paraphernalia used in the sacrifice such as the aspect and colour of wine, water and incense etc. Further tell-tale signs were to be found by watching out for the colour and behaviour of the flames, as parts of the animal were thrown into them to be consumed (by the gods I suppose).
The Decemviri (could also be abbreviated “Xviri”)
These were priests known as the “decemviri sacris faciundis” the ten men (priests) of sacred matters. They were chiefly involved with guarding and consulting the Sybilline books in times of dire trouble for the city. Not to be confused with the other sets of Decemviri:
- -stlitibus iudicandis a commission of ten magistrates of ancient origin at the time of the Roman kingdom under King Servius Tullius. Elected each year by the committee of the tribunes (plebeians), oversaw broader numbers of magistrates in cases deciding the status of individual slavery and freedom
- –legibus scribundis a commission of ten magistrates around 450 BC who collected and wrote the 12 tablets of law. In other terms they collated the first written set of laws on which roman law was based and which provided a guarantee of personal rights for the weakest amongst plebs and patricians alike.