Today Rome Across Europe heads home, by that we mean back to Rome. We shall bear witness to a tribute to the Empire’s 1st Emperor. Of the many offerings made to or by Imperātor Caesar Dīvī Fīlius Augustus, of which there is many, we explore the Ara Pacis Augustae.
The Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) is an altar in Rome dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of Peace. Consecrated on 30 January 9 BC, the birthday of Augustus’ wife of Livia, the monument was commissioned by the Roman Senate on 4 July 13 BC to honor the return of Augustus to Rome after 3 years in Hispania and Gaul.
In his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Augustus tells us: “… carried happily businesses in those provinces, the Senate He decreed that to my return there should be consecrated the Altar of Augustan Peace in the Campus Martius and ordered that in it the magistrates, priests and vestal virgins should celebrate an annual sacrifice .”
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 CampusMartius, the former flood plain of the Tiber River which was developed by Augustus into a complex of monuments.
In succeeding centuries, the monument gradually became buried under 4 m of silt deposits. As early as the Renaissance parts of it were recovered and restored, with limited accuracy, but the vast majority of the Ara Pacis was recovered in the 20th Century. It was reassembled in its current location in 1938.
Greek, Hellenistic and Roman art are all enclosed in this monument representing the strong relationship between Augustus and Pax Augusta. Reconnecting with Aeneas, the mythical ancestor of the gens Iulia shows Augustus himself dressed as a fashionable young Trojan.
The altar reflects the Augustan vision of Roman civil religion. It consists of a traditional open-air altar at its center surrounded by precinct walls which are pierced on the eastern and western ends by openings. The Ara Pacis is perhaps best known for the decoration on the exterior of the precinct walls composed of two tiers of friezes.
On the North and South, the upper register depicts the procession of members of the Imperial household and the larger regime. While on the East and West panels depict allegorical themes of peace and Roman civic ritual.
The lower register of the frieze depicts vegetation meant to communicate the abundance and prosperity of the Roman Peace. The monument as a whole serves a civic ritual function whilst simultaneously operating as propaganda for Augustus and his regime, easing notions of autocracy and dynastic succession that might otherwise be unpalatable to traditional Roman culture.
The Ara Pacis stood within an enclosure that is elaborately and finely sculpted entirely in Luna marble. Within the enclosing precinct walls, the altar itself was carved with images illustrating the lex aria, the law governing the ritual performed at the altar.
The sacrificial procession depicts animals being led to sacrifice by figures carved in a Republican style similar to the professed “Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus,” in sharp contrast with the style on the exterior of the precinct walls. What remains of the altar is otherwise fragmentary, but it appears to have been largely functional with less emphasis on art and decoration.
The sculpture of the Ara Pacis Augustae 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 proliferation of dynastic and other imperial policies.
Usually studied as a form of imperial propaganda, the Ara Pacis seems to embody without conscious effort the deep-rooted ideological connections among cosmic sovereignty, military force and fertility. These connections are much attested in early Roman culture and more broadly in the substructure of Indo-European culture at large.
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 earth-shattering destruction of the world predicted by contemporary models of historical thought.
The interior of the precinct walls are carved with bucrania, ox skulls, from which carved garlands hang. The garlands bear fruits from various types of plants, all displayed on a single garland as symbolic representations of plenty and abundance.
The bucrania in turn evoke the idea of sacrificial piety, appropriate motifs for the interior of the altar precinct. The lower register of the interior walls imitate the appearance of traditionally wooden altar precincts, which were meant to bring to mind other such altars in Rome and the tradition of constructing altars at the boundary of the city’s Pomerium.
The exterior walls of the Ara Pacis are divided between allegorical and pseudo-historical relief panels on the upper register while the lower register has scenes of harmonic, intertwined vines that contain wildlife and imply nature under control. The upper register of the northern and southern walls depict scenes of the Emperor, his family, and members of the regime in the act of processing to or performing a sacrifice.
Various togate figures are shown with their heads covered (capite velato), signifying their role as both priests and sacrificiants. Other figures wear laurel crowns, traditional Roman symbols of victory.
Members of individual priestly colleges are depicted in traditional garb appropriate to their office, while lictors can be identified by their iconographic fasces. Women and children are also included among the procession, evoking themes of moral and familial piety. This scene would also have eased concerns over dynastic intentions of the Iulia while simultaneously introducing potential heirs to the public eye.
The West and East Walls are both apparent entryways to the altar, although the interior would only have been accessed by a stairway on the western side. The entryways were flanked by panels depicting allegorical or mythological scenes evocative of peace, piety, and tradition.
On the East Wall, panels depicted the seated figures of Roma and Pax, while the western side depicts the discovery of the twins and she-wolf and the sacrifice of a figure traditionally identified as Aeneas, but increasingly believed to be Rome’s 2nd king, Numa Pompilius.
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 modern recreations, 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 Pacissite. Although he was identified correctly in 1903, 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 the figure was proposed to be that of Lepidus, the Pontifex Maximus at the time.
Throughout history the monument suffered the fate of many others, especially in medieval times. It was stripped of several parts of marble, some of which were retrieved.
The first fragmentary sculptures were rediscovered in 1568 beneath Palazzo Chigi, right next to 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 in the same area under Teatro Olimpia, part of the Peretti Palace in Lucina, close to the Italian Parliament Building and the sculptures were recognized as having belonged to the same monument.
In the 1930s the Ara Pacis was covered by a structure similar to a Roman temple with columns and letters of bronze, and was inaugurated by Benito Mussolini in 1938 to mark the bimillenial anniversary of the birth of Augustus. The case that we see today is not the same though.
In fact, in 1995 the Municipality of Rome saw the poor state the Ara Pacis was in and gave American architect Richard Meier the task of providing a better cover. The new structure was inaugurated on the occasion of Christmas in Rome 2004 and is the one we see today.
The new building opened in 2006 to controversy. Nicolai Ouroussoff, of the New York Times described the new building as “a flop”. Gianni Alemanno, presiding mayor at the time, said he would tear down the new structure but has since changed his stance.
Mayor Alemanno 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. Rome 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 project was completed before the end of the mayor’s term in 2013.
Mixing the old with the new is how Rome has operated throughout the ages. Figuring out how to balance one more structure is merely just another day’s work.
With so much spectacular art and architecture within Rome’s city limits, one could spend a lifetime examining it all. If you don’t have that much time, Rome Across Europe heartily suggests visiting the Ara Pacis Augustae. You won’t be disappointed.
Until next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!