How did the Pope become Pontifex Maximus?

Essay, 2016
12 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Introduction: The Pontifex maximus

The Christian Church gains power

Unity of the Church

The Roman Church

Separation of Constantinople



Introduction: The Pontifex maximus

In the ancient Roman Republic there have been a number of different priestly colleges, one of which was the college of pontifices (pontiffs). It was the most prestigious, and its leader, the pontifex maximus, was the most powerful of all priests (Beard et al., 1998, p. 55). As a priest he had religious duties, but towards the end of the Roman Republic he also had growing political and religious authority. Pontifices maximi were responsible for the calendar and issues of time keeping, and were the experts of sacred law concerning, for example, rules for games, sacrifices and burial (Beard et al., 1998, p. 24).

When the Republic became the Roman Empire, it marked a change for the office of the Pontifex maximus. From 12 BC onwards, when Emperor Augustus took over the position, it was an imperial office. Now the state had religious authority and preeminent capacity to introduce religious reform (Beard et al., 1998, p. 191). For at least the next 300 years Roman emperors would use their designation as Pontifex maximus to justify their position as the head of Roman religion. The role of the Pontifex Maximus was now to act as an intermediary between the Empire and the gods, including a variety of functions: He was responsible for the fabric of religious cults, organized rituals and temples, and had the power to issue edicts (Beard et al., 1998, p. 253; Millar, 1977, p. 359). Since the Roman Republic, though, the main function of the office had always been to guard the ius divinum (sacred law) so that the peace of the gods (pax deorum) would keep the Empire prosperous and undefeated. The papacy therefore could only claim the title pontifex maximus once it would have authority over the sacred law, which was a long way to go. In this essay, I will give an account on how the Roman pope became the religious leader of the Western Empire, by historical forces and intelligent use institutions, language and imagery.

The Christian Church gains power

For the pope to become the religious leader of the Empire, Christianity had to rise above its status as a superstitio illicita during the first three centuries AD. The rise began with Emperor Constantine I, who converted to Christianity at the beginning of the fourth century. Not only did he issue the important Edict of Milan in 313, which gave toleration to Christianity, but he also started a period of privileges and money being “showered” on the Church (Jones, 1986, p. 89). While paganism was declining until it finally was completely (publicly and privately) forbidden by Theodosius in 391, Christianity rose rapidly and steadily (Jones, 1986, p. 165), and so did the clergy’s power: First, it obtained privileges like immunity to curial charges and later was exempted from city obligations and all supplementary taxes in 346 (Jones, 1986, p. 118; Millar, 1977, p. 581). Second, Churches were continuously being built throughout the Empire. Third, and very importantly for their rise in power, the Christian Church experienced an exceptional increase in wealth between the fourth and the sixth century. Beginning with Constantine, all their confiscated property was restored to them (Millar, 1977, p. 589) and many new wealthy members brought a stream of gifts and later endowments (Jones, 1986, p. 894). Instead of destroying old pagan temples, often their gold was simply stripped off of cult statues (Jones, 1986, p. 92), suggesting that revenue was at least as important to the Church as the consolidation of the Christian faith. In the fourth and fifth century the Church further increased its wealth through new institutions, like laws of inheritances, that obliged bequests to the Church and the tithe (Jones, 1986).

All this was possible because after Constantine there had not been a non-Christian emperor apart from Julian, who only reigned for three years in the 360s. Consequently, the number of Christians increased continually, not least because it was economically beneficial. In particular, poor people were attracted by the Church’s charity system (Jones, 1986, p. 688). Finally, groups who were not part of the Roman Empire increasingly converted to Christianity, including Goths, Franks and Lombards. By the fifth century the Christian Church had become a large, wealthy and powerful religion, which dominated the Roman Empire.

Unity of the Church

A pope could only become the religious ruler if the Church was united. Although most protagonists agreed that uniformity in doctrine was a prime condition of God’s favor (Jones, 1986, p. 934), its achievement proved to be difficult for a long time. The first attempt of unity was the council of Nicaea in 325. Never before had a council of the Church been attended by so many (300) bishops and the Emperor himself. The Trinitarian faith was decided upon for all, stressed by the Nicene Creed with the famous expression for Jesus consubstantialem patri (one in being with the father). Universal holidays like Sunday and Easter were established for all Christians, while certain sects, above all the Arians, were condemned (Millar, 1977, p. 596). The councils generally were important institutions for unification and all bishops were encouraged to hold them twice a year in their dioceses (Jones, 1986, p. 880). The successors of Constantine, however, continued to struggle with opposing doctrines. The constitution of the Church was not at all coherent, and local differences posed large problems. In the mid-fourth century Eastern Empire, for example, Arianism was still dominating (Jones, 1986, p. 164). The largest problem perhaps lay in Africa, where the Donatists remained in power long (Jones, 1986, p. 209).

The Church continuously tried to improve its organization and increase hierarchies. In the fourth and fifth century, bishoprics were grouped to provinces, which were again grouped to larger units of Church government (Jones, 1986, p. 874). The largest units, sees, could be under the control of a pope, e.g. in Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, or after 381 Constantinople. Not everyone followed this, however. Still in the fifth century the bishop of Carthage, e.g., had no control over the surrounding provinces (Jones, 1986, p. 893).

The Roman Church

Despite the successes of the Church during the fourth century, the Roman Church was still only one of the Christian Churches besides others, and the Roman pope was not the only one. Still, the Roman Church had always played a special role. It had always been well-organized (Ullmann, 2003, p. 1) and the Roman diocese was already exceptionally large in the third century, covering the majority of Italy (Jones, 1986, p. 884). The number of priests under the Roman bishop had increased constantly up to 25 towards the end of the third century (Loomis, "Liber Pontificalis"). It was also disproportionately wealthy, as Constantine had given a large amount of gifts and endowments especially to the Roman Church. The “Liber Pontificalis”, a collection of papal biographies written in the sixth century, dedicates its longest section to Pope Sylvester (in office 314-335), mainly listing the offerings received by him (Loomis, 1916). Wealth helped to attract more people to the Roman Church, thereby increasing its influence (Jones, 1986, p. 908). This set the Roman bishop off with a strong start position when Christianity began to rise.

In the fourth century, the authority of the Roman pope increased due to hierarchies determined by the Council of Nicaea. From Pope Sylvester onwards the “Liber Pontificalis” attributes the sentence “He made a regulation for the whole Church” to the majority of his successors in the following centuries (Loomis, 1916), demonstrating the pope’s growing influence.[1] By contrary, in the collection the common theme among Roman bishops before the fourth century was martyrdom (Loomis, 1916). The role of the pope had shifted from a religious hero on a small scale to a high-ranking person with far-reaching power.


[1] E.g., the “Liber Pontificalis” says about Pope Siricius (in office 384-399): “He made a regulation for the whole Church and against all the heresies and sent it throughout the entire world” (Loomis, 1916).

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How did the Pope become Pontifex Maximus?
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Leon Freytag von Loringhoven (Author), 2016, How did the Pope become Pontifex Maximus?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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