The Altar of the Peace of Augustus lay buried in the muck of Rome for over a thousand years, but it is now recognized as one of the best examples of classical relief sculpture. It is also important evidence of the way Augustus wanted to present his achievements to the people of Rome. But who was Augustus, and what can his altar tell us about him?

Show Notes

I’d like to introduce two big and complicated topics today, so I’ll again be required to do some trimming and postponing. The first is the “Altar of the Peace of Augustus,” or the “Ara Pacis Augustae,” and the second is Augustus himself. Augustus was the first Roman Emperor, and he ruled longer than any other. In fact, none of the about seventy-five emperors ruled for even half as long as he did, except for Constantine, who still fell short of Augustus’s tenure in office by fifteen years. As I expect you know already, as well as being long, his forty-five-year reign transformed Rome.

Regarding the altar, it is complicated, and scholars love to argue about it. A good one, named Stefan Weinstock, even denies that the altar as we have it is same as the altar spoken of in literary sources. This complication stems in part from the altar’s troubled history. It sank into the mud long ago, was broken into several pieces, and then its pieces were rediscovered at different times and eventually found their way into different museums. A lot of scholarly detective work then led some to conclude that many of the then-separated pieces had once been united on the same altar. Since large parts of the altar were still buried under the foundation of a Renaissance palace in Rome, the engineers of Rome’s Fascist dictator Benito  Mussolini faced the challenge of recovering them without damaging the palace; and then archeologists had to put it back together again as best they knew how, while racing to have it ready for the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus’s birthday on September 23, 1938. For by such a celebration, Mussolini thought he could better pass himself off as a new Augustus.

The altar was originally located in what is today the very pleasant Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, very close to the main street of this part of ancient Rome, which corresponds to the current street known simply as the Corso. This section of Rome is still called the Campus Martius, or Campo Marzio, which means Field of Mars, for it is a flat area where soldiers once carried out their martial exercises. So perhaps Augustus intended even the location of the altar to indicate that war was giving way to peace.

Ara Pacis Museum as designed by Richard Meier (Wikimedia Photo)

Mussolini had the altar rebuilt about 300 yards away, for he wanted to group it with another site important for Augustus, the massive Mausoleum that the emperor built as a tomb for himself and his family members. This, believe it or not, was an opera house when Mussolini came to power in 1922, but he then had all modern accretions removed and, to the limited extent possible, made it again a reminder of Rome’s first emperor.  Together, the altar and the mausoleum are in a piazza now named after Augustus, just across the Tiber from Piazza Cavour. The altar is protected from the elements and reserved for paying customers by a structure of steel, travertine, glass, and plaster, designed by the American architect Richard Meier, and almost as controversial as the altar itself.

But the altar honors Augustus, so let’s go back to him.

It will take more than a few episodes to bring out the main questions that swirl around Augustus, but the biggest picture is that he is the man who emerged to rule Rome after an extended period of civil wars brought chaos to the city and its Empire. Just eighteen years old when Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC, Augustus—then known as Octavian—learned only when Caesar’s will was opened and read that Caesar had adopted him as a son. This marked him as a target for all those hoping to succeed Caesar, but it also created political opportunities, and Octavian defied all expectations, and in the next thirteen years he defeated one rival after another until he reigned supreme over the entire empire. He first fought with Cicero and the Senate against Marc Antony, then with Marc Antony against Brutus, Cassius, and the other Senatorial conspirators, who had assassinated Caesar, then against the son of Pompey the Great, and then against his former ally Antony, who was now allied and otherwise linked with Cleopatra. With the deaths of all these powerful rivals, he also made sure he would be Caesar’s only heir by ordering the killing of the son Caesar and Cleopatra had had together.

With all this achieved by 31 BC, the Roman Senate debated in 27 whether to rename him Romulus, for he had given Rome a new founding, but he preferred the honorific name “Augustus,” which had religious connotations, like “the Revered One.” All subsequent emperors of Rome also took this title, as they took as well the title “Caesar,” which would be claimed much later by Russian Tsars and German Kaisers.

While Augustus’s dramatic and long career raises many questions, such as how exactly he managed to amass such power, the main one is a difficult question of judgment: Should we admire him for having brought peace to a Roman Empire that had been wracked by civil war or condemn him for having buried the Roman Republic and established an autocracy? Lovers of liberty are drawn to the latter conclusion, lovers of peace to the former. The Altar of the Peace of Augustus is thus a good place to introduce this question.

Acquiring supreme power—far more power than any other individual or group—does not mean that all problems promptly vanish. Borders must still be defended, plots must be anticipated, citizens need to eat, public works must be completed, loyalty needs to be cultivated. To shore up the defenses of the Empire, Augustus traveled to the East in 20 BC, and when he returned to Rome a year later, the Senate built an altar in thanksgiving for his safe return, as Augustus himself reports in his autobiography, which is called the Res Gestae (“The Things I Did”). Of this altar, nothing remains. Then he again left Rome, this time for three years. His Res Gestae remembers his homecoming as follows:

When I returned from Spain and Gaul, . . . , after successful operations in those provinces, the Senate voted in honor of my return the consecration of an altar to Pax Augusta in the Campus Martius, and on this altar it ordered the magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins to make annual sacrifice.

That return was in 13 BC, and it appears that there were annual sacrifices held at the site of the altar even before the altar was inaugurated on January 30, 9 BC, the birthday of Augustus’s wife Livia.

The Altar of Peace, front entrance (my photo)

It is agreed that the reassembled altar is one of the finest remaining examples of ancient sculpture. Although restorations have used other materials, the original was made entirely from Luna marble, the fine marble that today goes by the name Carrara, and which was preferred by Michelangelo. The monument includes an altar, a wall enclosing it in a sacred precinct, steps that rise up to the enclosed precinct, and more steps up to the altar itself. The enclosure is almost square, with each side measuring a little under 35 feet, and the walls are about 11 feet high. Most of the surfaces of the walls, both inside and out, are covered in fine carvings in relief. Inside the square enclosure, the altar is basically a U-shaped marble table, and its sides—whose total lengths approach 100 feet—also contain reliefs. By my own rough calculations, this represents a total of over 2,000 square feet of relief carvings, after subtracting the area left open for doorways on the front and back.

The Aeneas (or Numa) panel above, with vegetation below, bordered by a horizontal meander and pilasters (my photo)

The main sculptures on the walls are in panels, separated from one another by a decorative horizontal band and by vertical pilasters with carved vegetation. In the upper half of the precinct outer walls, there are four main panels that represent allegories or mythological scenes, and there are also two longer panels that represent a religious procession involving various priests and officials plus members of Augustus’s family. The lower walls are all carved to show various actual plant species, though they are given an artificial symmetry, and hiding among them are little woodland animals, like turtles, snakes, and birds. The inside of the precinct walls has finely carved garlands and bucrania, that is, the sculls of oxen long since sacrificed; and the altar has another procession carved on it, one which has animals being led by attendants to the sacrifice that awaits them.

The hottest controversies surround the identification of the subjects of the four allegories or myths and their meaning; it also not entirely clear who is who in the procession, though it is widely agreed that Augustus, his wife Livia, his friend and colleague Agrippa, his successor Tiberius, and his grandson Gaius are present. A couple of panels are controversial because so much of them has gone missing, but one is controversial even though it is largely intact. Let’s start with it, as it is also the most beautiful.

The Goddess Tellus or Peace with two winds and general abundance (my photo)

As you face the back of the precinct, the upper left panel shows an attractive woman holding two babies, and she also has fruit in her lap. To her left and right are seminude women. Each holds a billowing fabric above her; one rides on a swan and the other on some sort of sea creature. There are placid animals down below. It is agreed that the women on the sides represent pleasant winds, one from the land and the other from the sea and, more generally, that the panel as a whole celebrates fertility and abundance. But is the central figure the goddess Tellus, Venus, Peace, Ceres, or Mother Earth? Or might one figure represent more than one goddess? This matters at a certain level, for Augustus claims to have descended from Aeneas, who was a son of Venus, so it would be nice to know whether he was here reminding viewers of this family connection with a deity; but I’ll leave it at saying that he was at least laying claim to being a cause of abundance, for the fruits of peace are what are most suggested here.

The three other mythological panels are generally taken to represent Romulus on the front left, Aeneas (or Numa) on the front right, and the goddess Roma on the back right. Romulus and Aeneas were both founders: Aeneas, son of Venus, was the founder of the Julian family to which Augustus belonged, thanks to his adoption by Julius Caesar. Romulus was a descendant of Aeneas, and he became the founder of Rome. The war god Mars is present with Romulus, as are Remus and the she-wolf. Perhaps, notwithstanding the dominant emphasis on peace, these figures suggest that peace depends on toughness and success in war.

An article by a scholar named Paul Rehak argues that the panel on the front right represents Numa rather than Aeneas, as was widely thought. Numa was the second king of Rome, and he promoted peace and religion, whereas Romulus was a great warrior. Numa’s public devotion to the gods fits well with Augustus’s representation of himself in a religious procession; and Numa was known also for having closed the Gates of Janus, which signified that Rome was at peace. The next Roman to do so was Augustus, an achievement of which he proudly reminds us in his Res Gestae. Thoughts along these lines suggest that Augustus is claiming to embody the virtues of both Romulus and Numa, first those of the war-winner and later those of the peace-maker.

If the panel on the back left shows the fruits of peace, the goddess Roma was dressed for combat in the panel on the back right, and she sits on a pile of weapons she has taken from defeated foes. The altar emphasizes the blessings of peace, even to the point of suggesting a new Golden Age is at hand, but it does not entirely forget that victory in war is required to achieve peace. As for the goddess Roma, we have already seen her on the base of the statue of Cavour, at the center of the Altar of the Fatherland on the Wedding Cake, and as a backdrop to the statue of Marcus Aurelius on the summit of the Capitoline Hill.

The themes of abundance and fertility are continued in the lower friezes, which show rich vegetation and little hints of forest life. If you are very patient and attentive to detail, you will find also a snake about to gobble up a bird’s egg, so even in this picture of beauty and abundance, there are also natural conflicts of interest.

A Section of the Procession with Meander below (my photo)

The two exterior sides of the precinct walls show paired processions of robed Romans solemnly moving toward a religious sacrifice. Priests of several kinds are represented, as are lictors and other officials. Most important are the members of Augustus’s Julio-Claudian family, so the altar honors religious tradition and one family, not the Senate or other political institution of the old Roman Republic. Augustus’s public position was that he was not an emperor or king of any kind: he was just the “princeps” or first citizen of the Roman Republic, which he had restored after it had been shaken by “the tyranny of a faction,” as he puts it in the first paragraph of his Autobiography. But the prominence of his family on the altar suggests Augustus was willing to allow the monarchical truth of things leak out; and same message is conveyed if he meant to associate himself with Romulus and Numa on the front panels, for they were both kings. The very name of the altar refers to the Pax Augustae, the Peace of Augustus, not the Pax Romana. Augustus was simply not just one of a multitude of citizens.

Scholars assigned a designation to every figure in the processions, such as South-30 or North-37, which makes it easier to follow their debates about who is who and whether a certain character is or is not wearing the shoes of a Senator. I have no light to shed on these refined disputes, but I am impressed by the argument that two or three of the little boys are dressed in foreign garb and are thus identified as hostages being raised in Augustus’ home to help ensure the good behavior of foreign allies. These hostages were apparently treated very well and might later be sent to rule their home country in a way friendly to Rome. An example is Juba II, who after an excellent education in Rome, returned to rule Numidia.

While the statue to Garibaldi made specific reference to the battles he fought in 1849 and 1860, the altar tells us nothing about what Augustus did during the three years he was away in Spain and Gaul; nor does it refer to specific peace agreements. Its focus is on the benefits of peace very generally understood. When taken together with contemporary literary sources, the altar may even suggest that Augustus has introduced a Golden Age, perhaps like the Age of Pericles in Athens or even like the mythical Golden Age of the god Saturn.

Consider the following passage from Ovid, for example, from poem called the Fasti:

My song has led us to the Altar of Peace itself. . . .

Come, Peace, your graceful tresses wreathed

With laurel from the Battle of Actium: stay gently in this world.

[Now that] we lack enemies, or cause for triumphs:

You’ll be a greater glory to our leaders than war.

May the soldier be armed only to defend against other arms,

And the trumpet blare only for processions.

May the world far and near fear the sons of Aeneas,

And let any land that feared Rome too little, love her.

Priests, add incense to the peaceful flames,

Let a shining sacrifice fall, brow wet with wine,

And ask the gods who favor pious prayer

That the house that brings peace, may so endure.

Ovid neatly reminds of the themes we have raised, the celebration of the Julio-Claudian house of Augustus, the vast extent and indefinite duration of the peace that was won at the Battle of Actium, in which Octavian defeated Marc Antony, and the importance of priests and piety for the endurance of peace. He even suggests that the wild triumphs that had been accompanied by blaring trumpets might now be replaced by solemn processions like those represented on the altar.

The poets Virgil and Horace also include such themes, but we will postpone further discussion until our next episode dealing with Augustus and Ancient Rome. In the meantime, we will turn next week to my favorite museum in Rome, the Galleria Borghese, in order to follow Bernini and the Baroque out of St. Peter’s basilica into more worldly settings.

Share this podcase episode