Contemporaneously began the -cultus- of the new single city-hearth--Vesta--and the kindred -cultus- of the Penates of the community.(7) Six chaste virgins, daughters as it were of the household of the Roman people, attended to that pious service, and had to maintain the wholesome fire of the common hearth always blazing as an example(8) and an omen to the burgesses. This worship, half-domestic, half-public, was the most sacred of all in Rome, and it accordingly was the latest of all the heathen worships there to give way before the ban of Christianity. The Aventine, moreover, was assigned to Diana as the representative of the Latin confederacy,(9) but for that very reason no special Roman priesthood was appointed for her; and the community gradually became accustomed to render definite homage to numerous other deified abstractions by means of general festivals or by representative priesthoods specially destined for their service; in particular instances--such as those of the goddess of flowers (-Flora-) and of fruits (-Pomona-)--it appointed also special -flamines-, so that the number of these was at length fifteen. But among them they carefully distinguished those three "great kindlers" (-flamines maiores-), who down to the latest times could only be taken from the ranks of the old burgesses, just as the old incorporations of the Palatine and Quirinal -Salii- always asserted precedence over all the other colleges of priests. Thus the necessary and stated observances due to the gods of the community were entrusted once for all by the state to fixed colleges or regular ministers; and the expense of sacrifices, which was presumably not inconsiderable, was covered partly by the assignation of certain lands to particular temples, partly by the fines.(10)

It cannot be doubted that the public worship of the other Latin, and presumably also of the Sabellian, communities was essentially similar in character. At any rate it can be shown that the Flamines, Salii, Luperci, and Vestales were institutions not special to Rome, but general among the Latins, and at least the first three colleges appear to have been formed in the kindred communities independently of the Roman model.

Lastly, as the state made arrangements for the cycle of its gods, so each burgess might make similar arrangements within his individual sphere, and might not only present sacrifices, but might also consecrate set places and ministers, to his own divinities.

Colleges Of Sacred Lore

There was thus enough of priesthood and of priests in Rome. Those, however, who had business with a god resorted to the god, and not to the priest. Every suppliant and inquirer addressed himself directly to the divinity--the community of course by the king as its mouthpiece, just as the -curia- by the -curio- and the -equites-by their colonels; no intervention of a priest was allowed to conceal or to obscure this original and simple relation. But it was no easy matter to hold converse with a god. The god had his own way of speaking, which was intelligible only to the man acquainted with it; but one who did rightly understand it knew not only how to ascertain, but also how to manage, the will of the god, and even in case of need to overreach or to constrain him. It was natural, therefore, that the worshipper of the god should regularly consult such men of skill and listen to their advice; and thence arose the corporations or colleges of men specially skilled in religious lore, a thoroughly national Italian institution, which had a far more important influence on political development than the individual priests and priesthoods. These colleges have been often, but erroneously, confounded with the priesthoods. The priesthoods were charged with the worship of a specific divinity; the skilled colleges, on the other hand, were charged with the preservation of traditional rules regarding those more general religious observances, the proper fulfilment of which implied a certain amount of knowledge and rendered it necessary that the state in its own interest should provide for the faithful transmission of that knowledge. These close corporations supplying their own vacancies, of course from the ranks of the burgesses, became in this way the depositaries of skilled arts and sciences.


Under the Roman constitution and that of the Latin communities in general there were originally but two such colleges; that of the augurs and that of the Pontifices.(11)

The six "bird-carriers" (-augures-) were skilled in interpreting the language of the gods from the flight of birds; an art which was prosecuted with great earnestness and reduced to a quasi-scientific system. The six "bridge-builders" (-Pontifices-) derived their name from their function, as sacred as it was politically important, of conducting the building and demolition of the bridge over the Tiber. They were the Roman engineers, who understood the mystery of measures and numbers; whence there devolved upon them also the duty of managing the calendar of the state, of proclaiming to the people the time of new and full moon and the days of festivals, and of seeing that every religious and every judicial act took place on the right day. As they had thus an especial supervision of all religious observances, it was to them in case of need--on occasion of marriage, testament, and -adrogatio- --that the preliminary question was addressed, whether the business proposed did not in any respect offend against divine law; and it was they who fixed and promulgated the general exoteric precepts of ritual, which were known under the name of the "royal laws." Thus they acquired (although not probably to the full extent till after the abolition of the monarchy) the general oversight of Roman worship and of whatever was connected with it--and what was there that was not so connected? They themselves described the sum of their knowledge as "the science of things divine and human." In fact the rudiments of spiritual and temporal jurisprudence as well as of historical recording proceeded from this college.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

All Pages of This Book