Multi-Dimensional Ancient Boundary Stone Discovered In Rome
A Roman Empire boundary stone has been discovered in Rome, and while thousands of similar stones exist across the empire, this one is being viewed with extra attention. While most Roman boundary stones say, “cross this line and you get chopped,” this one whispers complex stories of a young emperor flexing his power in a complex game of thrones world.
In June this year, during excavations for a rerouted sewer beneath the mausoleum of Emperor Augustus, a rare “boundary stone” was discovered that used to mark ancient Rome's city limits. A PHYS article explains that the “monumental pomerial stone [a pomerium was religious boundary placed around Roman-controlled cities]” was created during the rule of Roman Emperor Claudio (Claudius) in 49 AD. The hewn boundary stone defined one extreme of the pomerium of Rome, which was the sacred boundary of “Urbe” (another name for Rome during the Roman Empire.)
The huge slab of travertine (terrestrial limestone) unearthed in Rome in June served as a religious, political and military boundary marker separating the official city of Rome from its outer military zone, and the beginning of the extended outer territory now referred to as the Roman Empire.
But the story encased within this particular rock is multidimensional. On the one hand, the stone speaks of a young emperor exercising his power. On the other, it involves the worship of Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries.
How the pomerial Roman boundary stone was first found in the ground. (Ara Pacis Museum)
The Last Pomerial Boundary Stone Was Found 100 years ago!
On Friday, at a press conference in the Ara Pacis museum, Claudio Parisi Presicce, director of the Archaeological Museums of Rome said the stone was “consecrated.” He explained that it had both civic and symbolic meaning, and he contextualized its importance by adding, “the founding act of the city of Rome starts from the realization of this pomerium.” So sacred was the defining “pomerium” that ran along the city’s defensive walls that it was forbidden to live, work or to enter the city with weapons through these semi-divine landscaped spaces.
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According to AP News, the Mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, who was at the unveiling of the pomerial stone on Friday, said only “10 other stones of this kind had been discovered in Rome, the last one 100 years ago.” The Italian archaeologists were able to interpret the stone’s carved inscription and they dated it to the time of the 4th Roman Emperor, Claudius, who ruled from 41 to 54 AD. They also identified details pertaining to an expansion of the pomerium in 49 AD, which effectively redefined Rome's official city limits.
A closeup of the inscription on the rare pomerial boundary stone recently found in Rome, Italy. (Ara Pacis Museum)
Pomerium Boundaries Were Protected By Roman God Terminus
The pomerium, ancient Rome’s sacred boundary, defined the city perimeter walls and separated the city proper from the outer ( ager) or the civic/religious area from the military zone. However, these separated sectors of ancient Rome were brought back together by Roman religion, in which the god Terminus protected the boundary stone markers.
Sacrifices were performed at pomerium boundary stones to sanctify, or spiritualize, them, and this happened at every boundary stone across the empire. So engrained was the belief that the actual god Terminus resided in and around boundary stones that landowners celebrated a festival called the “Terminalia” on February 23rd every year.
The Vatican Museum explains that following the conquest of Britain Emperor Claudius commissioned thousands of boundary stones inscribed with his formal titles to assert and maintain his dominance of foreign lands. “Pontiff of State religions, defender of the plebs, supreme military commander, consul, censor, and father of the country” are some of the titles associated with these Claudian power stones that symbolically marked his expansion into new territories. Here, at the terminus of this story, we now see just how rare the newly discovered boundary stone is.
A Roman boundary stone in a forest near Kelberg, Germany. This stone was clearly part of Emperor Claudius's ambitious project to mark all Roman Empire boundaries as his name appears in the inscription. (karlo54 / Adobe Stock)
The Claudian Boundary Stone Found In Rome is Unique
While thousands of Claudian boundary stones exist at the extremes of the empire, this one was discovered at its pulsing heart, Rome, where it defined the line of the sacred pomerium . Therefore, what this stone represents is a bold show of strength and wealth to Claudius’s power base in Rome. But it also reveals how Claudius promoted the ancient animistic belief in gods residing in the boundary marker, which was proto-Indo-European belief that gods are involved with the division of property and territory.
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“What could possibly go wrong?” Claudius might have asked to a silent audience of religious leaders, all shaking their heads while rubbing their hands beneath their robes. In a “what if” scenario: if Claudius had not sanctified the stones of Rome, and if he had made them only political and military markers, today, the Vatican might not exist as a city-state. You can see this immensely important sacred stone up close as it is set to be displayed at the Ara Pacis Museum, until the Augustus museum reopens.
Top image: The ancient face of the rare Roman boundary stone unearthed in Rome in June of this year, 2021. Source: Ara Pacis Museum
By Ashley Cowie