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A member of the highest priestly college in Rome, to which belonged the superintendence over all sacred observances, whether performed by the State or by private persons. The meaning of the name is uncertain; the interpretation which follows most obviously from the form of the word, that of "bridge-builder," referred in particular to the sacred bridge on piles (pons sublicius) over the Tiber, is open to many objections. 1 The foundation of the college is ascribed to Numa; at first it probably consisted of six patrician members, with the addition of the king, whose place, after the abolition of the Monarchy, was transferred to the pontifex maximus (high-pontiff); from 300 B.C. it was composed of nine members (4 patrician and 6 plebeian), from the time of Sulla of fifteen (7 patrician and 8 plebeian); Caesar added another member; and the emperors also raised the number at their pleasure. The office was for life, us was also that of the president. While, in the time of the Monarchy, the pontiffs were probably named by the king, under the Republic the college for a long time filled up its own numbers by co-optation, and also appointed the high-pontiff from among its members. From somewhere about 250 B.C. the election of the latter took place in the comitia of the tribes under the presidency of a pontiff, and, from 103 B.C., the other members were also elected in the comitia out of a fixed number of candidates presented by the college. Under the Empire a preliminary election was held by the Senate, and merely confirmed by the comitia. Besides the pontiffs proper, there were also included in the college the rex sacrorum, the three higher flamens and the three pontifices minores, who assisted the pontiffs in transactions relating to sacrifices and in their official business, besides sharing in the deliberations and the banquets of the whole college: these ranked according to length of service. In the earlier time an advanced age, with freedom from secular offices, was necessary for eligibility to the pontificate; the high-pontiff, among other restrictions, was not allowed to leave Italy, was obliged to have a wife without reproach, and might not enter upon a second marriage or see a dead body, much less touch one. As regards his position, he was, as spiritual successor of the king, the sole holder and exerciser of the pontifical power; and his official dwelling was in the king's house, the regia of Numa adjoining the Forum, the seat of the oldest State worship. The college existed by his side only as a deliberative and executive body of personal assistants. He appointed to the most important priestly offices of the State, those of flamen, of vestal, and of rex sacrorum; he made public the authoritative decisions of the college. In matters which came within the limits of his official action, he had the right of taking: auspices, of holding assemblies of the people, and of publishing edicts. He also exercised a certain jurisdiction over the persons subject to his high-priestly power, especially the flamens and Vestals, over whom his authority was that of an actual father. Owing to the great importance of the office, the emperors from the time of Augustus undertook it themselves, and retained it, even in Christian times, until the year 382. As regards the functions of the college, besides performing a number of special sacrifices in the service of the household gods, they exercised (as already mentioned) a superintendence over the whole domain of the religious services recognised by the State, public and private. In all doubts which arose concerning the religious obligations of the State towards the gods, or concerning the form of any religious offices which were to be undertaken, their opinion was asked by the Senate and by the other secular bodies, who were obliged unhesitatingly to follow it. In the various religious transactions, expiatory offerings, vows, dedications, consecrations, solemn appropriations, undertaken on behalf of the State, their assistance was invited by the official bodies, in order that they might provide for the correct performance, especially by dictating the prayers. The knowledge of the various rites was handed down by the libri pontificii, which were preserved in the official dwelling of the high-pontiff and kept secret. These included the forms of prayer, the rules of ritual for the performance of ceremonial observances, the acta pontificum, i.e. the records relating to the official actions of the college, and the commentarii pontificum, i.e. the collection of opinions delivered, to which they were as a rule obliged to have recourse when giving new ones. An important and indeed universal influence was exercised by the pontiffs, not only on religious, but also on civic life, by means of the regulation of the calendar, which was assigned to them as possessing technical knowledge of the subject; and by means of their superintendence over the observance of the holidays. Owing to the character of the Roman reckoning of the year, it was necessary from time to time to intercalate certain days, with a view to bringing the calendar into agreement with the actual seasons to which the festivals were originally attached; and special technical knowledge was needed, in order to be sure on what day the festivals fell. This technical knowledge was kept secret by the pontiffs as being a means of power. It was for the month actually current that they gave information to the people as to the distribution of the days, the festivals falling within the month, and the lawful and unlawful days (fasti and nefasti, q.v. for civil and legal transactions. In 304 B.C. the calendar of the months was made public by Gnaeus Flavius; but the pontiffs still retained the right of regulating the year by intercalations, and thereby the power of furthering or hindering the aims of parties and individuals by arbitrary insertion of intercalary months. This they kept until the final regulation of the year introduced by Caesar as high-pontiff in 46 B.C. Closely connected with the superintendence of the calendar was the keeping of the lists of the yearly magistrates, especially of the consuls, since it was by their names that the years were dated, as well as the keeping of the yearly chronicle. (See ANNALS.) As experts in the law of ritual, the pontiffs had the superintendence over many transactions of private life, so far as ceremonial questions were connected with them, such as the conclusion of marriages, adoption by means of arrogation, and burial. Even upon the civil law they had originally great influence, inasmuch as they alone were in traditional possession of the solemn legal formuloe, known as the legis actiones, which were necessary for every legal transaction, including lawsuits. They even gave legal opinions, which obtained recognition in the courts as customary law, by the side of the written law, and grew into a second authoritative source of Roman law. Until the establishment of the praetorship (866 <smalCaps>B.C.), a member of the college was appointed every year to impart information to private persons concerning the legal forms connected with the formulating of plaints and other legal business. The legis actiones were made public for the first time by the above-mentioned Flavius at the same time as the calendar. (See JURISPRUDENCE.)
Type: Standard
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