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Bill Thayer

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Basic Reference: article in Platner and Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome

The Ara Pacis Augustæ

[image ALT: A wide square doorway thru a wall sculptured with two fragmentary horizontal friezes: the lower of floral entrelacs, and the upper depicting scenes from Roman religious worship. Up to, thru, and beyond the doorway, a staircase taking up the full width of it. It is a view of the principal entrance to the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome.]

The entrance to the altar enclosure.
The Ara Pacis is one of Rome's great sights and should not be missed.

What is it?

The Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, is a Roman sacrificial altar enclosed in a screen of Parian marble beautifully carved in high relief with allegorical and ceremonial scenes ornamented with elegant plant motifs. For a thousand years not a trace of it had been seen, yet today we have all of it once again.

In Augustus's own words, at the beginning of the section of the Res Gestae in which he prides himself on having restored peace to the Roman commonwealth (II.12):

When I returned from Spain and Gaul, in the consul­ship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quintilius, 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.

The Res Gestae Divi Augusti — Augustus's career viewed and written up by him in retrospect at the very end of his life — is an indispensable source for his life. The complete Latin and Greek text of the Res Gestae, with an English translation, is here.

That was in 13 B.C. Augustus's three-year stay in Gaul had been devoted to personally organizing the province: it was to be his last provincial residence. His return marked the essential completion of his great consolidation of Roman authority thruout the Empire.

The Ara Pacis was consecrated in 9 B.C. We even know the exact date, preserved for us in Ovid's Fasti, Book I, 709‑722: the 30th of January.

Where is it?

In Antiquity, the Ara Pacis stood on the Via Flaminia (now the Corso), under what is now the Palazzo Fiano at the SW corner of the Via in Lucina, in the courtyard of which can be found a large collection of Roman inscriptions and marble reliefs related to the find. Bits and pieces of the Ara were found in the 16c, more in work done on the palazzo in 1859, more still in the first actual excavations in 1909. Finally, thanks to a technique of freezing the waterlogged soil in the area, Mussolini's government, with a strong interest in the inherited glory of ancient Rome, conducted complete systematic excavations in 1937‑1938, so that we can be sure that we now have all of it. This gradual recovery of the Ara Pacis in modern times is of some interest in itself, since it is a vivid example of a major monument that within living memory did not seem to be much, and that required considerable archaeological erudition to "see". Archaeology students may thus find it instructive, in this context, to read what Rodolfo Lanciani, writing in 1892, has to say of the monument.

Thus (with additions from the Blue Guide and the seemingly exhaustive Touring Club Italiano guide to Rome) Richardson's New Topographical Dictionary of Rome leaving me to wonder why the area was waterlogged in the first place. The Romans were extremely good at siting buildings to avoid terrain-related problems — a good idea of their concerns can be got from reading Vitruvius (Books I and VI mostly, passim) — and must surely have taken the greatest care with this major monument. Has the water table risen that much in Rome over the last two thousand years? One may speculate that much of the débris of ancient Rome might be found under a few meters of alluvium in the bed of the Tiber between here and Ostia: would that account for this putatively higher modern water level?

We know for example that after the great Neronian fire of Rome, the emperor ordered that the enormous amount of débris it caused be disposed of by dumping in the river. In some ways the decision was a good one, expeditiously preventing the spread of infection, among other things; but it did affect the level of the Tiber both in the city and downstream, as excavations at Ostia for example seem to attest.

This undoubted fact is made more complex by other more prosaic factors: secular climate changes, and possibly also river management measures, mostly in the 1870s, that have altered the natural fluviometry of the Tiber.

At any rate, already in Antiquity, all was not well with the water table. Richardson concludes his article with this: "In the time of Hadrian the ground level in this part of the Campus Martius was raised in an effort to make it more suitable for construction and brought up nearly level with the top of the lower frieze of the altar screen. Thereafter the altar stood in a well, the edge protected by a coping and a fence."

There is another way of answering the question. The Altar to Peace was erected on the Field of War, the Campus Martius, and on the widest avenue of Rome: the location itself a powerful symbolic testimony to the gratitude or relief widely felt that Peace had supplanted War. Indeed, whatever else Romans then thought about Augustus or one may think now, the civil peace he brought to pass — at the price of several years of slaughter — lasted nearly a hundred years.

Finally, there is yet a third way of answering this question, which is surely the most fascinating of all, since it reveals the Ara Pacis as firmly participating in an ancient tradition in which a holy place was the earthly point of contact with some astronomical reality. Exact details will differ depending on the scholar you read, but the main lines are clear: this building was a marker on a gigantic clock in downtown Rome.

The timepiece in question was the Horologium Augusti, in which a great obelisk served as the gnomon or shadow stick and projected its shadow over a commensurately huge piazza: on the 23rd of September, Augustus's birthday — and on no other date — the tip of that shadow passed exactly over the Ara Pacis. This will not be the only such symbolic mix of politics, propaganda, gratitude, and the cult of personality to be found in Rome: Trajan's Column and the Arch of Constantine will follow.

Undoing this grand alignment, the Ara Pacis was ultimately removed not very many years ago to a specially constructed building near the Tiber, fittingly close to the Mausoleum of Augustus. It is a curious fact, yet one that would not have surprised the ancient Romans, that from the time this Altar to Peace was thus disturbed until the government that did it was overthrown, Italy was at war. A couple of years afterwards, too, but that spoils the symmetry.

Oh yes, and if we have all of it, why are big chunks of it missing? The answer to that is easy, and is yet a fourth way of answering the question "where is it?" The Renaissance opened the modern age of analysis: what more appropriate, than that the fragments found then, and in later centuries up to our own, should have wound up as membra disjecta in museums and private collections all over Europe? Specifically:

• the nine blocks found in 1568 were each sawn into three for ease of transport, sold to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and are now either in the Uffizi in Florence or back onsite —

• or in Rome at the Villa Medici, where there are several fragments of the Ara for sure, the question being where they come from;

• two blocks over­looked in 1568 were recovered shortly afterwards: one is now in the Louvre, the other in the Vatican.

This dispersal is not such a bad thing, since it improves our ancient patrimony's chances of survival: remember the Library at Alexandria? or for that matter, the Museum of Kabul in the recent Afghan war?​a

At any rate, some of the sculpture now in situ was in fact recovered from Florence's Uffizi and the Museo Nazionale across town, and what was not recovered was copied: and of this, the visitor will get no indication.​b

[image ALT: Close-up of a marble relief: the head of a young child.]

The Sculpture

The high-relief sculpture is first-rate: not just mythological scenes, either, but true Roman portraiture applied to the entire imperial family, even if understandably idealized.

[image ALT: missingALT]

A Technical Detail

The Ara Pacis was a working altar. Sacrifices involve the slaughter of large animals, and blood and other fluids have to be washed out of the altar enclosure. Here then are a couple of drainholes.

Thayer's Notes:

a This was written well before the Moslem attack on the United States of September 11, 2001 as well as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by Moslem fanatics and the looting by Iraqis of their own Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad.

For those whose memory doesn't go back to the looting of the Museum of Kabul: one of the great treasures of Asia, with a fabulous collection of Greco-Buddhist and other antiquities painstakingly assembled over a period of decades, was pillaged and destroyed by the Islamic group that governed Afghanistan at the time. If the artifacts had been spread over a hundred European collections, we'd still have them; to the extent that they were merely dispersed instead of destroyed, we still do. Similarly, the amassing in one centralized location of the painstaking work of (mostly European) archaeologists in an unstable Iraq made it a sitting duck for the partial destruction that looting surely must have brought about.

It would have been better, of course, for those who appreciated these antiquities, living in the civilized countries of Europe and North America for example, to have exported them there for safekeeping. What a pity this was not done to the Parthenon before 1686, when the Moslem tactic of storing weapons — in this case, ammunition — in historical monuments resulted in the huge explosion that wrecked the temple. In view of the massive, uncontrolled pollution of the air in Athens by sulfuric acid emissions from cars, thank goodness the Elgin marbles were rescued and are relatively undeteriorated and safe in London.

b This was written before the complete overhaul of the Ara Pacis and its new building, which I haven't yet seen. I'm all ears to hear from anyone who's seen the new facility, of course.

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