Ara Pacis Augustae

Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace), 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, Italy) 


Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace), 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, Italy) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace), 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, Italy) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Roman state religion in microcosm

The festivities of the Roman state religion were steeped in tradition and ritual symbolism. Sacred offerings to the gods, consultations with priests and diviners, ritual formulae, communal feasting—were all practices aimed at fostering and maintaining social cohesion and communicating authority. It could perhaps be argued that the Ara Pacis Augustae—the Altar of Augustan Peace—represents in luxurious, stately microcosm the practices of the Roman state religion in a way that is simultaneously elegant and pragmatic.
Portrait of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus from the Via Labicana, after 12 B.C.E. (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome)

Portrait of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus from the Via Labicana, after 12 B.C.E. (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome)

Vowed on July 4, 13 B.C.E., and dedicated on January 30, 9 B.C.E., the monument stood proudly in the Campus Martius in Rome (a level area between several of Rome’s hills and the Tiber River). It was adjacent to architectural complexes that cultivated and proudly displayed messages about the power, legitimacy, and suitability of their patron—the emperor Augustus. Now excavated, restored, and reassembled in a sleek modern pavilion designed by architect Richard Meier (2006), the Ara Pacis continues to inspire and challenge us as we think about ancient Rome.

 

Augustus himself discusses the Ara Pacis in his epigraphical memoir, Res Gestae Divi Augusti (“Deeds of the Divine Augustus”) that was promulgated upon his death in 14 C.E. Augustus states “When I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul, having successfully accomplished deeds in those provinces … the senate voted to consecrate the altar of August Peace in the Campus Martius … on which it ordered the magistrates and priests and Vestal virgins to offer annual sacrifices” (Aug. RG 12).

An open-air altar for sacrifice

The Ara Pacis is, at its simplest, an open-air altar for blood sacrifice associated with the Roman state religion. The ritual slaughtering and offering of animals in Roman religion was routine, and such rites usually took place outdoors. The placement of the Ara Pacis in the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) along the Via Lata (now the Via del Corso) situated it close to other key Augustan monuments, notably the Horologium Augusti (a giant sundial) and the Mausoleum of Augustus.
Illustration showing the likely original placement of the Ara Pacis Augustae (far right) in proximity to the Horologium Augusti (sundial) and the Mausoleum of Augustus in the background. (source)

Illustration showing the likely original placement of the Ara Pacis Augustae (far right) in proximity to the Horologium Augusti (sundial) and the Mausoleum of Augustus in the background. (source)

The significance of the topographical placement would have been quite evident to ancient Romans. This complex of Augustan monuments made a clear statement about Augustus’ physical transformation of Rome’s urban landscape. The dedication to a rather abstract notion of peace (pax) is significant in that Augustus advertises the fact that he has restored peace to the Roman state after a long period of internal and external turmoil.

 

The altar (ara) itself sits within a monumental stone screen that has been elaborated with bas relief (low relief) sculpture, with the panels combining to form a programmatic mytho-historical narrative about Augustus and his administration, as well as about Rome’s deep roots. The altar enclosure is roughly square while the altar itself sits atop a raised podium that is accessible via a narrow stairway.

The Outer screen—processional scenes

Processional scene (south side), Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Processional scene (south side), Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Processional scenes occupy the north and south flanks of the altar screen. The solemn figures, all properly clad for a rite of the state religion, proceed in the direction of the altar itself, ready to participate in the ritual. The figures all advance toward the west. The occasion depicted would seem to be a celebration of the peace (Pax) that Augustus had restored to the Roman empire. In addition four main groups of people are evident in the processions: (1) the lictors (the official bodyguards of magistrates), (2) priests from the major collegia of Rome, (3) members of the Imperial household, including women and children, and (4) attendants. There has been a good deal of scholarly discussion focused on two of three non-Roman children who are depicted.
A member of the Priestly college (association) of Septemviri epulones, carries an incense box, processional scene (north side), Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A member of the Priestly college (association) of Septemviri epulones, carries an incense box, processional scene (north side), Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The north processional frieze, made up of priests and members of the Imperial household, is comprised of 46 figures. The priestly colleges (religious associations) represented include the Septemviri epulones (“seven men for sacrificial banquets”—they arranged public feasts connected to sacred holidays), whose members here carry an incense box (image above), and the quindecimviri sacris faciundis (“fifteen men to perform sacred actions”— their main duty was to guard and consult the Sibylline books (oracular texts) at the request of the Senate). Members of the imperial family, including Octavia Minor, follow behind.
Augustus (far left) and members of the imperial household, Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (source)

Augustus (far left) and members of the imperial household, Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (source)

A good deal of modern restoration has been undertaken on the north wall, with many heads heavily restored or replaced. The south wall of the exterior screen depicts Augustus and his immediate family. The identification of the individual figures has been the source of a great deal of scholarly debate. Depicted here are Augustus (damaged, he appears at the far left in the image above) and Marcus Agrippa (friend, son-in-law, and lieutenant to Augustus, he appears, hooded, image below), along with other members of the imperial house. All of those present are dressed in ceremonial garb appropriate for the state sacrifice. The presence of state priests known as flamens (flamines) further indicate the solemnity of the occasion.
Processional scene (south side) with Agrippa (hooded), Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Processional scene (south side) with Agrippa (hooded), Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A running, vegetal frieze runs parallel to the processional friezes on the lower register. This vegetal frieze emphasizes the fertility and abundance of the lands, a clear benefit of living in a time of peace.

Mythological panels

Accompanying the processional friezes are four mythological panels that adorn the altar screen on its shorter sides. Each of these panels depicts a distinct scene:
  • a scene of a bearded male making sacrifice (below)
  • a scene of seated female goddess amid the fertility of Italy (also below)
  • a fragmentary scene with Romulus and Remus in the Lupercal grotto (where these two mythic founders of Rome were suckled by a she-wolf)
  • and a fragmentary panel showing Roma (the personification of Rome) as a seated goddess.
Sacrifice Panel, Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sacrifice Panel, Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Since the early twentieth century, the mainstream interpretation of the sacrifice panel (above) has been that the scene depicts the Trojan hero Aeneas arriving in Italy and making a sacrifice to Juno. A recent re-interpretation offered by Paul Rehak argues instead that the bearded man is not Aeneas, but Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king. In Rehak’s theory, Numa, renowned as a peaceful ruler and the founder of Roman religion, provides a counterbalance to the warlike Romulus on the opposite panel.
Tellus (or Pax) Panel, Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Tellus (or Pax) Panel, Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The better preserved panel of the east wall depicts a seated female figure (above) who has been variously interpreted as Tellus (the Earth), Italia (Italy), Pax (Peace), as well as Venus. The panel depicts a scene of human fertility and natural abundance. Two babies sit on the lap of the seated female, tugging at her drapery. Surrounding the central female is the natural abundance of the lands and flanking her are the personifications of the land and sea breezes. In all, whether the goddess is taken as Tellus or Pax, the theme stressed is the harmony and abundance of Italy, a theme central to Augustus’ message of a restored peaceful state for the Roman people—the Pax Romana.

The Altar

The altar itself (below) sits within the sculpted precinct wall. It is framed by sculpted architectural mouldings with crouching gryphons surmounted by volutes flanking the altar. The altar was the functional portion of the monument, the place where blood sacrifice and/or burnt offerings would be presented to the gods.
View to the altar, Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

View to the altar, Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Implications and interpretation

The implications of the Ara Pacis are far reaching. Originally located along the Via Lata (now Rome’s Via del Corso), the altar is part of a monumental architectural makeover of Rome’s Campus Martius carried out by Augustus and his family. Initially the makeover had a dynastic tone, with the Mausoleum of Augustus near the river. The dedication of the Horologium (sundial) of Augustus and the Ara Pacis, the Augustan makeover served as a potent, visual reminder of Augustus’ success to the people of Rome. The choice to celebrate peace and the attendant prosperity in some ways breaks with the tradition of explicitly triumphal monuments that advertise success in war and victories won on the battlefield. By championing peace—at least in the guise of public monuments—Augustus promoted a powerful and effective campaign of political message making.

Rediscovery

The first fragments of the Ara Pacis emerged in 1568 beneath Rome’s Palazzo Chigi near the basilica of San Lorenzo in Lucina. These initial fragments came to be dispersed among various museums, including the Villa Medici, the Vatican Museums, the Louvre, and the Uffizi. It was not until 1859 that further fragments of the Ara Pacis emerged. The German art historian Friedrich von Duhn of the University of Heidelberg is credited with the discovery that the fragments corresponded to the altar mentioned in Augustus’ Res Gestae. Although von Duhn reached this conclusion by 1881, excavations were not resumed until 1903, at which time the total number of recovered fragments reached 53, after which the excavation was again halted due to difficult conditions. Work at the site began again in February 1937 when advanced technology was used to freeze approximately 70 cubic meters of soil to allow for the extraction of the remaining fragments. This excavation was mandated by the order of the Italian government of Benito Mussolini and his planned jubilee in 1938 that was designed to commemorate the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus’ birth.

Mussolini and Augustus

Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, Ara Pacis Pavillion, 1938 (photo: Indeciso42 CC BY-SA 4.0)

Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, Ara Pacis Pavillion, 1938 (photo: Indeciso42 CC BY-SA 4.0)

The revival of the glory of ancient Rome was central to the propaganda of the Fascist regime in Italy during the 1930s. Benito Mussolini himself cultivated a connection with the personage of Augustus and claimed his actions were aimed at furthering the continuity of the Roman Empire. Art, architecture, and iconography played a key role in this propagandistic “revival”. Following the 1937 retrieval of additional fragments of the altar, Mussolini directed architect Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo to construct an enclosure for the restored altar adjacent to the ruins of the Mausoleum of Augustus near the Tiber river, creating a key complex for Fascist propaganda. Newly built Fascist palaces, bearing Fascist propaganda, flank the space dubbed “Piazza Augusto Imperatore” (“Plaza of the emperor Augustus”). The famous Res Gestae Divi Augusti (“Deeds of the Divine Augustus”) was re-created on the wall of the altar’s pavilion. The concomitant effect was meant to lead the viewer to associate Mussolini’s accomplishments with those of Augustus himself.

The Ara Pacis and Richard Meier

Richard Meier and Partners, Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, 2006

Richard Meier and Partners, Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, 2006

The firm of architect Richard Meier was engaged to design and execute a new and improved pavilion to house the Ara Pacis and to integrate the altar with a planned pedestrian area surrounding the adjacent Mausoleum of Augustus.

 

Between 1995 and the dedication of the new pavilion in 2006 Meier crafted the modernist pavilion that capitalizes on glass curtain walls granting visitors views of the Tiber river and the mausoleum while they perambulate in the museum space focused on the altar itself. The Meier pavilion has not been well-received, with some critics immediately panning it and some Italian politicians declaring that it should be dismantled. The museum has also been the victim of targeted vandalism.

Enduring monumentality

The Ara Pacis Augustae continues both to engage us and to incite controversy. As a monument that is the product of a carefully constructed ideological program, it is highly charged with socio-cultural energy that speaks to us about the ordering of the Roman world and its society—the very Roman universe.

Augustus had a strong interest in reshaping the Roman world (with him as its sole leader) but he had to be cautious about how radical those changes seemed to the Roman populace. While he defeated enemies, both foreign and domestic, he was concerned about being perceived as too authoritarian–he did not wish to be labeled as a king (rex) for fear that this would be too much for the Roman people to accept. So, the Augustan scheme involved a declaration that Rome’s republican government had been “restored” by Augustus and he styled himself as the leading citizen of the republic (princeps). These political and ideological motives then influence and guide the creation of his program of monumental art and architecture. These monumental forms, of which the Ara Pacis is a prime example, served to both create and reinforce these Augustan messages.

The story of the Ara Pacis becomes even more complicated since it is an artifact that then was placed in the service of ideas in the modern age. This results in its identity becoming a hybridized mixture of Classicism, Fascism, and modernism—all difficult to interpret in a postmodern reality. It is important to remember that the sculptural reliefs were created in the first place to be easily legible so that the viewer could understand the messages of Augustus and his circle without the need to read elaborate texts. Augustus pioneered the use of such ideological messages that relied on clear iconography to get their message across. A great deal was at stake for Augustus and it seems, by virtue of history, that the political choices he made proved prudent. The messages of the Pax Romana, of a restored state, and of Augustus as a leading republican citizen, are all part of an effective and carefully constructed veneer.

What was the Pax Romana?


 

Additional resources:

David Castriota, The Ara Pacis Augustae and the Imagery of Abundance in Later Greek and Early Roman Imperial Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

Diane A. Conlin, The Artists of the Ara Pacis: the Process of Hellenization in Roman Relief Sculpture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

Nancy de Grummond, “Pax Augusta and the Horae on the Ara Pacis Augustae,” American Journal of Archaeology 94.4 (1990) pp. 663–677.

Karl Galinksy, Augustan Culture: an Interpretive Introduction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

Karl Galinksy ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Peter Heslin, “Augustus, Domitian and the So-called Horologium Augusti,” Journal of Roman Studies, 97 (2007), pp. 1-20.

P. J. Holliday, “Time, History, and Ritual on the Ara Pacis Augustae,” The Art Bulletin 72.4 (December 1990), pp. 542–557.

Paul Jacobs and Diane Conlin, Campus Martius: the Field of Mars in the Life of Ancient Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Diana E. E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

Gerhard M. Koeppel, “The Grand Pictorial Tradition of Roman Historical Representation during the Early Empire,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.12.1 (1982), pp. 507-535.

Gerhard M. Koeppel, “The Role of Pictorial Models in the Creation of the Historical Relief during the Age of Augustus,” in The Age of Augustus, edited by R. Winkes (Providence, R.I.: Center for Old World Archaeology and Art, Brown University; Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium: Institut Supérieur d’Archéologie de d’Histoire de l’Art, Collège Érasme, 1985), pp. 89-106.

Paul Rehak, “Aeneas or Numa? Rethinking the Meaning of the Ara Pacis Augustae,” The Art Bulletin 83.2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 190-208.

Paul Rehak, Imperium and Cosmos. Augustus and the Northern Campus Martius, edited by John G. Younger. (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2006).

Alan Riding, “Richard Meier’s New Home for the Ara Pacis, a Roman Treasure, Opens,” The New York Times April 24, 2006

John Seabrook, “Roman Renovation,” The New Yorker, May 2, 2005 pp. 56-65.

J. Sieveking, “Zur Ara Pacis,” Jahresheft des Österreichischen Archeologischen Institut 10 (1907).

Catherine Slessor, “Roman Remains,” Architectural Review, 219.1307 (2006), pp. 18-19.

M. J. Strazzulla, “War and Peace: Housing the Ara Pacis in the Eternal City,” American Journal of Archaeology 113.2 (2009) pp. 1-10.

Stefan Weinstock, “Pax and the ‘Ara Pacis’,” The Journal of Roman Studies 50.1-2 (1960) pp. 44–58.

Rolf Winkes ed., The age of Augustus: interdisciplinary conference held at Brown University, April 30-May 2, 1982 (Providence, R.I.: Center for Old World Archaeology and Art, Brown University; Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium: Institut Supérieur d’Archéologie de d’Histoire de l’Art, Collège Érasme, 1985).

Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, trans. D. Schneider (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987).

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re standing in the marvelous museum that was designed by Richard Meier to hold the Ara Pacis, one of the most important monuments from Augustan Rome.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] “Ara Pacis” means “altar of peace.” Augustus was the first emperor of Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [0:20] And the person who established the Pax Romana, that is, the Roman Peace. The event that prompted the building of this altar to peace under Augustus was Augustus’s triumphal return from military campaigns in what is now Spain and France.

Dr. Harris: [0:37] When he returned, the Senate vowed to create an altar commemorating the peace that he established in the empire. We’re talking about the Ara Pacis, but of course, this has been reconstructed from many, many fragments that were discovered, some in the 17th century, mostly in the 20th century.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] Actually, it’s a small miracle that we’ve been able to reconstruct this all. It had been lost to memory.

Dr. Harris: [1:02] The remains of it lay under someone’s palace. When it was recognized what these fragments were, it became really important to excavate them and to reconstruct the altar.

Dr. Zucker: [1:12] That was finally done under Mussolini, the fascist leader in the years leading up to the Second World War and during the Second World War. That was important to Mussolini because Mussolini identified himself with Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Mussolini was very much trying to reestablish a kind of Italian empire. We should talk a little bit about what an altar is.

Dr. Harris: [1:32] We talk about the altar, really, what we’re looking at are the walls of the precinct around what is in the middle of the altar, where sacrifices would have occurred.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] The altar itself is interesting and important when we think about Augustus. Augustus is establishing centralized power. Since its earliest founding years, when it was under the rule of kings, Rome had been controlled by the Senate.

Dr. Harris: [1:54] The Senate was basically a group of the leading elder citizens of Rome. Rome was a republic, and it really was a republic until Julius Caesar, who was the dictator and Augustus’s uncle. Then Caesar is assassinated, there’s civil war, and then peace is established by Augustus.

Dr. Zucker: [2:13] Right. Augustus, whose real name was Octavian, is given the term “Augustus” as a way of representing his power. It’s interesting, the politics that Augustus involved himself with. He gave great power back to the Senate, but by doing so, he established real and central authority for himself.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] He made himself “princeps,” or first among equals. But of course, he controlled everything.

Dr. Zucker: [2:38] He also held the title of the head priest of the state religion, and so he held tremendous power.

Dr. Harris: [2:44] His uncle, Julius Caesar, had been made a god. And so he also represented himself as the son of a god.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] And so the idea of establishing this altar has a political as well as spiritual significance.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] He’s looking back to the golden age of Greece of the 5th century B.C., but he’s also looking back to the Roman Republic. He’s re-establishing some of the ancient rituals of traditional Roman religion. He’s embracing traditional Roman values.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] Even as he’s doing that, he’s remaking Rome radically. He’s changing Rome from a city of brick to a city of marble, and the Ara Pacis is a spectacular example of that.

Dr. Harris: [3:27] When we look closely at the Ara Pacis, what we’re going to see is that this speaks to the sense of a golden age that Augustus brought about in the Roman Empire.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] One of the most remarkable elements of the Ara Pacis is all of the highly decorative relief carving in the lower frieze.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] That goes all the way around. It shows more than 50 different species of plants. They’re very natural in that we can identify these species, but they’re also highly abstracted and they form these beautiful symmetrical and linear patterns.

Dr. Zucker: [4:01] There is a real order that’s given to the complexity of nature here. This massive, elegant acanthus leaf, which is a native plant, which were made famous in Corinthian capitals. Then, almost like a candelabra growing up from it, we see these tendrils of all kinds of plants that spiral.

Dr. Harris: [4:19] There are also animal forms within these leaves and plants. We find frogs and lizards and birds.

Dr. Zucker: [4:26] The carving is quite deep, so that there’s this sharp contrast between the brilliance of the external marble and then the shadows that are cast as it seems to lift off the surface.

Dr. Harris: [4:35] Art historians interpret all of this as a symbol of fertility, of the abundance of the golden age that Augustus brought about.

Dr. Zucker: [4:44] We also see that same pattern repeated in the pilasters that frame these panels. Then we also have [a] meander that moves horizontally around the entire exterior, and it’s above that meander that we see the narrative friezes. We have to be a little careful when we try to characterize what precisely is being represented.

[5:02] There are lots of conflicting interpretations.

Dr. Harris: [5:05] These panels relate again to this golden age that Augustus establishes. These refer back to Aeneas, Rome’s founder, and Augustus’s ancestor. We see other allegorical figures representing Rome and peace.

Dr. Zucker: [5:21] We’re now looking at a panel that’s actually in quite good condition, but that doesn’t mean we really know what’s going on.

Dr. Harris: [5:28] No, there’s a lot of argument about what the figure in the center represents. Some art historians think this figure represents Venus. Some think it represents the figure of Peace. Some, the figure of Tellus, or Mother Earth. In any case, she’s clearly a figure that suggests fertility and abundance.

Dr. Zucker: [5:47] She’s beautifully rendered. Look at the way the drapery clings to her torso so closely as to really reveal the flesh underneath, like the goddesses on the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Greece.

Dr. Harris: [5:57] On her lap sit two children, one of whom offers her some fruit. There’s fruit on her lap. On either side of her sit two mythological figures who art historians think represent the winds of the earth and the sea.

Dr. Zucker: [6:10] Look at the way the drapes that they’re holding whip up, creating these beautiful almost halos around their bodies.

Dr. Harris: [6:16] And at her feet, we see an ox and a sheep. There’s a sense of harmony, of peace, and fertility.

Dr. Zucker: [6:24] And that must have been such a rare thing in the ancient world.

Dr. Harris: [6:29] Augustus reigns after decades of civil war, after the assassination of Julius Caesar. I think there’s a powerful sense that this was the golden age. These allegorical or mythological scenes appear on the front and back of the altar. Then on the sides of the altar, we see a procession.

Dr. Zucker: [6:47] The frieze moves from the back wall of the precinct up towards the very front on both sides, and the figures are also facing towards the main staircase.

Dr. Harris: [6:58] Art historians are not really clear what event is being depicted here.

Dr. Zucker: [7:02] Art historians aren’t clear about any of this, are we?

Dr. Harris: [7:05] No. There are a couple of possibilities that have been raised. One is that what we’re seeing is the procession that would have taken place at the time that the altar was inaugurated. The figures that we see here are priests, and we can identify those figures because of the veils on their heads.

[7:21] There also seem to be members of Augustus’ family, although their identities are not quite firmly established.

Dr. Zucker: [7:29] We think we know which figure is Augustus, although the marble itself is not in especially good condition and we’ve lost the front of his body. We also think we can identify one of his most important ministers.

Dr. Harris: [7:42] That would be Agrippa. If we think about this as looking back to the frieze on the Parthenon from the golden age of Greece, those figures are all ideally beautiful. They don’t represent anyone specific so much as the Athenian people generally.

Dr. Zucker: [7:56] But these are portraits.

Dr. Harris: [7:57] That’s right. And we can’t always identify them for certain, but they really are specific individuals taking part in a specific event.

Dr. Zucker: [8:04] Throughout the Republic, portraiture in stone was something that the Romans were extremely good at. It doesn’t surprise me that they would not look to the idealized so much as look to the specific.

Dr. Harris: [8:15] We also notice those differences in the depth of the carving. Some figures are represented in high relief. Other figures that are supposed to be in the background are represented in low relief. There’s a real illusion of space and of a crowd here at the procession.

Dr. Zucker: [8:29] Another way that the specificity of the Romans is expressed is through the inclusion of children. This is a sacred event and a formal event, and yet there are children doing what children do. That is to say, they’re not always paying attention.

Dr. Harris: [8:42] Augustus was actually worried about the birth rate and passed laws that encouraged marriage and the birth of children.

[8:49] The Ara Pacis originally was painted. We would have seen pinks and blues and greens, and it’s very difficult to imagine that when we look at the marble today.

Dr. Zucker: [8:58] Especially in Meier’s building, which is so stark and modern; it’s almost a little garish to imagine how brightly painted this would have been.

Dr. Harris: [9:05] One of the things that Augustus said of himself was that he found Rome a city of brick and he left it a city of marble. Augustus created an imperial city and here we are 2,000 years later in the Rome that Augustus created.

[9:20] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker, "Ara Pacis Augustae," in Smarthistory, October 4, 2020, accessed July 12, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/ara-pacis/.