Pontifex Maximus

Pontifex Maximus Before the time of Constantine the clergy were not recognized as holding any distinct rank in the state; but when Christianity was adopted as the religion of the Roman empire, its ministers were considered as occupying the place of those heathen priests whose superstitions had fallen into disrepute. According to Zosimus, Constantine himself, in the year 325, assumed the title of Pontifex Maximus, which the heathen emperors before him had appropriated, because it contributed to exalt at once the imperial and episcopal dignity, and served to justify the interference of the emperor in ecclesiastical councils and in the nomination of bishops. Constantine's successors followed his example until the days of Gratian, who was the last emperor to whom the title was applied. Some scholars doubt Zosimus's assertion, notwithstanding the fact that the medals of Constantine and his successors, down to Gratian, and the inscriptions relating to them, give them the title of Pontifex Maximus, on the ground that it may have been one of those traditional titles which the power of habit preserved, without any meaning being connected with them. As to the use of the sacerdotal garment, Zosimus may not be quite trustworthy in that respect. But even if the emperors had accepted the pontifical robes, brought to them by the pagan priests at their accession to the throne, it does not follow that they actually wore them, or even officiated as "Pontifices Maximi." It has been supposed by some authors that the first Christian emperors adopted this pagan title only as a means of proclaiming themselves the guardians and protectors of the Christian religion. At an early period of his reign Constantine issued edicts in favor of the Christian clergy, by which they were put on a footing, with respect to civil rights, with the heathen priests: these edicts were soon followed by others which gave to the clergy some special and peculiar privileges. See Bingham, Origines Eccles. (Index in vol. 2); Riddle, Christian Antiquities, p. 337; Elliott, Romanism, p. 620; Alzog, Kirchengesch. 1, 244, 251.

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