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p930 Pomoerium

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D, F.R.S.E, Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp930‑931 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

POMOERIUM. This word is compounded of post and moerium (murus), in the same manner as pomeridiem of post and meridiem, and thus signifies a line running by the walls of a town (pone or post muros).a The pomoerium, however, did not consist of the actual walls or fortifications of a place, but was a symbolical wall, and the course of the pomoerium itself was marked by stone pillars (cippi pomoerii, Varro, de Ling. Lat. V.143, ed. Müller), erected at certain intervals. The custom of making a pomoerium was common to the Latins and Etruscans,b and the manner in which it was done in the earliest times, when a town was to be founded, was as follows: — A bullock and a heifer were yoked to a plough, and a furrow was drawn around the place which was to be occupied by the new town, in such a manner that all the clods fell inward. The little mound thus formed was the symbolical wall, and along it ran the pomoerium, within the compass of which alone the city-auspices (auspicia urbana) could be taken (Varro, de Ling. Lat. l.c.). That the actual walls or fortifications of a town ran near it, may naturally be supposed, though the pomoerium might either be within or without them. This custom was also followed in the building of Rome, and the Romans afterwards observed it in the establishment of their colonies. The sacred line of the Roman pomoerium did not prevent the inhabitants from building upon or taking into use any place beyond it, but it was necessary to leave a certain space on each side of it unoccupied so as not to unhallow it by profane use (Liv. I.44). Thus we find that the Aventine, although inhabited from early times, was for many centuries not included within the pomoerium (Gell. XIII.14). The whole space included in it was called ager effatus or fines effati. The pomoerium of Rome was not the same at all times; as the city increased the pomoerium also was extended, but this extension could, according to ancient usage, be made only by such men as had by their victories over foreign nations increased the boundaries of the empire (Tacit. Annal. XII.23), and neither could a pomoerium be formed nor altered without the augurs previously consulting the will of the gods by augury, whence the jus pomoerii of the augurs (Dionys. IV.13; Cic. de Div. II.35). The formula of the prayer which the augurs performed on such occasions, and which was repeated after them by the people who attended, is preserved in Festus (s.v. Prosimurium).

The original pomoerium of Romulus ran, according to Gellius (l.c.), around the foot of the Palatine, but the one which Tacitus (Annal. XII.24) describes as the pomoerium of Romulus comprised a much wider space, and was, as Niebuhr thinks (Hist. of Rom. I. p288; cf. Bunsen, Beschreib. d. Stadt Rom I. p138; Sachse, Beschreib. von Rom. I. p50), an enlargement of the original compass, taking in a suburb or borough. Niebuhr also believes that pomoerium properly denotes a suburb taken into the city. The Romulian pomoerium, according to Tacitus, ran from the Forum Boariumº (the Arch of Septimius Severus) thru the valley of the Circus so as to include the ara maxima Herculis; then along the foot of the Palatine to the ara Consi, and thence from the Septizonium to the curiae veteres (a little below the baths of Trajan), along the top of the Velia to the Sacellum Larium, and lastly by the via sacra to the Forum. From the eastern side of the Forum to the Velabrum there was a swamp, so that Tacitus does not mention the line of the pomoerium here. Servius Tullius again extended the pomoerium (Liv. I.44; Dionys. IV.13), but the Aventine was not included, either because the auspices here taken by Remus had been unfavourable, or, which is more probable, because there stood on this hill the temple of Diana, the common sanctuary of the Latins and Romans (Gell. l.c.; Varro, de Ling. Lat. V.43). The Aventine did not become included within the pomoerium until the p931time of the Emperor Claudius (Gell. l.c.; Tacit. Annal. XII.23). Dionysius (l.c.) states that down to his time nobody had extended the pomoerium since the time of King Servius, although we know from authentic sources that at least Augustus enlarged the pomoerium (Bunsen, l.c. p139), and the same is said of Sulla and J. Caesar (Tacit. Annal. l.c.; Gell. l.c.; Fest. s.v. Prosimurium; Cic. ad Att. XIII.20; Dion Cass. XLIII.50, XLIV.49). The last who extended the pomoerium of Rome was the Emperor Aurelian, after he had enlarged the walls of the city ( Fl. Vopisc. Div. Aurel. 21; cf. Becker, Handbuch der Röm. Alterth. I. p92, &c.).


Thayer's Notes:

a The definition of the pomerium is one of the most uncertain, and consequently debated, questions in Roman topography; as is the etymology of the word, which a second ancient tradition derives from *promurum: see R. G. Kent's article, TAPA 44:19‑24, leading to a different definition of the thing itself. Smith's Dictionary here, as often enough, should be read as simplified handbook or guide rather than an authority; the careful student should at least look at the article Pomerium in Platner and Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, and the even more detailed arguments in the journal articles linked there (AJA, CP, TAPA, etc.).

b This seems to me to be an overly careful way of stating it. There is hardly any doubt that the institution of the pomoerium was taken by Rome from the Etruscans, along with the templum and the arts of augury.

For some further discussion, in part from an Etruscan viewpoint, and with additional classical sources, see George Dennis's note on the putative pomoerium at Rusellae.


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