Pontifex maximus

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus
( Via Labicana Augustus)

The Pontifex Maximus or pontifex maximus ( Latin, "greatest priest" [1] [2] [3]) was the chief high priest of the College of Pontiffs ( Collegium Pontificum) in ancient Rome. This was the most important position in the ancient Roman religion, open only to patricians until 254 BC, when a plebeian first occupied this post. A distinctly religious office under the early Roman Republic, it gradually became politicized until, beginning with Augustus, it was subsumed into the Imperial office. Its last use with reference to the emperors is in inscriptions of Gratian [4] (reigned 375–383) who, however, then decided to omit the words "pontifex maximus" from his title. [5] [6] Although in fact the most powerful office of Roman priesthood, the pontifex maximus was officially ranked fifth in the ranking of the highest Roman priests (ordo sacerdotum), behind the rex sacrorum and the flamines maiores ( Flamen Dialis, Flamen Martialis, Flamen Quirinalis). [7]

The word "pontifex" and its derivative "pontiff" later became terms used for Christian bishops, [8] including the Bishop of Rome, [9] [10] and the title of "Pontifex Maximus" was applied within the Catholic Church to the Pope as its chief bishop and appears on buildings, monuments and coins of popes of Renaissance and modern times. The official list of titles of the Pope given in the Annuario Pontificio includes "Supreme Pontiff" (in Latin, Summus Pontifex) as the fourth title, the first being "Bishop of Rome". [11]


The etymology of "pontifex" is uncertain, and has been since Roman times. The word appears to consist of the Latin word for "bridge" and the suffix for "maker". However, there is a possibility that this definition is a folk etymology for an Etruscan term, [6] since Roman religion was heavily influenced by Etruscan religion, and very little is known about the Etruscan language, which is not Indo-European.

According to the common interpretation, the term pontifex means "bridge-builder" (pons + facere); "maximus" means "greatest". This was perhaps originally meant in a literal sense: the position of bridge-builder was indeed an important one in Rome, where the major bridges were over the Tiber, the sacred river (and a deity): only prestigious authorities with sacral functions could be allowed to "disturb" it with mechanical additions. However, it was always understood in its symbolic sense as well: the pontifices were the ones who smoothed the "bridge" between gods and men [12].

The interpretation of the word pontifex as "bridge-builder" was that of Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Marcus Terentius Varro. Plutarch pointed out that the term existed before there were any bridges in Rome and derived the word from Old Latin pontis (sic) meaning a powerful or absolute master, while others derived it from potis facere in the sense of "able to sacrifice". [13] The last derivation is mentioned also by Varro, who rejected it, [14] but it was the view of Pontifex Maximus Quintus Scaevola. [15] Others have held that the word was originally pompifex (leader of public processions). [15] The word pons originally meant "way" and pontifex would thus mean "maker of roads and bridges". [15]

Another opinion is that the word is a corruption of a similar-sounding but etymologically unrelated Etruscan word. [16] Yet another hypothesis [17] considers the word as a loan from the Sabine language, in which it would mean a member of a college of five, from Osco-Umbrian ponte, five. [18] This explanation takes into account the fact that the college was established by Sabine king Numa Pompilius and the institution is Italic: the expressions pontis and pomperias found in the Iguvine Tablets may denote a group or division of five or by five. The pontifex would thence be a member of a sacrificial college known as pomperia (Latin quinio). [19]

The Roman title "Pontifex Maximus" was rendered in Greek inscriptions and literature of the time as "ἀρχιερεύς" (literally, "high priest"|) [20] or by a more literal translation and order of words as "ἀρχιερεὺς μέγιστος" (literally, "greatest high priest". [21] The term "ἀρχιερεύς" is used in the Septuagint text of the Old Testament and in the New Testament to refer to the Jewish high priest.

Other Languages
azərbaycanca: Böyük pontifik
беларуская: Вялікі пантыфік
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Вялікі пантыфік
eesti: Pontifeks
Ελληνικά: Pontifex Maximus
français: Pontifex maximus
Bahasa Indonesia: Pontifex Maximus
íslenska: Pontifex Maximus
Basa Jawa: Pontifex Maximus
Bahasa Melayu: Pontifex Maximus
Nederlands: Pontifex maximus
日本語: 最高神祇官
português: Pontífice máximo
Simple English: Pontifex Maximus
slovenščina: Pontifex maximus
српски / srpski: Pontifex Maximus
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Pontifex Maximus
українська: Pontifex Maximus