The Roman priesthood was not a separate class of individuals who had special training or a spiritual calling to religious duty. Most priests were members of noble families whose dress and daily activities were no different from those of other Romans. Priests did not decide religious issues; this was the responsibility of the Senate. The duties of most priests focused on only a single deity*, on a few rituals and festivals, or on acting as advisers on religious matters to individuals or governmental officials. Although priests did not perform the actual physical act of sacrifice*, no sacrifice could take place without them.
Four different colleges, or official groups, of priests existed during the Roman Republic*. The most prestigious college was that of the pontiffs, who held a wide range of duties. The chief pontiff and head of the state religion was the pontifex maximus, or high priest. Pontiffs participated in many state festivals, administered religious law concerning such matters as adoptions and burials, and advised the Roman Senate on religious matters. The augurs, members of another prominent college, were responsible for interpreting omens* and determining whether or not the gods approved of actions planned by the state. A third college was in charge of the care of the Sibylline Books, a collection of written oracles* that the augurs consulted upon instruction of the Senate in times of crisis. A fourth college, that of the feasters, was responsible for putting on an annual feast in honor of Jupiter.
* deity god or goddess
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
Two special groups in the Roman priesthood were the Vestal Virgins and the flamines. The Vestal Virgins kept lit the flame of the sacred hearth* of Rome in the temple of Vesta. The Romans believed that if the fire were ever extinguished, dire consequences would befall the city. Chosen for their duties when they were young girls, the Vestal Virgins swore an oath of chastity* during their 30-year term of office. If a Vestal Virgin broke her vow, she was punished by being buried alive. The flamines were 15 priests, each of whom served one of the major Roman gods. The flamines were restricted in their activities. Some were prohibited from wearing rings or from taking oaths. Unlike other priests, the Vestal Virgins and flamines wore traditional costumes that marked their priestly status, and their religious duties were a full-time activity.
During the Roman Empire, the emperor controlled the priesthood. The emperor always took the title pontifex maximus, the title that had once belonged to the chairman of the college of pontiffs. Religious activities increasingly involved sacrifices and ceremonies on behalf of the emperor and his family, and new priesthoods devoted to the cult* of the deified* emperors arose. Although Theodosius I banned pagan* worship in A.D. 391, the pagan priesthoods probably remained active in Rome into the A.D. 400s. (See also Augur; Cults; Divinities; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Omens; Priesthood, Greek; Religion, Roman; Ritual and Sacrifice.)
* omen sign, good or bad, of future events
* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made
* hearth fireplace in the center of a house
* chastity purity in conduct and intention; abstention from sexual intercourse
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* deify to make or treat as a god
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian