Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ara Pacis Augustae (Augustus Altar of Peace)

Alexander Mendez
Honors Program in Rome- Summer 2008

Cast of a portrait of Augustus.
From the collection of casts of busts.
original artwork is exhibited in the Musei Capitolini (Rome).
Picture by Giovanni Dall'Orto, March 2008.

Like so much of propaganda, which manipulate the construction of public images and the opinions of the populace, to begin to describe the Ara Pacis Augustae without understanding the agenda of Augustus will limit the comprehension of the large structure to a series of pretty facades. The agendas of historical Rome were developed mainly due to the deterioration of the Roman Republic that began with the gradual elimination of Roman culture. Military generals of the time grew wealthier and stronger by breaching cultural norms, which began the concentration of wealth with an ultimate result of “Roman values… becoming no more than a meaningless ideology.” (Zanker, 2). The increase in their wealth additionally heightened the rivalry amongst them and little money made its way into the arts. The lack of a moral foundation started the dark period of Roman history and reached its pinnacle with the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. The distribution of power and loss of moral foundations, unbalanced the Roman Republic starting a revolution of the political and moral structure developed by the propagandistic methods and leadership of Augustus.

The first emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus, was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus, known as Octavius, into this decadent period of Roman history. As the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, he impressed his great-uncle with his bravery, and since Caesar had no legitimate male heirs, Caesar adopted Octavius as his son. Unknown to Octavius, Julius Caesar had named Octavius as his heir. After his adoption, Octavius assumed the name Gaius Julius Caesar. Though it was custom to keep his biological name, he wanted to obscure his modest beginnings from the populace – his first application of propaganda for his own benefit.

“May I Succeed In Attaining the Honors and Position of My Father to Which I am Entitled”
(Zanker, 33)

After the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and once Octavius learned of his inheritance, he co-ruled the Roman Empire since he was hesitant in avenging the death of his adopted father. His initial alliance was with Antony and Lepidus, formed as the second triumvirate, which challenged the senate for control of the Roman Territory. (Eck, 15) Each member of the alliance controlled territories of the Roman Empire. However, this peaceful alliance was only temporary and became filled with conflict as they struggled for power. Following the Battle of Philippi, both assassins of Caesar killed themselves, and the senate elevated the dead Caesar to a divine status. This declaration led Octavius to be recognized as “God’s Son” which alluded to his desire to be attributed as the ruler by divine right. Following Octavius’s return to Rome in 27 BC, the senate bestowed the titles of Augustus and Princeps to him. Princeps, meaning “the first citizen,” demonstrates Octavius’s work thus far on his own image on behalf of his Republic. As well as relating him to Romulus. Augustus is translated as “the illustrious one” or “Exalted One.” This latter title symbolized a stamp of authority that extended his constitutional status to one with symbolic authority over humanity – a further benefit to Octavius’s image to the public and thus he continued using the title. The final battle between the newly titled Augustus and Anthony was in 31 BC at the Battle of Actium. (Eck, 128). Subsequently, the very public victory and polished image of Octavius, now Augustus, allowed him the chance to consolidate power within the Roman Republic via the strong support of both senate and populace. The manipulation of his image through simply new titling would not have worked as well if he had not been victorious in those battles. Subsequently, the new titles, his victories, and his connection with the martyred former ruler Caesar were significant enough to give him the strong support as ruler.

With the death of Anthony, Augustus established himself as the leader of the state with diplomatic and strategic power accumulation. He established his power over all aspects of Roman public life; by placating Republican discord as well as winning over the public opinions, he was able to achieve a laundry list of expansions, improvements and the return of morals and culture to the Roman Empire. These achievements were part of a new era of prosperity and peace in the Roman Empire unseen previously in the Republic. He also commissioned an enormous number of public works such as roads, bridges, forums, temples, market halls, and bathing complexes many of which contained distinct messages as a form of propaganda for the state, refining both his image and that of the state.

The establishment of the Golden Age of Rome was mainly regarded as the work of Augustus and though he never claimed to be a god, or to be of divine heritage, he used propaganda to create specific images and actions to help spread these ideas of divine birthright through the art celebrating the state of Rome, and the age of peace and prosperity.

“He Gazes Upon the Temple and Reads the Name Augustus.
Then the Monument Seems to Him Even Greater.” (Zanker, 113)

Before having access to define his image through art, he created other propaganda through “[his] own initiative and at [his] own expense, [he] raised an army with which [he] set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction.” (Augustus, Res Gestae) Using art, he had many sculptures depicting him as a young military commander and hero to remind the public of his service to them, and to obscure his lowly plebian birth. These modifications molded public beliefs and opinions of the Emperor into a vision of a godlike leader. It is this propagandistic use of art and architecture that had allowed him to associate his name with underlying themes of Cultural and Moral Revival, Political and Personal Achievements. These themes appear in many of the art pieces at the time, and especially in the fundamental piece of the Ara Pacis Augustae.

"When I returned to Rome from Gaul and from Spain, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quintilio, having brought to a satisfactory finish my works in these provinces, the Senate decreed that there should be consecrated in the Field of Mars an altar to the Augustan Peace and ordered that the officials, priests and vestal virgins should celebrate a sacrifice at it every year." (Zanker, 54)

The Ara Pacis Augustae was commissioned by the Senate on July 4th of 13 BC to be used as a sacrificial altar. The Senate decreed the building of the altar to celebrate the return of Augustus from Spain and Gaul and his fostering of peace of the Mediterranean. The altar was chosen to be built at Campus Martius, which is along the eastern edge of the Roman district, due to its close proximity to Via Flamina, the road upon which he returned. It took three and a half years to be completed by some of the best sculptors of the time. This further cemented Augustus (formerly Octavius) as a kind of divine entity – the sacrifice of time and precious materials that would be appealing to the eye and worthy of his attention and pleasure, as well as its designation as a sacrificial altar places him amongst the gods.

Augustus’s Mausoleum, a large sundial and Agrippa’s baths were by design arranged near this site because each of these additional landmarks further the significance to Augustus’s impressions upon the populace. Each of the other buildings near the Ara Pacis, built upon the symbolism of the Ara Pacis to increase the effect of this propaganda. The mausoleum was added as an image to represent the deity like nature of Augustus. Agrippa’s Bath reinforced Augustus’s moral cleaning and revival. Finally the sundial held much significance as that it was engineered so that on Augustus’s Birthday, the indicator of the sundial would cast a shadow that aligned with the doorway of the Ara Pacis. (Romage, 122) In addition, the location was set so that it would face away from the Campus Martius, implicating that it has turned its back to the Gods of the field, to dedicate full attention to the pursuit of peace. (Freibergs, 7) These symbolic icons intertwined Augustus with the new peace and flourishing culture that the Roman populace enjoyed and all added to the propaganda that Augustus used to continue his power.

The Ara Pacis. Picture by Catharine Killien, June 2008.

The Ara Pacis itself is a large monument approximately 6 meters in height and 11 by 10 meters at the base. (Ara Pacis, 2) It is mainly constructed out of White Carrara Marble, prized for its white or blue-gray appearance, relative resistance to shattering, ease of carving, and the pseudo-translucence that adds life and depth to the sculptures it was usually reserved for; the use of this marble only further accentuates the Ara Pacis’s importance and beauty. “The Ara Pacis consist of two main components: the altar proper, which rests on a high, U-shaped base approached by four marble steps on the west face; and a precinct wall that surrounds the altar” (Conlin, 4). The surfaces of the walls have been intricately carved with friezes, scenes from the day. The front depicts the foundational myths of Rome, and the rear contains depicts important goddesses to romans. The two sides of the Ara Pacis show two processions that march from the rear to the front of the alter, further symbolizing the historical importance of Augustus as a leader.

The Procession of Officials and Senators. Picture by Alexander Mendez, June 2008.

One procession composes of mainly senators, while the other is a procession of key figures from Augustus’s family. The procession is hierarchically ordered with priests, augurs, and lictors (attendants) in socially accepted placements that decree their importance. Of family, it includes Octavian, flamens (priests), Agrippa (Augustus’s chief advisor), the young Cains Caesar, Livia, Tiberius, Antonia Minor and Drusus with their son Germanicus, Domitia and Domitius Ahenobarbus, and Maecenas. Though most of Julius has been lost, a crooked staff can be seen not unlike the staff held by Fastulus and similar to Augur’s Lituus which add divinity to Caesar’s place in history as well as to that of Augustus. These fragments make it plausible that Augustus was represented holding a lituus on the southern processional frieze (Bianchi, 11). This subtly portrays a link between the two leaders, thus showing more of Augustus’s image manipulation. These two processions show the two main elements of Roman rule, the senate and family of Augustus, emphasizing Augustus as a kind of inevitable ruler and fully supported by all institutions. This can also be thought of as a subtle psychological trick to further encourage subsequent viewers to continue supporting his leadership through the power of suggestion.

The Romulus and Remus Foundation Myth frieze carving with artist markup.
Picture by Catharine Killien, June 2008.

In the original location, the two entrances faced east and west. The main entrance steps lead to the doorway containing friezes that illustrated the origins of Rome. The top left depicts a representation of the she-wolf figure, with Romulus and Remus. They are surrounded with stalks of wheat, fruit, a cow, and other images demonstrating an abundance of harvest. This figure has been said to represent many different fertility goddesses, an underlying possibility is that the figure represents the peace experienced in Rome. (Castriota, 66) This figure is nourishing two infants, could also represent the giving of life to the Roman people and farmland of the Roman Empire. (Castrota, 70) Combined, this frieze symbolizes a forecast of peace and plenty for the roman citizens in the Golden Age created by Augustus.

The Aeneas Frieze.
Picture by Catharine Killien, June 2008.

The top right panel illustrates the son of Goddess Venus, Aeneas, a Trojan Hero, sacrificing the White Sow. According to legend, Aeneas performed this sacrifice after he fled a burning Troy and arrived safely in Latium (Simon, 23). The addition of Aeneas on the Ara Pacis symbolizes Augustus’s supposed decent and lineage to god by birthright, likening Augustus to a god. In addition to intertwining Augustus and godlike images, we find religious overtones that reflect the Augustan religious messages. A patera (an offering plate originally held in Aeneas’ right hand), libation jug (held by an assistant) and lituus (curved staff held by Aeneas), were all identified by ancient Romans as religious symbols. These religious symbols tie Augustus to a divine lineage, seen above normal Romans, as well as show an acceptance of religious practices to the populace and convince the viewer of respecting this authority above the populace as a religion endorsed phenomenon. Also we can identify a number of Flamines (priests) through their distinctive apex which adds to the importance of religion. The inclusion of these symbolic messages throughout the friezes, the location and supporting art pieces and facilities allow for the originally intended viewer of the populace of Rome and the Roman Empire as a whole to acknowledge and fully accept Augustus to be Godlike as well as be indoctrinated to his moral and cultural revival programs under his singular rule.

Augustus included children to encourage marriage and increase the birthrate of the upper classes.
(Wikimedia Commons)

His inclusion of children in the imperial family procession frieze reminds the populace not only of the hierarchy that led to god, but also reminds the viewer of the social programs for subsequent generations that Augustus established as well as his familial ties to the throne and future generations that would hopefully propagate his ideals. The problem of declining Roman Nobility birth rate concerned Augustus. “In particular, it was necessary to encourage marriage among the upper classes to check a falling birth rate.” (Brunt, 46) The acceptance of these programs would be essential in fixing the problem, and ensuring the growth of the population. The propaganda that he used was not only deep but multifaceted to accomplish many tasks. By valuing children the resulting impression is one that combines the traditional ideals and social beliefs with those of a peaceful time and a flourishing of the people, as well as new meanings for politics (a single ruler within a previously known republic), and generational support of his authority.

In addition, his inclusion of Classical Greek art styles into the piece as a basis to develop them into a new Roman style allows Augustus to coerce his viewers into believing an advancement of the art and culture in the new Golden Era as also a traditional concept. Illustrating the foundational myths containing Aeneas returns the viewers to the roots of Roman culture, and his goals of achieving a more moral foundation in the populace. Furthermore, the scene is propagandistic in that “contemporaries… would have been reminded that Augustus renewed the Lupercalia [an ancient festival that would be to purify the city for a better health and fertility of the citizens].” (Freibergs, 9) Driving home the message, Roman figures in the procession have been clearly carved to be recognizable individuals in real life, contrasting with Greek artwork that contained only mythical representations of real scenes. (Janson, 142) The modern twist on the classical tradition gives new life to the populace of having a recognizable culture that is a nation’s own, while paying homage to the previous great civilization. The revitalization of a glorious past builds upon the desires of a more moral culture and society, and Augustus had clearly taken advantage and refined the city’s image of itself which would encourage the people to have pride in their city, and subsequently their leader. The depiction of Roma atop enemy weapons and shields also adds to the message of roman peace.

Finally, he worked on intertwining his image of being a divine leader with that of being an instigator of the peace and prosperity of the Mediterranean region. The incorporations in the artwork he commissioned of naturally abundant growing vegetation sprawling across the peaceful settings, and symbolic scrolls of knowledge encourages the viewer to incorporate a picture of Augustus being a supreme and wise leader generating the wealth of the Golden Age.“I Found Rome a City of Bricks and Left it a City of Marble.” (BBC)

The artistic implementation of statues, buildings and memorials allowed Augustus to achieve his personal and political goals. These messages can be decoded from the socio-political climate at the time, allowing us to see through the art to the powerful and canny propaganda that he utilized. However this was not the only use of the Ara Pacis since its original creation. In the post World War I climate, Italian Facist Benito Mussolini ordered the reconstruction of the Ara Pacis. This was another use of this piece of art as a reworked propagandistic tool to aid political change. The reconstruction of the nearly two millennium old artifact was built besides the Tiber River to highlight Mussolini as a new emperor similar to Augustus. “A wall of Morpurgo’s building also carried the text of “Res Gestae Divi Augusti” or “deeds of the divine Augustus”: the emperor’s memoirs recounting his triumphs such as Mussolini’s pride in his “new” Ara Pacis.” (Riding).

The Richard Meier building containing the Ara Pacis.
There is controversy around the building due to the American architecture and design.
Picture by Alexander Mendez June 2008.

Though today the original Ara Pacis has been moved from its original location to create an ancient Roman theme park, its reconstruction allowed many of the essential symbols to be accessed and appreciated. As the intricate detailed friezes of this influential work are explored, each filled with distinct symbolism, they are reminiscent of the Golden Age of the Roman Empire, and the political and social agendas of Augustus. These agendas mainly stemmed from his need to support, legitimize and moralize his own image and seat of authority to the public. By blending traditional Greek art style into a new Roman style, he was able to achieve legitimacy from the traditional weight of history and religion. It is clear that the Ara Pacis proves that Augustus was one of the major figures in Roman history, and one of the greatest leaders and advertisers or propagandists of human history.

When I first began my investigation with research into Augustus and the Ara Pacis Augustae, I was most interested about the use of the propaganda in history. Though initially astounded by the photographs and historical accounts, it was not until visiting London that my interest peaked from the history I learned of the use of propaganda throughout World War II as depicted in the Churchill Museum and War Rooms. These differences in propaganda and leadership techniques used by William Churchill to rally the allies and give hope to the populace were contrasted by the different techniques of Hitler to destroy the work of Churchill and President Theodore Roosevelt. Finally being able to behold the Ara Pacis in person allowed me to fully determine the grand size and constructed symbolism and to appreciate its use as a tool to coerce or manipulate the opinions of a mass of people. Images for a country and leader are not only given to the populace at the time, but the ultimate result was a continuation of that image to subsequent generations, be they Romans or halfway across the globe hundreds of years later.

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