On the south side, the reliefs depict Augustus and members of the imperial family. On the north side, various senators, magistrates, and members of religious fraternities are shown. In both sets of reliefs, children are included. Augustus emphasized the importance of the family and the need to procreate. The figures are engaged in a ritual procession, but they appear to have posed for a moment, with some seeming to take a moment to reflect or to engage in conversation with others.
In his book Roman Art and Architecture (1985), Mortimer Wheeler notes that “the Ara Pacis is essentially a portrait-gallery of celebrants who screen an altar but dominate the scene.” He memorably adds: “If we would understand the Augustan period – its quiet good manners and its undemonstrative confidence – in a single document, that document is the Ara Pacis Augustae” (p. 165).
The Romans favoured naturalistic portraits and some of the figures can indeed be identified with relative ease, including Augustus himself. Augustus had learned from the mistakes of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar: you can get away with seizing absolute power, provided you don’t make it obvious. Augustus presented himself simply as the defender of the Roman Republic and of Republican values.
In keeping with his famous humility, and quite in contrast to how he is depicted in some private monuments like his statue at Prima Porta or the Gemma Augustea, he is shown here as, essentially, an ordinary citizen. He is a primus inter pares or “first among equals”.
The quiet dignity of the scenes on these reliefs emphasize the order that has been restored by his hand. With the furor (rage, violence) of the civil wars behind them, pietas (piety) reigns supreme. It’s certainly no coindence that the Altar of Peace was constructed on the Field of Mars, the god of war.
His accession in 27 BC is considered to have been the start of the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, also referred to as the Pax Augusta. For the next two centuries or so, Rome would know mostly peace, interrupted only by relatively minor outbreaks of hostilities, such as the Year of the Four Emperors (AD 69). Only during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (r. AD 161–180) do the first real cracks begin to appear.
By ordering the creation of the Ara Pacis, Augustus didn’t simply wish to make a monument to celebrate what would later become known as the Pax Romana. Rather, the monument in and of itself became a statement: the peace brought about by Augstus made physical. The altar, with its reliefs celebrating piety, peace, and prosperity, was itself a corner stone of the new world forged by Rome’s first emperor.