The office of “Pater patratus” in Roman religion

Yesterday I noted that the title pater patratus appears in some inscriptions connected with the cult of Mithras.  All these inscriptions fall between 100-400 A.D.  But the title is an ancient one, and we read of it as the title of the spokesman of a group of priests who acted rather like medieval heralds, but could also perform a ritual solemnizing an agreement with foreigners.

Our first witness is no less than Livy, who in book 1, chapter 24, records the appointment of such an official to superintend a treaty between Alba Longa and Rome in the semi-mythical days of Tullus Hostilius.  I have modernised the translation from Perseus, which may be found here.

The fetial asked King Tullus, “Do you command me, O King, to make a treaty with the pater patratus of the Alban People?” Being so commanded by the king, he said, “I demand of you, O King, the sacred herb.” The king replied, “You shall take it untainted.” The fetial brought from the citadel an untainted plant. After this he asked the king, “Do thou grant me, O King, with my emblems and my companions, the royal sanction, to speak for the Roman People of the Quirites?” The king made answer, “So far as may be without prejudice to myself and the Roman People of the Quirites, I grant it.”

The fetial was Marcus Valerius; he made Spurius Fusius pater patratus, touching his head and hair with the sacred sprig.

The pater patratus is appointed to pronounce the oath, that is, to solemnize the pact; and this he accomplishes with many words, expressed in a long metrical formula which it is not worth while to quote.

The conditions being then recited, he cries, “Hear, Jupiter; hear, pater patratus of the Alban People: hear ye, People of Alba: From these terms, as they have been publicly rehearsed from beginning to end, without fraud, from these tablets, or this wax, and as they have been this day clearly understood, the Roman People will not be the first to depart. If it shall first depart from them, by general consent, with malice aforethought, then on that day do you, great Diespiter, so smite the Roman People as I shall here to-day smite this pig: and so much the harder smite them as your power and thy strength are greater.”

When Spurius had said these words, he struck the pig with a flint. In like manner the Albans pronounced their own forms and their own oath, by the mouth of their own dictator and priests.

The Latin of the portion in bold is as follows:

Pater patratus ad ius iurandum patrandum; id est, sanciendum fit foedus; multisque id verbis, quae longo effata carmine non operae est referre, peragit.

“ius iurandum” is an oath; “patrandum” is “requiring to complete, accomplish”; “sanciendum” solemnize, “foedus” a treaty.  This seems to me, as a man with limited Latin, to say that “A pater patratus is made to complete an oath; i.e. to solemnize a treaty;”.  “Pater Patratus”, then, means only the “Completion Priest”, and his role was as the spokesman or executive officer of the priests sent on behalf of the Roman people.  It is clear, from the mention of a similar official among the Albans, that the concept was a Latin one, rather than a purely Roman idea.

A passage from Varro preserved in Nonius Marcellus gives us a little more about this college of priests, known as fetiales, to whom the Pater Patratus belonged.  Sadly I cannot find a text or translation of this anywhere.[1]

Servius, in his Commentary on the Aeneid IX, 53, and XII, 120, discusses the role.[2]  In the first he calls the Pater Patratus “princeps Fecialium”, the leader of the fetiales.[3]  In the second, however, he makes no real distinction between the Pater Patratus and the other herald-priests.[4]

More details on the office may be found in William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), online here: “It appears that when an injury had been sustained, four fetiales (Varr. ap. Non.) were deputed to seek redress, who again elected one of their number to act as their representative. This individual was styled the pater patratus populi Romani.”  The article adds:  “It is an error to suppose that the pater patratus was the permanent head of the college: Mommsen, “Römisches Staatsrecht“, 1877, 2 2. 670.”  But this last article I have been unable to locate online.

Clearly a collection of all the sources would be a useful thing to do.  Here, of course, I have only scratched the surface. Likewise the philological question of the meaning of “patratus” is one that a specialist could address.  Unfortunately all the material available immediately online is very elderly.[5]

  1. [1] Some selected extracts may be found in this 1694 volume by Graevius, here:
  2. [2] I find this material here, in Hugo Grotius, The rights of war and peace, book III, where the Pater Patratus is rendered “King at Arms”, as the chief herald.  Perhaps the roles of heralds and fetiales had something in common.
  3. [3] Quum enim volebant bellum indicere, Paterpatratus, hocest, princeps Fecialium, proficiscebatur ad hostium fines, & praefatus quaedam solennia, clara voce dicebat, se bellum indicere propter certas causas: Aut quia Socios laeserant, aut quia nec abrepta animalia, nec obnoxios, redderent. Et haec Clarigatio dicebatur a claritate vocis.
  4. [4] Atqui Feciales & Pater patratus, per quos bella vel Foedera confirmabantur, numquam utebantur vestibus lineis—Qua [verbena] coronabantur Feciales & Paterpatratus foedera facturi, vel bella indicturi.
  5. [5] There is some material in T. Hewett Key, “On the derivation and meaning of certain Latin words”, in: Proceedings of the Philological Society, vol. 5, 1854, p.89-96: “The verb patrare, if we have sufficient faith in etymology to deduce its meaning from its form, ought to signify ‘ to create a father,’ just as albare is ‘ to make white.’ But as this translation implies an inversion of the laws of nature, in its strict sense it is inadmissible. … When the state had occasion to declare war, or to make a peace abroad, the rule, as is well known, was to commission four members of the Fetial college to act in the name of the state, and one of these was placed at the head of the commission under the title of pater patratus. This phrase, by its very construction, tells us that patrare was a transitive verb, and primarily signified, as we said above, to appoint a person as father. Thus Lunemann is wrong in giving to patrare as its first meaning, “Vater seyn, den Vater spielen.” The latter of these two phrases, ‘to play the father,’ i. e. ‘act as father,’ should strictly have been denoted by a reflective verb patrari, in agreement with medicari, ancillari, graecari, bacchari; but we are ready to admit that verbs of this class often in a subsequent stage dropped the reflective form. Thus eventually patrare came to signify to act as a pater patratus, and this even with the construction of an accusative. Hence patrare jusjurandum, in Liv. i. 24, is to take an oath, as pater patratus to abide by a treaty. From this, by an easy metaphor, the verb came into use in the sense of performing the final part in any grave act, where the agent was no longer the pater patratus; for example, p. pacem, Liv. xliv. 25, “to conclude a peace ;” p. bellum, Sal. Jug. 78, Vell. ii. 79 and 123; Tac. Ann. ii. 26, “to put the finishing stroke to a war.” So far we have the verb in connection with the very notions for which it was at first employed; but its final use was much wider, and extended to any deeds, whether good or bad, if of a serious nature. It is perfectly in accordance with this view that we find patrante ocello, ‘with a solemn eye,’ applied to an affected reciter of a grande aliquid quod pulmo animaepraelargus anhelet. Why the German editor Plum should attribute to this verb patranti, as here used by Persius, ‘sensus venereus,’ we do not see; nor indeed what authority Lunemann had for translating the verb in this passage by ‘throwing a fatherly or affectionate look upon a person’ (vaterliche oder liebevolle Blicke auf jemand werfen). But in truth Lunemann seems, throughout his article on patro, to have gone astray. His second head is: ‘by such (fatherly) look to obtain anything from a person; hence to carry through, fulfil, bring to pass’ (durch solche Blicke etwas von jemand erlangen; daher durchsetzen, vollbringen, zuStande bringen), ‘promissa Cic.,  pacem Liv. &c.’; and only at the end of the article does he arrive at the word as applied to the office of the pater patratus. Surely from such an inversion of the meanings he might have been diverted by the mere consideration that there is anything but a connection between a father’s coaxing eye as telling upon a child, and the solemn duties of a state ambassador; and after all, his sole authority for the ‘vaterliche Blicke’ is his mistranslation of Persius’s patranti ocello. It should be observed too, that he quietly carries over the notion of this ocello into the other passages where there is no trace of such an idea.”

3 Responses to “The office of “Pater patratus” in Roman religion”


  1. David Wilmshurst

    Typical of Livy to omit, on stylistic grounds, the long oath pronounced by the pater patratus, which he clearly had beneath his eyes when he was writing this passage. It would have been of great interest to modern scholars. I can’t remember how often, when reading Latin or Greek sources, I have groaned at such omissions. Incidentally, when were appendices and footnotes first invented?

  2. arcadium

    Fascinating stuff :)

  3. Inscriptions containing the title “Pater Patratus” at Roger Pearse

    [...] Thoughts on Antiquity, Patristics, putting things online, freedom of speech, information access, and more « The office of “Pater patratus” in Roman religion [...]



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