David Hines
August 27, 2005
Pomerium
By David Hines

According to legend, Romulus set the pomerium, i.e., the sacred boundary of the city, and the course of its defensive walls. Disgruntled at having lost the naming rights in a game of chance, Remus taunted his brother. He leapt over the fresh furrow, saying, "See how easily your city can be breached, brother!"

Romulus slew his twin, saying, "Thus shall fare all enemies of Rome!"

As with other stories of brothers such as one may find in the Bible, it is more than a mere psychological treatise on sibling relationships.

Setting the pomerium was no simple task. It had to be plowed using a heifer of particular coloring, which presumably made it sacred to the moon goddess. Where there was to be a gate, the plow had to be lifted from the earth and carried across; otherwise, it would be a sacrilege to enter or to leave town. Romans understood that, since he was a pious man, Romulus was duty-bound to redress his brother's impiety.

There may be a darker side to the story. It was common in ancient times to support the walls of a city with a blood sacrifice. It could be that Romulus wanted a powerful sacrifice to inter in his walls.

This was not uncommon. When threatened with invasion, the king of Moab sacrificed his son to Chemosh and placed his remains within the wall. The combined might of Israel and Judah was deemed insufficient to breach such powerful protection. The Hebrews packed up and started the long march for home.

In Greece, the bones of legendary heroes were coveted for burial inside a city, in its walls, or sometimes on a strategic approach to it. The spirit of the dead hero stood guard. The Greeks often mistook dinosaur bones for those of heroes. They reasoned that the valiants of the Heroic Age must have been physically larger than their decadent descendants. Some, they reckoned from the size of what they took to be a femur, stood eighteen feet tall.

As a rule, the pomeria of Italian cities coincided exactly with the course of the walls. Rome was different. By historical times, Rome's walls and pomerium bore only a casual relationship. Walls lay both inside and outside the official line. Streets crossed the uncrossable boundary. Centuries of alterations had made the pomerium an archaic and arbitrary artifact. It still had some relevance, though; troops were not allowed in the city. The "city" was defined by the pomerium. Hence, brothels and other troop services could be located comfortably within the walls but officially outside the city.

Romulus would have had a problem with the flouting of the sacred pomerium. To him, even his brother could not get away with such irreverence.

Greek and Roman writers were well aware of the contemporary decadence. People held out those eighteen-foot-tall heroes as men of honor and piety, but were unwilling to emulate them. Hesiod wrote of five races of men: The first were golden, the second silver, then two of bronze; the current men were of iron, like Sparta's worthless iron currency degenerate, cruel, unjust, malicious, libidinous, unfilial, and treacherous.

There is some sense to defining the borders with a plow, rather than by drawing arbitrary lines on a map. Diplomats did the latter in the Middle East, contributing to the current difficulties.

China's Great Wall is an outgrowth of a culture that recognizes the association of good walls and good neighbors. A wall is a structure that defines space. When that definition ceases to be honored, conflicts arise.

We have pictures of giants on our money. These men lived by a set of principles. They plowed the ideological pomerium of a new nation and didn't take kindly to flagrant breaches. Their pictures and statues are deemed sufficient protection for the nation. Never mind that their principles are buried with them.

In our time the lines are blurred. The Fourth Amendment protects your property unless a local politician is convinced that somebody else would put it to more taxable use. The First guarantees free speech except at election time, when McCain and Feingold override it. The Tenth limits what Congress can do except when legislators decide they want to do more. Unlike the old Greeks and Romans, most of us fail to recognize our own degenerate ways. The national pomerium the Constitution is viewed as an archaic relic. With the breaches of that defining line, conflicts are becoming vehement. The rancor of current politics arises because politicians recognize no limit to their power, giving every issue an overriding importance to the daily life of each individual.

There are those who say that principle is okay, but compromise is better. Romulus would have disagreed. So do libertarians. The pomerium is there for a very good reason: In defining limits, it promotes peaceful coexistence rather than constant infighting. If you're a Nazi or a Communist, "united we stand" is the product of a government gun. Before the national pomerium was considered irrelevant, Americans had a different way.

© David Hines

 

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David Hines

Born in a mill town, David Hines has seen work as a furniture mover, computer programmer/analyst, and professional musician... (more)

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