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Roman Priests

The Roman commonwealth was conceived of as founded by the gods, and continuously and directly dependent upon them. The national religion was a stately ceremonial having little to do with the lives and morals of the citizens, but maintained upon a lavish scale for the purpose of securing the favor of the gods, and with it the perpetuity of the state.

These ceremonies were directed by various priests, or colleges of priests, religious guilds and societies. The priests, however, had none of the characteristics which were later associated with the word, by for instance Christians. They did not form an exclusive class or caste, nor did they require preliminary training or education. They were not excluded from other offices; on the contrary, the more important priesthoods were filled by the greatest statesmen and generals-Julius Caesar was Pontifex Maximus while he was fighting in Gaul.

The Pontfices - The most important of the priestly colleges was that of the Pontfices, who had the supervision of the whole state religion, including general oversight of all the other ministers of religion, thus exerting a vast political influence. The president of the college was called Pontifex Maximus, and the position was upon the whole the first in dignity and importance in Rome. He was originally chosen by his colleagues, who had formed a self-perpetuating body, but in Cicero's time all were appointed by the vote of seventeen tribes selected by lot from the thirty-five. He held office for life, lived in the ancient palace of the kings, the Regia, appointed the fifteen flamines (priests of particular gods), selected the Vestal Virgins, superintended religious marriages and other important family ceremonies, and with the aid of his colleagues regulated and published the calendar.

The Augures - Next in dignity came the college of augurs, also fifteen in number, and elected in the same way as the pontfices. They were charged with the interpretation of the auspices (auspicia), which played a very important part in political affairs. The auspices were entirely distinct from omens [omina), being simply answers 'Yes' or 'No' to questions put to the gods in regard to the propriety of some contemplated act which was distinctly specified. Custom required that the gods should thus be consulted on all important public occasions. Favorable auspices, i.e., the permission of the gods, were required before the comitia could be held, the senate convoked, magistrates inaugurated, battles fought, or any act affecting the commonwealth performed. These questions the gods would answer only when put to them by a duly authorized person, and the answers were given by the peculiar chirp or flight of birds. The right to put the questions for the state (auspicia publica) was vested in each of the higher magistrates, who was said habere auspicia; the interpretation was a science (ius augurium), the special study and care of the augurs. Magistrates and augurs were therefore dependent upon each other; neither alone could get the information desired.

For taking the auspices an open space was marked out by the augurs, called templum, the original sense of the word not implying at all a sacred building. The proper templum for auspicia publica was the auguracvlum upon the Capitol, but for convenience other places, e.g., the Rostra in the forum, the hortus Scipionis in the Campus Martius, and the buildings erected as homes of the gods (templa, in the modern sense), were 'inaugurated/ but only by direct permission of the auspices taken in the auguraculum. Similarly, generals before going on a campaign took the auspices on the Capitol, and were said to 'carry their auspices' with them; if they were unsuccessful they were thought to have 'lost their auspices,' and had in early days to return to Rome for new ones (auspicia repeler). The inconvenience of this rule led to the invention of a new method of taking auspices, by watching the feeding of sacred chickens which the general took along with him wherever he went. Hence the classification of magistrates as Major (having the right to take the auspices anywhere): Dictator, consul, censor, praetor. (b) Minor (having the right to take the auspices at Rome only) : Tribune, aedile, quaestor.

To both the augur and the magistrate the auspices were a source of great political power. So minute and intricate were the rules and regulations of augury that a zealous augur could pick a flaw in almost any auspices, and thus effectually prevent action on the part of magistrate, senate and people. And, besides, it was a principle of augural law, confirmed by statute law, that no action could be taken by a magistrate if he was notified that another was engaged in taking auspices. This was because it was thought that the will of the gods was not yet fully ascertained. If therefore a magistrate gave notice that on a certain day, or series of days, he intended to 'watch the heavens' (servare de celo), none of the acts requiring auspices could be performed on that day or that series of days. This notice was called obnuntiatio, and was frequently employed against an obstinate tribune by magistrates who had otherwise no power over him, as well as by the other magistrates against each other. From this it will be seen that a position in the college of augurs was one to be coveted by men of the greatest dignity and highest rank - Cicero himself became a member of the college ten years after his consulship. The insignia of the office were the toga praetexta, the purple striped tunic (trabea) and a curved staff (lituus).

Other Boards - Below the augurs were numerous other boards and guilds. The Quindecemviri Sacris Faeiundis had charge of the prophetic books (libri Sibyllini) which the Cumaean Sibyl had sold to Tarquinius Superbus. They contained oracles relating to the state, and could be consulted and interpreted by the board only by direct command of the senate. The Haruspices were an unofficial guild, though they were some-92 times consulted by the senate when unusual omens or portents were announced. They foretold the future by lightning and the entrails of victims slain in sacrifice, and thus claimed to do much more than the augurs, who could at best only get responses to such questions as could be answered 'Yes' or 'No.' On the other hand the augurs ridiculed the pretensions of the haruspices, and asserted that they merely worked upon the superstitious fears of the ignorant.




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