Leeds Roman Terminalia walk
Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 7, 2012
We’re going back a looong way here, to something which I actually did in late February. I half-wrote it up at the time, but then it got lost under a pile of other things and never posted. The Jubilee weekend finally gave me the time to finish the job.
Thursday February 23rd was the date of the Roman Terminalia, the annual festival of Terminus, who was the god of boundaries. A Leeds-based group of psychogeographers had decided to celebrate it by walking around the circuit of bar stones which marked the medieval / early modern city boundaries, and I went along to join them. Psychogeography is all about experiencing (mainly urban) landscapes from a personal, emotional and sensory perspective. It looks for a subjective geography of the city, informed by an individual viewer’s memories, experiences and associations, and actively sets out to explore urban landscapes in unusual ways in order to bring out ways of relating to urban space which most of us miss in the rush of day-to-day living. So I think that for most people in the group, the walk was a way of experiencing Leeds’ past and present urban landscape in a different way, helping them to see it and engage with it from an unusual angle, and particularly prompting thoughts about the many different kinds of boundaries – both physical and conceptual – which exist in our cities today.
I was interested enough in the psychogeographical side of the experience – I am both a scholar of urban space and an interested resident of Leeds after all. But linking it with the Roman Terminalia was the absolute the icing on the cake from my perspective. And it’s not just that that lent a Classical veneer to what would otherwise have been an interesting walk around the city centre anyway. It’s that I have specifically conducted research into and published work on Roman urban boundaries – it’s covered briefly in chapter 3 of my book, and a fuller paper on the topic will hopefully come out some time in the next 18 months. So for me, this walk was a way of experiencing for myself a reworked version of the religious practices which surrounded those boundaries in the Roman era, and perhaps achieving a better understanding of what boundaries meant in the Roman world as a result. It was like the subject of my research coming to life and manifesting itself in my own city. Basically, this event couldn’t have been more Relevant To My Interests unless perhaps we had done the walk all dressed up as characters from Doctor Who.
The fullest description of the Roman Terminalia is given by Ovid at Fasti 2.639-84, although references to rites in honour of Terminus specifically, and other religious rituals connected with boundaries more generally, crop up in a number of other sources too. Marking and commemorating boundaries seems to have quite an obsession with the Romans, in fact – and that is hardly surprising. Boundaries are fundamental to so many things – property rights, security, territorial control, spheres of power and privilege, social identities, and basic practical categorisations and definitions. In a polytheistic society it would be odd if they were not the objects of religious ritual – especially given that in many cases, religious sanction was their primary practical guarantor. In a world where few people had access to effective legal protection or redress, the religious authority of boundaries must have been the main thing which made people respect them, and thus also the fields, territories, concepts or spheres of social action which they defined. Indeed, although records showing the courses of physical boundaries clearly existed (see e.g. Tacitus on public documents showing the course of the pomerium at Rome), in a semi-literate society, annual ceremonies in which people physically went to their boundaries, observed where they ran and made offerings in their honour would also have been a very effective way of keeping them ‘alive’, and stopping them from being forgotten or ignored.
Ovid’s account of the Terminalia focuses mainly on the rituals carried out by ordinary farming families, marking and celebrating the boundaries between their own and their neighbour’s properties. He describes the offerings of garlands, cakes, grain, honeycombs, wine and sacrificial animals which they make at the boundary markers – but refers also to Terminus’ much wider remit, guaranteeing the boundaries of cities and kingdoms too, and ensuring peace between the peoples on either side. Ovid also mentions the public sacrifice of a sheep carried out on the same day at a shrine of Terminus which stood at the sixth milestone out from Rome along the via Laurentia. This shrine in itself was important because it was believed to mark one of the places where the boundary of the original rural territory controlled by archaic Rome intersected with the roads leading out from it. It was one of a series of similar places around the fifth or sixth milestones of some of the other roads which did the same job, and, according to Strabo (Geography 5.3.2), all received sacrifices on the same day as a means of marking and commemorating the boundary.
It’s unclear whether circular processions ever linked these shrines to form a huge ceremonial ring around the city, or whether the boundaries of the city of Rome received the same treatment on an annual basis either. We have references to ad hoc circular processions around the urban boundaries at times of threat – for example, one described by Lucan (1.592 ff = 1.642 ff. in this translation) which was supposedly undertaken while Caesar marched towards Rome in 49 BC, or another in the Historia Augusta (Aurelian 18-20) carried out during the Marcomannic wars of the AD 270s, when the Romans suddenly came face to face with the real possibility of a barbarian sack for the first time in several centuries. It’s also quite possible that the routes followed by the runners in the Lupercalia, and the procession in a triumph, were connected with the supposed original boundary of the city of Rome, believed to have been marked out by Romulus. But there doesn’t actually seem to have been an official annual beating-the-bounds style ceremony around Rome’s urban boundaries, as far as we know.
Still, Leeds was never a Roman city anyway, so I’m pretty sure we can do whatever we like – including reinterpreting ancient Roman religious ceremonies to suit our own needs and interests.
The basic format for the Psychogeography walk was to go clockwise around the city, visiting the locations of each of Leeds’ six bar stones, making Terminalian observances in accordance with Ovid’s description and generally thinking about boundaries as we went. I managed to find a map online of the six bar stones in relation to 15th/16th-century Leeds, as follows:
Leeds never had town walls, I assume because it only really became large enough to be worth defending long after the era of siege warfare and serious urban defences had passed, so stone boundary markers seem to have been used to signify the town limits instead. I don’t know exactly how they functioned, although I suppose that simply marking out the limits of the land granted to the early borough (as opposed to kept by the adjoining manor) would have been enough of a reason to set them up. But what they remind me of above all is the pomerium of Rome – a symbolic and ceremonial boundary around the city, which in the imperial period followed its own sweet route completely independent of the city walls, and was therefore marked out instead with its very own stone cippi, much like the bar stones. Some of those can be still be seen in Rome today, two thousand years later, like this Claudian example on the via del Pellegrino:
What fascinates me about the pomerium is that its course in between the stones was never very clearly signalled within the urban landscape, for all the sacred significance which it supposedly carried. It had to be extrapolated from the positions of the stones themselves, and it would only be obvious when you were crossing it if you made a particular effort to look out for them and keep track of how they related to one another. As a result, there seems to have been quite a bit of confusion about exactly where it ran, even in antiquity. My favourite example of that is Aulus Gellius’s discussion of it, where he first wonders (in the present tense) why the Aventine hill is outside the pomerium, and then suddenly reports that Claudius actually included it within the boundary – something which happened a good century before he was writing. Gellius had lived in Rome, so ought to have known where the pomerium ran in real life, but it’s pretty obvious from this passage that he doesn’t. Rather, to him it is clearly something which you might read about in library archives – not a striking physical presence in the urban landscape. And this is exactly why religious ceremonies involving walks around boundaries have traditionally been so important.
In just the same way, I had no idea about the existence of the Leeds bar-stones until I found out about the Psychogeography walk, so I was very glad of the opportunity to get to know an urban boundary within my own city which had previously been completely invisible to me. We gathered for our walk in the stunningly appropriately-named North Bar – which isn’t actually on the site of the North bar stone at all. In fact, it is on New Briggate, which didn’t exist at the time the bar stones were first established (see map, above), while the relevant bar stone is on Vicar Lane. So I guess the name is probably a coincidence – more to do with the fact that the bar is on the north side of Leeds city centre than anything else. Still, it did seem an auspicious place to find one another and get a quick drink in before setting off.
Tim can be see there with his daffodils and his curved augur’s staff (well – he said it was just a stick for guiding crowds of people around and pointing at things, but I liked to think of it as an augur’s staff), telling us about the first stone, and opening a handy bottle of something boozesome for a quick Terminalian toast in its honour. Meanwhile, other people ate ceremonial doughnuts, and I laid some pink carnations on the stone alongside Tim’s yellow daffodils. And so our procession had begun!
Of all Leeds’ bar stones, though, this was the one whose current state I felt saddest about. Actually, only two others still exist – the East bar stone and the Burley bar stone (on both of which see more below) – so if the North stone really is lurking behind that wooden board, that in itself is a crying shame. With a very small amount of work, an informative web page, and a few plaques to mark the locations of the lost stones, the Leeds bar stones could serve as a minor tourist attraction for the city – a sort of historical walking route which people might enjoy following as a way of connecting with their city’s history and viewing its current landscape. But as it is, the profile of the bar stones is decidedly patchy, and it seems to be only eccentric enthusiasts like the Psychogeographers who take the time to engage with them as a set.
Next we proceeded to the best-preserved and best-presented stone – the East bar, which is set into the wall of Leeds parish church at Kirkgate:
This one has a blue plaque telling people what it is, and there’s also a public information board nearby in the church yard featuring the same map as I’ve put at the top of this post with the positions of the bar stones marked on it. Jolly good show. Again, we made our observances, and then moved onwards towards the site of the South bar. On the way, though, Tim pointed out this nice example of several different boundary types sharing the same space, which rather tickled us:
Clearly we have there a completely invisible legal boundary between some private property and the public area we were standing in, which has first been turned into a social boundary by making it visible via a tiled notice in the threshold, but when that (presumably) proved inadequate, reinforced with a physically-impassable barrier. It’s as though it had been placed there especially, just to act as an example of increasingly-insistent boundary demarcation for the purposes of our Psychogeographical musings.
The South bar stone itself no longer exists – and indeed I wonder whether it ever did, given that the river would have marked the edges of the town perfectly clearly on the south side. Anyway, we chose an appropriate spot at the southern end of the bridge to make our usual Terminalian offerings:
The blue plaque this time marks not the former location of the (possible) bar stone, but the fact that one of the first ever pieces of moving footage, the epic Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888) was filmed from the window above us. So I suppose we were metaphorically standing on the boundary between the pre-video and post-video ages. The other plaque marks the formation of the Temperance Movement, Band of Hope, but we chose not to set any limits to our drinking, and continued quaffing away in honour of Terminus.
Meanwhile, in the centre of the bridge, we found a metal plaque recording its rebuilding and opening (in its modern form) in 1873, and giving a complete list of all the aldermen and councillors of the city of Leeds in that year. Here, three names were listed for my own ward of Headingley: Theodore L. Talbot, George Smith and William L. Jackson:
Councillors obviously served three to a ward back then, just as they do now – although I doubt the system was quite the same, or that what was called ‘Headingley ward’ back then had the same limits as it does now. But that’s very much in the nature of boundaries, and particularly political ones. At any given time they represent a consensus view on how to define particular categories or spaces, but the consensus changes regularly, especially where power of any kind is involved. Council ward boundaries, of course, are also usually completely invisible within the immediate urban landscape, but carry immense importance in terms of how the community functions and how power is defined within it.
Our next stop was the West bar – or at least as close as we could get to the blue plaque which marks its approximate former location, but which is itself currently hidden behind barriers erected around the building works for the new Trinity Leeds shopping centre:
Here, one member of the party read out a poem about the Terminalia, while we laughed wryly at the huge wooden barriers and forceful notices acting as a boundary between us and the boundary we had come to commemorate, and slotted our flowers in behind the notices anyway. Funnily enough, I came through town a good month after we had done this, and the shrivelled remains of Tim’s daffodils were still dangling from the corner of the notice where he had placed them, though all trace of my pink daises had gone.
Next was Burley bar – the only other stone to be publicly visible, but alas again debarred to us, because it is now located in a glass cabinet inside a branch of the Leeds Building Society, which had closed for the evening:
Again, we laid our flowers on the threshold all the same, and wondered what the employees of the Building Society would think when they came along and found them in the morning. An exterior view of the cabinet can be seen in the last picture, while I also popped into the Building Society a couple of months later and took these two photos from the inside:
I suppose it is for the best that it is inside now, as it has clearly seen better days, but a photo posted by a member of the Secret Leeds forums shows it in a prior, outdoor location. I think it would certainly be nicer to set it up so that it is facing out of the Building Society, rather than into it, so that people can see it at all times, even if it is then protected by a pane of glass.
Our final visit was to the Woodhouse bar, which must be the least-well-designated bar location in the entire city. We had the map to show its approximate location, but the stone is gone, there is no blue plaque to mark where it once stood, and nor is there an obvious landmark like Leeds Bridge to stand in for it. So we chose the appropriate location for our offerings instead by ‘dowsing’ – that is, walking up and down the relevant bit of Woodhouse Lane for a while until we found a spot which ‘felt right’. This, as it happened, was an empty retail unit, which I think was until recently occupied by a camping shop:
There, our final flowers laid and toasts drunk, we concluded our circuit by repairing once again to the North Bar, for more drinks and some very enjoyable conversation about local politics, various forms of history and the urban landscape. I had enjoyed the night immensely, both for the people I met and for the boundary we celebrated – and, just as ancient boundary ceremonies were designed to achieve, I have found myself ever since very aware of the Leeds bar stone circuit, mentally noting when I cross into or out of it as I move around the city centre. It has added an extra layer to the way I interact with my own city, which I think is exactly what the Psychogeographers were hoping to get out of it, and it has also enhanced my understanding of how people in the Roman era lived with their boundaries – urban and otherwise – too. Indeed, even the fact that we were commemorating an obsolete boundary which barely anyone else cares about seemed appropriately Roman, because that is exactly what the Romans themselves did with the supposed course of Romulus’ original pomerium and boundaries of the ancient city territory, 5-6 miles further out. I look forward to being part of the same commemoration again next year.