The Altar of Peace

The Pax Romana made manifest

The Ara Pacis Augustae is the physical expression of the peace and prosperity brought about by the establishment of the Principate.

Josho Brouwers

Last week, we recorded another episode of the Ancient World Magazine podcast, to be published next week. In the podcast, we talked about the Aeneid, the epic poem written by Virgil. The poem deals with the flight from Troy by Aeneas and a number of Trojan survivors and their eventual settlement in Latium, where they become the ancestors of the later Romans.

But the poem is as much about the ancient tale of Aeneas as it is about the end of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Principate by Octavian, who was given the honorary title of Augustus by the Senate in 27 BC. For example, there are strong parallels between Queen Dido of Carthage, who tried to waylay Aeneas, and Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, who was thought to have corrupted the Roman general Mark Antony.

After a long period of civil strife, including the well-known war between Caesar and Pompey, Octavian/Augustus managed to restore a semblance of peace and order. In the Aeneid, the rule of Augustus is presented as the dawn of a new Golden Age, marked by peace and prosperity. But Virgil’s epic poem isn’t the only work of art from this period that extolls the virtues of the new Augustan age.

Located on the Campus Martius, or “Field of Mars”, Augustus ordered the construction of a monumental marble altar, the Ara Pacis Augustae, or “Altar of Augustan Peace”, often simply referred to simply as the Ara Pacis.

The Altar of Peace

The Ara Pacis was constructed between 13 and 9 BC to commemorate the safe return of Augustus after he had spent three years in Spain and Gaul. It was dedicated on the birthday of Augustus’ wife, Livia. Over the centuries, silt from the River Tiber had buried the structure, but it was eventually dug up and rebuilt during the fascist era. It’s currently housed in its own museum in Rome at some distance from its original location.

In ancient times, altars were always located outside; sacrifices didn’t take place inside temples. The Altar of Peace features a large altar on a podium with steps and is surrounded by an enclosure wall or screen that measures 7m tall. The wall features a number of reliefs and decorative elements. The figured scenes along the outside of the wall call the viewer’s attention with their (near) lifesize human figures.

On the western side, flanking the front entrance of the altar, we find this fragmentary relief depicting the hero Aeneas, the distant ancestor of Augustus. He is about to sacrifice a sow on the site where Rome would later be founded. The small shrine in the top left houses the penates (household gods) that Aeneas brought with him from Troy (source).

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).

Detail of the relief on the southern side, showing members of the imperial family. Augustus is the first male figure in the foreground, counting from left; the sculptor has made little attempt to highlight Rome’s first emperor as special (source).

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.

This relief is taken from the eastern side of the altar and depicts Tellus Mater or “Mother Earth”, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Gaea. The fruit, the animals, and the children are all symbols of fertility and prosperity (source).

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.