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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Urban Experience Art: Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)

» Unknown artist(s), Rome
Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)

Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist(s), Rome
Region: Europe
Date: 13–9 BCE
Period: 500 BCE – 1 CE
Material: Marble
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Dimensions: W: approx. 35 ft. (10.7 m.)
Location: Museum of the Ara Pacis, Rome, Italy
Credit: Courtesy of Scala/Art Resource, NY

In the summer of 13 BCE, the Roman senate issued a decree calling for the construction of an outdoor altar complex commemorating the emperor Augustus’s successful campaigns in Spain and Gaul and his return to Rome in that year.

The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace, was completed in 9 BCE.

The altar complex consisted of an interior altar surrounded by a stone precinct wall. The entirety was raised on a marble base with steps leading into the precinct space. Both the altar proper and its enclosing structure were heavily ornamented with relief carving. The iconography of the exterior program included references to fertility and prosperity, such as vegetation and animals, in the lower register and scenes associated with Rome’s mythic past in the upper. Most scholars identify narrative panels on either side of the west entrance to the altar as depictions of Rome’s founding figures—Aeneas to one side, Romulus to the other. These figures, in turn, are seen as prototypes for Augustus himself.

Processional friezes along the north and south sides of the outer wall are thought to represent the sacrificial procession that took place annually at the altar by order of the senate. They have also been interpreted as depictions of the altar’s dedication ceremony. In either case, it has been observed that the movement of the figures in these relief carvings would have echoed that of visitors as they moved around the monument.

Originally, the Ara Pacis stood adjacent to other structures associated with Augustus, namely the emperor’s mausoleum, the largest Roman tomb at the time, and the Horologium-Solarium, a huge sundial marked with references to Augustus’s birth and accomplishments. The three monuments were all situated on the north end of Rome’s Campus Martius. This land just outside the city proper was considered sacred and appropriated by Julius Caesar. As Augustus continued and expanded public works projects initiated under Caesar, power shifted away from old Republican Rome toward the Campus. Situated in this park-like setting beside the Via Flaminia, one of the principal roads into the city, the Ara Pacis celebrated imperial power as part of a larger urban complex declaring the civic largess of Rome’s emperors.

Expert Perspective
Lisa Saltzman, Professor of History of Art, Bryn Mawr College

 “The Ara Pacis, which is in Rome, which was an altar to Augustan peace, was re-used, rededicated, renovated by Mussolini as a way of consolidating his empire, by looking back to that earlier moment of the Roman Empire.”

Expert Perspective
Lothar Haselberger, Professor of Roman Architecture, University of Pennsylvania

“The ancient city of Rome considered itself to be the center of the civilized world. But when Rome was about to reach world power under Caesar and then his adopted son Augustus, it became perfectly clear that Republican Rome was by no means living up to its new position as the first city of the world. Augustus had to express in the city, ‘You, Romans, rule the world.’ Rome needs to get a new visual stature. And that, of course, then ties into Augustus’s famous dictum: Let’s make it a marble city, one that can compete, in fact, is even superior to Greek marble cities. A city with public amenities: baths, athletic complexes, park landscapes, monuments, glorious buildings, and especially art. Augustus’s new Rome, the new heroic Rome.”

Additional Resources

Conlin, Diane Atnally. The Artists of the Ara Pacis: The Process of Hellenization in Roman Relief Sculpture. Chapel Hill; London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Favro, Diane. The Urban Image of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Haselberger, Lothar, David Gilman Romano, et al. Mapping Augustan Rome(Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 50). Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2002.

Pollitt, Jerome Jordan. The Art of Rome c. 753 B.C.–A.D. 337: Sources and Documents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Rehak, Paul. “Aeneas or Numa? Rethinking the Meaning of the Ara Pacis Augustae.” Art Bulletin 83.2 (June 2001): 190–208.

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