Roman religion was intertwined with the civil and military life of the Romans from the earliest age. The head of state in the earliest days of Rome was the king. Seven (more or less) legendary kings are believed to have ruled Rome. Some of them reportedly had a profound impact on the religious life of Rome. We might mention Romulus, the mythical founder of the city who naturally had the first temples built and established the basics, and of course, Numa Pompilius who is credited with creating the most important priestly colleges (pontiffs, flamines, Vestal virgins…). The kings were undisputedly essential figures in the old religious system.
The Romans, however, were not content with a monarchy and when the last king Tarquinius Superbus didn’t behave up to their expectations (of course, the rape of Lucretia by the king’s son certainly didn’t help either), they run out of patience, kindly threw Tarquinius out of their city and abolished monarchy completely. Instead, Rome became a Republic, ruled by elected officials.
This political change created a problem in religious life. The religious traditions and rites cannot be easily changed, especially if one doesn’t want to risk the wrath of gods. If a king is supposed to perform a certain rite, some elected official cannot just replace him and pretend that nothing happened. The need to have a king in the religious life and the need not to have one in the civil life created a seemingly unsolvable situation.
Fortunately for the Romans, they came up with an ingenious solution – a king, who would only be king for religious purposes and lack any real political power. This guy was called “rex sacrorum”, king of rites. (The word “rex” means “king”). Therefore, if a rite should be performed by the “king”, having it performed by the “king of rites” was obviously totally fine.
Problem solved, one would think, but it was not that easy. If you exile one king and destroy his title, but create a new one with almost the same title, how do you ensure that he won’t go on creating the same problems? He could easily usurp political and military power and the whore revolution thing would become useless. How to ensure that this new “king” would stay away from politics? The Romans bounded him with limitations that made his influence on politics basically non-existent. Most importantly, rex sacrorum was explicitly prohibited from holding any political office. He was not even a member of the senate, like other priests. While e.g. the title of pontifex maximus was held by Gaius Julius Caesar, alongside his other magistracies, if a man became rex sacrorum, he could not be anything else.
Rex sacrorum was also a member of a priestly college of the pontiffs. Maybe from the very beginning, but definitely by the late Republic era, he was subordinate to pontifex maximus and his powers we nowhere near the powers of the highest pontiff. So, while the king of the old days was the head of state, the new rex sacrorum was not even the real head of the religion.
What were his duties? Rex sacrorum performed a sacrifice at the beginning of each month and announced the dates of the festivals during that month. The most interesting day in his calendar must have been February 24th, the so-called “regifugium”. On this day rex sacrorum performed a sacrifice and then fled. This was seen as a reminder of the escape of the last king, but this connection is far from certain.
Some duties of the kings were not transferred to rex sacrorum (taking auspices, dedicating temples…). Historians argue, how many. One theory presumes that rex sacrorum was originally indeed the most important priest in the city but gradually lost power in favour of other priests, mainly the pontifex maximus. Others agree with Roman historians (writing in the late Republic or early Empire period) that the rex sacrorum was from the beginning in the shadow of the highest pontiff.
As small complication to the theory of subordination to pontifex maximus comes from Festus. He ranks a king higher in his description of the ranking of the Roman priests (“ordo sacerdotum”). While the king is in the first place, pontifex maximus is on the fifth (there are the three flamines inbetween). Festus, however, does not specify that he is writing about rex sacrorum specifically, and it is, therefore, possible that the list refers to the era of monarchy and religious leader here is the all-powerful ruler himself. If this was not the case, and rex sacrorum was initially a more powerful priesthood, historians assume a “pontifical revolution” – a process where pontifex maximus usurped power from rex. This “revolution” represented itself in the fact the pontifex maximus was in charge of the calendar (the area where rex sacrorum seems to be involved most intensively) and that he replaced the rex in the Regia, building, where the kings and later rex sacrorum very likely resided.
Yet another theory is proposed by Cornell – he argues that priesthood of rex sacrorum could have been in fact created before the Republic. This would be a result of a smaller and earlier revolution when the original king is overthrown by a new leader who uses a different title (this could be Servius Tullius using the title “magister populi” that would later be remembered as “Mastarna”). The overthrown king was then not killed or exiled but transferred into the role of rex sacrorum and stripped of political power.
Regardless of the correctness of these theories, by the 1st century BCE, rex sacrorum was a minor figure with no real power. The automatic disqualification from political life caused a lack of interest and the position was often unfilled. It was Augustus and his focus on restoring the traditions that brought it back to life where it remained until the spread of Christianity.
- Livy – Ab Urbe Condita
- Mary Beard, John North, Simon Price – Religions of Rome
- T. J. Cornell – The Beginnings of Rome
- Bořek Neškudla – Encyklopedie bohů a mýtů starověkého Říma a Apeninského poloostrova