Pontifex Maximus is surly a term vaguely familiar to most, we know it mainly as but one of the many titles held by the Pope of Rome. It’s a title which he borrowed from the emperors which he symbolically succeeded, a title denoting the chief priest of Rome. But before the popes used it to establish themselves as the supreme religious authority of the west, before Augustus co-oped the office as his own, and even before during the late republic when it became but a stepping stone office for the politically ambitious, the office held a very different role.
The office of Pontifex Maximus was created by Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, in those far off days of ancient per-historical legend. Numa, a pacifist and extremely religious man believed, if religious duty and authority rested in the same hands as political authority, the gods would be neglected and Rome doomed. Thus, Pontifex Maximus was created to administer the proper rites and oaths, honor the gods, and generally be the chief curator of the roman civic soul.
I’ve long had a deep fascination with ancient Rome. When I was in my teen years it completely consumed by imagination. Visions of grand aqueducts and marching legions swelled my young heart with faux nationalism and pride in heritage, after all, I was a child of Rome, the greatest empire the world has ever known. Although those heady days of chest bumping fanaticism are well behind me, my dormant obsession has recently been reignited. I’ve rather voraciously consumed podcast after podcast on Rome and her oft belied torch bearer through the middle ages, Byzantium. I have found in this reignited obsession perhaps some answers to my other long lingering obsession, my search for spiritual purpose and self identity in the secular realm.
I grew up catholic. Perhaps not surprising, my most devout years in service to our modern Pontifex Maximus, where the ones shared with my greatest obsession with Rome. When I was serving the church on the altar I found spiritual purpose. Not in love of Jesus or service to the lord almighty or any of that jazz, but in the rituals and rites of the Catholic Church. The calm and sense of purpose the ritual of mass gave my naturally chaotic soul, kept me a level ship through many rough waves. Through differences in opinion on my sexuality and my own lack of enamorment with the God of Abraham I had found myself thoroughly separated from Christianity (and honestly modern religion in general). Thus I began my search for that same spirituality unchained from modern religiosity.
During more recent years I have found myself turning frequently to the philosophies of the ‘East’ (mainly Japan and China) for answers, but I have run up against a problem that I imagine many westerners face trying to learn from the great eastern minds, the utter discordance of western thinking with the mysticism eastern philosophies are steeped in. To a mind raised in the tradition of Plato, Nietzsche, and Voltaire, a tradition of thought that aligns itself solely with logic and proudly declares ‘god is dead’, understanding, let alone applying successfully to one’s own life the teachings of the east can be difficult. As such I have had little success.
When veering unexpectedly back towards Rome, I stumbled haphazardly upon perhaps a guideline of sorts, towards a synthesis of secular logic and spiritual mysticism, from which I could learn. The Romans were practical people, even in their religion. There were no zealots in Rome. Even the office of Pontifex Maximus was an elected one, spirituality was a duty to keep Rome in proper running order. At the same time however, such a secular outlook did not diminish devotion, oaths, honor, and religious rites were regarded with the utmost respect and reverence. Similarly, in the later years of Rome when it was Greek and called Byzantium, although it had taken on a bent of theological mysticism, secularism still tempered their devotion. There is no such thing as Holy War to the Orthodox mind.
You can see this spiritual sense of duty’s influence in almost all the virtues of that made Rome great, from the republican ideals of Cincinnatus or Publius Decius during the early republic and Samnite Wars, to the heroics of the last Emperor of Rome, Constantine XI, fighting a doomed defense of Constantinople against the ascendant Ottomans. The Romans, when at their best never gave up, never surrendered, and devoted themselves wholeheartedly to Rome. I think without that balanced mix of secular and spiritual devotion, none of the triumphs of Rome would have been possible.
Similarly, I think the key to successfully finding any sort of real spiritual purpose lies in infusing my logical intellectual life with the sense of spiritual purpose those old rites and rituals once offered me. How, precisely to do this I am still unsure. Perhaps I’ll find the answer to how to tend one’s soul still lies in some eastern text. I hope one day soon, I’ll figure it out and overcome this long depression of mind, body, and soul. Then, maybe, I’ll be the Pontifex Maximus of my own soul.