A flamen (plural flamines)[1] was a priest of the ancient Roman religion who was assigned to one of fifteen deities with official cults during the Roman Republic. The most important of these were the three flamines maiores (or "major priests"), who served the important Roman gods Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. The remaining twelve were the flamines minores ("lesser priests"). Two of the minores served deities whose names are now unknown; among the others are deities about whom little is known other than the name. During the Imperial era, the cult of a deified emperor (divus) also had a flamen.

The fifteen Republican flamens were members of the Pontifical College, who administered state-sponsored religion. When the office of flamen was vacant, a pontifex could serve as a temporary replacement, although only the pontifex maximus is known to have substituted for the Flamen Dialis, one of the flamines maiores.


The etymology of flamen remains obscure, and perhaps undecidable.[2] The term is traditionally connected with the Proto-Germanic verb *blōtaną ("to sacrifice"; cf. Gothic blotan), by positing a Proto-Indo-European stem *bʰleh₂d-m(e)n- (or *bʰleh₂g-m(e)n-), which could have originally meant "sacrifice".[3][4][5] However, the link remains uncertain since it is impossible to decide whether the Latin form reflects an earlier flă-men, flăd-men or flăg-smen.[4][5]

Indo-European scholar G. Dumézil attempted to link the term to the Sanskrit word brahman.[a] Dumézil himself notes that the etymology has problems in terms of phonological shifts, and the cognates have not been universally accepted by modern scholars.[7][5][b] Andrew Sihler considers the claim that flamen might be a cognate of the Vedic term to be as plausible. He notes that the hypothesis of a connection to Gothic blotan and via Proto-Indo-European *bʰleh₂d-m(e)n- is equally plausible.[2]


At the time of the religious reformation by Augustus, the origins and functions of many of the long-neglected gods resident in Rome were confusing even to the Romans themselves. The obscurity of some of the deities assigned a flamen (for example Falacer, Palatua, Quirinus and Volturnus) suggests that the office dated back to Archaic Rome. Many scholars[who?] assume that the flamines existed at least from the time of the early Roman kings, prior to the establishment of the Republic. The Romans themselves credited the foundation of the priesthood to Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. According to Livy, Numa created the offices of the three flamines maiores and assigned them each a fine robe of office and a curule chair.[11] The flamines were circumscribed by many taboos.

The flamen was a sacred position within Roman society; however, it could be used for political purposes. Certain people could be appointed as flamines to stop them from gaining power. For example, flamines were not allowed to ride a horse; therefore, this would make it extremely difficult for such a person to lead and command an army.[12] By attaining such a position, the flamines were not permitted to run or hold a political office. There may have been flamines appointed simply to stop their progression in power and politics for reasons such as making enemies or simply jealousy.[13]

In post-Antiquity usage, the designation "flamen" can apply, by extension, to priests in general.[14]


The flamen was a high position within Roman society and religion. Therefore, the selection process was difficult for those wishing to be chosen as flamen. In the case of the Flamen Dialis, they were appointed by the Pontifex Maximus. By the Pontifical College, three nominations were given to the pontifex maximus, those whom Romans believed to be the most worthy of such position. The Pontifex Maximus did not just select a new Flamen Dialis, but "scrutinized each candidate's qualifications in order to ensure that he and his wife were fit to serve."[15] After the flamen and his wife were chosen, they then had to participate in a Roman tradition and ceremony known as captio. This ceremony was performed by an augur. It was the augur's job to make sure the gods would accept the new flamen. This was done by asking for the king of the gods, Jupiter's blessing, and the gods would respond by providing the proper signs to the people. These ceremonies were known as comitia calata ("callate assemblies") and they were performed on the Capitoline Hill.[16]

Privileges and disadvantages

Such a position in Roman society came with many privileges which in turn gave flamines a unique power. In law and criminal courts, the flamen wielded great power. When a person was deemed a criminal, they could appeal to a flamen, who had the power of pardoning criminals. There were also several other privileges that the flamen possessed. According to Cyril Bailey these include: exemption from the Patria Potestas (lit. power of the father) of his father; the wearing of the toga praetexta; and, the privileges of having a lictor of his own, of sitting on the curule chair, and having an ex officio place in the Senate.[17] During the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BCE, the flamines were also given a special task. In an attempt to preserve Roman culture and history, the flamines and other religious orders such as the vestals were in charge of the sacred and religious items of Rome. Their objective was to take these treasures out of Rome so they would not be destroyed by the Gauls. Ralph Mathisen writes, "Their sacred cult should not be abandoned as long as a single person survived to observe it".[18]

The flamines were also prohibited from many different actions and rituals. In the case of death, flamines were in charge of performing ritual sacrificing. However, other than that, contact with anything related to death was prohibited so that the flamen could partake in his religious duties. One extreme example was in the case of the flamen's wife (Latin, flaminica). They were not allowed to wear Calcei Morticini, "shoes made from the skin of an animal that had died of natural causes." Since the animal was not part of a religious ritual or offered to the gods, these shoes would be seen as impure and disrespectful to the gods.[19]

Another disadvantage for the flamines was that they "were also forbidden to touch, see, or refer to yeast, raw meat, goats, dogs, ivy, or beans," because it was thought that these could interfere with the flamen's religious practices. Most of these were associated with unsanitariness or death. When these flamines would have to perform ritual sacrifices, it was almost impossible for the flamen to avoid contact with raw meat. However, Roman accounts do not include such events in their writings.[19] Another thing flamines were forbidden from was binding. They could not be bound to anything because it could hinder and jeopardize their position as flamen. Therefore, the only bind they were tied to was their religious position and priesthood.[20]


A flamen had to be married. The flamen and his wife, the flaminica, were required to be patricians, and their parents had to be married through the ancient ceremony of confarreatio. This only applied to the flamen, because when they married his wife would become part of his family.[contradictory][21] Through the process of confarreatio, the wife would pass from the manus (hand) of her father to the hand of her husband. This transferred the father's authority to her husband who would also become part of the religious cult.[22] It was necessary for the wife to be a virgin and previously unwed before marriage to a prospective flamen.[23] The flamen and the wife served together. In the case of either's death, the surviving priest would then step down from their position. It was viewed as unlucky to be widowed.[24]

The flamen and flaminica could not separate or divorce. The only way to escape a marriage was through death, because, once they attained their positions, they became the property of the deity they were assigned to.[25] Since they ruled together, they were also responsible for performing certain rituals together. During certain practices and rituals, the flamen and flaminica had to follow certain rules, such as leaving during purification rituals.[17] Another ritual practiced by the priest and priestess pertained to their bed. Only the flamen and flaminica were allowed to sleep in the bed for ritual reasons, and under no circumstance could they spend the night away from the bed for any longer than three days. This was meant to create and ensure a strong relationship between the couple. The end of the bed was lined with "a thin layer of clay."[26]


The official costume of a flamen, allegedly of great antiquity, was a hat called an apex and a heavy cloak called a laena. The laena was a double-thick wool cloak with a fringed edge, and was worn over the flamen's toga with a clasp to hold it around his throat.[27] The apex was a leather skull-cap with a chin-strap and a point of olive wood on its top, like a spindle, with a little fluff of wool at the base of the spindle.[28] This was the traditional outfit during a ritual or sacrifice performed by the flamen. The flamen would not wear the laena on a daily occurrence. The flamen would also wear special shoes known as calcei.[29] The flamen dress represented status. Only flamines were able to wear such a costume. It separated them from average citizens, politicians, and military figures. The responsibility for the creation of such a costume fell in the hands of the flaminica. The costume was handmade and a ritual blade known as secespikta was used in the process.[29] The laena had to be made of wool, because wool was seen as pure and the most appropriate clothing to serve the gods.

Duties and obligations

The flamen and the flaminica had special roles that could not be done by the other. This position in Roman society was held to a specific standard with strict rules. The flamen could not perform the duties of the flaminica and she could not perform the duties of her husband. One example would be the honour killing and sacrifice of a ram, which was known as an offering to Jupiter and could only be done by the flaminica on market days.[30] The flamen couldn't perform his sacred duties without the flaminica. These positions of serving the gods were meant to be served together as husband and wife. This was a partnership where each person was dependent on the other. This is why, when one died, the other would have to step down, because they were not allowed to replace their partner or continue by themselves.

Flamines maiores

The three flamines maiores were required to be patricians:

A fourth flamen maior was dedicated to Julius Caesar as a divinity (divus) of the Roman state.[31] Thereafter, any deceased emperor could be made divus by vote of the senate and consent of his successor, and as a divus he would be served by a flamen. The flamen's role in relation to living emperors is uncertain; no living emperor is known to have received official divine worship;[32] see Imperial cult.

A flamen could also be represented by a proflamen, or by a member without that title who could act as a substitute for the flamen (qui vice flaminis fungebatur).[33]

Flamines minores

Flamines, distinguished by their pointed apices, as part of a procession on the Augustan Altar of Peace

The twelve flamines minores could be plebeians.[34] Some of the deities whose cult they tended were rather obscure, and only ten are known by name:

There were two other flamines minores during the Republican period, but the names of the deities they cultivated are unknown. The flamines minores seem mostly connected to agriculture or local cults. The change to an urban way of life may explain why these deities lost their importance or fell into oblivion.[citation needed]

The Floralis and Pomonalis are not recorded in calendars as their festivals were moveable. Some information exists for the ritual roles of the Portunalis in connection with the cult of the god Quirinus and Volcanalis in connexion with the cult of the goddess Maia on the Kalends of May.[35] Also preserved is the list of deities invoked by the flamen Cerialis when he officiated at sacrifices to the goddesses Ceres and Tellus.[36]

Scholars disagree about some differences among flamines maiores and minores. Some maintain the difference was not substantial.[37] Others, among them Dumézil,[38] believe that inherent differences lay in the right of the auspicia maiora and the ritual of inauguration that concerned only the maiores[39] by birth as farreati, that is, as children of parents married through the ritual of confarreatio, which was the form of marriage in turn required for maiores. The maiores also had the privilege of having calatores, assistants who carried out day-to-day business.[40] The difference would thus be akin to that between magistracies with imperium and those with potestas only.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "The Sanskrit brahman ... must derive, with reverse guna, from *bhelgh-men- or *bholgh-men-. The Latin flamen must derive from a neighboring form, *bhlagh-smen-, which, along with forms having the radical -el- or - ol-, presents the same shift." — Dumézil[6]
  2. ^ Dumézil was aware of the technical difficulties, but defended the weak link based on the broader grounds, that the nexus between bráhman / flamen was part of a pair of dyadic terms, the other being Skt. ráj- / Latin rēg-, which were key roles in his hypothetical tripartite ideology underpinning Indo-Europeans' social organization. He claimed this comparative sociological framework strengthened the claimed cognate identities between the two pairs of terms.[8][9][10]


  1. ^ "Flamen | Definition of Flamen by Merriam-Webster". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 6 May 2021.
  2. ^ a b Andrew Sihler New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin, Oxford University Press 1995 p.198:’ That such cases are strictly speaking undecidable, so far from calming debate, has seemed to stimulate bickering in the scholarly literature.’
  3. ^ Hellquist, Elof (1922). "blota". Svensk Etymologisk Ordbok – via runeberg.org.
  4. ^ a b Kroonen, Guus (2013). Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Brill. p. 70. ISBN 978-90-04-18340-7.
  5. ^ a b c de Vaan, Michiel (2018). Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-16797-1.
  6. ^ Dumézil, G. (1988) [1940]. Mitra-Varuna. Translated by Coltman, D. New York, NY: Zone Books. p. 26.
  7. ^ Segal, Robert A. (1996). Structuralism in Myth: Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Dumézil, and Propp. Taylor & Francis. p. 159. ISBN 978-0-8153-2260-3. Dumézil ... attempted to relate philologically the words Flamen and Brahman. This has not been generally accepted, but the cultural comparisons ... are certainly suggestive.
  8. ^ Dumézil, G. (1938). La préhistorire des flamens majeurs. reprinted in
    Dumézil, G. (1969). Idées romaines (2nd ed.). Gallimard. pp. 155–166, esp. 158.
  9. ^ Dumézil, G. (1968). Mythe et epopee. Vol. 1. Gallimard. pp. 12–16.
  10. ^ Dumézil, G. (1974). La religion romaine archaïque. Gallimard. pp. 94–97.
  11. ^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1:20
  12. ^ DiLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. pp. 32–33.
  13. ^ Goldberg, Charles (Winter 2015). "Priests and Politicians: rex sacrorum and flamen Dialis in the Middle Republic". Phoenix. 69 (3): 334–354. doi:10.7834/phoenix.69.3-4.0334. S2CID 163251922.
  14. ^ "flamen". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  15. ^ DiLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. pp. 19–20.
  16. ^ DiLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. p. 22.
  17. ^ a b Bailey, Cyril (1972). Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome. Greenwood Press Publishers. p. 155.
  18. ^ Mathisen, Ralph (2019). Ancient Roman Civilization:History and Sources 753 BCE to 640 CE. Oxford University Press. p. 103.
  19. ^ a b DiLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. pp. 34–35.
  20. ^ DiLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. p. 36.
  21. ^ Goldberg, Charles (Winter 2015). "Priests and Politicians: rex sacrorum and flamen Dialis in the Middle Republic". Phoenix. 69 (3): 334–354. doi:10.7834/phoenix.69.3-4.0334. S2CID 163251922.
  22. ^ DeLizuo, Meghan (2016). A Place at the Altar. Princeton University Press. p. 20.
  23. ^ DiLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. p. 21.
  24. ^ DiLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. p. 23.
  25. ^ DiLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. pp. 32–33.
  26. ^ DeLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. p. 31.
  27. ^ Maurus Servius Honoratus, Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil iv.262; Cicero Brutus 14.56.
  28. ^ Servius Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil ii.683, viii.664, x.270.
  29. ^ a b DiLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. p. 37.
  30. ^ DeLuzio, Meghan (2016). A Place at The Altar. Princeton University Press. p. 43.
  31. ^ Caesar's first flamen was Mark Antony.
  32. ^ Caesar may have been granted an active flamen while living; the evidence is equivocal.
  33. ^ A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890) (eds. William Smith, LLD, William Wayte, G. E. Marindin)[permanent dead link].
  34. ^ Seindal, René. "flamines maiores". Retrieved 26 September 2016.
  35. ^ Fest. p.321 L1 s.v. "persillum"; Macrob. Sat. I,12, 18
  36. ^ The lost treatise De jure pontificio by Quintus Fabius Pictor had contained the list, which was in turn recorded by Varro and through Servius later preserved by Augustine in the De civitate Dei.
  37. ^ Kurt Latte, Roemische Religionsgeschichte 1960, pp. 36-37
  38. ^ G. Dumezil La religion romaine archaique Paris, 1974, Consideratons preliminaires, XI
  39. ^ Gaius 1, 112; Aulus Gellius 13, 15 quoting Messala De Auspicis; Festus p. 274-275 L2.
  40. ^ Fest. p. 354 L2; Jörg Rüpke, Religion of the Romans (Polity Press, 2007, originally published in German 2001), p. 227 online.