In defense of women pontifices (Nova Roma)

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The argument below presented by Gaius Iulius Scaurus seems to be a narrow analysis of the current dilemma within the sacra publica of Nova Roma, and it is my hope that by illustrating his narrow view, as well as close analysis of ancient Roman religious tradition in light of our modern usage, the concept of women pontifices can be again embraced by Nova Roma. The argument, by Gaius Iulius Scaurus, seems to be a two-fold argument; the religious practices of Roma antiqua being incompatible with modern sentiments of gender equality, and the current practices of gender equality within Nova Roma itself. I hope to address both of these concerns and show that women pontifices are a potential reality again within Nova Roma and one that would not be impietas prudens dolo malo.

Argument against women pontifices as presented by Gaius Iulius Scaurus

I have made a comprehensive survey of the primary and secondary literature on the question and am convinced that the adlection of female pontifices will violate fundamental gender taboos of the Religio and constitute an inexpiable impietas prudens dolo malo. Women are absolutely forbidden to attend any caerimoniae to Hercules and the first caerimonia of the Neptunalia. The attendance of women at any of these caerimoniae constitutes vitium and requires reperformance of the caerimonia. Furthermore, at the caerimoniae of the mundus patet the only women permitted to attend are the virgines Vestales. However, the attendance of the pontifices in the caerimoniae of Hercules, the Neptunalia, and the mundus patet is mandatory. The adlection of female pontifices would create a religious obligation to commit an impietas prudens dolo malo, which is a patent absurdity.

I see no way to rationalize abandonment of this taboo on the grounds of the hypothesized sexism of Roman society. We simply do not know why the gender taboo existed any more than we know why there were no male Vestals, and anyone who claims the ability to distinguish between essential religious taboos and artifacts of sexual discrimination is engaged in willful self-deception. We know that the Romans assiduously respected these taboos and that these taboos were not generally extended across the entire cultus, which militates for prudently treating them as intrinsically important to the Religio and connected to specific aspects of the cultus. At base our choice is either to ignore the overwhelming evidence that these gender taboos were rigorously respected in antiquity and are likely, therefore, to be directly connected to the preferences of the Di Immortales; or to impose an interpretation grounded solely in a modern social-political agenda which rejects the evidence and practice of antiquity. Following the latter strategy seems to me to place us entirely outside the enterprise of reconstruction and into the enterprise of creating a new religion out of whole cloth. The suggestion that female pontifices simply absent themselves from caerimoniae at which the attendance of women is prohibited ignores the fact that pontifical attendance at these caerimoniae was mandatory except in case of good cause, i.e., absence from the city or illness. Claiming that intentional circumvention of a religious taboo and a cultic obligation for reasons of modern personal preference is a good cause for such a practice strikes me as rank, impious hypocrisy.

Frankly, earlier adlection of female pontifices in Nova Roma is so grave a departure from the cultic practice of antiquity that our only hope to undo the offence it represents is to simply throw ourselves on the mercy of the Gods and plead abject ignorance for the affront. If we knowingly go down this path again, we shall be making genuine reconstruction of the Religio impossible. Why don't we just create male sacerdotes of Bona Dea while we're at it?

Opening response to Gaius Iulius Scaurus, and the case for gender equality

In his argument against women pontifices, Scaurus makes the claim that women were prohibited from participating in some specific cults, and that these practices required the pontifices to participate. However, he makes the claim that pontifices could excuse themselves from participation for good cause. What better cause then gender equality? What we know of gender disparity shows that there were cult practices where women were the exclusive participants, yet if pontifices had jurisdiction over ceremonial matters then it serves that they would have influence over the rites of any state sponsored cultus.[1]

 This jurisdiction is evident in the ruling of the pontifices regarding Publius Clodius Pulcher and his unlawful attendance at the rites of Bona Dea, where the pontifices ruled that the rites had been polluted.[2]

 This jurisdiction seems to transcend gender since the pontifices had cause to monitor the orthopraxy of ritual practice, yet were denied access to the cult of Bona Dea themselves.  In the sacerdotal culture of Nova Roma the proximity of pontifices to the cultic practices of the sacerdotes is not always guaranteed.  Therefore, it seems only reasonable to assume that the mandated participation that Scaurus mentions is a practice from antiquity that will need modification in our modern global environment.  I have, for example, been a pontifex for a couple of years now and I have never been to a “mandatory” caerimonia to either Hercules or Neptune.  Furthermore, since the pontifices of antiquity had jurisdiction over aspects of a female-specific cult, logic would dictate that women pontifices within Nova Roma would have similar jurisdiction over male-only cults.  This jurisdiction, however, need not always include proximity to the actual ceremonial act, but deals with issues of orthopraxy.

On the status and role of women in Nova Roma

At issue as to whether women can or should be pontifices is the treatment of women in Nova Roma. Women are allowed, and encouraged, to participate in all aspects of civic life. That was not the case within Rome of antiquity, since women were typically under the patria potestas of their father, husband, or male relative.[3]

 The patria potestas of the pater familias lasted as long as the pater was alive; and even in cases when the pater familias died and those under his potestas became sui iuris (independent), the men under the potestas were completely free, but women were required to have a tutor or legal guardian.[4]

 This is one major difference between women in ancient Rome and women in Nova Roma: the idea of emancipation and independence.  In Nova Roma, via the lex Equitia familiaris, the ideal of gender equality is evident in subscribing potestas irrespective of gender, respecting the concept of both pater familias and mater familias along with allowing for male and female tutores in the case of minores.  This gender equality within Nova Roma is important because it represents a profound deviation of the mos maiorum in one sense, but also an evolution of that same mos maiorum reflecting a continuity between ancient and contemporary mores.  Our contemporary usage of gender equality within our own family law is the departure from ancient practice that radically changes the role of women.

In ancient Rome a woman could belong to one of three different categories: “Women who did not qualify as either matronae or virgins were effectively non-members of the Roman state and of its cult, banned, with a few specific exceptions, from participating (except perhaps as spectators along a parade route) in many of Rome’s most central religious rites.”[5]

 Furthermore, a matrona and a virgo can be defined as follows: “To be a matrona, a woman had to be the respectable wife or widow of a Roman citizen.  To be a virgo, a woman had to be the morally pure, respectable, sexually intact (as we define the English word virgin), marriageable daughter of a Roman citizen.”[6]

 In Nova Roma this classification of women does not apply, and as an example I’ll use a former Vestal to illustrate my point.  Lucia Modia Lupa was appointed a Vestal by a decretum of the Collegium Pontificium, dated ante diem XIII Kal. Februarias MMDCCLVIII a.u.c. (20 January 2005).  At the time of her appointment she was still under my patria potestas, but was emancipated by me a day later (21 January 2005).  Lucia Modia Lupa was neither a matrona or a virgo, being unmarried and having a daughter.  It would, in my opinion, be against the ancient Roman mos maiorum to have a women who was anything other than a virgo selected to become a Vestal; yet such an appointment did occur in Nova Roma because the requirement of being either a matrona or virgo is an antiquated practice that does not apply in the gender-egalitarian environment that prevails in Nova Roma. This departure from antiquity is a radical departure when compared to the mores of the past; however, they seem less radical when contrasted against the mores of our contemporary “macronational” culture and the established mores within Nova Roma itself.  In fact, the initial establishment of the Nova Roma Constitution of MMDCCLII states, “When determining applicability for citizenship, Nova Roma shall not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, age (except where such is mandated by the civil laws of a particular locality), or sexuality”, and the current version of the Nova Roma Constitution reads, “Citizenship is open to anyone regardless of ethnic heritage, gender, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation.”  Therefore, the distinction of matrona or virgo does not apply to the status of women in Nova Roma.

What I have shown thus far is that the status of women is different in Nova Roma than what it was in ancient Rome, and that this difference is a departure from the mos maiorum of antiquity, but is very much a part of the customs and traditions (i.e., mores) of Nova Roma. Since women are not discriminated against based upon their gender with respect to citizenship within Nova Roma, it is also true that this citizenship allows women to engage in the electoral process as legislated for in the lex Vedia de cursu honorum (Nova Roma), which allows for any citizen to run for political office after six months of citizenship. Another important aspect of the mores of Nova Roma is the lex Popillia senatoria (Nova Roma) (and subsequent leges of a similar nature), which allows adlection into the senate of any citizen who has served as a magistrate or who has otherwise demonstrated exceptionally good character. The criteria is citizenship in both cases (viz., election in comitia as a magistrate, and being adlected into the senate), and is irrespective of gender. What is especially important is the senatorial rank, which is gender-blind, in that it is based upon merit alone and ignores potential impediments based upon gender. There is an important passage from Scheid regarding the correlation between senatorial rank and the priesthood: “Under the Republic, not all the priests in the major colleges had been of senatorial rank. By the end of that period all major priests were senators and rather less than half were patricians.”[7]

 Senators clearly had religious authority,[8]

and many who occupied the major priesthoods were of senatorial rank.  It seems safe to make the assertion that if women are allowed into the senate then they should be allowed to occupy important priesthoods, namely, pontifex and augur.  To deny a female senator as pontifex or augur seems an affront to the rank of senator itself,  “since the priestly colleges consisted mostly of senatorials, their advice should be considered as that given by a permanent committee of the senate.”[9]

  Therefore, it would seem impietas prudens dolo malo to deny a woman the priesthood of pontifex or augur simply on the grounds of her gender if she were a senator.  Furthermore, if pontifex or augur can be bestowed upon a woman of senatorial rank then it seems feasible to entertain the notion that it could be bestowed upon a woman outside of the senate if she was given the same non-gender related criteria that men enjoy.

On change in the sacra publica

Scaurus makes an argument that the gender disparity is a preference of the Gods: “At base our choice is either to ignore the overwhelming evidence that these gender taboos were rigorously respected in antiquity and are likely, therefore, to be directly connected to the preferences of the Di Immortales; or to impose an interpretation grounded solely in a modern social-political agenda which rejects the evidence and practice of antiquity.” This can be addressed by looking at the development of the sacra publica as circumstances changed. With each major transformation of Rome came change in the way the sacra publica operated. This change in the management of the pax deorum can be seen in this selection from Liebeschuetz: “Moreover the procedure for dealing with portents was intimately linked with the republican system of government and the management by the senate of sovereign popular assemblies. When that system collapsed, traditional ways of maintaining the pax deorum lost a principal reason for existence.”[10]

 For example, the priesthood of the rex sacrorum was established when the monarchy was abolished,[11]

and was a result of the Romans finding a solution to the disestablishment of the office of rex, which had ceremonial obligations.  Another example of the Romans dealing with change is the struggle between patricians and plebeians, and the passing of the lex Ogulnia in 300 BCE removing the patrician monopoly over the Collegium Pontificum and the Collegium Augurum.[12]

 Most priesthoods were originally reserved for patricians alone, but were eventually opened up to include members of the plebeian order.  Some priesthoods remained closed to plebeians, but these were highly ritualized priesthoods (i.e., the major flamen and rex sacrorum), while the more politicized priesthoods (pontifex and augur for example) were opened up to plebeians.  Would it have been considered impietas prudens dolo malo at one time in the history of Rome to suggest that plebeians be admitted as pontifices or augures?  Patrician and plebeian classes were established, according to tradition, by Romulus himself, with patricians as priests and magistrates and the plebeians to do the other, often necessary, tasks.[13]

 If it is acceptable to open up various priesthoods to plebeians, then it seems reasonable to open up the same priesthoods to gender, especially those priesthoods that were not exclusively linked to gender (unlike the Vestals) and which have a certain political quality to them (such as pontifex and augur).  This seems especially true since the establishment of the classes is attributed to Romulus himself.  Certainly, the idea of plebeian magistrates and pontifices would not have been acceptable, for example, in the time of Numa Pompilius, but later in the evolution of Rome the idea became more palatable, just like our current practice of women magistrates and senatores would have been unheard of during the Republic and afterwards, but is now an acceptable practice.

It could be argued, for example, that “The departure from the mos maiorum in permitting Plebeian pontifices altered the human component of the mos, not that which was demanded by the Di Immortales.” If this objection to women pontifices is based exclusively on the assumption that plebeian pontifices represent a human component while women pontifices represent some sort of divinely mandated prohibition, then it should also be the case that women should be excluded from all political offices and especially from the senate. This prohibition is based on the special character of magistrates and senatores. However, the mores Novae Romae, while linked with the mos maiorum of antiquity, are much different from their ancient counterpart. Additionally, change was periodically introduced into the sacra publica by the senate and various priestly colleges. The sacra publica was and is by its nature inclusive and highly adaptable, with one special caveat: “These new additions were only thought legitimate when they received official acceptance by the ruling elite.”[14]

 New cults established (such as the cult of Magna Mater), old cults re-activated (such as the Arval Brethren under Augustus), and other additions, changes, and adaptations to the sacra publica were possible, but only through the collegial character of the Collegium Pontificium, senate, etc.   The objection that some departures from the mos maiorum involve only a human component while other departures would be a direct violation of the Di Immortales would imply that the Di Immortales presented some form of direct communication with someone from Roman antiquity.  I am unaware of any “golden tablets” or codified texts similar to the Bible of the Judeo-Christian faiths, or to the Quran of Islam.  However, religious change had been possible in ancient Rome.  An early example of change is the reforms of Numa Pompilius, when “He established laws and customs among the Romans, who, because of their frequent hostilities, were until that point regarded as semibarbaric latrones. Furthermore, he divided the previously unregulated years into ten months [sic] and founded numerous sacred rites and temples at Rome.”[15]

 Would the Romans of Numa’s time consider his reforms a violation of the mos maiorum, or as much-needed reforms to move Rome forward?  History portrays Numa Pompilius in a very positive manner, so it would seem that his reforms benefited Rome.  Additionally, great power over the sacra publica rested within the “ruling elite.”  The senate, during the Empire, had the power of deification; “The deification of a deceased emperor was authorized by a formal decree of the senate, which alone had power to introduce new forms of worship.”[16]

 Therefore, the idea of change and adaptation was prevalent within the sacra publica and permitted if done by the “ruling elite” according to law.  Such practices seem synonymous with the Roman system of change.  Claiming some departures are acceptable and others are not, based on the assumption that some are divinely mandated, seems more appropriate to revealed religious traditions (such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam) rather than to the sacra publica of Nova Roma.  Of course it could be argued that augury is a form of revelation, but if that is the case then augury could ideally solve all of our problems, and the reliance upon augury for this opens up a series of potential abuse by augures.

On the nature of the Roman priesthood

Something to consider regarding the various priesthoods of Rome, ancient or otherwise, is the nature of the priesthood. The priesthood of Christianity (for example, that of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy) is a sacramental priesthood believed to change the very essential character of the individual upon ordination as a priest, resulting in a special character upon the soul of the new priest. Likewise, the Aaronic priesthood of Jewish tradition was a hereditary priesthood passed from father to son. The priesthoods of ancient Rome were different; “Its religious officials were merely political functionaries of state like any other.”[17]

 The religious character of the priesthood was linked with that of the state, and priests functioned on behalf of the state.  Since Nova Roma makes no distinction of citizenship with regard to gender, and since the priesthood is a function of state, then the priesthood should be open to citizens regardless of their gender.

On the nature of vitium

In his critique of women pontifices, Scaurus wrote “The attendance of women at any of these caerimoniae constitutes vitium and requires reperformance of the caerimonia.” The use of the term vitium in the sense that it is used by Scaurus is incorrect. It does happen to be a Latin word for blemish, defect, or fault. However, it has a more specific meaning within the confines of the sacra publica. The word vitium has specific meaning in augural law: “As a religious term, it definitely belongs to the language of augury alone.”[18]

 It would seem that Scaurus has used the term vitium incorrectly.  His example of women at a caerimonia reserved exclusively for men is similar to the case of Publius Clodius Pulcher, who secretly attended the rites of Bona Dea but was discovered.  The pontifices declared that the actions of Clodius were nefas,[19]

but there is no mention of it being a vitium.  As I’ve shown above, the pontifices ruled that the presence of Clodius required the rituals to be performed again.  In this case Scaurus seems correct that a ritual exclusively aligned to men, with women present, should be conducted over – just as a ritual reserved for women had to be conducted over after being polluted by a man.  However, his argument against women as pontifices rests on his assertion that pontifices were and are required to attend the rites of Hercules.  Since the cults of Hercules and Bona Dea were linked in their exclusivity of gender,[20]

it seems reasonable that if there was ever a time in Nova Roma where attendance was mandated upon our pontifices that men would attend the rites of Hercules, and women the rites of Bona Dea.  Even if this was the case it would still be appropriate for women pontifices to guard the orthopraxy of the Herculean cult just as it was for the male pontifices of antiquity to guard the orthopraxy of the rites of Bona Dea.

Response to the claim of impious hypocrisy

The final argument by Scaurus that I wish to address is, “Claiming that intentional circumvention of a religious taboo and a cultic obligation for reasons of modern personal preference is a good cause for such a practice strikes me as rank, impious hypocrisy.” It would seem that our current customs regarding women, as I have illustrated above, are a direct result of “modern personal preference”. Does that make everyone in Nova Roma who supports women as magistrates and senatores guilty of impious hypocrisy? Does adapting practices to changing mores make someone guilty of impious hypocrisy? The increased privilege afforded to the plebeian class was certainly a result of changing times within ancient Rome and therefore a “modern preference” of that time, just like gender equality is a preference in our contemporary time. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume “modern personal preference” in many instances where ancient custom and taboos are impractical, impossible, or simply an impediment to an effective reconstruction of the sacra publica. There is no reason for Nova Roma to become a slave to one person's idea of the mos maiorum in such a way that our efforts to reconstruct Roman religion are retarded because of a false sense of piety or by the fear of impietas prudens dolo malo. There are many practices within Nova Roma that are a departure from antiquity. It is irresponsible, for example, to allow Vestals without proof of virginity, but then to deny women the opportunity to serve as pontifices or augures. Likewise, it is irresponsible to allow unmarried men to assume the role of flamines maiores yet deny women the opportunity to serve as pontifices or augures.


I believe I have shown the possibility of women as pontifices, and thereby refuted the claims of Scaurus to the contrary, including his assertion that having women as pontifices is impietas prudens dolo malo. Additionally, it seems reasonable that if the ancient Romans worked through problems as they transitioned from one system to another, that we too in our society of Nova Roma also have the ability to work through our own problems without being “entirely outside the enterprise of reconstruction” as Scaurus claims. It seems important and meritorious to be aware of taboos and differences between Roma antiqua and our modern Nova Roma, but to work through these taboos and problems as the Romans have always done – without the fear of accusations of impious hypocrisy, blasphemy, and impietas prudens dolo malo.


  1. Shelton, Jo-Ann. “As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History,” Second Edition. Oxford University Press: New York 1998. Page 384 – 385.
  2. Staples, Ariadne. From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and category in Roman religion. London: Routledge, 1998. Page 39.
  3. Arjava, Antti . "Paternal Power in Late Antiquity." The Journal of Roman Studies. 88 (1998): 147-65. Page 148.
  4. Carp, Teresa. "Two matrons of the late republic." Women's Studies 8 (1981): 189-200. Page 191.
  5. Wildfang, Robin L. Rome's Vestal Virgins: A Study of Rome's Vestal priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire. London: Routledge, 2006. Page 53.
  6. Wildfang, Robin L. Rome's Vestal Virgins: A Study of Rome's Vestal priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire. London: Routledge, 2006. Page 53.
  7. Scheid, J., (2003) An Introduction to Roman Religion. (J. Lloyd trans.) Indiana University Press: Bloomington & Indianapolis. ISBN 0253216605 Page 143.
  8. Warrior, Valerie M. “Roman Religion.” Cambridge University Press: New York 2006. Page 42.
  9. Szemler, George J. "Religio, Priesthoods and Magistracies in the Roman Republic." Numen 18.2 (1971): 103-31. Page 106.
  10. Liebeschuetz, J. H. W. G. “Continuity and Change in Roman Religion.” Oxford At the Claredon Press: Oxford 1979. Page 58.
  11. Dowden, Ken “Religion and the Romans.” Bristol Classical Press: London 1992. Page 18.
  12. Taylor, Lily R. "Caesar's Colleagues in the Pontifical College." The American Journal of Philology 63.4 (1942): 385-412. Page 386.
  13. Watson, Alan. "Roman Private Law and the Leges Regiae." The Journal of Roman Studies 62 (1972): 100-05. Page 100.
  14. Takács, Sarolta A. "Politics and Religion in the Bacchanalian Affair of 186 B.C.E." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100 (2000): 301-10. Page 302.
  15. Bird, H W. "Eutropius on Numa Pompilius and the Senate." The Classical Journal 81.3 (1986): 243-48. Page 143.
  16. Burton, Henry F. "The Worship of the Roman Emperors." The Biblical World 40.2 (1912): 80-91. Page 84.
  17. Merrill, Elmer T. "The Attitude of Ancient Rome toward Religion and Religious Cults." The Classical Journal 15.4 (1920): 196-215. Page 200.
  18. Paschall, Dorothy. "The Origin and Semantic Development of Latin Vitium." Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 67 (1936): 219-31. Page 220.
  19. Strachan-Davidson, J L. "Mommsen's Roman Criminal Law." The English Historical Review 16.62 (1901): 219-91. Page 221.
  20. Staples, Ariadne. From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and category in Roman religion. London: Routledge, 1998. Page 25.

Written by Caeso Fabius Buteo Modianus.

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