An intangible border : Sulla’s Pomerium and destabilization in republican Rome

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Fancy, Ashton Jeanne

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In the waning years of the Roman Republic, amidst an atmosphere of distrust and unease, Roman dictator L. Cornelius Sulla enacted a series of proscriptions that infamously left the streets of Rome running with blood, executing those who threatened his plans to re-concentrate power within an elite Roman class. While violence set a certain tone for his dictatorship, Sulla also conveyed his intentions to the public through subtler means, including a program of architectural restorations. This thesis will consider one such act of restoration—the expansion of the pomerium, or the boundary that marked a change in military and religious privileges within the city. While attested to by ancient authors, no physical remains of Sulla’s pomerium have been identified, meaning that the border was likely invisible and therefore largely unknowable to the uninitiated passerby. Over the course of his political career, Sulla would take advantage of the pomerium’s sacred and legal import by violating its ordinances on two occasions and subsequently reestablishing its bounds through an expansion of the border, effectively destabilizing the relationship of the city of Rome and its inhabitants by reasserting his control over space. It is my contention that Sulla capitalized on the boundary’s intangible qualities in order to unsettle what had previously been a stable, if benign, concept in the Roman imagination. This thesis aims to examine how architecture can communicate power in the absence of a physical structure, focusing on how the pomerium’s invisibility under Sulla’s dictatorship functioned as a malleable political tool for the state to exert control over its population. How the Romans related to the built environment and border spaces is of critical importance to this discussion, as the city and its architecture—visible or otherwise—conveyed important messages about political dynamics. I argue that the pomerium’s expansion under Sulla spoke volumes, as Roman spatial memory extended beyond that which was immediately visible to recall the past. As the city streets may have conjured memories of Sullan-spilt blood and its accompanying fear, so too may fragmentary knowledge of the pomerium have elicited a similar response, resulting in submission to the state’s authority.



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