When did the Pope start to use the ancient pagan title of “Pontifex Maximus”?

It is often stated online that the ancient title for the Roman high priest, “Pontifex Maximus”, was adopted by the Pope in the 4-5th centuries, as paganism disappeared.  The exact details are often vague, which should always raise suspicion.

In fact this does not seem to be true, and the title is only applied to the popes in the 15th century and later.  There has been quite a few articles in the literature on the subject.  It seems worth summarising the argument here.

The Greek word “ἀρχιερεύς” (arch-hiereus, chief priest) is used in the LXX, in Josephus, the Gospels and Acts, in many places for the chief priests or the high priest of the Jews, as this resource makes clear.   In Hebrews 2:17, Christ himself is called “our great high-priest”, using the same word.

But the word is also used in Greek inscriptions in the east of the Roman empire for priests of the imperial cult.   In fact in Rome itself, writing in Greek, Plutarch uses it to mean “pontifex” in the “Life of Numa”, chapter 9, explaining the origins of the office (online here):

Νομᾷ δὲ καὶ τὴν τῶν ἀρχιερέωνοὓς Ποντίφικας καλοῦσι

To Numa is also ascribed the institution of that order of high priests who are called Pontifices,

“Pontifex” also used in the Latin version of 1 Clement 40:5, 41:2, 43:4, where Christ is called “Pontifex”.  So we find early Christian Latin texts using the word “pontifex” to mean “bishop” – the Christian equivalent of “chief priest” – with no pagan meaning.  Kajanto’s excellent article (online here) gives many examples of the early Christian Latin use of “pontifex”, and he shows that it simply means “bishop”, citing the earliest use in the Collectio Avellana, letter 1, dating from ca. 370.  It is then widely used in Christian Latin with this meaning, although “episcopus” is always preferred.[1].

So it is normal Latin, with no difference for pagan, Jewish, or Christian use, to use the Latin word “pontifex” to translate “chief priest” in the bible.  “Pontifex” has no pagan meaning, and simply means “priest” or “chief priest”, from which “bishop”.

The phrase “Pontifex Maximus” is another matter.  It does not appear in any of these sources.  There is indeed a corresponding Greek phrase for “pontifex maximus”.  It is ἀρχιερεύς μέγιστος (arch-hiereus megistos), which is used in at least one inscription to mean Pontifex Maximus, in Sylloge inscriptionum Graecarum 832. (See LSJ, via Logeion, here).

There are only three usages of Pontifex Maximus in antiquity to refer to anyone but a pagan.

  1. Tertullian in De Pudicitia 215 uses the term to deride a bishop who had announced that adultery could be forgiven by filling in a form at the diocesan office.
  2. Prosper Tiro in a 5th century text uses the term for the Jewish High Priest, “Hebraeorum pontifex maximus”.
  3. Isidore of Seville refers to the pope thus in Etymologies12:13, but it is probably a slip for pontifex summus.
  4. It’s not much.  Here is what Isidore says:

13.  Pontifex princeps sacerdotum est, quasi via sequentium. Ipse et summus sacerdos, ipse pontifex maximus nuncupatur. Ipse enim efficit sacerdotes atque levitas: ipse omnes ordines ecclesiasticos disponit: ipse quod unusquisque facere debeat ostendit.

The ‘pontifex’ is the chief of priests, as if the word were ‘the way’ of his followers. And he is also named the ‘highest priest’ and the pontifex maximus, for he creates priests and levites (i.e. deacons); he himself disposes all the ecclesiastical orders; he indicates what each one should do.”

As Kajanto has observed, it is clear that the Christians actively avoided using “pontifex maximus”, preferring to use “summus pontifex” instead.

Inevitably there are many websites that have other ideas, and a range of popes are mentioned.  One site here states confidently that Pope Siricius did so, giving sources and referencing the Catholic Encyclopedia.  But if you check, online here, you find that the CE and the sources refer to the title of “papa”, not “pontifex maximus”.

There are many pieces of older academic literature which say that the title “pontifex maximus” came into use during the papacy of Pope Leo I (440-461). This includes the 2nd edition of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, under “Pontifex Maximus” – but not the 3rd edition where the bibliography includes Kajanto’s article.  I learn from Dijkstra and van Espelo, “Anchoring Pontifical Authority”, that a series of modern articles have rejected this view.[2]

It seems that it is Boniface IX, who reigned from 1389-1404, who was the first pope on whose monuments the title appears.  According to Dijkstra and van Espelo, and R. Schieffer, “Der Papst als Pontifex Maximus”[3] p.307, the evidence for this is a contemporary marble statue in the cloister of St Paul without the Walls in Rome, which shows the pope seated with an open book in his hands bearing the inscription “D. O. M. BONIFATIVS IX P. MAX. STIRPE THOMACELLVS GENERE CIBO”.

Here in fact is the statue of Boniface IX, ca. 1400.  Note that the pedestal text may not be contemporary.

Boniface IX, at S. Paolo fuori le mura. Via Wikimedia here.

The title is next attested under Martin V (1417-31) in a dedication inscription from the church of S. Lorenzo in Miranda in the forum.  There are some possible inscriptions from Eugenius IV (1431-47), and certainly more from Nicholas V (1447-1455).  Schieffer warns, however, that appearances of “P.M.” in the inscriptions on the tombs of popes before 1450 are probably later additions.  It is under Paul II (1464-71) that it becomes a standard part of “papal vocabulary”, according to Dijkstra and van Espelo.

There are uncertainties here.  Inscriptions can be amended.  Some of these items may have had “P.MAX” added later.  So it is not certain when the title was first used.  What does seem to be certain is that using “Pontifex Maximus” for the pope is an innovation of the 15th century.  The inscriptions in which it appears use classical language, and are certainly influenced by the renaissance and a return to classical usages.

I was unable to find any serious discussion of literary and documentary evidence.  In 1981 Kajanto stated that the term “pontifex maximus” for the Pope first appeared in literary texts only after 1500.  He frankly confessed that this was based on “the inadequate resources for neo-Latin”.  Schieffer stated that it remained rare until after 1500, and even then, while it was applied to popes, it was not a title that the Popes used of themselves, in bulls and letters issued by the papal chancellery.  Possibly the conservatism of that department, and the literary forms used, is responsible for this.

In conclusion, there is no evidence whatever of the pope assuming the title formally in antiquity.

  1. [1]I. Kajanto, “Pontifex Maximus as the title of the pope”, Arctos 15 (1981), 37-52;  p.39. Online here.
  2. [2]E.g. R. Dijkstra and D. van Espelo, “Anchoring Pontifical Authority: A Reconsideration of the Papal Employment of the Title Pontifex Maximus”, Journal of Religious History 41 (2017), 312-325. Online at: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9809.12400.
  3. [3]R. Schieffer, “Der Papst als Pontifex Maximus”, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte 57 (1971): 300–309.  This reference via Dijkstra / van Espelo, p.320.

When did Roman emperors cease to use the title of “Pontifex Maximus”?

In 376 AD the 17 year old emperor Gratian left his base in Gaul and – probably – made a visit to Rome.  This was ten years after his father, Valentinian I, proclaimed Gratian as co-Augustus on 24 August, and a year after the unexpected death of Valentinian.  It is possible that the visit was to celebrate his decennalia, although no source records this.  In the same year the first Christian, Gracchus, was appointed to the office of prefect of Rome.

While he was there – probably -, a curious scene allegedly took place:

The Romans … called those who held their highest rank of priesthood pontifices, and legislated that kings should be numbered among them because of their important rank. (3) All the kings after Numa Pompilius (who was the first to do so) and all the Roman emperors from Octavian have held this office; as soon as each assumed supreme power, the priestly robes were brought to him by the pontifices and he was styled pontifex maximus (chief priest). (4) All the earlier emperors seem to have been very pleased to accept the honour and to use this title, even Constantine (who, when he came to the throne, was perverted religiously and embraced the Christian faith) and all his successors, including Valentinian and Valens. (5) When, however, the pontifices as usual brought the robes to Gratian, he rejected their offer, considering it impious for a Christian to wear such a thing. When the robe was given back to the priests, their leader is reputed to have said: ‘If the emperor does not want to be called pontifex, there will soon be a pontifex, Maximus’.

The quotation just given is from Zosimus, New History IV, c.36.  The translation is by Ronald T. Ridley from 1982 (although in the last sentence I have changed “pontifex maximus” to “pontifex,  Maximus” – Gratian was overthrown by the pagan usurper, Magnus Maximus). It is the only source for this event.

The passage has raised suspicions.  Zosimus writes in the 6th century, almost 200 years later.  Unfortunately his work is unreliable, even though he has excellent sources.  But he felt able to reshape events, to alter them in order to fit his narrative.  What he believes is that Rome fell because it abandoned paganism, and the facts are secondary.  So we can’t quite be sure that he is giving a real historical event.

Likewise Zosimus does not say that this event took place at Rome.  It seems likely that it did, because the priesthood of Rome was ancient and focused on Rome when it was just a city state.  It would be strange for the Roman priesthood to stage this presentation away from Rome itself.

The sparse accounts of the time rather suggest that Gratian, who was very young, remained in Gaul for the first two years of his reign.  This again tends to throw doubt upon the narrative.

However there is, actually, a not-very-good source which does state that Gratian visited Rome.  The source is not early, but one of those odd Byzantine texts which mash together very brief (but tantalising!) bits of information from all sorts of sources.  It is known as the παραστασεις συντομοι χρονικαι, or Parastaseis syntomoi Chronikai; or in Latin as the Breves ennarrationes chronicae.  This was apparently put together in Constantinople in the 8th century.

The text of this Parastaseis may be found in the old Bonn Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae series in 1843 by B. G. Niebuhr, in the volume “Georgius Codinus” – the volume number is not printed in the book and online sources seem confused -, pp.166-193.  It is online here, on p.178.  The Latin translation given beneath the Greek text is a renaissance version by F. Combefis.  The work was edited again by T. Preger in the Scriptores originum Constantinopolitarum, vol. 1 (1901), p.19-73 (online here).  He added chapter divisions, which makes this chapter 50.

Here’s the CSHB page 178:

As we see, the statement made is very brief.  It forms part of a discussion of imperial statues:

Gratian, after he married, came to Rome and set up silver stelae to himself and his wife as a new spectacle at Rome.

Well, this seems quite clear, on the face of it.  Indeed it is discussed by the excellent T. D. Barnes, who assigns Gratian’s visit to the year 376.[1] But others have raised difficulties.  Some suggest that the visit in the Parastaseis is just speculation by the author to account for the erection of the silver stelae,[2] and some suggest that the account of Zosimus itself is fiction, and indeed such no priestly robe ever really existed, even if John the Lydian also refers to it.[3]  These objections, however carefully argued, do seem to rely more on speculation, than on any particular piece of data.

By the time of Gratian, Christianity had been legal for more than half a century.  Julian the Apostate failed when he attempted to restore paganism.  Nobody really remembered how to do the sacrifices properly, indeed, as Julian himself complains; and he was even jeered by the people.  Paganism was a husk by the time of Gratian.  Later his government initiated strong measures against it.  It was in his time that the altar of Victory was removed from the senate-house, a highly symbolic gesture which must have shocked many.

But it seems that earlier Christian emperors had retained the title.  We have definite evidence is that Constantine, Valentinian, Valens and Gratian all held the office of Pontifex Maximus.  For Constantine we have coins (I am told, but have been unable to verify: RIC 7.185, 352), and there is an inscription for the last three (ILS 771 – here), commemorating the erection of a bridge in Rome in 369 AD.  The inscription is on the bridge, today known as that of St Bartholomew, connecting the Tiber island with the right bank of the Tiber.  (At this time Gratian is just a child.)

Domini nostri imperatores Caesares Fl. Valentinianus pius felix maximus victor ac triumphator semper Augustus, pontifex maximus, Germanicus maximus, Alamannicus maximus, Francicus maximus, Gothicus maximus, tribuniciae potestatis VII, imperator VI, consul II, pater patriae, proconsul; et Fl. Valens pius felix maximus victor ac triumphator semper Augustus, pontifex maximus, Germanicus maximus, Alamannicus maximus, Francicus maximus, Gothicus maximus, tribuniciae potestatis VII, imperator VI, consul II, pater patriae, proconsul; et Fl. Gratianus pius felix maximus victor ac triumphator semper Augustus, pontifex maximus, Germanicus maximus, Alamannicus maximus, Francicus maximus, Gothicus maximus, tribuniciae potestatis III, imperator II, consul primum, pater patriae, proconsul; pontem felicis nominis Gratiani in usum senatus ac populi Romani constitui dedicarique iusserunt.

But this is the last such inscription.  There is no inscription with the title of “Pontifex Maximus” for any emperor later than Gratian.

In part this may be because, simply, we have many fewer inscriptions from the troubled years ahead of the Roman collapse.  But we can only make statements based on the data we have, for any period of history.  That data tells us that a change takes place in the reign of Gratian.  The title “Pontifex Maximus” is abandoned.  This is consistent with the measures that Gratian takes later in his reign, explicitly enacting strong anti-pagan measures, and paving the way for a complete ban under his successor, Theodosius I.

Happier days – an inscription of Claudius, Pont. Max., in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (A.N. Chandler.3.15), details here.

From 376 AD, then, we can say that the title of “Pontifex Maximus” is undocumented.   Gratian’s successors used other forms of address, such as “pontifex inclitus”.  In fact the title of “Pontifex Maximus” remained unused until, after 1500, in a fit of enthusiasm for the classical era, the Popes began to use it.

Postscript: I find that there are in fact a number of inscriptions in which Constantine is described as “Pontifex Maximus”, such as this one:

EDR073236, CIL 06, 40776 (1): Found at Rome, Forum of Trajan. Constantine and his sons. Via here.
  1. [1]T. D. Barnes, “Constans and Gratian in Rome”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 79 (1975), pp. 325-333.  p.328.  JSTOR.
  2. [2]e.g. Neil B. McLynn, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital, 2014, p.88, n.37 (here)
  3. [3]E.g. Alan Cameron article, “Pontifex Maximus: from Augustus to Gratian – and Beyond”, in   Emperors and the Divine: Rome and its Influence, ed. Maijastina Kahlos. Helsinki 2016. 139–159.  Online here.