De Artibus Romanorum I

The consecration of the Ara Pacis Augustae in the year 13 BC is recorded by Augustus Caesar himself:

When I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul, having successfully accomplished deeds in those provinces … the senate voted to consecrate the altar of August Peace in the Campus Martius … on which it ordered the magistrates and priests and Vestal virgins to offer annual sacrifices (Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 12).

Completed in 9 BC, the complex consisted of an altar, open to the air, surrounded by a precinct wall. Although there were doors on both the eastern and western sides, the structure was approached from the west, by a single staircase. Its location was chosen for its proximity to the Via Flamminia, by which Augustus had triumphantly entered Rome after the Gallic campaign. It was also aligned with the mausoleum of Augustus and an Egyptian obelisk symbolizing Octavius Caesar’s victory at Actium. A sundial erected in the Campus Martius cast its shadow on the center of the altar precinct on the emperor’s birthday.

In keeping with Augustus’ plan to remake Rome in the image of a Greek city, the Ara Pacis was executed not in the traditional travertine, but in pure white marble, quarried from the recently-discovered quarries at Luna (modern day Carrara). The U-shaped altar was also inspired by a Hellenistic monument, the great Altar of Zeus at Pergamon.

The the inner and outer walls of the Ara Pacis are decorated with relief sculpture, which was polychromed in antiquity. On the inner walls, seen only by the priests, depictions of garlands suspended between bucrania allude to the altar’s sacrificial function. The iconographic program of the exterior walls, addressed to those attending the ceremony, proclaims the ideology of the Augustan Peace in both allegorical and historical terms.

On the west wall images of Romulus and Remus suckling the wolf and Aneas offering a sacrifice illustrate the founding of Rome. As the re-founder of the Roman state, Augustus thusly legitimates his authority by drawing historical parallels between himself and the honored figures of Roman history.

The panels of the east wall depict mythological figures including Tellus, the personification of the earth, nursing two infants surrounded by vegetation and livestock. Her curvaceous bod revealed by the Hellenistic damp-fold drapery style of carving, Tellus is an allegory of fertility. Along with the lush acanthus scroll of the lower panels, she represents the productivity and abundance of the Augustan Age after the destructive upheavals of the Civil Wars.

A solemn procession of  priests, soothsayers, officials and members of the imperial household, led by the Augustus, leading to the altar’s entrance, is depicted on the long walls. Augustus saw himself as the new Perikles presiding over another Golden Age, an analogy furthered by the close resemblance of these compositions to the Parthenon frieze. The togate and veiled emperor is seen fulfilling his duties as pontifex maximus, the head of the state religion, offering sacrifices in the manner of Aneas. By stressing historical continuity and the proper observance of public traditions, the reliefs assure he viewer that the advent of the imperium is a natural extension of Rome’s history, consistent with its identity and values, and not a coup d’état that violently broke with centuries of political custom.

Buried under six meters of silt for centuries, the Ara Pacis was first rediscovered in 1588, but not fully-excavated until the Fascist era. In 1937, Its fragmentary remains were reconstructed in a modern building near its original location.  That structure was replaced by the current museum, designed by Richard Meier, the only modern building erected in Rome since the 1930s. Although Meier’s design was initially criticized for its failure to blend in with its surroundings when it opened in 2006, the architect’s trademark classical restraint, his use of travertine and the spectacular lighting design by the German company ERCO quietly update the monument rather than clash with it.


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