Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Ara Pacis Augustae

Brian Spencer
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

By the late first century B.C., Augustus and the ruling Roman elite were intensely conscious of Rome’s position as heir and administrator of the Greek legacy in all its cultural, political, and economic ramifications. But they were also committed to the belief that the Roman state could meet the imperial challenge only by renewing and revitalizing popular belief in the national mores and institutions which had been progressively eroded by the decades of military and political strife, social unrest, and cultural confrontation endemic to the Late Republic (Castriota 3).

In general terms, precisely this harkening back to a golden age of peace and plenty is the cultural story that was both perpetuated by and gave rise to the Ara Pacis Augustae. It is a perfect example of, as dictated by the fashion of the time, the use of traditionally Greek forms to promulgate a new distinctly Roman ethos, specifically one legitimizing the position of the new emperor (Castriota 4). The original site of the Ara Pacis Augustae was consecrated on July 4, 13 B.C., shortly after Augustus’ return to Rome after successful campaigns in Gaul and Spain, and the completed monument itself was finally dedicated on his wife’s birthday, January 30, in the year 9 B.C. (Conlin 3). Because the leitmotif of his reign was peace, Augustus often chose to have his image and his monuments associated with peacetime scenes of myth and life, and such is the case with the Ara Pacis. Thus, the Ara Pacis, though it may have nothing to do with war, conflict, or the traditional form in which we may envision “propaganda,” is still a deliberate piece of propaganda in that it represents a bold statement of the sweeping reinvigoration of Roman society that Augustus hoped to accomplish with his reign. As a final introductory caveat, the Ara Pacis we know today was reconstructed in 1938, but the original was “probably identical”1 with the richly carved Augustan altar that bears its name today” (Janson 143).

Architecturally, the Ara Pacis is in keeping with more general, traditional Greek altar design, of which first century BC Romans saw themselves as caretakers and inheritors. However, the only known structure closely resembling it is the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon, a Hellenic-period Greek kingdom near the coast of modern-day Turkey (Janson 144). In this manner it was somewhat nontraditional. There were differences in the construction of the building and the size of the altar, but “none of these disparities affects the fundamental typological identity of both monuments” (Castriota 35), and thus the monument was in keeping with the Greek tradition, though it has no parallel in Greece proper.

Above: Altar of Zeus – Pergamon (now in Berlin) Below: Ara Pacis Augustae - Rome

The Ara Pacis is about 6.1 meters tall, and 11.63 by 10.52 meters at its base (ARA PACIS). It is constructed entirely of gorgeous white marble, and enhancing its beauty are the intricate friezes about its surfaces. “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). It currently stands in Rome, on the spot to which Mussolini relocated it as part of his “Roman theme park,” under the shelter of a controversial new building by American architect Richard Meier. The controversy arises both from the building’s post-modern design and from a faction of Italians that believe a project of such import to Italian history and heritage should be given to an Italian architect (Seabrook 56). Interestingly, when the Ara Pacis originally stood on the edge of the Campus Martius, the altar was oriented so that the individual making the sacrifice had to turn his back to the Campus Martius—and, by implication, the God presiding over that field—thus dedicating his full attention to pursuits of peace (Freibergs 7). However, more important than the monument’s physical characteristics is the meaning of the carvings.

The Ara Pacis has two main friezes on its outer precinct walls and four smaller ones on the smaller corner wall surfaces, as labeled below, as well as intricate adornment on the altar itself and inside the precinct walls.

The Tellus relief provides an interesting place to start, as its meaning has long been in contention in scholarly circles. In the frieze, there is a representation of an Earth Mother figure surrounded by images of abundance, such as stalks of wheat, fruit, a cow, a sheep and poppies. This figure’s identification has proven to be difficult due to a glut of symbols in the relief that are traditionally associated with various goddesses. The figure has been tagged not only as a broad range of Greco-Roman fertility goddesses including Tellus, Venus, or Ceres, but also as peace herself: Pax (Castriota 66). There are also two infants on the figure’s lap. Instantly, Romulus and Remus spring to mind, though they have no characteristics that make certain identification possible. There are also two wind deities, velificantes, representing the land and sea winds that breathe life into the farmland of the Roman Empire (Casstriota 70). Regardless of ambiguities, the Tellus frieze sends a powerful message forecasting the peace and plenty that Roman citizens will enjoy in the Pax Augustae.

There is, however, further meaning in the difficulty scholars have had in determining the exact identity of the Tellus figure. Castriota writes that the “mixed iconography could reflect the religious syncretism” (71), indicating that the frieze is meant to show the concordance of the major earth goddesses. He goes on to argue that this agreement among these goddesses is, elsewhere in Greco-Roman art, an indication of peace—indeed, without the goddesses in agreement no peace is possible. With this intentional ambiguity in the identification of the Tellus figure, the observer is called upon to see all of the goddesses in harmony, and to make the conclusion that they, cooperatively, endorse Augustus’ reign and mean to reign their blessings down upon it.

Diagonally across the monument from the Tellus frieze is the Romulus and Remus relief. In this scene, the god Mars watches over his offspring, Romulus and Remus, as they are being suckled by the she-wolf. This depiction of the Roman foundation myth serves to remind the viewer of a return to the roots of Roman society, and especially a revival of morality that Augustus is trying to accomplish. Furthermore, the scene is propagandistic in that “contemporaries… would have been reminded that Augustus renewed the Lupercalia” (Freibergs 9). The Lupercalia was the Roman festival of fertility on the date of the modern Valentine’s Day, and so revitalizing its celebration would have been seen as a step in the trend toward rediscovering a glorious past.

Looking to one’s right facing the front of the monument, one finds the frieze traditionally credited as Aeneas. The identification of this frieze has recently been challenged in scholarly circles. The new theory states that the frieze may actually have been meant to be taken as a representation of Numa Pompilius and not Aeneas. If this is the case, then there is a great deal of added propagandistic significance in the frieze. If we are to assume that this frieze represents Aeneas, then several incongruities with other portrayals of the scene arise. He appears bizarrely barefoot, middle-aged, wearing an archaic-era Italian toga, with a full beard and long, free hair, offering a sacrifice. The customary depiction of Aeneas, though, is a young, armored man full of valor, most often beardless. Further, in the Aeneid myth, Aeneas offered sacrifice when he arrived in Italy to fulfill the terms of a prophecy, yet this figure is obviously later in life than the traditional representation of Aeneas at his arrival (Rehak 196).

Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome, was known for the era of peace, order, and law his subjects enjoyed under his reign. The figure’s barefoot state and his garment suggest the sculptors aimed to portray a simpler age than the early first century A.D., and the sacrificial content of the scene has relevance in that Numa is said to have offered sacrifice to Mars to avert war with the Sabines in the Campus Martius, the original site of the Ara Pacis (Rehak 196). This interpretation provides a strong link between the Ara Pacis’ purpose (to commemorate Augustus as a Prince of Peace) and the contention that the panel represents Numa, not Aeneas. Furthermore, the depiction of Numa in such a “fatherly” light suggests that the mantle and responsibility of a preserving peace in Rome was being “handed down” from Numa to Augustus (Rehak 197).

Another interpretation of this frieze is that the Numa/Aeneas figure is portrayed ambiguously on purpose, with the intention of conjuring up in the mind of the viewer the virtuous qualities of both men. This explains several incongruities in the interpretation of the scene as Numa, as opposed to Aeneas. For example, it explains the appearance of the Penates, a shrine to the Trojan household gods that Aeneas purportedly saved from the sack of Troy, in the frieze. It also explains why another figure in the frieze bears many visual cues characteristic of depictions of Aeneas’ son, Ascanius. This interpretation of the frieze as intentionally ambiguous seems to allow the viewer the best of both worlds—both the visage of Aeneas, with its message of the infusion of dignity and morality from the Trojan tradition and the image of Numa, with his mantle of peace.

If the Numa/Aeneas panel represents responsibility being handed down to Augustus, then the grand procession frieze on both sides of the building that depicts the Emperor Augustus taking up that mantle and leading the Roman people into a new era of peace. Though only 308 of 611 figures in the procession scene can be attributed to the original Ara Pacis due to reworking of the marble both before and after the procession friezes were discovered in the sixteenth century (Conlin 46), there is no disagreement in the scholarship that the original scene bore a resemblance to one we see today. Fortunately for the purposes of this paper, the changes to the scene do not undermine the propagandistic nature of the procession panels.

In order to understand the procession panels of the Ara Pacis, a review of the Augustan agenda is first necessary. This paper has already discussed Augustus’ wish to be portrayed in a peaceful setting and his harkening back to a “golden age” of morality, but there is also another key aspect of Augustus’ social program, his focus on strengthening the Roman (especially middle-class and patrician) family. “In particular, it was necessary to encourage marriage among the upper classes to check a falling birth rate” (Brunt 46). Thus arose the Leges Juliae de maritandis ordinibus and De Adulteriis, “Julian Laws on the Marriage of the Orders” and “On Adultery.” These laws created economic incentives for married couples, especially those with three or more children and punished those who were unmarried and adulterers (Brunt 47).

It is fitting, then, for this focus to be reflected in Augustus’ propaganda, and indeed it is. One notices in the processional friezes of the Ara Pacis the abundance of depictions of children. In contrast, statues and carvings featuring children are noticeably rare elsewhere in Late Republican and Early Imperial art; yet on these friezes, they accompany their elders to the sacrifice in great numbers. This sends a clear message that Augustus’ new regime values children and wants the Roman citizenry to use the new age of Augustan peace to reproduce and spread Roman culture and morality.

Another interesting thing about the procession panels is that they provide an example of a theme in this paper: the appropriation of Hellenic forms and their synthesis into subtly new Roman ones. Though the portraiture shows influence from the Hellenic style, there is a key difference from the traditional Greek form. Whereas the Greeks always portrayed mythical scenes as allegorical representations of real events (Janson 142), the Roman figures in the procession are clearly meant to be recognizable individuals. Augustus himself, in the dress of a sacrificial priest and his chief general, Agrippa, are a few of those identifiable (Janson 143).

Diagonally across the Ara Pacis from the Aeneas/Numa frieze one finds the depiction of Roma. Though the frieze is mostly missing from the Ara Pacis, scholars know what the scene would have looked like from a copy of the Ara Pacis elsewhere in the Empire. The figure in depicted is a female warrior at rest atop her armor, which bears the crest of Rome. This has led scholars to believe that the figure is an embodiment of the city of Rome herself. She is at rest—enjoying the Pax Augustae—but also vigilant and watchful (Freibergs 11).

A particularly interesting part of the Ara Pacis’ sculpture is the under-discussed “floral friezes.” These have been neglected by many scholars, and even at times dismissed as mere decoration, but this is certainly not the case. The strangeness of the floral friezes lies in the fact that they are full of traditional Greek Dionysian symbols, such as six large grape vines and no fewer than ten sprigs of ivy, though Augustus’ divine patron was Apollo all throughout his career (Castriota 88).

It is especially fascinating that Augustus would adorn his Ara Pacis with such a plethora of Dionysian symbols in light of the fact that his goal of establishing a new Roman Empire under his stewardship came under threat so many time from men claiming Dionysus as their patron and from Dionysian propaganda. For example, at the end of the era of the Second Triumvirate, when Augustus (still Octavian at the time) fought Antony for control of the Roman domain, Antony had associated himself strongly with Dionysus, calling the God his “special protector” (Castriota 88). Further, if the historical record is to believed, Antony was himself Dionysian in character, and Octavian’s propaganda sought to make him, and his Hellenic ethics look morally bankrupt—an easy task when contrasted with Octavian’s staunch, Roman conception of order and his association with Apollo, a God of moderation (Castriota 89). Therefore, Octavian’s famous victory at Actium was meant to be seen as “a moral and cultural victory in which a new order founded on Western, Italian excellence triumphed over the decadent, Hellenic east” (Castriota 89).

The appealing image of Dionysus was also used against Rome by many other parties, including Mithridates VI, the charismatic New Dionysos King of Pontos in the early first century B.C., who sought to break Rome’s power in the east. Further, during the Social War in late Republican times, a coalition of Italian states allied against the Roman hegemon attempted to use the broad plebeian appeal of Dionysian, utopian propaganda to incite riots and uprising among Roman citizens (Castriota 90-1).

Given this history of Dionysian elements in society being so antithetical to Augusts’ vision for his ordered, Italic empire, why was Augustus so eager to adorn his monument with the traditional Greek symbols of Dionysus? The answer is that, by integrating Dionysus into the art of the new regime, Augusts sent the message that the God was a supporter of the new power structure, effectively dismantling and subverting his opponent’s propaganda. By appropriating the symbols of Rome’s enemies, Augustus was essentially engaging in a brilliant campaign of counter-propaganda. This fits with the theme of the assimilation of traditional Greek symbols into a new Roman ethos. The Dionysian symbols may have been Greek in form, but in light of the times they were quintessentially Roman.

The Ara Pacis represents a seminal work in the history of Augustan propaganda; this paper has discussed the friezes and how they each support and legitimize Augustus and the Pax Augustae. A central theme of this discussion has been Augustus’ attempt to cast his regime as the revitalization of Roman order, culture, and morality. The ways by which he accomplished this were numerous; this paper has discussed several. He synthesized accepted, traditional Greek art and architectural forms into a subtly distinct Roman style for his new regime, and this gave it a special legitimacy through an invocation of the weight of history. Further, he portrayed himself as the bringer of peace and plenty to a Roman citizenry accustomed to war and conflict. Finally, he assimilated the propaganda of Rome’s enemies, thereby turning it to his own utility. In all, the Ara Pacis is an essential piece of the legacy left by one of history’s first propagandists.

“ARA PACIS AUGUSTAE.” NZACT, Classics New Zeland. 12/2/2006

Brunt, P.A. and J. M. Moore (editors). Res Gestae Divi Augusti: The Achievments of the Divine Augustus. Oxford University Press, 1967.

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

Conlin, Diane Atnally. The Artists of the Ara Pacis: The Process of Hellenization in Roman Relief Sculpture. The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Janson, H. W. History of Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Ney York, 1971.

Freibergs, G. et al. “Indo-European Tripartition and the Ara Pacis Augustae: An Excursus in Ideological Archaeology.” Numen 1986, Vol. 33, pp. 3-32.

Rehak, Paul. “Aeneas or Numa? Rethinking the Meaning of the Ara Pacis Augustae.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 83, No. 2. (Jun., 2001), pp. 190-208.

Seabrook, John. “Roman renovation.” The New Yorker 2005, Vol. 81, no. 11, 2 May, pp. 56-63.


1. “Identical…” Sic: later sources disprove this contention, eg. Conlin 46, see but the gist of the text—that the original Ara Pacis probably looked very similar—is certainly true and supported elsewhere in the literature.