Roman Geography and Politics

The following text appears on banner no. 8 in the exhibition space.

Romans conceptualized space not only in terms of its purely geographic elements, but also in terms of military strategy and political ideology. The progressive expansion of the Empire’s boundaries required Romans to constantly re-evaluate their geographic awareness, and to move both actual and ideological borders between the known and unknown worlds.

Imperial propaganda promulgated that the Roman Empire’s borders coincided with the horizon. In 61 bce Pompey, an influential Republican military and political leader, announced that he “had rolled back the boundaries of the Roman Empire to the very limits of the Earth,” while at the end of the first century bce Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, proclaimed that he had “subjected the world to the empire of Rome.” With the progressive expansion of the military frontiers (limes), the inhabitable world (oikoumene) was ideo- logically transformed into a single grand household (oikos), that of Rome. Clearly, this ideological framework contrasted with reality.

The widespread use of the globe as a symbol of terrestrial control offers an example of this ideological illusion. Greek and Roman geographers generally agreed that the oikoumene was only one of the four inhabitable zones, and that it occupied approximately one-seventh of the whole earth. Yet it is evident that even when controlling the oikoumene in its entirety, Romans were far from controlling the world. Nevertheless, the global sphere became the symbol to convey the extent of the Roman political and military presence.

The group of Roman coins on display exemplifies this imperial use of the globe for political propaganda. Coins traveled to the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire, and through commercial exchange they also found their way beyond the empire’s frontiers (archaeologists have uncovered Roman coins as far east as the coasts of India, the island of Sri Lanka, and the delta of the Mekong River in southwestern Vietnam). Handled by individuals of various origins and status, coins constituted the easiest and most efficient means to convey political messages. The ubiquitous repetition of the globe on these highly portable objects would thus have contributed to shape the society’s perception of the empire’s social, ethnic, political, and cultural boundaries.