The Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) is a sacrificial altar commissioned by the Roman Senate on July 4, 13 BCE to honor the triumphal return of emperor Augustus from his campaigns in Hispania and Gaul (regions that we would now refer to as Spain and France). It was consecrated after 4 years of construction on January 30 in the year 9 BCE to celebrate the peace and prosperity in the Roman Empire after Augustus’ victories, and to act as a visual reminder of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that brought it about.
The altar was originally located on the west side of Via del Corso, at the spot along the eastern side of a church called San Lorenzo in Lucina, about five blocks southeast of its current location, or six blocks southwest of the Spanish Steps.
The sacrificial altar, made of white marble is set within a rectangular marble enclosure, about 35 feet by 20 feet, with sculpted friezes inside and out. As with statues, in ancient times the friezes would have been richly painted with vibrant colors. Today they’re plain white (as are most of the statues), but the Museum of Ara Pacis occasionally holds a special event during the evening in which the theorized original colors are projected onto the reconstruction.
Fragments of the Ara Pacis were discovered in 1568 beneath the church and found their way to museums and villas such as the Louvre, the Uffizi Gallery, the Vatican Museum, and Villa Medici.
They were identified in the 19th century as belonging to the same monument. Then, in 1903 the excavations were continued and decorated panels were identified as being part of the Ara Pacis mentioned in Augustus’ memoirs.
Excavation under San Lorenzo in Lucina and the nearby Teatro Olimpia continued, and led to the extraction of large surviving parts of the altar and a much better understanding of its shape and dimensions, allowing a reconstruction to be made in 1938. Unfortunately, the reconstruction work was rushed to completion by Mussolini, resulting in a number of errors.
The rebuild required a lot of modern materials but, even with a small number of original pieces, what remains allows high confidence that what you see is a faithful reconstruction. It is housed in specially designed modern glass and marble building, named the Museo dell’Ara Pacis (Museum of the Altar of Peace) that opened in 2006.
The Museum was designed by the company of celebrated architect, Richard Meier, and you may encounter architectural students on the steps outside the museum as they come to study and sketch the design of the building, its courtyard and fountains. On the outer east side of the museum there is a large inscription of the Res Gastae Divi Augusti (The Deeds of the Divine Augustus), a personal account of his life and his accomplishments, authored by Augustus himself. This inscription faces Augustus’ Mausoleum – the Mausoleum is currently closed for archaeological work and restoration.
From here on this tour assumes that you’ve made it to the museum.
Once inside you will see that the Ara Pacis dominates the main hall.
As well as being at a different location, the whole alter was originally rotated 90’ compared with its current orientation – so the altar entrance and steps that currently face south originally faced west. The altar was part of the much larger Solarium Augusti (sundial) in the Campus Martius. It was sited in such a way that the shadow of a giant obelisk at the center of this massive sundial fell across the center of the marble altar on 23 September, the birthday of Augustus himself.
To give you a quick explanation of what you are looking at: the Ara Pacis is made up of a central marble U-shaped altar enclosed by an ornate outer wall.
Although you can’t tell it yet, the altar has two entrances: one that was exclusively for priests, which we will call the ceremonial entrance – this faces the museum entrance. The other is on the opposite side and was for public use (which we will refer to as the back or public entrance).
The characters on the upper panel friezes of both entrances are mythological, in contrast the left and right side-panels show processions of recognizable individuals from the time of Augustus.
The lower panels consist of floral motifs and these surround the exterior.
The inside walls of the enclosure are divided vertically with the lower section resembling wood paneling, and upper with decorations of foliage garlands, ox skulls and religious instruments.
For the rest of this tour we will explore the Ara Pacis in detail and, I hope, you will be surprised by how much we can tell about the scenes and people it depicts.
Look more closely at the ceremonial front that faces the main entrance of the museum.
The left side panels are mainly reconstructions since only small fragments survived. However the reliefs on the right side of the Ceremonial Entrance are well-preserved, being mainly originals.
Still looking at the ceremonial front, the upper-left panel depicts the myth of the foundation of Rome. Romulus and Remus are shown being suckled by the she-wolf, protected on the right by Faustulus, the farmer who adopted and brought up the twins, and approached on the left by Mars, the god who conceived them with the Vestal priestess Rea Silvia. The fig-tree under which the twins were suckled, is shown at the center.
The talons of a bird can be made out in the tree: in 1938 these were sketched in as those of an eagle; however, they could equally belong to a woodpecker, which, like the wolf, is sacred to Mars. Mars is shown dressed for war and carrying a spear; his plumed helmet is decorated with a griffin (half-lion, half-eagle) and his breastplate with the head of a gorgon.
Very little original material from this frieze has been found so most of this represents educated guesswork.
The relief on the upper-right is the most complete of the four upper entrance panels.
It shows an elderly Aeneas on the right side of the frieze. He is dressed as a priest, with his head covered, as he makes an offering at a rustic altar. The lower part of his right arm has been lost, but it almost certainly held a patera, a type of ritual cup. This idea is supported by the presence of a young acolyte who is carrying a tray of fruit and bread and, in his right hand, a jug. A second acolyte to his right is driving a sow to the sacrifice. The shrine above them in the background has two seated male figures inside. The scene is probably taking place where the city of Lavinium was founded as recounted in Virgil’s Aeneid, which describes the moment when Aeneas, newly arrived in Italy, sacrificed a sow and her piglets to Juno.
It has recently been suggested, however, that the figure making the sacrifice is Numa Pompilius, the second of the seven kings of Rome who celebrated peace between the Romans and the Sabines in the Field of Mars by sacrificing a sow. Numa has a reputation for promoting peace having built the Temple of Janus whose doors were open during times of war and closed during times of peace.
Ceremonial Front, lower panels
Staying at the ceremonial front, let’s look at the lower sections. Like the other three sides, these consist of a floral frieze with spirals of ivy that come out from a burst of acanthus leaves at the bottom center and have two swans at the top left and right. Look closely at the lower panels and you’ll find fun features peculiar to each panel. For example, the lower-right panel has a bird facing left, standing on a leaf (look in upper-right corner of the panel).
Now let’s go to look at the public entrance – so work your way around to the back.
The public entrance (which we are calling the back)
You’re now looking at was the public entrance that faced Via Flaminia in the altar’s original location. Note that there are no steps because the ground was higher on this side of the altar as it backed onto what was a main access road to Rome. Also, this was the side most familiar to the ancient public and was therefore the viewpoint typically shown on any coins that celebrated this monument. From some of the coins we know that the upper entabulature (the topmost band running around the monument) was taller and flared outward much more than the reconstruction currently shows.
Public Approach Front, upper panels
To the upper-left of the public entrance is a panel depicting Tellus, Mother Earth, or, according to a different interpretation, Venus, Aeneas’ divine mother and the founder of the Julian family, of which Augustus himself was a member. Yet another reading interprets this central figure as the Pax Augusta, the Peace from which the Altar takes its name. The goddess sits on a rock, dressed in a lightweight loose-fitting garment. Her veiled head supports a crown of fruit and flowers, at her feet are an ox resting and a sheep grazing.
Two putti (we might call them cherubs) hover at the goddess’ side; her gaze is turned towards one of them, holding out an apple. In her lap, a cluster of grapes and pomegranates finishes off the portrait of a fertility goddess, responsible for the flourishing of mankind, animals and plants.
At the sides of the panel, two young women are depicted representing the winds that fill sails, the one on the right sitting on a sea snake or dragon, the one on the left on a flying goose or swan; these are symbols of the gentle winds of the sea and earth respectively.
Beneath the nymph on the swan are grasses, and an overturned jug pouring out water with a heron perched on its handle.
On the upper-right side of the entrance a fragment of a relief of the goddess Roma survives, her figure has been completed by sketching in on the mortar. Since she is seated on a trophy of weapons, this can therefore only be the goddess Roma. The pile of weapons she sits upon have been confiscated from the enemy thereby forcing peace. Her presence on the altar should be read in close conjunction with that of the Venus / Tellus figure, since prosperity and peace are guaranteed by Roma Victorious.
The goddess is represented as an Amazon: on her head she wears a helmet and her right breast is bared, a baldrick hangs across her shoulder, and in it a short sword, in her right hand she holds a spear. Honor (to her right) and Virtue (to her left) were very probably also depicted in the scene, positioned on either side of the goddess, in the form of two young masculine divinities.
As you see, this is the least-intact of the four mythological reliefs that flank the entrances of the Ara Pacis. Only two original fragments of the relief survive (a draped thigh with the lap of a seated figure facing left, and a shield covering the figure’s right knee. From this, everything else has been conjectured and reconstructed, but there seems to be agreement among historians that this reconstruction makes sense and is generally correct.
Still at the Ara Pacis’ public entrance…
The lower-left panel on the entrance has a couple of notable features: look closely and you will see two small birds facing each other, there’s also a snail; a scorpion and a worm on the acanthus leaves at the bottom. You can also find a salamander and a frog on the bottom acanthus leaves to the left of center.
Crossing over, the lower-right panel has: a grasshopper to the left of the stalk just above the acanthus leaves; a bird to the right of the stalk just above the acanthus leaves; another bird at the bottom of the stalk with another grasshopper below it; and a worm to their left.
We’ve looked at the front and back, now let’s focus on the sides of the enclosure.
The upper panels of the left and right sides show two dense crowds of people, moving from the Public entrance at the back toward the Ceremonial Front. They appear to represent a single slow-moving procession viewed from both sides rather than being different parts of a procession or two different processions.
Among them are priests, acolytes of the cult, magistrates, men, women and children, whose historical identity can only be constructed hypothetically. It is not entirely clear what the procession is doing: some think that the scene shows Augustus’ return, specifically the ceremony of welcome paid to him at his return from his long absence in Gaul and Hispania; others think it represents the inauguration of the Ara Pacis itself.
The procession begins with the lictors, followed by members of the priestly schools and perhaps by the consuls. Immediately after this come members of Augustus’ family.
Right Side – With Augustus, upper panel
To help you get oriented properly, will now refer to the left and right side (as you walked into the museum and faced the altar). We will start with the right as this is the Side With Augustus. The procession is walking from the back or public entrance towards the ceremonial front which, on this side, means they are walking from your right to left.
Starting with the figures at the head of the procession we have some very fragmented carvings of lictors – these are the emperor’s bodyguards.
Although damaged by the cornerstone of the Renaissance palazzo built on top of the original site of the Ara Pacis, Augustus’ face and head are complete enough to be positively identified. He is crowned with laurel, he also slightly larger and given a little more space than any of the others.
The best way to pick him out is by looking for the first figure where only half of the body remains – more specifically, he is missing half of his body from the shoulders down.
Here Augustus is represented as “pontifex maximus,” or high priest, veiled and acting in his official capacity, ready to help perform a sacrifice.
The rex sacrorum (which literally means ‘king of the sacred’) is close behind him.
Four flamines maiores, chief priests with leather headgear with a chin-strap, topped with an olive branch and a metal point, are also easily identified and follow behind. These figures represent the four State cults: Mars, Quirinus, Deified Julius Caesar, and Jupiter (that’s the one with the thin stick in his right hand). The first two are wearing rings on their left hands.
Look for a figure carrying a ritual axe on his shoulder – this is the flaminius lictor who will kill the sacrificial bull or some other animal.
We can also identify the beloved character, Marcus Agrippa, with his head covered by the edge of his toga which is held with his left hand, he has a roll of parchment in his right hand. Agrippa was Augustus’ right-hand man, his friend and also his son-in-law, being his daughter Julia’s second husband. Augustus and Agrippa are veiled, signifying that they are both acting in their official capacities as priests.
Right behind Agrippa is his young son, Gaius Caesar shown as a child holding onto his father’s clothes. Agrippa and Julia’s other son, therefore Augustus’ second grandchild, was Lucius Caesar. Gaius and Lucius were adopted by their grandfather with the intention that they would succeed him, although their deaths, perhaps at the hands of Livia (Augustus’ wife), ruined this plan, resulting in the rise to power of Tiberius, who was Livia’s son.
On the Ara Pacis, Gaius is turned toward the rear of the procession, looking at the woman behind him who is either Julia, his mother, or Livia, his grandmother. She is depicted veiled and crowned with laurel, which marks her as a woman of high rank. Some scholars believe the child is not Gaius, though. The necklace and long hair of this child suggest that he is non-Roman; perhaps a barbarian prince from the east who is a guest (or a hostage) of Rome.
Tiberius is usually identified as the male figure in the foreground following Julia or Livia; however, there is some doubt as to this interpretation since the figure in question is wearing plebian shoes, which is particularly inappropriate for Tiberius, who was a member of one of the most ancient noble families of Rome.
Two people behind Julia or Livia there is a seam or line in the reconstruction that doesn’t quite match properly. It is believed that this is flaw in the rushed reconstruction of 1939 and that a panel is missing which also means that the sparse fragments at the left edge of this frieze should be closer together.
The figures in this final third of the panel are thought to be members of Augustus’ family, but are not positively identified.
The next child after Gaius is identified as the infant Germanicus, who is holding the toga of his mother, Antonia the Younger, Augustus’ niece.
The man she is looking at, behind her, is her husband and Germanicus’ father, Drusus. Drusus is the only figure to be shown in military dress – he wears the characteristic paludamentum: at the time the alter was commissioned, Drusus was occupied in fighting the Germanic tribes to the East of the Rhine.
A second family group follows, made up in a similar fashion by Antonia the Elder, another of Augustus’ nieces, the second person behind Drusus, shown as a woman whose head is draped with a hood. The man in the foreground behind her is Lucius Domitian Enobarbus, who was consul in 16 BC, and is the second-to-last person on the frieze. Between Antonia the Elder and him are their children Domitia (the taller of the two children, on the right) and Gneus Domitian Enobarbus, the future father of Nero.
Now walk around to the opposite side of the enclosure – this should be the LEFT side of the Ara Pacis as you walked into the museum.
The processional figures are shown to be moving from the public (back) to the ceremonial front but in this case they are walking from your left towards your right.
Focusing on the upper panel, the first thing to note is that most of the heads have been restored. Starting with the head of the procession, the leading two foreground figures are lictors (bodyguards), carrying fasces (bundles of rods symbolizing how unity brings strength, this is the source of the modern word “fascism”).
Next are the “augurs” (responsible for interpreting omens in public life, anything happening that is believed to bring good or evil events in the future), and the “septemviri epulones” (seven priests) in charge of religious banquets, identified by the incense box they carry with special symbols.
One of the seven is not shown – where there is a gap in the frieze. Next are 21 members of the “quindecemviri sacris faciundis”, Roman priests in charge of the sibylline books (a collection of prophecies). There is a “camillus,” or adolescent boy, who is an assistant of the priests – he is carrying an incense box. To have the full set there should be 2 other priests but we’ve already seen them on right side of the enclosure, they are: Augustus and Agrippa.
The left-most portion of the upper frieze consists of members of the imperial family. The veiled leading figure (first figure with legs missing) might be Julia, daughter of Augustus, or Livia, if Julia is on the other side with Augustus. The child just on her right might be Lucius Caesar. The man behind her, child behind her, and faded figure behind them are unknown, though the child might be Gaius Caesar. The next woman, with barely any detail remaining for her her head, is Octavia Minor. The child behind her is Julia Minor, and the adult touching her head is either Julius Antonius (a son of Marc Antony) or Marcus Appuleius. Next behind him, with basically only a right arm is Marcella Major (daughter of Octavia Minor). The final figure at the left edge is a child, possibly Lucius Antonius.
This LEFT side lower panel has several surprises in the depths of the vegetation, the following creatures can be found (working from left to right) under the central acanthus leaves: a snake attacking a nest of baby birds, with a lizard above, a single bird escaping the nest, another lizard, and a frog.
Let’s now move inside…
The Ara Pacis is made up of a rectangular enclosure which surrounds the true altar; it thus follows the pattern of a templum minus, which is described by Festo like this:
“The templa minora were created by the Augurs (priests), who encircled the chosen places with wooden panels or with drapery, so that they only had one entrance, and demarcated the space with the customary formulae. The temple, therefore, is an enclosed space, consecrated in such a way that it is open on one side and has its corners clearly determined on the ground.”
Except for the fact that the Ara Pacis has two entrances, this description fits the monument closely. Even its internal decoration shows, in the lower parts, the wooden boards, which, in archaic temples, defined the space that had been consecrated with sacred ceremonies.
The interior of the enclosure, like the exterior, is divided into two panels placed one above the other and separated by a band, on this inside this is made of palmettes. In the lower panels the decoration is a simple version of the planks from the traditional wooden enclosures; the higher panels are richly adorned with festoons and ox skulls, interspersed with paterae, a libation bowl with a bellybutton in the center. These motifs also are related to the decoration that was placed above the wooden enclosure, in this case garlands heavily weighed down with ears of corn, with berries and fruits of every season, wild and cultivated, attached to the supports by ribbons.
The interior is decorated with pilasters (these are the square columns attached to the wall), they are topped with Corinthian capitals. If you look at the interior corners you will see that the pilasters are folded, and the ox-skulls are divided in half.
At the center of the Ara Pacis is the grand altar table on which animals were sacrificed and wine was offered to the gods. The table takes up almost all of the internal space; between the altar and the enclosure there is only a narrow walkway, with the floor pavement sloping gently toward the enclosure walls in such a way as to allow both rainwater and any water used in the ritual of sacrifice to flow out of the structure through small drains along the edge.
The altar stands on a podium of four steps, on top of which is the altar base, with another four steps at the front only. Above this rises the altar table, closed between side shelves. The two side supports are decorated with acroteria, floral volutes and winged lions.
On the inside of the left side wall of the central altar, the six Vestal Virgins can be seen with their heads covered: these were the women appointed by the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of the city, chosen from the daughters of the aristocracy between the ages of six and ten, who then remained the guardians of the sacred flame for 30 years. Here they are shown, in order of decreasing height and presumably age, flanked by male figures, preparing a religious sacrifice.
The opposite side of the altar has only a fragment remaining. It shows two figures, the first of whom is a priest, or more precisely a flamen, while the figure following him is sometimes identified as Augustus himself, possibly shown wearing the attire of the Pontifex Maximus, a position which he assumed in 12 BC upon the death of Aemilius Lepidus while the Ara Pacis was being built.
Griffins are shown on the back of the altar but unfortunately very little of the frieze on this side remains.
On the outside of the left support a procession of three animals has survived, an ox, bull, and ram being led to the sacrifice by twelve adepts (victimarii) in short tunics. In their hands they hold the sacrificial instruments: trays, the knife, the club, the laurel branch for aspersion. They are proceeded by a man wearing a toga (perhaps a priest) accompanied by helpers and acolytes of the cult. Griffins appear at the right and left edge of the altar. The fragments of the altar frieze probably refer to a particular sacrifice, perhaps that of the Pax Augusta itself, which the Senate had decreed should be celebrated every year on the 30th of January, commemorating the consecration of the altar.
Our tour of Ara Pacis ends here but do check out the other related displays in the museum – there are two features in particular that help further understand the context and history. Firstly, just inside the entrance there is scale model that shows where Ara Pacis was positioned in relation to the Solarium Augusti in the Field of Mars. This helps understand how this monument fit into the general landscape of ancient Rome. Secondly, there is a well-made and relatively short film that details its rediscovery and restoration.
Other adjacent tours are: Castel Sant’Angelo and Mausoleum of Augustus.