The Ara Pacis Augustae, known as the Altar of Augustan Peace, is one of the most renowned works of Roman art. Many scholars believe this specifically represents Augustus’s triumphant return from Gaul and Spain. As a result, the monument commemorates Augustus’s finest accomplishments for bringing peace in the Roman world. Consequently, the altar encompasses the theme of peace and the prosperity that occurred thereafter. Although the name of the artist remains unknown, much is known about its history. The Ara Pacis Augustae’s foundation was laid on July 4 in 13BC in which a major ceremony took place. On this day, several sacrifices were made to the state gods along with the Pax, the goddess of peace. After three and a half years of construction, the Ara Pacis was completed in 9BC.
The altar, which is free standing on a podium, is encompassed by four different walls, each decorated with sculptural reliefs on the inside and outside. On the lower registers there are mainly decorative vines and cactus leaves while upper registers consist of mainly figural sculptures. There are many notable friezes contained on the Ara Pacis including two processional friezes on different sides, which depicts the ceremony of the monument being dedicated along with Augustus’s return from Gaul. Augustus, although missing the majority of his body, is shown along with his two grandsons and various Senate members in the frieze. Moreover, the panel of Tellus includes Gaius and Lucius Caesar, who are both believed to be the nephews and future heirs of Augustus. Another frieze shows a Roman priest and his attendants about to sacrifice a sow, perhaps indicating a more sacrificial meaning to the altar, although this has been a source of controversy for art historians. Aside from this scene, there are several other friezes which personify Earth or Tellus, the lineage of Venus, and even Pax, herself, among several other integral figures. However, perhaps two of the most important figures are Aeneas and Romulus, who are two contrasting representations of Augustus. This displays the wide range of significant figures included on the Ara Pacis.
Included in much of the Ara Pacis Augustae’s decoration are animals, flowers, and fruit, which serve as symbols of fertility and growth. Augustus attempts to demonstrate that the peace he has achieved will bring prosperity to Rome. Furthermore, these symbols refer to the message being propagated to women in the empire that they should be fruitful and have children. These vegetable friezes are readily abundant, particularly on the lower sides of the Ara Pacis, many of which were believed to be originally in color.
Due to Augustus’ use of art as propaganda, the Ara Pacis projects the emperor’s importance and magnificence through many of the included friezes. Much of the design and decoration on the Ara Pacis is symbolic and iconographic that range from displaying Augustus’ greatness to political policies. Although this was constructed over two thousand years ago, the Ara Pacis remains an important piece of art that is still studied today. The monument has been on display to the public at the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome since the 1930s following its excavation in several parts during the sixteenth century. As a result, the Ara Pacis, with all of its friezes and intricate decoration, serves as one of the best monuments ever constructed.
Syme, Ronald. "Neglected Children on the Ara Pacis." American Journal of Archaeology 88.4 (1984): 583-89.
The credentials of Syme are extremely solid and well-validated. Prior to his death, Syme worked as a professor of ancient history at Oxford University as well as a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles. He was also a prolific author who wrote numerous books including Tacitus, The Roman Revolution, and From Augustus to Nero: The First Dynasty of Imperial Rome. Along with Syme’s prestigious background, the American...
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