Forschungsprojekt: World of the Living and World of the Dead: the transformation of Rome’s Pomerium between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD

How was Rome’s ritual boundary, the Pomerium, which separated the world of the living from that of the dead, transformed in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD? This question is crucial for understanding the evolution of the urban space and the rituality in one of Europe’s most influential periods, characterized by the progressive affirmation of Christianity. The Pomerium was a religious and juridical border that surrounded the city of Rome and which, in legal terms, involved its very existence: Rome existed only within its Pomerium; everything beyond was simply territory belonging to Rome. In order to understand the roman late antique Roman Pomerium, urban space and rituality, it is necessary to evaluate its Roman idea, which is highly disputed and needs to be re-evaluated. The POMERIUM project focuses on the environment of the city’s much disputed sacral barrier between the 3rd and the 4th centuries AD. According to Varro, the sacred boundary, originating from an ancient Etruscan ritual, consisted in a circuit (postmoerium) located beyond the heap of earth created by a plough. In contrast, for Festus the Pomerium was a “place” and the word derive from the term for “before the walls”, pro-murium. Livius offers a similar explanation by claiming that the sacred boundary was a space (locus) around the walls (circamoerium) that the Etruscans consecrated after taking the auspices and that was marked by stones and could not be inhabited or ploughed[1]. It is evident that already among the ancient authors the definition and the concept of the Pomerium were very ambiguous[2]. The only certainty is that the Pomerium is the most undefined “boundary” of the ancient world and so important that it was enlarged many times over the centuries, from Titus Tazius to Emperor Aurelianus[3]. Its relevance is due to the fact, recently cast into question, that the Pomerium implicated many juridical and religious restrictions, such as the prohibition on burials within it, on building temples dedicated to Eastern divinities and on entering it when armed, that conditioned in practice the structure of the city and the life of the citizens. All of these implications and consequences and, generally, the topic of the border in the ancient word, have recently been the subject of important international research[4], such as the huge German project “TOPOI”, which deals with the theme of “the borders of Rome”. This is evidence of the importance of this cross-cutting subject, which involves different disciplines such as archaeology, history and anthropology.


General objectives


This project will tackle the issues of the evolution and the tradition of the Pomerium, its extension, its legal and religious values, and its possible ending at the end of the 4th century AD, which is – as a working hypothesis – determined by the ban on pagan cults under Theodosius I. The era in focus comprises approximately 150 years and covers mainly the period between the decades before the construction of the Aurelian Wall (AD 270/275), recently debated in literature as being identical with the Pomerium, and the issuing of the “Theodosian decrees” (AD 389-392), which traditionally mark the end of pagan rites. Direct archaeological or epigraphical evidence to identify the Pomerium of these centuries is absent: there are no cippi or boundary stones marking the line of the Pomerium of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. For this reason, all possible archaeological and historical data will be taken into account that could indicate the life and the possible transformation of the sacred boundary.

[1] Varr., Ling. 5.143; Fest., 294, 295.; Liv., ab Urbe condita, 1.44. 4-5.

[2] Suet, in Roth, p. 313; Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, XIII, 14, 1-3; Schol. Inv. 9.11.3; [2] Corp. Agrim. Rom. I.1, 64.

[3] Liv., ab Urbe condita, 1.44.3; Tac., Ann. 12.23; Plut., Rom. 2.2-4; Cass.Dio, 43.50.1; Hist. Aug. Aurel.21.9.11; Gell.13.14.2; Tac. Ann. 12.24; Gell.13.14.2; Plut., Rom. 2.2-4; Liv., ab Urbe condita, 1.44.3; Tac., Ann. 12.23; Cass.Dio, 43.50.1; Cass. Dio 44.498.1; Tac., Ann. 12.23; Cass. Dio, 55.6.6; Tac. Ann. 12.23; Gell. 13.14.7; Hist. Aug. Aurel.21.9.11.


Based on the assumption revealed from earlier studies dealing with the Pomerium in Roman Imperial times, burials are among the most indicative references to identify its course, because the Pomerium limited, with exceptions, the expansion of cemeteries, from the Republican time on, through the formulation of the law of the 12 tables, with the exemption of burials for special persons, including the Imperial families. In this tradition, this new examination will focus mainly on the analysis of the spatial distribution of all burial sites built or still in use in the period in Rome. Since the Pomerium also implied the exclusion of oriental cults, in general non-Italic rituals, within its circuit, these too will be taken into consideration. One innovative way to further explore the question of the Pomerium will focus on the study of the distribution of early Christian churches and synagogues and their cemeteries. With the 3rd and 4th centuries being the crucial moment for the affirmation of Christianity and the Jewish religion, a model of the distribution of places of cults and Christian and Jewish cemeteries will, without doubt, contribute to our understanding of the ritual and of the sacred space in Rome in this period, and to a possible connection with the Pomerium: if the Pomerium remains a sacred pagan limit, it is also important to ask whether churches and synagogues and places of non-pagan worship could transgress it or not. In order to properly deal with the complex nature of the main theme “Pomerium in Late Antiquity”, I intend to tackle the project by answering the following questions, the core of the project:


1: Is there evidence of a Pomerium in late antique Rome?

2: If yes, did the Pomerium coincide with the Aurelian Walls?

3: How was it transformed between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD?

4: What effect did the Pomerium have on rituality and urban space in Rome, including for the Christian and Jewish faiths?


Based on these questions, I will create a GIS map of Rome, with a related open data database, recording all pagan, Christian and Jewish burial places newly built or still in use (e.g. family burials) between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD within the Roman necropolises, which will also include all contextually significant funerary inscriptions from this period and places of worship with the aim of investigating the spatial relation with the Aurelian walls and identifying the possible location by analyzing patterns of sacred, public and burial space. The focal point of a spatial approach is the idea that the Pomerium defines both a limit and a sacred space at the same time, dividing different urban spaces.



Objectives of the DAAD Research Grant


During the DAAD research grant at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz within the Institute of Christliche Archäologie und Byzantinische Kunstgeschichte with the supervision of Prof. Vasiliki Tsamakda, I am focusing on the analysis of the conception of sacred space and "borders" between Christian and Jewish culture. This specific study will certainly make possible to better understand the late antique Pomerium, rituality and urbans space of Rome and will provide the necessary basis for undertaking the entire project, explained previously. This research is also taking place throughout the support of the Römisch- Germanisches Zentralmuseum libraries which have a large number of books that are fundamental to my research.


The concept of "sacred space" is an extremely complex, especially as regards the late antique period, a moment of transformation, characterized by important political, economic, social, and religious changes and characterized by the coexistence of three different communities, that pagan, Christian and Jewish.


Dr. Michela Stefani