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Patrician Priesthoods

It is no coincidence that the events mentioned above occurred within the decades before the lex Villia annalis and during an epoch that was highly interested in the systematization of the official career path. This effort to clarify the character of public offices was also extended to religious roles, sacerdotia. But what is striking are the restrictions placed on holding various offices simultaneously. Not only are these measures surprising, but they seemed to fail or to work contrary to intention.

Older research in particular has stressed that the incidents we have discussed are located in a field of conflict between patricians and plebeians. The relevance of this social distinction in the religious arena is illustrated by the lex Ogulnia of 300 BC. This legislation established that the large colleges should have a majority occupation of at least 50 percent plebeians while simultaneously preserving a patrician minority of nearly 50 percent. This principle was not only maintained within all the old colleges but was also applied to the staffing of the newly founded college of the Tresviri Epulones in 196.[1] Publius Manlius was, presumably, a patrician alongside two tribunes of the plebs.[2] It might be supposed that this put an end to the tension between patricians and plebeians, as it forced members of both orders to cooperate and removed the patrician monopoly on certain religious activities. And yet it actually attests to the ongoing relevancy of the social distinction. Furthermore, certain offices remained inaccessible to one of the two orders: the curule was exclusive to plebeian aediles, and no plebeian could become a Flamen Dialis or a Rex Sacrorum.

With regard to the cases discussed above, we should also take into account the introduction (even if modified) of direct elections of the Pontifex Maximus in the second half of the third century.[3] This was followed by what was presumably the first selection and direct election of a plebeian for the office of Curio Maximus in the year 209.[4] From the time of the reorganization of the priesthoods under the Lex Ogulnia, if not before, the authority of the Pontifex Maximus grew constantly, so that he came to play a decisive role in virtually all pontifical and related questions. From 243 until 221, Lucius Caecilius Metellus was the first known plebeian to fill this office. It was during his period of office that the conflicts discussed above arose (241—221). The next plebeian Pontifex Maximus, for the years 213—183, was Publius Licinius Crassus Dives. It is during his priesthood that most of the remaining conflicts that I will examine occurred.

We must take a step back, as the historical context of these conflicts is not without interest. First, Rome encountered the problem of the ongoing administration of provinces far from Rome. This problem was completely new for the city: it had not existed until the end of the First Punic War and, in its aftermath, the creation of the provinces of Sicilia and Sardinia. The solution to this was legislation forbidding long-term absence for the exclusively patrician priesthood of the Flamines (maiores) (and, of course, the Rex Sacrorum). This policy, put in place during the second half of the third century BC, endured despite repeated individual protests. The second area of conflict concerned the most significant characteristic of Roman priesthoods, the fact of lifelong appointment. The requirement for rigorous observation of ritual details as a precondition for remaining in office fundamentally endangered this conception of priesthoods. It is this topic that was picked out as a central theme in discussions from the first century

BC and later regarding the exile of augurs.[5] Although the failure of any effort to develop a systematic process for ousting priests from their offices is shown by the fact that we know of no further cases after the 220s, the memory nevertheless lingered and carried political force. When Livy talks about the fact (in the case of Gaius Valerius Flaccus) that a positive change in the character of Flamines led to a resumption of the supposedly old custom of granting this priest a senate seat, a privilege that had been lost due to the indignitas of earlier Flamines,[6] then one could relate this to the events of the 220s, if one assumes historicity.

When Crassus succeeded the patrician Metellus and became the second plebeian to occupy the office of the supreme pontiff, he opened another area of conflict by imposing forced appointments. It is worth examining instances of such compulsion closely. In the aforementioned case of the plebeian Gaius Valerius Flaccus in 209 BC, Livy does not emphasize the resistance of the candidate (a fact that one might, but need not, infer from the wording coacti flaminis), but rather refers to his poor reputation among his cognate relatives, possibly indicating that there was resistance to the appointment. The case of Flaccus should be viewed alongside another appointment, one that remained undetermined, namely that of the Rex Sa- crorum. It is highly probable that Marcus Marcius had been appointed the first plebeian Rex Sacrorum by the first plebeian Pontifex Maximus during the late 240s or 230s. Unfortunately, there is no extant literary report of this process.[7] When Marcius died in 210, the office remained unfilled, and after a vacancy of two years—pointing to conflict and debate—only patricians were appointed whenever the office again became vacant. Finally inaugurated in 208, the Rex Sacrorum Gnaeus Cornelius Dolabella had only been Monetalis before; he was young and remained in the office for twenty-eight years.[8] The first plebeian Curio Maximus had also been chosen in the year 209. The appointee, Gaius Mamilius Atellus, attained a praetorship soon thereafter, in 207 BC.[9] His praetorship, to be precise, was related to the administration of the province of Sicily. The importance of the local dimension, the tie with Rome, is illuminated by the distribution of priesthoods. Potential absence from Rome (due to a lack of frequent ritual obligations) made it acceptable that a plebeian fill such a priesthood.

In the year 205, a vacancy appeared when the Flamen Martialis Marcus Aemilius Regillus[10] died after attaining the consulship. In 204, a successor was found in Tiberius Veturius Philo, brother to the consul of206 and perhaps already of advanced age, since it is probable that he was succeeded not long after the turn of the century.[11] The lack of offices Philo had held, his age, the vacancy (the precise length of which cannot be determined, as the turn of the year is our only evidence)—all these conditions signal conflict about filling the office. If Philo’s successor, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was identical with the praetor of the year 203, he would have been of a very advanced age when he died as Flamen in 169 BC; it seems more reasonable to conjecture that a son of his was chosen, one who was appropriately young but attained no other office despite the possibilities afforded by his familial status.[12] A routine procedure seems to be at work here, visible also when the young Scipio was appointed Flamen Dialis in the 180s or in the attempt to appoint Dolabella as Rex Sacrorum; he was, after all, the son of the deceased Rex Sacrorum. Given this pattern, Dolabella’s rejection of the office should be interpreted as idiosyncratic, hardly systemic. Like the forced resignations of the 220s, the forced appointments and the disputes over the quality of the appointees occur within a relatively short period around the year 210. Both types of activity are centered around controversial individuals and demonstrate a new awareness of individual qualities and differences. At the same time, in systemic terms, it was the conflict between patricians and plebeians that brought these new notions of personal fitness to the fore.

The practice of forced appointments should not be thought to suggest that the offices of the Flamrnates were dreaded. Although young persons, practically children, were nominated, these were also regularly candidates that showed considerable promise in terms of a future political and military career. Considering his pedigree, the nomination of the young Julius Caesar to the office of Flamen Dialis could be classified with the latter group. And there is much that suggests that this was not without reason: these offices must, in fact, have been sought after. Evidently, the exclusively patrician offices, the great Flaminates, the Rex, even membership in the Salii conferred significant privilege and prestige. These positions offered an entire lifetime of public prominence with their unusual dress (to be worn even outside larger ritual performances), with the right to a curule chair and a lictor, and with their frequent appearances in public; these priests were frequently active in the political and religious center of the city. All this stands in a clear contrast to the other priesthoods—with terms of just a month or a year—that were open also to plebeians.[13]

The sodalitas of the Salii admitted a considerable number of patricians to an early priesthood that was characterized by a short period of office. In the case of the Salii, it is likely that it had become common practice already in the late republic to leave the priesthood on achieving higher official offices or another priesthood that conferred great prominence in the imperial era. The prosopographical material offers no corroboration, and the case of Furius Bibaculus, who was already praetor and remained a Salius, even seems to speak to the contrary.[14] We need not, however—against the background of the cases reviewed so far—generalize such an example, evidently considered worthy of individual mention in what must have been contemporary sources. Traditions of dealing with priestly offices were subject to divergent individual appropriations and interpretations. Instead of a radical break and a mass eviction of priests from their Salian priesthood under Augustus (as a part of his attempt to grant access to priesthoods to large numbers of his followers), it is easier to assume that the basics of republican practice were continued into the imperial period. This hypothesis is supported by the twofold nature of Augustus’s course of action: he increased the number of patricians and the number of the Salii at the same time. Before the Augustan era, there is no evidence for differentiation between the Salii Palatini and the Salii Collini, nor for the higher status of the former.

Excepting loss of the economic potential of provincial offices, the restrictions placed on the major priesthoods were definitely tolerable. Moreover, the individual privileges described above could begin as early as two decades before consular age. Who would exchange an associated professorship directly after high school for the mere hope for a chair at the age of forty-five? We should not imagine that the importance of these priesthoods was limited to their potential to advance one’s political career.

Again, these individual interests had a systemic aspect. Several questions present themselves: What (in the uniform nobility of the republic since the third century) legitimized the disproportionately large representation of patricians in high offices, particularly the consulate? What legitimized their monopoly on certain procedures, such as the interregnum? And finally, what justified the Julian-Augustan expansion and promotion of the patrician order with its enormous array of distinct careers? Evidently, the special religious roles of the patrician order formed the hardest argument for these privileges (irrespective of the perennially controversial issue of the auspices),[15] and the argument for the special religious role of patricians was conveyed through the few exclusively patrician priestly offices. Only the aforementioned patrician priesthoods were permanently and unmistakably visible. The election of a priest, just as the election of consul or another magistrate, required public knowledge of the status, patrician or plebeian, of the candidates, in order to assure the correct overall composition of a given priestly college.

  • [1] For the immediate (religio-)political context, see Rupke 1995, 319 and 330.
  • [2] Rupke 2005d, no. 2342; Baudry proposed this hypothesis.
  • [3] The election was performed in a meeting (comitia) of seventeen out of thirty-five tribus(drawn by lot; see Cic. Leg. Agr. 2.16—18).
  • [4] Livy 27.8.1-3.
  • [5] For example, for Sulla, see Rupke 2005d, no. 1390 with further literature.
  • [6] Livy 27.8.7: huius famae consensu elates ad iustam fiduciam sui rem intermissam per multosannos ob indignitatem flaminum priorum repetivit, ut in senatum introiret.
  • [7] Rupke 2005d, no. 2368.
  • [8] Ibid., no. 1322.
  • [9] Ibid., no. 2334.
  • [10] Ibid., no. 525.
  • [11] Ibid., no. 3481.
  • [12] Thus ibid., no. 2868.
  • [13] See Rupke 2005a on the limited visibility of other priesthoods.
  • [14] Rupke 2005d, no. 1781; Val. Max. 1.1.9.
  • [15] In addition Livy 10.7.9—10.
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