Sunday, August 26, 2007

Augustus and the Golden Age

Megan Su
Honors in Rome - Summer 2007

Octavian, eventually known as Augustus, was the first emperor of the Roman Empire. He ruled from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. During his long reign, he brought peace and prosperity to the war-torn Mediterranean world that lasted about two centuries – The period came to be called the Pax Romana. It is universally agreed that Augustus was perhaps one of the greatest and most influential figures in Roman history. He brought Rome into the Golden Age and claimed to have transformed Rome from a city of brick into a city of marble. The Romans recognized his firm sense of duty and welcomed his reforms and the lasting peace which accompanied them.

The murder of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. was just one of the many events that led to the beginning of Octavian’s reign and the Roman Empire. It was not until after Caesar’s assassination and the discovery of the contents of his will that Octavian, Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son, became aware that Caesar had nominated him as his personal heir. At the time, Marc Antony was still Consul and believed that he could one day step up to power, but he was placed in a serious disadvantage because of the position Octavian now held.

For a while, Octavian and Antony ruled alongside one another, each in control of a portion of the Roman Empire. However, their relationship soon turned into rivalry for power and conflict. After the battle of Philippi, where a Republican army was defeated by Octavian and Antony, both Brutus’s and Cassius’s killed themselves (Caesar’s assassins) and Caesar was declared a god, despite Antony’s previous efforts. Caesar’s stature ultimately influenced Octavian’s image, as he was recognized as a god’s son.

Meanwhile, Antony, who was in command of the Empire in the east, became involved with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, even though he was married to Octavian’s sister. This turn of event permitted Octavian to call both Antony and Cleopatra enemies of Rome. This consequently renewed civil war.

The inevitable and final battle between the two parties arrived in 31 B.C. at the Battle of Actium, where Antony and Cleopatra’s navy was destroyed by Octavian forces, which was commanded by Octavian’s friend Marcus Vispsanius Agrippa. Octavian’s fleet overwhelmed the ships of Antony and Cleopatra who fled to Egypt and committed suicide within a year. Alas, peace was achieved.

The title of Augustus, meaning “the exalted”, was given to Octavian in 27 BC by the senate upon his return to Rome. He established himself as the leading man of the state with tactful strategies of winning over the public and placating Republican opinions. The Empire itself consisted of the same constitutional offices as those found in the Republic, except Augustus was in control of all aspects of Roman public life.

Augustus may not have possessed the “personal magnetism” of Julius Caesar but he did have characteristics of his own that made him a great leader. He was disciplined and spread that strict discipline everywhere he went, maintained the loyalty of his friends, and chose his officials carefully. Augustus was considered cold-hearted at times; even when it came to his family, but it was mainly because of his idea of upholding a simple and well-regulated life. (Hibbert, 34).
During his long and prosperous reign, Augustus improved and expanded Rome in many ways – he kept the people of Rome content with liberal supplies of food and entertainment, established an effective police force, claimed that he restored no fewer than 82 temples in Rome, completed the Forum of Caesar, and worked on a temple to Mars Ultor, which was used to illustrate Mars as the avenger of his adoptive father’s murder. He also commissioned an enormous number of public works such as roads, bridges, forums, temples, market halls, and bathing complexes.

Although Augustus never claimed to be a god himself, he widely advertised himself as the son of a god. He had many sculptures made, especially those depicting him as a youthful hero and military commander, and imperial portraits and arches covered with reliefs that reminded the public of his great deeds. Many of these pieces of artwork were not historically accurate, but they were made to mold the public’s opinion of the Emperor – to have them see him as a godlike leader. Augustus and the artists he employed effectively used art and architecture for propagandistic ends.

The Ara Pacis Augustae is an altar that symbolizes Augustan peace and celebrates the era of prosperity and security during the rule of Augustus. It is one of the most famous examples of Augustan monumental sculptures in Rome. It is the epitome of how Augustus used art to manipulate the public’s opinion and glorify his deeds. The Ara Pacis is a public monument that is a propaganda statement for the good image of the emperor.

Two entrances.

In antiquity, the Ara Pacis was used as a sacrificial altar where officials, priests, and Vestal virgins offered an annual sacrifice. The original location of the altar was on the eastern edge of the Roman district called Campus Martius, close to Via Flaminia, which was the road taken by Augustus when he re-entered Rome. The Ara Pacis was also near Augustus’s mausoleum, Agrippa’s baths, and a large sundial. The significance of this sundial was that on Augustus’s birthday, the gnomon, the indicator of the sundial, was designed so that the sun would cast a shadow that aligned with the doorway of the Ara Pacis. (Ramage, 123). This reiterated the message to the Roman public that Augustus was responsible for the new peace the Romans enjoyed.

It was decreed by the Senate on July 4th, 13 BC to celebrate Augustus’s return and the peace he brought to the Mediterranean world after three years’ absence in Spain and Gaul, settling matters in the western Empire. However, it was not dedicated until 9 BC. It took 3.5 years to complete the altar of peace by some of the best sculptors of the day. And like most historical relief sculptures, the artists were anonymous, but they most likely originated from Greece because of Augustus’s fondness for Greek art.

The Ara Pacis is rectangular and made out of white Carrara marble, which is a very famous type of marble used in ancient Rome. (In some cases, Carrara marble was valued above all others because of the mineral’s perfect shape). Furthermore, the Ara is composed of a sacrificial altar in the interior, surrounded by precinct walls, elaborately carved in relief, which is a specific carving technique that was used throughout the monument. The top half of the walls consist of reliefs of figures while the bottom is composed of acanthus leaves, swans, lizards, and flowers.

There are essentially two entrances: one facing the east and one facing the west (when it’s placed in its original location), and it has been suggested that, from the Roman’s perspective, the doorways were linked to the idea of peace. The main entrance, the doorway with the steps, consists of friezes that illustrate the origins of Rome:

The top left side, which is almost entirely lost, represented the Lupercal, the cave in which the she-wolf nurtured Romulus and Remus, and the wolf connection to the divine origins of Rome. 

The top-right panel depicts Aeneas, a Trojan hero and the son of the goddess Venus, sacrificing the White Sow. 

The idea here is that having Aeneas, the founder of the Julian line, on the Ara Pacis illustrated a key element of Augustus’s political agenda for his new Golden Age -- it reflected Augustus as a decedent from a god, equating to how he should be portrayed as a god. Another interesting detail about this particular frieze is how it also reflects Augustan religious agenda -- many of the religious symbols associated with religious orders are present, including the patera (an offering plate), the libation jug, and the lituus (a curved staff). Many ancient Romans identified with religion by different objects and their symbols, therefore by having such prominent Augustan religious symbols on a monument dedicated to him, people were more likely to obey and practice religion. Such aspects of the Ara Pacis were used to spread a specific message to the public -- the importance of acknowledging and respecting an entity higher than himself.

The two sides of the Ara Pacis display two processions with figures that march from the back to the front. The southern procession composes of mainly senators, while the northern side is the imperial procession, composed of the principal figures, perfectly ordered by family and rank: priests, augurs, lictors (attendants). 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. The general purpose behind these two processions is to show the dualism of Roman rule – the Senate and the family of Augustus.

The inclusion of children in the imperial family procession is especially significant because it is a reminder of the social program Augustus established. Augustus was concerned about a decline in the birthrate among the Roman nobility, so he enacted a series of laws designed to promote marriage, marital fidelity, and raising children. Portrayal of men with their families on the Ara was intended as a moral exemplar. Augustus also portrays his grandsons on the panel because they were important to him and he had hopes that they would play a role in continuing his dynasty. (Ramage, 120). Essentially, Augustus wanted to ensure the growth of the population.

Artistically, Augustus was interested in Classical Greek art, and wanted to show how artistically advanced Rome was as well by taking Greek art styles and developing them into a new, sophisticated Roman style. So, in the case of the imperial procession, the sculptors altered the heights of the figures by adding children to avoid the monotony of too many toga-wearing people with heads all at the same level, which was a style seen in Greek art. The artists also changed the stance and direction of the figures, using very low relief carving at the background level to indicate the figures behind. This technique was similar to the features on the frieze on the Parthenon in Athens, which was important to Augustus because in this way he could connect his dynasty’s greatness to that of Athens in the 5th century BC. Furthermore, it is important to note that the procession looks especially realistic because the artists showed some of the feet projecting beyond the edge of the relief, which is another technique used by the Greek. (Ramage, 121).

The entire bottom half of the Ara Pacis is covered with scroll reliefs that symbolize the peace and the plenty that Augustus brought to the Empire. It can be interpreted as a symbolic reference to the wealth of the Golden Age – abundance of naturally grown vegetation and the sprouting of cultivated plants from weeds.

On the left, upper-back panel, it is suggested that the woman holding the babies on her lap is Tellus, Mother Earth, and the babies represent fertility. Others have also suggested that the woman perhaps represents Pax (peace), which is maybe a more logical interpretation because it directly correlates with the overall theme of peace: she is epitomizing the fruits of Pax Augusta – all around her the earth is in bloom and the animals of different species live peacefully side by side. Personifications of refreshing breezes, Earth, sky, and water were all incorporated into this picture of peace and fertility.

The panel on the upper-right is quite damaged, but it demonstrates Rome as the armed goddess Roma seated on a pile of enemy armor. However, she is armed to illustrate that she is prepared for battle just in case she is needed again. For now, she can rest since peace is at hand thanks to Augustus.

The garlands are located at the inner-upper sections of all four precinct walls. Not one is completely identical with another. They are each composed of fruits from all four seasons, both wild and cultivated. The idea is that even though certain fruits are meant to bloom at a specific time during the year, they all bloomed magically at the same time to illustrate that Augustus’s peace spanned the entire year.

White cows are also located on the insides of the precinct walls. They were the sacrificial animals of Pax (peace), so including bleached skulls is an appropriate decoration for the sanctuary of the goddess of peace and the function of the altar.

The inner-side frieze of the sacrificial altar consists of six Vestal virgins (the virgin holy priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth) carrying implements of sacrifice. While the outer-side portrays the procession of sacrificial animals – an ancient ceremonial scene. Both of these processions are reiterating the purpose and significance of the Ara Pacis.

Like most ancient Roman monuments, as time wore on, the Ara Pacis was abandoned, forgotten, and eventually buried. But in 1568, 9 blocks of the altar’s friezes were discovered during an excavation to build the Palazza Fiano. Then 300 years later, in 1859, the base and side relief panels were discovered. Essentially, pieces of the altar were found all over the place -- some were acquired by the Grand Duke of Tuscany; others, after passing through various hands, found their way into museums in Rome and into the Louvre in Paris.

In the late 1930’s, during the rise of Italian Facism, Benito Mussolini ordered for the altar’s reconstruction and decided to have it installed in a building beside the Tiber as the highlight of his new theme park. He selected Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, who was one of Mussolini’s favorite architects, to design this. Mussolini envisioned himself as the new Augustus, therefore this project implied his supposed bond with ancient emperor-conquerors. “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 altar was finally reconstructed in 1937-1938 from hundreds of fragments and even then, it was as a propagandistic device.

Today, the Ara Pacis sits in a museum along the Tiber River called The Ara Pacis Museum, which was designed by an American architect named Richard Meir.

When I first began my research and analysis of the friezes, I was already amazed by the art, technique, and all the imagery behind each of them just by flipping through photographs. But it was not until I was actually standing in front of the Ara Pacis, starring at it face-to-face, that I was fully impressed and mesmerized by what I was seeing, especially by its grand size.
The talents of the artists are undeniably remarkable, particularly when one takes into account its massiveness. The incredible amount of patience, precision, and thought that had to go into the construction of it is noteworthy.

Even though the Ara Pacis is not in its original location anymore and has been reconstructed, it continues to glorify the very essence of Augustus and all that he stood for. The incredible detail and symbolism that surrounds the Ara cannot be ignored or unappreciated. As one strolls around the Ara Pacis and takes the time to analyze each frieze and the symbolism behind them, there is no doubt that Augustus’s political and social agendas, as well as the peace and prosperity he brought to the Empire is well exemplified. As the viewer, we are reminded of the Golden Age and the undeniable power and influence Augustus held. By having people today continue to see and understand the significance of the Ara Pacis proves that Augustus has not been forgotten and is still recognized as one of the greatest figures in Roman history.

D’Ambra, Eve. Roman Art in Context. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993. 27-52.

Hibbert, Christopher. Rome: The Biography of a City. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. 32-36.

Kleiner, Fred S., and Mamiya, J. Christin. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Harcourt College Publishers, 2001. 264-268.

Ramage, Nancy H., and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 1991. 116-123.

Riding, Alan. "Richard Meier's New Home for the Ara Pacis, a Roman Treasure, Opens." 24 Apr. 2006. The New York TImes. 23 Aug. 2007 .

Simon, Erika. Ara Pacis Augustae. Germany & Austria: Verlag Ernst Wasmuth Tubingen.