Pontifex, in ancient Rome, the title of a priest. The office of pontifex is said to have been created by Numa. The pontifices were not attached to the worship of any particular divinity, but were a college of priests superior to all others, and superintended the whole public worship. In 300 B. 0. the plebeians obtained the privilege of representation in the college, and the whole number was increased to 9. The number was further increased by Sulla to 15, and by Caesar to 16. The pontifices held office for life. On the death of a pontifex a successor was chosen, originally by the college of priests, but in 104 B. C. this election was given to the people by the lex Domitia, though the confirmation by the college was still requisite as a matter of form. The college of priests had the superintendence of religion, kept the books of ritual ordinances, and were required to give information to any one who might consult them on sacred matters. It was their duty to guard against irregularity in the observance of religious rites, and to determine everything in relation to burials, and how the manes of the departed should be appeased. Over all classes they had the power of judicial decision and punishment in matters of religion, could make new laws and regulations, and were themselves entirely irresponsible.
The pontifex maximus was the president of the college, and acted in its name. He was obliged to live in a domus publico,, and was not allowed to leave Italy. This latter law was first violated in 131 B. C, and afterward was never very strictly observed. A pontifex might hold any other office, civil, military, or priestly, provided it did not interfere with his pontifical duties. There are several instances in which the offices of pontifex maximus and consul were held in conjunction. The office was assumed by Augustus, and was held by all his successors until Gratian, who declined it. The title appears on some of the coins of the emperors. The college of pontifices existed until the final overthrow of paganism, though it had retained in its latter years but very little of its ancient power or respect.