Pontificalis honor: a re-evaluation of priestly Auctoritas and sacro-political violence in the transition from republic to principate

Bollan, John McGrory (2013) Pontificalis honor: a re-evaluation of priestly Auctoritas and sacro-political violence in the transition from republic to principate. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Printed Thesis Information: https://eleanor.lib.gla.ac.uk/record=b3007401


This thesis examines the transition from the Roman republic to the Principate of Augustus through the lens of the pontifex maximus, the office of the head of the pontifical college. Despite burgeoning interest in this role, current scholarship still regards the elevation of the chief pontiff to a politically significant position as a by-product of Caesar’s ambition and, subsequently, Octavian’s quest for both power and legitimacy. It is my contention that the trajectory of this priesthood’s ascendancy has been incorrectly plotted and that a proper understanding of the pontificate requires an analysis of the events surrounding the politically motivated murder of a tribune by the chief pontiff in 133 and subsequently over the next century.

After a survey of literature and a summary of the key features of the office, the thesis argues that the position of chief pontiff had long since conferred a stable prominence which was unique in the Roman republic. This prominence brought with it a particular kind of power which interacted with the auctoritas of the men who occupied the priesthood: in this way, the holders of an office which was bound up with some of the most revered traditions of the city were empowered to improvise courses of action which further enhanced the standing and influence of the chief pontiffs. It was through this cycle of action and perception that the pontifex maximus became a mechanism of political change – and was itself transformed in the process. In considering this cycle, particular emphasis is placed on the phenomenon of ‘sacro-political’ violence which, as a novelty instigated by one chief pontiff, became a recurrent motif in Roman political life thereafter.
I argue that Scipio Nasica Serapio made deliberate use of his office to sanction an intervention which would have serious consequences for the republic and which radically altered how the Romans saw this priesthood. The thesis then explores how subsequent holders of the office either negotiated or exploited this ‘legacy’ to further their careers, to respond to unprecedented constitutional crises or simply to stay alive.

Although all the pontifices maximi from 141 B.C. to 14 AD are considered, this thesis focuses on the lives and times of Nasica Serapio, Quintus Scaevola, Julius Caesar and Augustus as their tenures are particularly emblematic of the tensions between the mos maiorum and an increasingly extreme political climate. I argue that the new dispensation established by the first princeps, with all the restorationist rhetoric which accompanied it, relied decisively on Augustus’ assumption of the role. Even if Augustus had absorbed virtually all of the available priesthoods, the long wait he had to endure for the office of chief pontiff says a great deal about the nature of the pontificate and its strategic value to the heir of Caesar.

Two case-study Appendices discuss the disputed pontificate of Q. Servilius Caepio and the relationship between Cicero, Clodius and the pontifical college. These studies exemplify the prosopographical challenges in reconstructing republican priesthoods (even the most prominent) and the interaction between law, religion and politics in the mid first century B.C.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Roman Republic; pontifex maximus; auctoritas; violence; politics; Roman religion; priesthoods
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PA Classical philology
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Humanities > Classics
Supervisor's Name: Steel, Professor Catherine
Date of Award: 2013
Depositing User: John M. Bollan
Unique ID: glathesis:2013-4804
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 21 Jan 2014 14:19
Last Modified: 22 Jan 2014 09:14
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/4804

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