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The Pope as Pontifex Maximus: Tracing a Title from Numa Pompilius to James I

The Pope as Pontifex Maximus: Tracing a Title from Numa Pompilius to James I

Lecture by Dr Oren Margolis and Dr Graham Barrett

Trevi _Fountain ,_Rome ,_Italy _2_-_May _2007


Any visitor to Rome knows that the pope is the pontifex maximus: St Peter’s Basilica, the Trevi fountain, and other monuments tell the visitor so, in inscriptions impossible to miss.  This should be more surprising than it is: pontifex maximus is an ancient pagan title for the chief of the college of priests, and was once held by pagan Roman emperors; no less than King James I mockingly claimed that he could not find it in his Bible. When did it become associated with the Christian bishop of Rome, and why? Thomas Hobbes was not alone in claiming that Constantine, on converting to Christianity, had handed over the title to the pope, putting him in charge of the new state religion. But more recently scholars have suggested that epigraphic studies, then the revival of Classical epigraphy in Rome around the year 1450, provided the impetus for the title's adoption, amidst the rebuilding of the city by Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) and the development of an imperial ideology for the papacy.

This lecture tells a very different story. It explores the term's surprising uses throughout the Middle Ages, in contexts quite far removed from papal titulature. It then reveals its invention as a papal title in the hands of early Renaissance humanists - not in response (at first) to the revival of ancient epigraphy, but as part of their Classicizing literary agenda. This lecture sheds light on what factors really drove the Renaissance revival of antiquity; on the development of the ‘imperial papacy’ of the High Renaissance; on the ways in which Romans and visitors to Rome in the post-Classical world engaged with their ancient monumental surroundings; and on the growing role of history as a source of authority. The consequences of this change in the status of history, and of the placing of the papacy within the long arc of Roman history, became all the more important in the confessional conflicts of the sixteenth century and beyond. The inscriptions which began to proliferate around Rome under the influence of the polymath Leon Battista Alberti bear witness to these transformations, which shaped both the papacy and the city of Rome itself, and continue to do so today.

This lecture emerges from research done with the help of a William Lambarde grant (2017) from the Society of Antiquaries. It will be accessible to a general audience of people interested in antiquities, epigraphy, and the history of antiquarianism; the revival of antiquity; Renaissance art and architecture; and the history of Rome and of the Catholic Church.


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