Rome: Ara Pacis Augustae

The Ara Pacis Augustae – the Altar of Augustan Peace – is what one could call a monument in the wrong place. The large open-air altar is not in its original position. It can now be found next to the remains of the gigantic circular Mausoleum of Augustus, but it used to be right on the Via Lata, the urban stretch of the ancient Via Flaminia. It must have stood just south of the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina. Pieces of the altar were rediscovered in the sixteenth century, and then the Fascists had the entire altar extracted from under the Cinema Nuovo Olimpia in the late 1930s. They originally wanted to re-erect it on the Capitoline Hill[1], but ultimately decided that the spot directly on the river Tiber, right next to the tomb of Rome’s first true emperor, was a much better location.

The Ara Pacis Augustae.

The reassembled altar was initially housed in a building constructed by the architect Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo (1890-1966). I must have visited this building on a trip to Rome with my school in 1996, but I have no memories of it. Morpurgo’s building was replaced with one by the American architect Richard Meier in 2006. His Ara Pacis museum not only accommodates the Altar of Peace, but also houses interesting exhibitions. In January 2018, I for instance visited an exhibition dedicated to the work of the Japanese artist Hokusai.

The Mausoleum of Augustus. This picture was taken in January 2017. Shortly afterwards, a project was launched to restore the large tomb.

History and original position of the Ara Pacis

Scale model of the Campus Martius, showing the Mausoleum of Augustus (1), the Pantheon (2), the Saepta Julia (3), the Aqua Virgo (4), the Stagnum Agrippae (5), Augustus’ sun dial (6), the Via Lata (7) and the Ara Pacis (8). Note that north is south and vice versa.

On 4 July of the year 13 BCE, the Roman Senate decided to have an altar erected dedicated to the peace that Augustus had supposedly brought. The emperor – officially just the princeps, the first citizen of the state – had just returned from successful campaigns in Gaul and Spain. Augustan peace was of course a proper Roman peace, enforced by strength and Roman military might. Initially, the altar was bound to be erected within the Curia Julia, the Senate House on the Forum Romanum. Augustus, however, chose to construct it on the Campus Martius, the large open area outside the original city walls of Rome. By choosing this location, Augustus continued “the process by which he and Agrippa turned this area into a giant monument to his glory”.[2] The open-air altar was formally consecrated on 30 January 9 BCE. As stated above, it was located directly on the Via Lata, with its eastern side hugging the road. There must have been a close relationship between the Ara Pacis on the Campus Martius and the Temple of Janus on the Forum, the doors of which were closed several times by Augustus to signify that the Empire was at peace.

The current Ara Pacis museum has a very good scale model of the Campus Martius as it must have looked in 9 BCE. Here we see the large circular Mausoleum of Augustus, constructed in 28 BCE. By the time the Ara Pacis was consecrated, the Mausoleum already held the remains of Marcus Claudius Marcellus (42-23 BCE), Augustus’ nephew and perhaps his intended successor. Augustus’ closest friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa had died in 12 BCE, so he also did not live to see the completion of the Ara Pacis. Agrippa’s ashes were placed in the Mausoleum as well. About half a mile south of the Mausoleum we can see the Pantheon, constructed by Agrippa in 27 BCE.[3] The model also shows the Saepta Julia and the aqueduct known as the Aqua Virgo to the left of the Pantheon. To the right is the Stagnum Agrippae, a large artificial reservoir. Between the Mausoleum and the Pantheon, slightly to the left, we see the large obelisk that Augustus set up as the gnomon of his sun dial (horologium). And then finally, on the far left, we see the famous Via Lata and a small square enclosure housing the Ara Pacis.

A closer look at the Ara Pacis

The so-called Tellus Panel.

Visitors entering the large hall made of glass and steel now housing the Ara Pacis will first see the western side of the enclosure, with a flight of stairs leading to the altar within. The exterior of the enclosure is decorated with four reliefs. The two panels on the lower left and right merely have vegetal motifs, but the panels on the upper left and right have scenes that are more difficult to interpret. The one on the left is generally called the Lupercal Panel and is thought to show the discovery of the twins Romulus and Remus by the shepherd Faustulus. The Romans celebrated the ancient festival of the Lupercalia each year on 15 February. The panel on the right is often assumed to show Aeneas sacrificing, although a more modern theory asserts that the man depicted is actually Numa Pompilius, Rome’s legendary second king. The creation of several priesthoods and the introduction of the months of January and February were attributed to him, and he was also credited with having the Temple of Janus constructed. Hence there is a firm connection between him and Peace.

The other side of the enclosure, i.e. the eastern side, is the side that used to be directly on the Via Lata. Here we find more panels featuring vegetal motifs decorating the lower part of the wall. In the top right corner is a badly damaged panel thought to have once presented a female warrior, perhaps the goddess Roma, the personification of the city of Rome. What we see today is a reconstruction by scholars. The relief in the top left corner is fortunately more or less in one piece. It is commonly known as the Tellus Panel. The panel shows a seated woman in the centre, with two little children on her lap. On the left and right are two more female figures. Also in the scene are several animals, a bull, a sheep, a swan and a dangerous looking creature that might be a dragon. The woman in the centre had been identified as either Tellus (Earth) – hence the name Tellus Panel -, Pax (Peace), Italia (the personification of Italy) or even Venus. There is simply no way to obtain certainty about her true identity.

Priests and a lictor.

The two long sides of the Ara Pacis enclosure are the most interesting parts of the edifice. Here – on what are the northern and southern sides – we see friezes with a long procession of people. It is difficult to say whether a real event is depicted or an imaginary ceremony. Adrian Goldsworthy, in his authoritative biography of Augustus, has argued that “one of the most convincing suggestions is that it shows the formal thanksgiving or supplicatio commemorating Augustus’ victories in 13 BC – one of the fifty-five public thanksgivings awarded to him, which added up to a grand total of 890 days, dwarfing even those granted to Julius Caesar”.[4] This may very well be true, but again we have no means to obtain certainty, and the issue will certainly continue to be debated by scholars.

A closer look at the procession

Some of the figures in the procession can be identified fairly easily. Augustus, for instance, is the slightly larger figure with about half of his body missing. He is wearing a laurel crown, a symbol of victory. Augustus was 53 years old when the Ara Pacis was consecrated, but here he is depicted as a man in the prime of his life. The figures with the spiked caps to his right are priests called the flamines maiores. There were originally three of these priests in Ancient Rome, serving the cults of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus (the deified Romulus) respectively. Since four of them are depicted in the procession, the fourth must actually be the flamen of Divus Julius, a priesthood created only in 42 BCE to serve the cult of the Divine Gaius Julius Caesar. A temple dedicated to Divus Julius had been consecrated on the Forum Romanum in 29 BCE.

Frieze featuring Augustus on the far left and the four flamines maiores in the centre.

Further to the right is another slightly taller man with his head covered (see below). He is generally identified as Agrippa. The woman on his right has traditionally been identified as Livia (58 BCE-29 CE), Augustus’ wife, although several scholars would like to see her as Julia (39 BCE-14 CE), Augustus’ daughter with Scribonia. Between them is a small boy tugging at Agrippa’s toga, while the woman has put her hand on the boy’s head. The boy may be Gaius Caesar (20 BCE-4 CE), son of Agrippa and Julia. However, a different interpretation is that he is in fact a Germanic prince brought to Rome as a hostage. One argument is that he is not wearing a toga, but a simple tunic. But if he is Gaius, then his younger brother Lucius Caesar (17 BCE-2 CE) must be among the children in the procession as well (probably on the other side of the enclosure, as part of the relief of the northern side).

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The man next to Livia/Julia is presumably Tiberius (42 BCE-37 CE), son of Livia and her first husband Tiberius Claudius Nero. He would marry Julia in 11 BCE, after her previous husband Agrippa had died the previous year. The woman to his right is probably Antonia the Younger (36 BCE-37 CE), daughter of Mark Antony and Augustus’ sister Octavia. She was married to Drusus, brother of Tiberius and second son of Livia and Tiberius Claudius Nero. Drusus (38-9 BCE) is depicted next to her; husband and wife are looking at each other, while between them we see their young son Germanicus (15 BCE-19 CE). He would go on to win fame on the battlefield, but he would also die young, much like his father, who died just a few months after the Ara Pacis was inaugurated.[5] Behind Drusus is a woman identified as Antonia the Elder, the other daughter of Antony and Octavia. She was married to Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (49 BCE-25 CE), who is depicted to her right with his hand extended. The children between them are probably Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (tugging at Drusus’ cloak) and his older sister Domitia.[6] Gnaeus was the father of the later emperor Nero (54-68).

Internal decorations: garlands and ox skulls.

The northern side of the Altar is slightly less spectacular. Here we find members of priestly colleges and yet more members of the extended Imperial family. Scholars have identified several people here, although most of the identifications are far from certain. On this side may be found Lucius Caesar, Augustus’ daughter Julia (if she does not appear on the other side), perhaps his sister Octavia (69-11 BCE) and her stepson Iullus Antonius (45-2 BCE), son of Mark Antony and Fulvia. When the Ara Pacis was consecrated in early 9 BCE, the future emperor Claudius (10 BCE-54 CE) had already been born as the second son of Antonia the Younger and Drusus, but he does not seem to have been depicted as a participant in the procession. He was probably too young, or perhaps the process of carving the reliefs had already been finished. The Ara Pacis is unique in portraying three generations of members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But it is also unique because it portrays so many women and children and depicts them interacting with their husbands and fathers, which was in fact unprecedented.[7]

The Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization correctly states that “beneath the panels and friezes of the exterior, a profusion of delicate plant life reminds the viewer of the fecundity of nature that Augustus’ peace guarantees”.[8] Compared to the lavish exterior decorations, the interior of the Ara Pacis is very simple. Here we merely find sculpted garlands and ox skulls, as well as smaller processions of sacrificial animals, priests, priestesses and celebrants. I must admit that this does add to the solemnity of this sacred space.

Procession inside the Ara Pacis.


[1] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 494.

[2] Adrian Goldsworthy, Augustus, p. 357.

[3] It was later completely rebuilt by Hadrianus (117-138), but the version we see here is Agrippa’s Pantheon.

[4] Adrian Goldsworthy, Augustus, p. 357.

[5] He too was interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus.

[6] I follow the Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 230.

[7] Adrian Goldsworthy, Augustus, p. 359.

[8] Paperback edition 2008, p. 62.


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