Pontifex Maximus

In a post as closely relevant to current affairs as you're ever likely to see on this blog, I thought I'd mention that the job title Pontifex Maximus, better known these days by the shorter form Pope, is far older than the Roman Catholic Church.  The most famous pre-Christian holder of the office was a chap by the name of Julius Caesar.

It was because Caesar was Pontifex Maximus that he was able to reform the calendar.  (Since in Rome  the Pontiff owned the calendar, like the Eponymous Archon did in Athens).

The rule most interesting to a mystery writer though is that the original Pontifex Maximus was forbidden to see any dead body.


9 comments:

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Perfect for today!

Amalia T. Dillin said...

Awesomely cool -- why wasn't he allowed to see any dead body?

Gary Corby said...

There were a whole pile of taboos. The big one that got flouted constantly was that the Pontifex Maximus wasn't supposed to leave Italy.

Spiritual pollution in the presence of death is quite common in early religions. In the Greek version, the rule applies to everyone and you have to cleanse in sea water. I presume the origin is simple hygiene.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I hadn't realized until today that the last pope to abdicate was 600 years ago during the Great Schism. I guess Pope Benedict will be remembered for that at least!

RWMG said...

are you sure about this rule about not being able to see a dead body? What is your source? I know it was true of the flamen dialis, but quite a few pontifices maximi were also consuls and generals.

Gary Corby said...

John Maddox Roberts! He specifically mentions it in one of his books. So most unusually for me, I didn't pull it from a primary source, but Mr Roberts is one of only a handful of people whose knowledge I would never, ever question. The man's a genius.

Now that you've asked the question, I better go looking...

Gary Corby said...

Update: thanks for the question, Robert. That was interesting.

There are multiple sources that mention the taboo as it applies to Pontifex Maximus. The closest to a reliable modern source I could find is "Death and Disease in the Ancient City" by Hope and Marshall.

Dio mentions Augustus giving the funeral speech for Agrippa with the corpse covered, because by then Augustus was Pontifex Maximus. Seneca states that Tiberius gave the funeral speech for Drusus with the corpse covered when was Pontifex Maximus.

The most fun reference I found is The Gentleman's Magazine, 1827, by John Nichols. It in turn references the same Seneca I just mentioned:

"Tiberius Caesar lost both the son whom he begot and the son whom he adopted, yet he himself pronounced a panegyric upon his son from the Rostra, and stood in full view of the corpse, which merely had a curtain on one side to prevent the eyes of the high priest resting upon the dead body..."

RWMG said...

Interesting. Dio specifically says there was no such taboo:

Augustus happened to be exhibiting, in the name of his sons, contests of armed warriors at the Panathenaic festival, and when he learned of Agrippa's illness, he set out for Italy; and finding him dead, he conveyed his body to the capital and caused it to lie in state in the Forum. He also delivered the eulogy over the dead, after first hanging a curtain in front of the corpse. 4 Why he did this, I do not know. Some, however, have stated that it was because he was high priest, others that it was because he was performing the duties of censor. But both are mistaken, since neither the high priest is forbidden to look at a corpse, nor the censor, either, except when he is about to complete the census;

Cassius Dio 54.28

Seneca, on the other hand, says there was such a taboo:

Tiberius Caesar lost both the son whom he begot and the son whom he adopted, yet he himself pronounced a panegyric upon his son from the Rostra, and stood in full view of the corpse, which merely had a curtain on one side to prevent the eyes of the high priest resting upon the dead body,

Consolation to Marcia XV

So one of them was wrong or practice changed at some point between the Seneca's time and Dio's. If there was a taboo, it doesn't seem to have slowed Julius Caesar down, does it?

Gary Corby said...

Practice definitely changed for the rule about staying inside Italy. My best guess is that the taboo against the Pontifex Maximus seeing a corpse was for-real. But after the emperors took over the Pontifex Maximus job, all ability to enforce the ancient taboos went down the tubes. Caesar of course was a rule unto himself.