Ara Pacis Augustae, or the Altar of Augustan Peace

Purpose and Location

The Ara Pacis was sanctioned by the Roman Senate in 13 BCE as a monument to commemorate the pacification of the Spanish and Gallic provinces under the emperor Augustus, which had been in a state of disquiet since 16 BCE. However, the altar was not dedicated until 9 BCE. It was located on the Campus Martius (or Plain of Mars), to the north of the city, by the via Lata.


The altar itself, mounted on three steps, was shielded by marble screens measuring approximately 11.6 metres along the south and north walls, 10.6 metres along the east and west walls and 6.1 metres in height. There were entrances on the east and west faces, reached by a small flight of steps. The altar and the interior and exterior of the screens were all decorated with intricate relief sculpture. All of the sculpture was symbolic in either a cultural, religious or political sense.

Decoration and Symbolism

The altar itself was decorated with a sculpture featuring a religious procession, including Vestal Virgins. Although the precise subject of the relief is uncertain, it is believed to be a representation of the sacrificial procession to dedicate the altar. The internal walls of the screens were decorated with garlands and ox heads, which alluded to the sacrifices that would have been performed at the altar.

By far the most intricate and interesting sculptures were to be found on the external walls of the screens, as these would have been the most commonly seen part of the structure. The bottom half of the panels were carved with twining vines. It was hoped that the peace which the altar was marking would bring a period of abundance and fertility to Rome, symbolised in the depictions of nature. The upper half of the north and south panels was decorated with yet another procession. This one featured the Imperial family, priests and what is believed to be senators and their families. The Imperial family featured on the south-eastern section of the panel, whilst Augustus was on the south-western. In between them, came the priests and their attendants and Agrippa, who was Augustus' right-hand man. The significance of the portrayal of Augustus' family was dual. First of all, Augustus was attempting to introduce a policy of moral regeneration in Rome. Family was central to this ideal; in 18 BCE, he even had passed the Lex Julia, which stipulated at which ages men and women were expected to be married, granted faster promotion for those who bore children and imposed penalties for those convicted of adultery. Augustus was leading by example. Yet, the Ara Pacis was also intended for the promotion of Augustus' family, too, not just the general ideal of family. Rome had resisted monarchy for some 500 years, and Augustus was trying to subtley introduce the notion of a successor to his position. The senators and their families, who appeared on the northern panels, were of course supporting Augustus' plans.

The western facade depicted figures associated with the mythical foundations of Rome. Mars, god of war and legendary father of Romulus and Remus was in the panel to the left of the entrance, whilst Aeneas sat in the panel to the right. This arrangement cunningly placed Aeneas just around the corner from Augustus, suggestive of Augustus' descent from Aeneas, thus Venus, who was supposed to be his mother. The Romans loved a bit of divine descent.

On the eastern facade, a personification of Pax was seated to the left of the entrance, and one of Roma to the right. Roma was seated on a pile of arms and armour, representative of the conquest of empire. This conquest led to peace, hence Pax (well, it is assumed that the attractive young woman, seated with two children and a selection of flora and fauna, is Pax). It seems that the general theme was that Augustus would bring peace to Rome, but it would involve some warfare, first.

The Ara Pacis was a huge representation of Roman values, including everything from mythical origins to attempts to alter general political feeling.

Excavation and Restoration

The majority of the Ara Pacis was excavated in 1937, to be exhibited at an exhibition organised by Mussolini to commemorate Augustus' bimillennium (23 September, 1937). This was quite an achievement, as it lay buried in water-logged soil beneath the Palazzo Fiano. A sub-structure had to be erected beneath the Palazzo to support it, before carbon dioxide was pumped into the ground, freezing the mud around it. This allowed the water to be pumped out of the excavation site and the Ara Pacis removed without the land collapsing around it. From there, it was moved to a purpose-built glass and stone building, which had Augustus' Res Gestae inscribed around the outside, next to Augustus' mausoleum, in time for the exhibition. This building was recently torn down and the Ara Pacis is currently covered by tarpaulins, awaiting its new home.

With thanks to:

  • E C Kopff: "Italian Fascism and the Roman Empire", Classical Bulletin 76, 2000
  • P Zanker: The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1988

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