Ara Pacis Augustae, the “Altar of Augustan Peace”, as reassembled.
The Ara Pacis Augustae (Latin, “Altar of Augustan Peace”; commonly shortened to Ara Pacis) is an altar in Rome dedicated to Peace, the Roman goddess. The monument was commissioned by the Roman Senate on 4 July 13 B.C. to honour the return of Augustus to Rome after his three years in Hispania and Gaul, and consecrated on 30 January 9 BC by the Senate in celebration of the peace brought to the Roman Empire by Augustus’ military victories. The altar was meant to be a vision of the Roman civil religion. It is made up of a small functional altar at its centre, and four surrounding walls; externally, two-tier friezes run along the walls and portray the peace and fertile prosperity enjoyed as a result of the peace brought to Rome by Augustus’ military supremacy (Latin: Pax Augusta). The Altar was built to remind Romans, through a visual medium, of the competence and achievements of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The sculpture on the outside of the monument emphasise the importance of piety (pietas) and peace within the empire.
The Altar was originally located on the northern outskirts of Rome, a Roman mile from the boundary of the pomerium on the west side of the Via Flaminia. It stood in the northeastern corner of the Campus Martius—a formerly open area that Augustus developed as a complex of monuments—and on the flood plain of the river Tiber, where (starting from the second century AD when the Altar was protected by a wall) it gradually became buried under four metres of silt over the centuries. The Ara Pacis was substantively rediscovered in the twentieth century, and moved to its current location in 1937–8.
- 1 The Altar
- 2 The figures
- 3 The east and west walls
- 4 North wall
- 5 South wall
- 6 Excavation and conservation
- 7 See also
- 8 References and notes
- 9 Bibliography
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Ara Pacis:Detail of the processional frieze showing members of the Senate (north face)
The Ara Pacis stood within an enclosure that is elaborately and finely sculpted entirely in Luna marble and depicts scenes of traditional Roman piety, in which the Emperor and his family were portrayed in the act of offering sacrifices to the gods. Various figures bring forth cattle to be sacrificed; some have their togas drawn over their heads, like a hood, which signifies that they are acting in their official capacity as priests—and connotes piety, an important Roman virtue. Other figures wear laurel crowns, traditional Roman symbols of victory. Men, women, and children all approach the gods; the depiction of children in Roman sculpture would have been novel at the time of the Altar’s construction, if not unprecedented. Themes of civil peace are linked by the sculpture to themes of the dynastic Julio-Claudian claims and the importance of religion as a civilizing force, in rites of which some were consciously being revived for the occasion, according to Augustus himself.
The Altar is universally recognized as a masterpiece, the most famous surviving example of Augustan sculpture; the life-sized figures in the procession are not idealized types, as are typically found in Greek sculpture, but rather portraits of individuals, some of them recognizable today. Two-thirds of the upper scenes in the monument friezes are occupied by members of the priesthood colleges and the four chief priests. The remainder of the friezes contain scenes of Roman mythology, including Romulus, Remus, and Aeneas (who make up the two myths of the founding of the city of Rome); Augustus portrayed himself as related to the founders of the city, so the choice of mythology is likely to have been deliberate. The lower scenes on the outer friezes are composed of scenes of nature: harmonic, intertwined vines that contain wildlife and connote nature under control.
The sculpture of the Ara Pacis is primarily symbolic rather than decorative, and its iconography has several levels of significance. Studies of the Ara Pacis and similar public Roman monuments traditionally address the potent political symbolism of their decorative programs, and their emphasis and promulgation of dynastic and other imperial policies; they are usually studied as a form of imperial propaganda. The Ara Pacis is seen to embody without conscious effort the deep-rooted ideological connections among cosmic sovereignty, military force and fertility that were first outlined by Georges Dumézil, connections which are attested in early Roman culture and more broadly in the substructure of Indo-European culture at large. It has been suggested by Peter Holliday that the Altar’s imagery of the Golden Age, usually discussed as mere poetic allusion, actually appealed to a significant component of the Roman populace. The program of the Ara Pacis addressed this group’s very real fears of cyclical history, and promised that the rule of Augustus would avert the cataclysmic destruction of the world predicted by contemporary models of historical thought.
Ara Pacis: Processional frieze showing Augustus as high priest of Rome, accompanied by members of his family(south face)
The long friezes of the Ara Pacis (the North and South Walls, so called today because of the modern layout) contain figures advancing towards the West who participate in a state of thanksgiving to celebrate the Peace created by Augustus. These figures fall into four categories: lictors (men carrying fasces, bodyguards of magistrates); priests (three of the four major collegia – Pontifices, Septemviri, and Quindecimviri): women and children (generally from the imperial family, represented in portraiture); and attendants (a few anonymous figures necessary for religious purposes).
In addition there are two or three non-Roman children, who may be guests (or hostages) in Rome. Their identification by their non-Roman costume and their participation in the ceremony advertises to all that Rome is the centre of the world, and that other nations send their young to Rome to learn Roman ways, so great is Rome’s reputation.
The ceremony took place in the summer of 13 BC, but not necessarily on 4 July, when the Senate voted to build the Ara Pacis.
The east and west walls
Section of west frieze
The East and West walls each contain two panels, one well preserved and one represented only in fragments.
The East Wall contains a badly preserved scene of a female warrior (bellatrix), possibly Roma, apparently sitting on a pile of weapons confiscated from the enemy, thus forcing peace upon them by rendering them unable to make war. This scene has been reconstructed based on coins that depict such a seated Roma. When the monument was being reconstructed at its present site, Edmund Buchner and other scholars sketched what the panel may have looked like. This interpretation, though widely accepted, can not be proved correct, as so little of the original panel survives.
The other panel is more controversial in its subject, but far better preserved. A goddess sits amid a scene of fertility and prosperity with twins on her lap. Scholars have variously suggested that the goddess is Italia, Tellus (Earth), Venus, and Peace, though other views also circulate. Due to the widespread depiction around the sculpture of scenes of peace, and because the Altar is named “peace”, the favoured conclusion is that the goddess is Pax.
The West Wall also contains two panels. The fragmentary “Lupercal Panel” apparently preserves the moment when Romulus and Remus were discovered by Faustulus the shepherd, while Mars looks on. Again this panel is a modern drawing without much evidence. Marble fragments of the tree and the head and shoulder of Mars (if it is Mars) and part of a second individual (thought to be Faustulus) survive, but the addition of the she-wolf, Romulus, and Remus is entirely creative. It might be completely right or totally wrong.
The better preserved scene depicts the sacrifice of a pig (the standard sacrifice when Romans made a peace treaty) by an old priest and two attendants. In 1907 this scene was identified by Johannes Sieveking as the moment when Aeneas, newly arrived in Italy, sacrificed a sow and her 30 piglets to Juno, as told by Virgil and others, even though the scene differs greatly from Vergil’s description. In the 1960s, Stephan Weinstock challenged this identification (and the very identity of the entire monument), citing numerous discrepancies that Sieveking and his followers had failed to notice between Vergil’s version and the panel. Subsequently, the suggestion was made that the scene shows Numa Pompilius, the Roman king associated with Peace and the Gates of Janus. Paul Rehak later published an article with this proposal, confirmed in a chapter of his posthumous book. This theory has won over many scholars, despite considerable initial resistance.
Ara Pacis: the so-called “Tellus” panel
The north wall has about 46 extant or partially extant figures. The first two foreground figures are lictors, carrying fasces (bundles of rods symbolizing Roman authority). The next set of figures consists of priests from the college of the Septemviri epulones, so identified by an incense box they carry with special symbols. One member of this college is missing in a gap.
After them follows the collegium of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, also identified by the incense box carried by a public slave among them. Although the name suggests this college has exactly fifteen members, the size of the college has grown to 23, including Augustus and Agrippa, who appear on the South Frieze. The other twenty-one members are present here. Two very badly damaged figures in the middle are split by a gap. From photos, the gap appears to affect a single figure, but as Koeppel, Conlin, and Stern have proven, in-site examination reveals that one is a foreground and the other a background figure.
The last portion of the North Frieze consists of members of the imperial family. Many scholars used to identify the veiled, leading figure as Julia, daughter of Augustus, but since Julia appears on the South Frieze, it is more likely that this figure is Octavia Minor. Other figures in the entourage might include Marcella (a daughter of Octavia), Iullus Antonius (a son of Mark Antony), and two boys and a girl of the imperial family. The obsolete Troy Games Theory In 1894, and again in 1902 and 1903, Eugen Petersen suggested that Lucius Caesar appears with Agrippa, dressed in a “Trojan” costume for the equestrian event called the Troy Game, which was held in 13 BC for the dedication of theTheater of Marcellus. Later scholars, noting the size and age of the boy beside Agrippa, preferred to identify him as Gaius. But as Charles Brian Rose has noted, “The variable value of the Eastern costume and the uneasy interaction of Trojan and Parthian iconography can make it difficult to determine whether one is viewing the founders of the Romans or their fiercest opponents.” The youth wearing Hellenistic Greek clothing suited to a Hellenistic prince is sometimes identified as Gaius in the guise of a camillus, an adolescent attendant of the Flamen Dialis. This figure has also been interpreted as Ptolemy of Mauretania representing Africa, along with a German boy (Europe) and a Parthian prince (Asia).
The South Wall has seen a great deal of scholarship and the greatest number of academic debates. Unlike the North Wall, where most of the heads are new (not authentic ancient heads, but modern creations), the heads of the figures on the South Wall are mostly original. Some half dozen figures are recognizable from looking at other surviving statues of members of the imperial family. Nevertheless, much debate has taken place over many of these figures, including Augustus, Agrippa, Tiberius, Julia, and Antonia.
The figure of Augustus was not discovered until the 1903 excavation, and his head was damaged by the cornerstone of the Renaissance palazzo built on top of the original Ara Pacis site. Although he was identified correctly in 1903, Petersen, Strong, and Stuart-Jones initially saw the figure as the rex sacrorum. Today Augustus is better recognized by his hair style than his face.
In the absence of Augustus from the panel, early scholars debated whether this figure was Augustus or Agrippa or Lepidus. In 1907, Sieveking proposed that this figure was Lepidus, the Pontifex Maximus at the time. Sieveking later reversed his position with a series of peculiar suggestions. In 1926, Loewy compared the Louvre Agrippa of the Agrippa in Copenhagen (and elsewhere) to the Ara Pacis in order to demonstrate iconographical similarity. Aside from a very small minority of scholars (most vehemently defensive of Lepidus in Rom. Mitt in the 1930s was Ludwig Curtius), the rest of the academy concluded that this figure is Agrippa. Ryberg’s 1949 article gave further weight to that conclusion.
View from the rear
Many scholars continue to see the Julia figure as Livia, having reasoned that Livia has to be on the Ara Pacis. Indeed, Livia does appear somewhere (her exclusion is unlikely), but by 13 BC Julia had politically eclipsed Livia, as has been understood and explained by many scholars. The identification dates back to Milani in 1891. Furthermore, Livia has no bond to Agrippa, whereas Julia was his wife and expected to be the unofficial empress of Rome for decades, during and beyond Augustus’ lifetime. Julia also better personified Augustus’ new pro-natalism program, having already given birth to four surviving children. Nevertheless, a majority of scholars in 2000 preferred to see this figure as Livia.
The Tiberius figure was identified as such by Milani, an identification that was rarely questioned until the 1940s. Moretti, in making the glass museum for the Ara Pacis at Mussolini’s command, guessed that the two consuls (Tiberius and Varus) of 13 flank Augustus, so he saw this figure as M. Valerius Messalla. V.H. von Poulsen and Toynbee proposed Iullus Antonius. But as has been well established, Augustus is flanked by priests, and this figure is Tiberius. Boschung and Bonanno have both matched the face to early period Tiberius statuary.
In relation to Antonia, Drusus, and Germanicus, H. Dütschke proposed in 1880 the correct identity for Antonia and Drusus, but incorrectly saw the toddler as Claudius. A. von Domaszewski amended this family identification and correctly saw the child as Germanicus. He also suggested that the Ara Pacis is arranged in family groups. He also correctly determined that the two-year old child could be only Germancius, whose exact birth in 24 May 15 BC is known. This helps prove that the ceremony is an event in 13, although a few scholars continued to argue the ceremony was that of 9 BC (until definitive proof in favor of 13 came out in 1939).
In relation to the Domitii Ahenobarbi – In the same 1903 article, von Domaszewski also proposed that the last family on the South Wall is that of the father of the emperor Nero (born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus). This identification remains widespread today. However, there are some dissenters from this theory. Stern claims that these figures cannot possibly be the Domitii Ahenobarbi, on the basis of the belief that Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, whom von Domaszewski saw as the boy of the family, was born after the monument’s completion. Syme had also argued that Gnaeus was born after the monument’s completion, but accepted the identification of the Ahenobarbus family, preferring to identify the boy as an otherwise unknown elder brother and the girl figure as an otherwise unknown elder sister of Gnaeus—both of whom died young. Syme also proved somewhat unintentionally, based on the inscription ILS 6095 that Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was governor of Africa in 13 BC and could not be in Rome for the Ara Pacis ceremony. In defence of the identification of the group as the Domitii Ahenobarbi and of the boy as Gnaeus, Pollini has pointed out that Suetonius specifically mentions that Nero’s father went “to the East on the staff of the young Gaius Caesar”. This campaign began in 2 BC, which means either Gnaeus was of mature age by then (birth ca. 22 BC), or Suetonius made a mistake. The error on Suetonius’ part is to be preferred because Gnaeus appears to be the companion of Gaius Caesar Caligula, whose sister he married. Pollini proposes that the enormous delay of Gnaeus’ career (consul only at age 50) resulted from his documented unpleasant character and points out that the careers of other members of the family with undesirable traits also suffered political delay, notably Augustus‘ youngest grandson, Agrippa Postumus – no career, and Germanicus‘ brother, the later emperor, Claudius (late start). However, Gnaeus’ enormous career delay would suggest complete exclusion, for even the much-ridiculed Claudius had a faster career.
The obsolete Troy Games Theory In 1894, and again in 1902 and 1903, Eugen Petersen suggested that Lucius Caesar appears with Agrippa, dressed in a “Trojan” costume for the equestrian event called the Troy Game, which was held in 13 BC for the dedication of the Theater of Marcellus. This theory won universal acceptance for many decades, even though the evidence is overwhelmingly against. The only early challenge was slight: Several scholars, noting the size and age of the boy beside Agrippa, preferred to identify him as Gaius, an opinion that prevailed by 1935. The boy is clearly not a Roman, given his clothing, lack of bulla, and hair. So ingrained was Petersen’s theory, however, that when the distinguished scholar Erika Simon (1968, 18) suggested the boy is a barbarian, she was subjected to intense criticism until she retreated (e.g. Mario Torelli (1982, 60 n. 72), once called her opinion “perfect nonsense”). Subsequently, led by Charles Brian Rose, scholars have realized Petersen was wrong: the boy is a foreign prince. Stern adds the costume is wrong for a Trojan (no Phrygian hat) and no bulla – worn by all Roman boys as protection from the evil eye. Many others have contributed to disprove Petersen’s theory.
The first fragmentary sculptures were rediscovered in 1568 beneath the basilica San Lorenzo in Lucina, and have found their way to the Villa Medici, the Vatican, the Uffizi and the Louvre. In 1859 further sculptural fragments were found under Teatro Olimpia, part of the Peretti Palace in via in Lucina, close to the Italian Parliament Building and the sculptures were recognized as having belonged to the same monument.
In 1903, well after Friedrich von Duhn had recognized that the reliefs belonged to the Ara Pacis (1879–81), known from Augustus’ memoir, a request was sent to the Ministry of Public Education to continue the excavations. Their success was made possible by the generosity of Edoardo Almagià, who, as well as giving his permission for the exploration, donated in advance whatever should be discovered underneath the palace and made an ongoing financial contribution to the expenses of the excavation.
By July of that year, it became clear that the conditions were extremely difficult and that the stability of Teatro Olimpia might well be compromised.
When about half the monument had been examined and 53 fragments recovered, the excavation was called to a halt. In February 1937, the Italian Cabinet decreed that for the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus, the excavations should recommence, using the most advanced technology. Seventy cubic metres of ground under what was by then the Cinema Nuovo Olimpia were frozen, whilst the altar was extracted.
In 1938 Benito Mussolini built a protective building for the Altar, as it had been reconstructed by Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, near the Mausoleum of Augustus (moving the Altar in the process) as part of his attempt to create an ancient Roman “theme park” to glorify Fascist Italy.
A new cover building, designed by American architect Richard Meier, now stands on the same site as Mussolini’s. The new building opened in 2006 to controversy. Nicolai Ouroussoff, of the New York Times described the new building as “a flop”. The presiding right-wing mayor Gianni Alemanno, backed since July 2008 by culture undersecretary Francesco Maria Giro said he would tear down the new structure. Mayor Alemmano has since changed his stance on the building and has agreed with Mr. Meier to modifications including drastically reducing the height of the wall between an open-air space outside the museum and a busy road along the Tiber river. The city plans to build a wide pedestrian area along the river and run the road underneath it. “It’s an improvement,” says Meier, adding that “the reason that wall was there has to do with traffic and noise. Once that is eliminated, the idea of opening the piazza to the river is a good one.” The mayor’s office said Alemanno hopes to complete the project before the end of his term in 2013.