Being Pontifex Maximus is not always fun and games. Indeed, one Pontifex Maximus was actually assassinated.
More on that assassinated person later, but first . . .
The tile Pontifex literally translates as bridge builder. At one point in time, the men holding that title were literal bridge builders. That is because they were responsible for repairing the Pons Sublicius, Rome’s first bridge across the Tiber River.
“By the first century BC the [Pons Sublicius] bridge was considered sacred; all repairs were overseen by the college of pontifices …”1
From New World Encyclopedia:
“According to the usual interpretation, the term pontifex literally means “bridge-builder” (pons + facere); “maximus” literally 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.”
Being that the Pons Sublicius was made entirely out of wood, the Pontifex Maximus probably encountered a splinter occasionally.
Anyway, the primary job of the Pontifex Maximus was “to provide the pax deorum, or the ‘peace with the gods'”.2
The Pontifex Maximus “was also responsible for the eighteen priestesses of the goddess Vesta. This may have been his most important duty, and it comes as no surprise that the residence of the pontifex maximus, the domus publica, was next to the monastery of these women.”3
These priestesses were the Vestal Virgins, “the priestesses of the Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta, in the state religion of ancient Rome.”4
“The Vestal Virgins originate from around 700 B.C. The King of Rome was informed that his kingdom would be protected by the Goddess Vesta, the virgin goddess of hearth, home, and family. But only if the magical fire was lit, never to go out, to honour her. The task of keeping this fire alight was left to a college of virgin women, later known as the Vestal Virgins. Subsequently, the House of Vestal, including the Temple of Vesta, was built, giving these women a dwelling to proceed with the cult’s happenings.”5
These women were supposed to remain virgins during their 30-year period of service. However, one can imagine that there would have been one less virgin if Dan Aykroyd had been the Pontifex Maximus.
The Pontifex Maximus had an additional job that still influences the lives of people all over the world. That job was to regulate the calendar.
One Pontifex Maximus used his authority to straighten out the huge mess that the calendar of his day had become. He established the length of the Roman calendar as 365 days — with the first day of the year being January 1st — and established a leap day to occur every 4 years. One month was renamed in his honor — the month of July.
This particular Pontifex Maximus was assassinated 15 March 44 BCE. His adopted son (born his great-nephew) eventually became Pontifex Maximus. He, too, had a month renamed in his honor — the month of August.
Eventually, the Roman government stopped having an official bearing the title Pontifex Maximus. The Vestal virgins also ceased to exist. Perhaps they encountered Dan Aykroyd’s ancestors.
As for the Romans who literally built bridges, they turned to using concrete as a building material. Thus, they were much less likely to say, “Rats! I got a splinter.”
1Hoggarth, C. (2019). Bridging the Tiber: Movement, Space and Experience. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent.
2Pontifex Maximus. United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV).
3Pontifex Maximus. Livius.org.
4Mark, J. (2009). Vestal Virgin. World History Encyclopedia.
5House of the Vestals, Italy. Rome Tours by Sightseeing Tours Italy.
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