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Greek and Roman Priests and Religious Personnel

Summary and Keywords

The Christian word “priest,” which is generally used to translate the Greek word hiereus and the Latin word sacerdos, only inadequately captures the essence of how those who bore this title functioned and were perceived in Greek and Roman polytheism. Foremost among the differences between pagan and Christian priests is the fact that the former did not have any pastoral responsibilities, were not expected to lead exemplary lives, and did not exist in a hierarchy under a centralized religious authority. Instead their duties were largely liturgical and administrative, the proper performing of sacrifice and the upkeep of the sanctuary being among the foremost. Methods of appointment varied—some priesthoods were reserved within specific kin-groups, others were available to the entire citizen body, and still others could be sold to the highest bidder.

There were, however, important distinctions between Greek and Roman priests. In the Roman world, for instance, there were far fewer priestesses and a closer connection between religion and politics. In both systems, however, religion provided important outlets for women, not least by presenting them with a unique opportunity to enhance their social status. In Rome the connection between religion and politics strengthened over time. Under the Augustan Principate the position of pontifex maximus, a kind of high priest, became central to the identity of the princeps and was filled by all his successors at least until the late-4th century. The Graeco-Roman world also had a variety of other religious personnel, who performed important functions like the supervising of temple finances or the expounding of sacral law. Among the most important were seers or diviners, who produced oracles and had the expertise to interpret omens.

Keywords: Athens, Graeco-Roman, priests, priestesses, religion, seer, Vestal Virgins, paganism, polytheism, Rome

The word “priest,” which derives from the Greek presbuteros meaning “elder” via the Latin presbyter, is often loosely applied to those who officiated in polytheistic systems of belief. Though no English word comes closer in meaning, this is regrettable, since almost none of the Christian associations apply to the pagan office of priesthood.1 The Greek word hiereus (hiereia in the case of a priestess), which first appears in Linear B tablets in the form ijereu, denotes one who is in charge of the hiera, just as the Latin word sacerdos denotes one who is in charge of the sacra, namely, the sacred objects that were stored inside the sanctuary and the sacred rites that were performed on behalf of the deity, chief of which was the sacrifice. The principal connection is that in both the Christian and the Graeco-Roman traditions “priest” denotes someone who officiates in a sanctuary and performs sacred rites in that space. But there the equivalence, even the similarity, ends. In fact the differences between the pagan and Christian worlds in this respect as in others are profound.

First and foremost there was no “Church” in either Greek or Roman religion. Instead there was only the polis and the respublica, and their subdivisions, including the family, under whose authority all religious observances took place. A further complication is that in both Greece and Rome “priestly activity ... is undertaken by many more people than the obvious ‘priests’; while those ‘priests’ also perform functions that we would not readily call ‘priestly.’”2 Neither Greek nor Roman religion observed any distinction between the priesthood and the laity, comparable to that which exists in Christianity. There was no conflict of interest in holding high military, political, and religious office. Indeed some political offices were, broadly speaking, priestly. A few priests held titles and discharged functions that evoked the period when kings had performed priestly duties, such as the basileus in Athens and the rex sacrorum in Rome. In Sparta and elsewhere, where kingship continued into historical times, the king functioned as high priest. It is important to emphasize, however, that in Classical Athens the dêmos was the supreme arbiter of all major decisions relating to religion, just as in Republican Rome the senate exercised ultimate authority. Neither the dêmos nor the senate (still less the emperor in the imperial period) was obliged to seek advice from any priest.3

Qualifications and Methods of Appointment

Neither in Greece nor in Rome did priests belong to a priestly caste, which meant that any Greek or Roman male could perform sacral duties, and might do so regularly on behalf of their household gods. The head of the Greek household made daily offerings to Apollo Agyieus (protector of entrances), Zeus Herkeios (protector of boundaries), and Zeus Ktesios (protector of property), as did the head of the Roman household, known as the paterfamilias, to the lares (protectors of the household) and penates (protectors of the store-cupboard). They also presided over rituals connected with birth, marriage, and death. It is unclear in both cases whether the priestly duties of the head of the household were assumed by his wife when he was called away on duty if no other free adult male resided under his roof.

In the public sphere the main qualification for priestly office was to be a citizen who was holoklêros or physically whole (Laws 6.759c; Gell. Attic Nights 1.12.4). Dionysius of Halicarnassus claims that in Rome this requirement was introduced by Rome’s first king Romulus. The same authority says that Romulus also decreed that priests should be of good birth, at least fifty years of age, of unstained character, and financially solvent (2.21.3). Preference might sometimes be given to those who were “handsome and strong,” as in the case of the priest of Ismenian Apollo in Boeotia (Paus. 9.10.4). At Aigion the priest of Zeus was originally chosen from “among the boys who won the beauty contest” (7.24.4). At both Patrai and Aigeira the priestess of Artemis had to be a parthenos or virgin below marriageable years (7.19.1). It was essential that Vestal Virgins should “not have a speech impediment or be partially deaf or have any other bodily defect,” since if they stuttered or spoke out of turn, the ritual they were performing had to be repeated (Gell. Attic Nights 1.12.3). It is not improbable that all priests were subject to the same requirement. Criminals and other persons of bad character were ineligible for priestly office, including army deserters, debtors, embezzlers, and male prostitutes.

In Athens priests and priestesses, like other state officials, had to undergo dokimasia (“scrutiny”) before assuming office. This included verifying whether they regularly performed cult on behalf of their household deities and dead relatives. On assuming office they took an oath to perform their duties honorably by swearing on sacrificial victims. At the end of their term they were required to undergo euthuna (“examination”), which included providing an account of all the treasures and gifts within their charge.

Methods of appointment varied. In the Greek world many of the most important priesthoods were reserved for members of a specific genos or noble kin group, whereas others were open to the whole citizen body. For instance, the priesthoods of Athena Polias (“Of the city”) and Poseidon Erechtheus in Athens were exclusive to women and men respectively of the Eteoboutadai genos. A detail worth noting, however, is that the two priesthoods were reserved in different branches of this genos. Initially perhaps all Athenian priesthoods were filled from among the members of designated genê.4 The reforms of Cleisthenes in 508/7 bce saw the introduction of priesthoods to which all citizens were eligible, and to our best knowledge no new cult was ever entrusted henceforth to a genos. Thus the priestess of Athena Nike (“Victory”), whose cult was established in the 440s, was recruited not from a genos but by lot “from all Athenian women” (IG I3 35).5

In Hellenistic Asia Minor some priesthoods were auctioned to the highest bidder (e.g., LSCG 77).6 Founders of sanctuaries often claimed the first priesthood and secured the office, too, for their descendants “for all eternity.”7 Sometimes a worshiper would make a donation of land or its equivalent in return for being awarded the priesthood, such as Demon, who donated his house and garden to the sanctuary of Asclepius in Athens as a source of revenue (IG II2 4969). We should not underestimate the possible benefits or influence that might accrue from holding a priesthood. Epigraphical data testify that those who held important priesthoods often used their position to advance the interests of their friends and allies, as for instance by securing their promotion.

In early Rome only patricians were eligible for a priesthood and permitted to take the auspices. Some priesthoods were exclusive to the members of a particular gens or noble kin group. One such was the cult of Hercules in the Forum Boarium, which was first under the control of the Potitii and Pinarii, and then of the Potitii alone, before becoming a public cult in the final quarter of the 4th century bce (Li. 9.29.9–11). By the 3rd century bce most priestly offices in Rome had become available to plebeians. However, the three senior flamines (the word is best translated as “priests”) were always patricians, as was the rex sacrorum (“king of sacred rites”). In the imperial period some priesthoods became the gift of the emperor.

In early times the members of the four Roman priestly collegia or colleges co-opted an individual to their ranks whenever a vacancy arose. Following the passing of the lex Domitia in 104 bce, however, the existing members of the college produced a shortlist of candidates and hotly contested elections were held, though the flamines were always co-opted. Originally selected from among the other pontifices, from the mid-3rd century onward the pontifex maximus or chief pontiff was popularly elected by only seventeen of the thirty-five tribes, the seventeen in question being chosen by lot, in accordance with the belief that allotment was the gods’ choice. Augustus boasted that when the previous pontifex maximus Marcus Lepidus died and he stood for the office “such numbers poured into Rome from the whole of Italy for my election as had never been recorded before” (Achievements 10.2). Both the flamen Dialis or priest of Jupiter and the Vestal Virgins were chosen by the pontifex maximus. When the office of Vestal Virgin fell vacant he submitted a short list of twenty candidates to an assembly, which then appointed one by lot. The verb used to denote the appointment of a Vestal was capere, meaning “to seize,” because, as Aulus Gellius (AN 1.12.13) explains, the pontifex maximus seized her by the hand from her father’s house “as if she had been seized in war.” Only girls aged between six and ten from élite families whose parents were both living were eligible to become Vestal Virgins. It was their task to tend the sacred flame of Vesta, the extinction of which portended the destruction of the city.

Religion was arguably the only public arena readily available to women. It has been plausibly suggested on the basis of epigraphical evidence from the late 5th century onwards that in Greece “[a] sacerdotal office enhanced enormously the social position of women.”8 Under the Principate, too, élite women held important priesthoods, which they used to attain visibility and influence, though the opportunities were far fewer. A notable example of a prominent priestess is Eumachia, the sacerdos publica of Venus, patron deity of Pompeii. Eumachia funded a large building near the forum for the fullers’ guild, which she dedicated to the concordia Augusta (“Augustan harmony”) and to pietas (“piety”).

Priests could be removed from office for failing to discharge their duties. In Athens in the 4th century bce two self-styled priestesses were executed and the third, a courtesan known as Phryne, escaped only by baring her breasts to the jury to excite pity (Hyperides frs. 171–80). Removal from office must have happened with some frequency in Rome, given the fact that most priesthoods were lifetime appointments. Removal might be occasioned merely by a technical error, as in the case of a flamen Dialis who resigned (or was forced to resign) after handling inappropriately the entrails of a sacrificial victim (Li. 26.23.8). Hardly surprisingly, it would have been a profoundly humiliating experience for the individual concerned, as we know from the fact that some ex-priests were driven to commit suicide. If a priest was sent into exile, however, he was (or might be) permitted to retain his office and title. This happened in the case of the pontifex maximus and triumvir Marcus Lepidus, who was forced out of public life in 36 bce but who retained his position until his death twenty-three years later.

The “Graeco-Roman priesthood” was, not, however, a uniform institution. On the contrary, there were very significant differences between the two religious systems. In Greece priests mainly officiated on behalf of gods, and priestesses on behalf of goddesses. In the Roman world we only occasionally hear of priestesses. Another important difference was that though the Greek word hiereus denoted one who served a particular deity, the Latin word sacerdos covered a wide range of functions. Unlike their Greek counterparts, Roman priests were not for the most part attached to specific sanctuaries. Instead they were appointed to festivals and to other spheres of religious activity, such as augury. An exception is the flamines, who retained a much closer relationship with a specific deity than was usually the case in Roman religion. The three major flamines were attached to Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, often seen as a triad of deities. However, it is virtually impossible to identify the thread that unified the variety of religious personnel who were accorded the title of sacerdos.

Another important difference between the two systems is that holding a Greek priesthood, though it may have invested the incumbent with some influence, was not a stepping-stone along the path of a political career. That is in contrast, say, to the office of pontifex maximus in Rome, which significantly served to advance the young and aspiring Julius Caesar.

Responsibilities and Status

Few priests were employed full-time. The onerousness of their duties depended on the importance of the cult which they served. Their work was largely seasonal, heaviest at festival time. Priests did not function in a pastoral role or concern themselves with the welfare of those who worshipped in the sanctuary. They received no formal training. Their expertise, so far as we can determine, was based solely on the experience that they gained by observing others perform sacred rites. They were not required to live a life of moral rectitude that the populace was expected to emulate. Though they might be called upon to give advice about ritual, they were not theologians and their duties were for the most part strictly liturgical and administrative. Liturgically it was their task to ensure that correct cultic procedure was adhered to, particularly in regard to sacrifices. The care of the cult statue was also in their hands. In Athens the priestess of Athena Polias supervised the annual purification of the goddess’ venerable olive-wood statue in salt water and its clothing in fresh raiment. In the Greek world, less in the Roman world, priests and priestesses served as temple overseers with responsibility for the care and upkeep of their sanctuary, a role not unlike that of a dean in a cathedral.

No priest exercised any special power qua priest when addressing the dêmos or the senate on matters outside his domain. Priests did not have any collective identity. There is no evidence to indicate that they acted concertedly when a religious crisis occurred. If a priest was deemed to have discharged his office successfully, approbation might be expressed in the form of an inscription praising the incumbent for having acted “well and zealously.”

A priesthood conferred prestige not least through the visibility it accorded. Homer states that the priest of Idaean Zeus “is honored by the people like a god” (Il. 16.605). However, priests were not de jure venerable, nor so far as we know were their persons sacrosanct. Such venerability as they possessed was an expression of the sanctity of their office. There were, however, exceptions. It was, for instance, a capital offence to pass beneath the two-wheeled carriage that bore Vestal Virgins in the street, seemingly because to do so would expose them to indecorous voyeurism.

A priesthood gave the holder privileged access to the divine, since any insult to the deity’s representative on earth was an insult to the deity. This principle is forcefully demonstrated at the beginning of the Iliad, when Chryses, the priest of Apollo, appeals to the god to take revenge on Agamemnon for the abduction of his daughter. Apollo responds by sending a plague, which ravishes the Achaean army for nine days until Achilles calls an assembly to avert the crisis. It should, however, be noted that it is not primarily the dishonoring of the priest but rather Agamemnon’s refusal to accept ransom for his daughter “out of respect for the son of Zeus, Apollo the far-shooter” that provokes Apollo to act (1.21).

Greek and Roman priests played no part in the rites de passage that mark the human life cycle. The need to remain ritually pure prevented Greek priests from visiting a house of mourning or attending a burial, and, though the pollution was weaker, they were also debarred from being present at childbirth. The fact that Aulus Gellius mentions specifically that the flamen Dialis “never enters a place of burial and never touches a corpse” suggests that other Roman priests were not placed under the same restriction (AN 10.15.24).

Though Graeco-Roman religion was not hierarchical, senior religious dignitaries existed in both systems. In Athens the three most important archontes or magistrates possessed religious authority. Of these the most senior was the basileus or king, so-named because he was believed to have inherited the religious duties of the early kings of Athens. It was his responsibility to oversee the most ancient religious rituals, including the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Panathenaea, and the Lenaea, known collectively as ta patria; to preside over trials involving asebeia or impiety; and to supervise the religious calendar, which, being based on the lunar cycle, was constantly falling out of alignment with the solar year. His wife, known as the basilinna or basilissa, meaning “queen,” performed religious duties, too, notably by being given to Dionysus as his ceremonial bride at the Anthesteria festival ([Dem.] 59.73–77). Another important magistrate was the eponymous archon (so-named because he gave his name to the year), who was in charge of ta epitheta, literally “the rites that had been added on,” including the City Dionysia. Yet another was the polemarch, who performed rituals connected with warfare, such as the annual commemoration of those who died in battle. It is to be emphasized, however, that when Athens became a radical democracy before the middle of the 5th century bce the religious authority of the archontes was transferred in part to the dêmos.9

There is nothing to indicate that the priestly officials who served at the great panhellenic shrines had any authority outside their sanctuary either, despite their enhanced visibility. Owing to Delphi’s popularity, sometimes as many as three pythiai (priestesses of Pythian Apollo) served concurrently at the oracular shrine, though it remains unclear how their role as the mouthpiece of the god affected their social status. Probably the only religious official to achieve panhellenic name-recognition was the priestess of Hera at Argos, whose years in office were used as a chronological reference point (Thuc. 2.2.1). However, name-recognition does not necessarily translate into enhanced status.

At the lower end of the religious scale the priests who served in the cults that were housed in the 140-odd Attic demes (or townships) numbered in the thousands. There was also an unknown number of phratry priests who presided at the Apatouria, a festival at which new members were enrolled in hereditary phratriai or phratries (a word roughly translated as “brotherhoods”). In addition to performing sacrifices, it was the duty of the phratry priests, along with the phratriarch or phratry-leader, to expunge from the record the name of any person illegally registered.

In Rome the senior religious figure was the pontifex maximus, the derivation of whose title was a matter of speculation in antiquity. Varro (On the Latin Language 5.83) was of the opinion that it derived from pons, “bridge,” on the grounds that the holder of this office performed religious rituals on either side of the Sublician Bridge in Rome, which it was also his duty to repair. Subordinate to the pontifex maximus was the rex sacrorum or “king for sacred rites,” who assumed the religious functions of the king on the expulsion of the last king Tarquinius Superbus in 509 BCE. It was the duty of the rex sacrorum to administer the festal calendar and perform sacrifices each month on both the Kalends (first day of the month) and the Nones (either seventh or ninth day of the month).

Ruler-cult was a distinctive form of worship with distinctive religious personnel. In Rome from 7 bce onwards the 265 vici (or “wards of the city”) elected officials known as magistri and ministri, were primarily prominent freedmen, though their ranks also included trusted slaves. They supervised the worship of Augustus’ lares (tutelary spirits) and genius (something akin to his deified self). We also hear of the Augustales, high-ranking freedmen who were associated with the imperial cult in the cities of the western Roman empire. Some groups of Augustales were small, notably those who called themselves seviri (“six men”), whereas others comprised several hundred. It remains doubtful to what extent we can regard any of these officials as priests in the sense in which we have been using the term, however. Outside Rome imperial cult was largely under the control of the flamines, who administered the cult of divus Augustus, the deified Augustus, and that of successive emperors after their deaths. The choice of the flamines was probably due to the fact that they constituted a priesthood that was devoted to a single deity. In general imperial cult provided opportunities for those of low social status to assume priestly duties and thus express their devotion to the emperor.

Priests were distinguishable by their appearance and attire. Greek priests wore white or purple robes, a headband known as a strophion, and a garland. They grew their hair long and carried a staff. The pythia or priestess of Apollo Pythios at Delphi was required to dress as a virgin, irrespective of her age. The Vestal Virgins were required to adopt the sex crines (“six locks”) hairstyle, which was worn by brides on the day of their marriage. Some priests were identified by implements belonging to the rituals they performed. Augurs carried a curved staff known as the lituus; flamines and haruspices wore a distinctive conical cap with a projecting tip made of olive-wood known as an apex; pontifices carried a ladle known as a simpuvium or simpulum; the XVviri sacris faciundis bore an incense box known as an acerra; and finally the VIIviri epulonum carried a patera or libation bowl. One of the most distinctive figures was the gallus, a priest of the Phrygian deity Magna Mater or Great Mother, who wore female attire, a special headdress, long ribbons attached to his hair, as well as a small breastplate depicting the god Attis, and who carried a sprinkler and whip. Priestly attendants were also provided with a variety of implements, notably for the performing of sacrifice, including axes, daggers, and knives.

Terms of Service

Length of service was sometimes for life, sometimes for a year. In Athens the priesthood of both Athena Polias and Athena Nike were for life, whereas the two priests of Asclepius, one in the temple on the Acropolis, the other in the Piraeus, held office for only one year. Those who held office for one year were sometimes eponymous, viz. they gave their name to the year. By contrast most Roman priesthoods were held for life. There were, however, exceptions. Vestal Virgins were permitted to step down after a thirty-year stint if they so desired, and the flamen Dialis was required to resign if his wife, known as the flaminica, died.

Chastity was enjoined on a small minority of priestesses, notably the pythia, who was at first required to be a virgin and later a mature woman dressed as a virgin, as were the fourteen gerarai (the term means “of reverend bearing”), who were Athenian priestesses of Dionysus. If a Vestal Virgin was found guilty of breaking her vow of chastity, she was buried alive near the Colline Gate under the supervision of the pontifex maximus (Plu. Numa 10.4–7). If found guilty of a lesser offence, she was scourged. Rarely were priests required to be celibate, except in some cases during festival time. Very exceptionally priests were required to be eunuchs, such as the galli, who served the Magna Mater, and the megabyxos (the Greek transliteration of a Persian word meaning literally “set free by God”), who was the priest of Artemis-Ûpis at Ephesus.10 A few priests were subject to taboos, most notably the flamen Dialis, who could not ride a horse, observe an army readied for battle, handle flames, take an oath, or wear clothing with a knot in it. He was thus debarred from military or political office. By the imperial period these taboos had become the subject of antiquarian curiosity, as Aulus Gellius indicates (AN 10.15.1–25). The rex sacrorum was not permitted to hold any magistrate. No such restriction was placed on the pontifex maximus, a position held by Julius Caesar and Augustus and every subsequent emperor until the reign of the Emperor Gratian in the late-4th century ce (see below).

In Greece, priests were routinely awarded ta hierôsuna or “sacred perquisites” for their services. This usually took the form of a portion (known as meris) of the meat that was sacrificed in their sanctuary. Some also received a fee. From 460 bce onwards the priestess of Demeter at Eleusis received 1600 drachmas annually from the fees paid by initiates at the Lesser and Greater Mysteries. Those who purchased a priesthood were exempt from taxation (e.g., LSCG 77). In addition, many priests enjoyed proedria, the privilege of sitting in the front seat in the theater, at the games, and in the assembly. The priest of Dionysus sat in the center of the front row at all theatrical performances.

Priestly dwellings were the exception rather than the norm. In Eleusis there existed a “house for the priestess” of Demeter. The pontifex maximus dwelt in the domus publica (“public residence”) in the Roman Forum. The Vestal Virgins occupied a dwelling also in the Forum known as the aedes Vestae (literally “house of Vesta”).

Seers and Diviners

A distinctive group of religious personnel were the seers and diviners, most of whom were men. Homer identified seers among other highly valued itinerants as dêmiourgoi (literally “those who work for the people”), whose reputations were such that they were “invited from the ends of the earth” (Od. 17.382–86). They were known, apparently indiscriminately, as either manteis or chrêsmologoi, though the latter term means literally “deliverers of oracular utterances.” Their expertise covered a wide range of activities, including the interpretation of flights of birds, dreams, portents, and entrails. In historical times seers were hired by individuals and consulted by states. They did not constitute a group and had no formal title. Though it certainly helped to belong to a family that could trace its lineage back several generations to a legendary seer, all one actually needed to become a practitioner of the mantikê technê (“art of prophecy”) was charisma, abundant self-confidence, and, ideally, a collection of self-styled prophecies. Especially prominent was the kin-group known as the Iamidae, who practised seercraft until the 3rd century ce.11 Some seers, too, relied at least partly on inspiration. Herodotus (1.63.1) tells us of a chrêsmologos called Amphilytus, who delivered his prophecy “being inspired” (entheazôn).

Seers were consulted before the state took a major decision, such as whether to join battle or where to establish the boundaries of a new settlement. A military seer commonly attended an army, either examining a victim’s entrails (usually a sheep) or slitting a victim’s throat (usually a young goat) and observing its dying movements.12 Seers could not, however, intervene except by invitation. Other decisions of crucial importance were referred directly to the god, primarily Apollo, less commonly Zeus, through consultation at an oracular site.

Some seers received high honors, such as Teisamenus of Elis, who was granted Spartan citizenship for his services as a military seer (Hdt. 9.35.1). They became prominent in Athens at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. A few acquired considerable influence, such as Diopeithes, alleged author of the notorious psêphisma or resolution “relating to the impeachment of those who do not acknowledge divine things or who teach doctrines relating to the heavens,” whom Aristophanes facetiously described as “great” (Birds 988; cf. Plu. Per. 32.1).7 So far as we can tell, the backlash that attended the failure of the Sicilian Expedition to which oracle-mongers had given their backing does not seem to have had any lasting impact on the credibility of the profession (Thuc. 8.1.1).

Given that there was a fundamental tension between political and military power on the one hand and the divinely derived authority of seers on the other, it is hardly surprising that they were occasionally accused of giving false interpretations for private gain. Already in Homer their advice is received with “pervasive scepticism” even though their prophecies invariably prove to be right, and this skepticism persists into the classical era.13 Oedipus’s taunting of the blind Teiresias for having “eyes only for profit” no doubt drew appreciative nods from some members of Sophocles’s audience (OT 380–89; cf. Ant. 1033–47), even though his prophecy turns out to be correct. Plato, too, was scathing toward the profession, castigating “agurtai (‘begging priests’) and manteis who go to the houses of rich men and persuade them that they hold power from the gods by virtue of their sacrifices and spells” (Rep. 2.364b). Such criticism speaks to the continuing importance of seers in the 4th century.

In Rome a more formal arrangement existed between diviners (the preferred term for the Roman counterpart) and the state. Two groups of diviners had official status: the augures, who were experts in the practice (known variously as an ars, disciplina, or scientia) of “taking the auspices” before any significant public action; and the XVviri sacris faciundis, who were in charge of the Sibylline books (see Other Religious Personnel). In addition, there were the haruspices or readers of entrails of sacrificial victims, a practice known as extispicy from exta meaning “entrails,” which was the augural technique that became most popular from the late Republic onwards. Extispicy—with ill omen—was allegedly performed at Caesar’s house on the morning of his assassination (Dio 44.17.3). Haruspices, who were descended from Etruscan nobles, comprised both a college of sixty members and unaffiliated individuals who worked independently. They also interpreted unnatural events known as prodigia (“prodigies”), including monstrous births and rainstorms of blood. Because of the disparate functions they performed, however, “it is far from clear whether we are dealing with a variety of religious officials (all going under the same name) or a single category.”14

Diviners were assisted by lower-ranking officials, including the poppae and victimarii, who performed the sacrifices, and the pularii, who read the auspices. One of the most famous diviners in Roman literature is Spurinna, who warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March one month before his death, and who, when Caesar jocularly noted, “The Ides of March have come,” replied menacingly, “Yes, but they have not departed” (Suet. Divus Julius 81.2 and 4).

Other Religious Personnel

By the 5th century bce there existed in the Greek world a variety of state-appointed religious personnel who were responsible for the organization of festivals and the handling of both income and expenditure relating to sanctuaries. They include the epimelêtai (“overseers”), who had responsibility for major festivals held on a quadrennial basis; the epistatai (“superintendents”) and the hierotamiai (“stewards of the hiera”), who scrutinized expenditure; and the hieropoioi (“those who conduct the hiera”), who supervised the great public sacrifices, from the selection and purchase of the victims to the sale of their pelfs. In addition, a priest in charge of a major sanctuary was assisted by one or more neokoroi or sacristans, whose appointment is likely to have been informal. Officiates known as paides amphithaleis (“children blooming on both sides,” i.e., those whose fathers and mothers are still alive) performed a number of functions, including the cutting of branches from the sacred olive trees at Olympia, from which wreaths were fashioned for athletic victors (Poll. Onomast. 3.25). Parthenoi also played an important part in cult. Notable among them were the two (or possibly four) arrhêphoroi (“bearers of baskets”), who, after being selected by the archon basileus, resided for one year on the Acropolis, where they set the warp for the working of Athena’s sacred peplos or woollen dress.15

Prominent among independent and self-regulating religious personnel were the exêgêtai or “expounders,” viz. of sacred law, whose expertise was evoked by private individuals whenever problems relating to religious observance arose. Exêgêtai might, for instance, be called upon to pronounce upon the purificatory ritual to be adopted in a case of homicide ([Dem.] 47.68–71). They did not possess any institutionally sanctioned powers of enforcement, however, and though they might have intimidated (by indicating the dire consequences of ignoring their advice), they could not coerce. Nor do we know whether they ever expounded at the request of the dêmos. It is unclear whether Plato’s highly unflattering portrait of the exêgêtês Euthyphro, who has the temerity to prosecute his own father, is an ad hominem attack or an attack on the profession as a whole.

A number of religious personnel were exclusive to a single cult. They include the hierophantês, who revealed the hiera or sacred objects at the most solemn moment in the initiation ceremony of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the dadouchos or torch-holder, who probably provided lighting effects in the hall of initiation at the same ceremony. Another distinctive group were the priests at Delphi, though it is unclear what precise function they performed. The assumption that they interpreted the utterances of the pythia for petitioners and/or rendered them into hexameter is no longer cherished in classical scholarship due to lack of evidence.

In Rome there existed the quattuor amplissima collegia (“four very powerful colleges”), whose members all bore the title of priest. Though there was no official hierarchy among the colleges, in practice the most important was the college of pontifices. This included the rex sacrorum, the pontifices themselves, the six sacerdotes Vestales, and the three major and twelve minor flamines. The pontifices presided over state cult, including the performing of sacrifices and the staging of festivals and games. They also advised magistrates about sacral law and may even have intervened in disputed cases involving civil law. The head of the pontificate was the pontifex maximus, who articulated the views of his colleagues whenever the pontifical college was consulted by the senate. He, too, however, was subject to the majority will of the pontifices. The second most important college was that of the augures, originally comprising three patricians but increased to sixteen with a predominance of plebeians by the time of Julius Caesar. Though their primary duty was to interpret the auspices, they also gave their expert opinion on occasions when it might be thought appropriate to ignore the auspices or remove some ritual bar in order to initiate a public action. The third college was the XVviri sacris faciundis, originally two (known as the duoviri or duumviri), later enlarged to ten (the decimviri), and then to fifteen (the quindecimviri). The XVviri guarded the Sibylline books (poems of prophecy written in Greek that were thought to derive from the regal period), which they consulted when so directed by the senate. They also exercised oversight regarding the ritus Graecus (“Greek rite”), viz. the religious practices that the Romans had taken over from the Greeks, and had the right to admit or refuse admission to any new cult. Their importance is indicated by the fact that they were allegedly going to propose that Caesar be declared king, thereby inducing the conspirators to advance the date of his assassination (Dio 44.15.3–4). The fourth college was the VIIviri epulonum, originally a body of three (the tresviri), later enlarged to seven (the septemviri), which arranged public banquets at festivals and games.

In Republican times some members of the collegia enjoyed considerable political influence by consulting the Sibylline books at times of emergency or by interpreting omens. Julius Caesar broke with tradition by becoming a member of both the pontifical and augural colleges. This precedent was later adopted by the emperors, with Nero being a member of all four colleges. One of the religious innovations introduced by Augustus was to unify the four collegia, so that, among other things, all their members participated in the annual sacrifice to the pax Augusta or Augustan Peace (Achievements 12.2). In consequence of this, their influence began to wane.16

Religious groups of minor importance were identified generally as sodales, a word roughly translatable as “companions.” They included the fetiales, whose function was to conclude treaties and make war; the fratres Arvales or Arval brethren, who were in charge of the cult of the Dea Dia, a goddess associated with Ceres, and who later had duties pertaining to the imperial cult; the Salii, who performed dance movements (their name derives from the verb salire, “to leap or dance”) in honor of Mars dressed as archaic Roman warriors; and finally the Luperci (perhaps “protectors of the flock from wolves”), who, while running naked around the Palatine Hill at the Lupercalia festival, struck women apparently in order to increase their fertility. Another group loosely associated with religion were the astrologers. Though banned in 139 bce on the grounds that they were “producing darkness that was profitable to themselves in the minds of fickle and stupid people by their fraudulent interpretation of the stars” (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 1.3.3), several emperors, including Augustus and Tiberius, consulted them.

Cults that required their priests to shave their heads, fast, flagellate themselves, and in some cases undergo castration, represented a very different image of the sacred from the much more formal and controlled nature of traditional Roman religion and their officiants existed on the margins of Roman society.17 The eunuch galli were denied citizenship, could not inherit, and depended on charity from the pious. Not surprisingly, at times the priests of this and other outlandish religious traditions faced considerable ridicule and hostility (e.g., Juv. Sat. 6.512–21). The emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus appeared in the garb of a foreign priest of the Syrian god Elagabalus, whose name he took, though he was at pains to prepare the senate and the people in advance by displaying an enormous painting of himself thus attired (Herodian 5.5.3–7).

There is evidence to suggest that some priests, notably those who served the Egyptian deity Isis, took a more personal interest in the welfare of their devotees than traditional priests. That is the impression we receive from Apuleius’s characterization of a priest of Isis, who acts in a supportive role when the narrator Lucius, both over-eager and anxious, is preparing to undergo initiation in the goddess’s cult (Metam. 11.21). We should bear in mind, however, that this testimony is late and that polytheism in the 2nd century ce may have encouraged closer ties between priests and worshipers as a response to Christianity.

As already noted, on the death of Marcus Lepidus in 12 bce, Augustus became pontifex maximus. It was in keeping with his shrewd political judgment that he had not wrested the office from Lepidus during his lifetime. Such was the importance of the office to the institution of the Principate that it came to feature as an inseparable part of imperial identity, as we see from the fact that the letters “PM” appeared after the emperor’s name on the imperial coinage. Relatedly, Augustus also assumed the role of augur so that he could take the auspices before embarking on a military campaign.

Henceforth the fragmentation of religious authority that had been a feature of both Greek and Roman religion was replaced by a centralized system concentrated on “a single human face.”18 It is also revealing that Augustus’s preferred mode of depiction was in the guise of a priest who was either praying or performing a sacrifice—an image that was adopted throughout the Roman world by persons of all social station when being honored with a statue for their services.19 Though no one knew it at the time, the self-presentation of the Roman emperor as Christ’s vicar on earth was prepared for in the early years of the Principate.

Review of the Literature

The focus in this essay has been Classical Athens and Late Republican/Early Imperial Rome. As North has pointed out, a full understanding of the priesthood “is not always a question of discovering simply what priests did, but also how their activity was seen and paraded,” in other words, how they were perceived in the community.20 Though the details of priestly activity in all their manifold variety are an object of fascination, it is essential to keep this important insight in mind.

Establishing a Graeco-Roman priesthood as a secure category of investigation has proved highly elusive to scholars. Max Weber attempted to differentiate priests, that is, those who entreat the deity by means of sacrifice and prayer, from magicians, that is, those who coerce the deity by means of formula and ritual, although that distinction hardly applies to the Graeco-Roman priesthood. Beard and North’s edited volume Pagan Priests, which incorporates information from the Near East as well as from Greece and Rome, advances the debate by emphasizing the complexities and inconsistencies inherent in the categorization.21 Parker’s Athenian Religion: A History is the most detailed investigation of the Athenian priesthood, though it acknowledges that “[o]ur picture of the history of priesthood at Athens has to be almost recklessly impressionistic.”22 Beard, North, and Price’s edited two-volume Religions of Rome stresses the centrality of religion, and hence, of the priesthood, to both politics and war in Rome, while also providing an invaluable compendium of source material.23 Dignas and Trampedach’s edited volume Practitioners of the Divine, whose title self-consciously avoids the term “priest,” contains a nuanced set of essays that grapple with the varied roles performed by religious personnel in the Greek world.24 M. Flower’s The Seer in Ancient Greece represents a significant advance in our understanding of the Greek mantis.25

Primary Sources

Neither Greece nor Rome had any work comparable to the Koran or the Bible. For Greek priests and religious personnel we are largely dependent on literature, most of it Athenian. Notable depictions include Chryses, the Trojan priest of Apollo, and the Greek seer Calchas, both of whom appear in the Iliad; the seers Halitherses and Theoclymenus in the Odyssey; the seers Hegesistratus and Teisamenus in Herodotus; the pythia in Aeschylus’s Eumenides; the seer Teiresias in Sophocles’s Oedipus Turannos and Antigone; the priestess Theano in Euripides’s Helen, the priestess Iphigenia in his Iphigenia in Tauris, and the neôkoros (sacristan) Ion in his play of that name; the unnamed seer in Aristophanes’s Birds; and the exêgêtês or expounder (of sacred law) Euthyphro in Plato’s dialog of that name. It is important, however, to note that these are all literary constructs and should not be treated as objective portraits. In the Laws Plato envisages a priesthood for the ideal city of Magnesia in Crete, the prescriptions for which largely derive from those in his native city of Athens (6.759a–60a, etc.).

Roman depictions of priestly officials include the priestess of both Phoebus Apollo and Trivia in Virgil’s Aeneid, the priest Arruns, who makes an appearance both in the Aeneid and in Lucan’s Pharsalia, and the priest of Isis in Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Our knowledge of the Roman priesthood is, however, richer and more detailed than its Greek counterpart, thanks in part to extensive descriptions of their duties in historical writings, and in part to the survival of works devoted primarily to religion, such as Cicero’s On Divination and On the Response of the Haruspices.

Epigraphy, too, sheds an invaluable light upon priestly duties, methods of appointment, emoluments and honors, and so forth. For instance, an inscription relating to the oracular shrine of Amphiaraus near Oropus in Attica required that the priest spend a portion of each month in the sanctuary, be available for those who wanted to sacrifice or spend the night there, and fine anyone who committed a crime in the sanctuary (IG VII 235 = SIG31004 = LGS 65).26 Inscriptions sometimes illuminate subjects that tend to be ignored in the literary data, such as the high social status of Greek priestesses.

We also have pictorial images of priests in sculpture, vase painting and coinage. A notable example in Roman sculpture is the great processional frieze on the exterior of the structure surrounding the ara pacis Augustae (“Altar of Peace of Augustus”) in the Campus Martius, which depicts members of the four chief priestly colleges togatus capite velato (“with the toga pulled up over one’s head”), indicating that they are about to perform a sacrifice.

Further Reading

Beard, M. “Priesthood in the Roman Republic.” In Pagan Priests. Edited by M. Beard and J. North, 17–48. London: Duckworth, 1990.Find this resource:

    Beard, M. and J. North, eds. Pagan Priests. London: Duckworth, 1990.Find this resource:

      Beard, M., J. North, and S. Price, eds. Religions of Rome. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

        Bremmer, J. “Priestly Personnel of the Ephesian Artemision: Anatolian, Persian, Greek, and Roman Aspects.” In Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus. Edited by B. Dignas and K. Trampedach, 37–53. Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008.Find this resource:

          Burkert, W. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Translated by J. Raffan. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.Find this resource:

            Chaniotis, A. “Priests as Ritual Experts in the Greek World.” In Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus. Edited by B. Dignas and K. Trampedach, 17–34. Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008.Find this resource:

              Connelly, J. B. Portrait of a Priestess. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                Dignas, B., and K. Trampedach, eds. Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus. Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008.Find this resource:

                  Flower, M. “The Iamidae: A Mantic Family and its Public Image.” In Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus. Edited by B. Dignas and K. Trampedach, 187–206. Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008.Find this resource:

                    Flower, M. The Seer in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                      Garland, R. S. J. “Religious Authority in Archaic and Classical Athens.” Annual of the British School of Archaeology at Athens 79 (1984): 75–123.Find this resource:

                        Garland, R. S. J. “Priests and power in Classical Athens.” In Pagan Priests. Edited by M. Beard and J. North, 73–91. London: Duckworth, 1990.Find this resource:

                          Gordon, R. L. “Religion in the Roman Empire.” In Pagan Priests. Edited by M. Beard and J. North, 235–255. London: Duckworth, 1990.Find this resource:

                            Henrichs, A. “What is a Greek priest?” In Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus. Edited by B. Dignas and K. Trampedach, 1–14. Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008.Find this resource:

                              Kron, U. “Priesthoods, Dedications and Euergetism: What Part did Religion Play in the Political and Social Status of Greek Women?” In Religion and Power in the Ancient Greek World. Edited by P. Hellström and B. Alroth, 139–182. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1996.Find this resource:

                                Mikalson, J. D. Ancient Greek Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.Find this resource:

                                  North, J. “Diviners and Divination at Rome.” In Pagan Priests. Edited by M. Beard and J. North, 49–71. London: Duckworth, 1990.Find this resource:

                                    Parker, R. Athenian Religion: A History. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.Find this resource:

                                      Trampedach, K. “Authority Disputed: The Seer in Homeric Epic.” In Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus. Edited by B. Dignas and K. Trampedach, 207–230. Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008.Find this resource:

                                        Zaidman, L. B. and P. S. Pantel. Religion in the Ancient Greek City. Translated by P. Cartledge. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                                          Zanker, P. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Translated by A. Shapiro. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.Find this resource:


                                            (1.) A. Henrichs, “What is a Greek priest?” in Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus, ed. B. Dignas and K. Trampedach (Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008), 1–14.

                                            (2.) M. Beard, “Priesthood in the Roman Republic,” in Pagan Priests, ed. M. Beard and J. North (London: Duckworth, 1990), 17–48.

                                            (3.) The power of the Athenian dêmos in matters of religion is indicated by the fate of a certain hierophantês called Archias, who underwent trial and punishment on a charge of asebeia (“impiety”) for illegally performing a sacrifice at the Haloa festival ([Dem.] 59.116). A rare challenge to the state’s authority in matters of religion came in 415 BCE when a priestess called Theano refused to curse Alcibiades for his alleged parody of the Eleusinian Mysteries, declaring she was “a praying not a cursing priestess” (Plu. Alc. 22.4).

                                            (4.) R. Parker, Athenian Religion: A History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 65.

                                            (5.) Inscriptiones Graecae. (Berlin: De Gruyter, etc. 1877–1981), hereafter IG; and Parker, Athenian Religion, 125–127.

                                            (6.) F. Sokolowski, ed., Lois sacrées des cites grecques (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1969), hereafter LSCG.

                                            (7.) W. Burkert, Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Translated by J. Raffan (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 96.

                                            (8.) U. Kron, “Priesthoods, Dedications and Euergetism: What Part did Religion Play in the Political and Social Status of Greek Women?,” in Religion and Power in the Ancient Greek World, ed. P. Hellström and B. Alroth (Uppsala: Acta Universitatis, 1996), 139–182 (p. 140).

                                            (9.) Parker, Athenian Religion, 124–145.

                                            (10.) J. Bremmer, “Priestly Personnel of the Ephesian Artemision: Anatolian, Persian, Greek, and Roman Aspects,” in Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus, ed. B. Dignas and K. Trampedach (Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008), 38–42.

                                            (11.) M. Flower, “The Iamidae: A Mantic Family and its Public Image,” in Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus, ed. B. Dignas and K. Trampedach (Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008), 187–206.

                                            (12.) Flower, “The Iamidae,” 189.

                                            (13.) K. Trampedach, “Authority Disputed: The Seer in Homeric Epic,” in Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus, ed. B. Dignas and K. Trampedach (Cambridge, MA, and London: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2008), 224.

                                            (14.) M. Beard, J. North, and S. Price, eds., Religions of Rome. 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), I, 20.

                                            (15.) A. Kossatz-Desissmann, “Kindheit und Jugend in der griechischen Welt,” in Thesaurus cultus et rituum antiquorum, vol. VI, 17–61. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011, hereafter ThesCra VI.

                                            (16.) P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Translated by A. Shapiro (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988), 121.

                                            (17.) R. L. Gordon, “Religion in the Roman Empire,” in Pagan Priests, ed. M. Beard and J. North (London: Duckworth, 1990), 248.

                                            (18.) Beard, “Priesthood in the Roman Republic,” 48.

                                            (19.) Zanker, The Power of Images, 129.

                                            (20.) J. North, “Diviners and Divination at Rome,” in Pagan Priests, ed. M. Beard and J. North (London: Duckworth, 1990), 49.

                                            (21.) Beard and North, Pagan Priests.

                                            (22.) Parker, Athenian Religion, 125.

                                            (23.) Beard, North, and Price, Religions of Rome.

                                            (24.) Dignas and Trampedach, Practitioners of the Divine.

                                            (25.) M. Flower, The Seer in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

                                            (26.) W. Dittenberger, Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum. 3d ed. 5 vols. (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1915–24), hereafter SIG3.