Ara Pacis

  • Koen Willemsen - Faculty of Economics and Business
  • Maarten Pops - Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences

Augustus was the first Roman emperor(27 BCE-14 CE), well-known for his use of propaganda. The Ara Pacis, an altar dedicated to peace, was part of this propaganda. But what is the meaning of the Ara Pacis, why was it commissioned? To answer this question the Ara Pacis has to be put in a larger context and analyzed using rhetoric, which according to the Aristotelian model consists of ethos, logos and pathos.[32]

Ara Pacis Augustae, the "Altar of Augustan Peace", as reassembled.[Image 1]
1. History
1.1 Augustus
1.2 Ara Pacis
1.3 Original Location
2. Images on the Ara Pacis
2.1 Aeneas sacrificing
2.2 Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf
2.3 Roma
2.4 Mother figure
2.5 The processions
2.6 Floral Friezes
3. Importance of the Ara Pacis
3.1 Augustan Peace
3.2 Lineage
3.3 Fertility
3.4 Roman pride
4. Rebirth of the Ara Pacis
4.1 Mussolini
4.2 Importance to Mussolini
4.3 State of preservation
4.4 The Ara Pacis today
Literature sources
Image sources

1. History

1.1 Augustus

Reconstruction of the Ara Pacis with paint. [Image 2]

A period of civil war within the Roman empire ended in 27 BCE. Augustus, having emerged as the victor of this civil war, wanted to restore the peace and prosperity of Rome. The period which started with his reign is called the Pax Augusta (also called Pax Romana).[1] Augustus wanted to refine both the image of the state and that of himself. He therefore commissioned an enormous number of public works such as roads, bridges, forums, temples, market halls, and bathing complexes, most containing a form of propaganda in the city of Rome and elsewhere. With the momuments Augustus issued he intended to spread the ideas of his divine birthright. [2] After the death of Caesar in 44 BCE, Caesar was made into a god, which made Augustus the son of a god, or divi filius. Augustus laws pointed to a way of life for which Augustus was a personal model. Augustus' whole family played a role model for the Roman family in general. [11] The Ara Pacis can be seen as one of the monuments Augustus issued with the intend to spread his ideas.

1.2 Ara Pacis

The Ara Pacis (altar of peace) was commissioned by the Senate on July 4th of 13 BCE. Its official inauguration was in 9 BCE.[3] The Ara Pacis is an altar dedicated to the Pax Augusta and also a celebration of the return of Augustus from Spain and Gaul. [2] After the inauguration the Ara Pacis was used as an altar of sacrifices, where offers to the goddess of peace, Pax, were made. [4] One of the most remarkable aspects about the Ara Pacis is that it is a triumphal monument with a complete lack of triumphal imagery. This illustrates the Pax Augusta emphasizes not victory, but paradise-like peace that Augustus´ victories secure.[11]

1.3 Original location

Originally the Ara Pacis stood exactly one mile from the pomerial line (the religious boundary around Rome), on the west side of the Via Flaminia, facing east.[7] It was located at the northeastern corner of the Campus Martius, i.e. the part of the city where the soldiers stationed in Rome trained and where Augustus developed an area of monuments. [5]

The original location of the Ara Pacis, with the Mausoleum and the Horologium of Augustus. [Image 3] [Image 4]

2 Images on the Ara Pacis

2.1 Aeneas sacrificing

Aeneas sacrificing a sow. [Image 5]

This part of the Ara Pacis is one of the most well preserved and most complete scenes, which makes it the easiest to interpret. The scene is located on the right side of the main entrance and shows an older Aeneas, the mythical founder of the city of Rome.[16][26] The story of Aeneas fleeing a burning Troy and eventually founding Rome was written by Virgil and published in 19 BCE at the request of Augustus. [27] Aeneas is shown as a priest, with a veiled head and a priestly garb. [25] There are also offerings brought to Aeneas by several attendants. These offerings seem to consist of an ox and a bowl of fruit, which are known offerings used by the Romans. [24] The part of the relief that is lost may have had a depiction of a man dressed in Trojan fashion. [25] This is unfortunately uncertain, because most of this part of the relief is lost. Who the man is supposed to be is debated, but some historians belief it to be Julius-Ascanius, the mythical founder of the Julius family and the son of Aeneas. Finally a temple is shown. This is believed to represent the temple of the Penates; the Trojan housegods.[16]

2.2 Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf

This scene is regrettably mostly lost and therefore the contents of the image are up for discussion. The general consensus however, is that the relief presented a picture of the other myth about the founding of Rome: the story about Romulus and Remus. These were supposed to have been fathered by the god of war: Mars. The story goes that the brothers were suckled by a she-wolf, called the Lupercal and raised by the shepherd Faustulus. Since only part of Mars and Faustulus remain, it is hard to say that this is in fact the relief that is depicted. If this is the scene that was shown, it is clear why Augustus would have wanted the relief to be shown on the Ara Pacis, since it shows Augustus as the second founder of the city. As Augustus himself said, he found Rome a city of brick and left Rome city of marble.[29] The senate even considered calling Octavian (which was Augustus' original name) Romulus instead of Augustus, but eventually they preferred Augustus. [18] It could also be an homage to the god Mars; the altar was located on the so-called Campus Martius, or the field of Mars, so it makes sense that Mars would be the most important god there. Besides this, the presence of Mars justifies the civil wars. These wars were thought to be necessary in order to reach peace. Augustus not only showed both Romulus and Aeneas on the Ara Pacis, but also on other monuments in his honor. For example on the Forum Augustum; the forum dedicated to Augustus. On the Forum Augustum there were statues of both Romulus and Remus, with the name Augustus in the middle. This was to make it seem as if the two mythical founders had come together into one person: Augustus.[22]

Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf. [Image 6] Roma sitting upon the arms of the vanquished. [Image 7]

2.3 Roma

On the eastern wall we can see the goddess Roma, sitting on a pile of arms. Unfortunately almost all of this relief has been lost. Most of what we can see has been reconstruction in a way scholars have agreed upon it looked like.[4] The goddes is drawn as an Amazon, with a helmet on her head, her left breast naked and a sword in her left and a spear in her right hand. Most likely, the personifications of Honos and Virtus (honour and bravery) were portrayed next to Roma as young gods.[13] These two figures were not included in the reconstructional drawing.

The mother figure scene.[Image 8]

2.4 Mother figure

There has been a lot of discussion about who the central figure in this frieze symbolises. The figures on the left and right, representing earth and sea may indicate that the central figure is Mother Earth (Tellus). The goddess is seated on rocks, on her veiled head she wears a wreath of fruit and flowers; at her feet are an ox and a sheep. She has two children on her lap; one child offers her an apple. On her lap, she also has a bunch of grapes.[13] Most likely this frieze is meant to be multi-layered. With two children on her lap she might resemble Venus Genetrix, the mother of the Julian family.[4] The central figure, can also be seen as the goddess Pax or Ceres, the goddess of harvest and fertility. [13]

2.5 The processions

This scene shows a procession. Experts believe the man which is veiled is supposed to represent Augustus in his role as pontifex maximus (highest priest). The four persons that are following Augustus are the so-called flamines maiores. [13] The person behind him is Augustus´ adoptive son Tiberius. Behind Tiberius the procession is made up of mostly family members of Augustus. [28] For example; his daughter Julia can be seen behind Tiberius. Also other members of his family can be seen in the procession. The depiction of Augustus family members is very unusual for that time, since it was considered inappropriate for family members to be shown instead of priests. The fact that Augustus did choose to include his close family members is believed to represent Augustus´ ideas when he became emperor. Historians believe that Augustus wanted to start a dynasty of emperors in which the emperor was succeeded by his family. [15]

2.6 Floral friezes

The lower zone of all four outer walls is decorated with a pattern of floral reliefs. Amongst these flowers, birds, insects and other tiny animals are depicted. The upper zone of the inner walls are decorated with large patches of fruit, leaves, and corns. These flowers and animals represent fertility and abundance [12] Within these floral friezes twenty swans with open wings can be seen. There has been some discussion about what these swans represent. Some say this is a reference to Apollo, others think they should be connected to Venus.[15] These Swans may also refer to the dedication of the Ara Pacis in the twentieth year after the conquest of Egypt. Twelve of the swans are below the processions, these may refer to three legendary events: the twelve swans chased by eagles that Aeneas sees, the number of ships that carried the Trojans to Italy, and the number of swans Romulus sees as heralds of Rome´s foundation.[20]

Part of the procession, showing the imperial family.[Image 9] The floral friezes. [Image 10]

3 Importance of the Ara Pacis

Mars, the Roman god of war. [Image 11]

3.1 Augustan peace

The Ara Pacis is an altar dedicated to peace. But according to Augustus peace was only viable through successful warfare. This belief is supported by the Ara Pacis. First of all because Mars, the god of war, is depicted on a scene. Besides this, the Ara Pacis is located on the field of Mars, the original military training field. We can also see Roma sitting on weapons in another scene. It might seem a bit strange to depict the god of war and the goddess, who personified the city of Rome, sitting on a pile of arms upon an altar dedicated to peace. But, the images of Mars and the victory in war are was most likely included, from a rhetoric point of view, to illustrate this Augustan belief. Roma resembles prosperity and peace, flourishing under triumphant Rome.[13]

3.2 Lineage

The second function of the images of the Ara Pacis was relating Augustus to the past. The scene with Aeneas could be made to improve the ethos of Augustus; it helps the new emperor with his credibility as not only a political, but also a spiritual leader. This is because it is suggested here that Augustus is a descendant of Aeneas. It is also suggested that Augustus is a new Aeneas and is trying to start a new, better age for Rome. Augustus famously stated "I found a city in bricks and left a city in marble". [14][29] Even in the beginning of his carreer as emperor his ideas for greatness can be seen in the Ara Pacis. In his Res Gestae Augustus says that the presentation of the Ara Pacis and him becoming the Pontifex Maximus, or "highest priest", was on the same date. If Augustus had known he would become the Pontifex Maximus, he could have asked or commanded the senate to put up this scene, which shows the power Augustus had over the senate, making the senate more and more a ceremonial institute instead of one that actually wields power. By showing Aeneas as a priest in the fashion of the Pontifex Maximus, he is relating himself to Aeneas.[16] Augustus is also relating himself to Aeneas by showing the son of Aeneas, the, in that time, well-known founder of the Julius family. By relating himself to both Aeneas as a priest and an important person in the history of Rome, Augustus´ credibility as the Pontifex Maximus as well as the emperor had been improved. Augustus wants to be seen as Rome´s second founder and therefore relates himself to Romulus, the first founder. Augustus knew it was necessary to depict Rome´s early days in order to be successful in implementing changes. By showing both myths about the founding of Rome, Augustus relates himself all the way back to the founding of Rome, which gives him credibility as an emperor. It is a campaign to create a political myth connecting the Julian line and hereditary succession with the prosperity of Rome. If the mother figure is indeed Venus Genetrix, the presence of the mother of the Iulia family increases the ethos of Augustus, because it shows the godlike status of the Iulii family.

Statue of Aeneas with his father on his back. [Image 12] Augustus as the Pontifex Maximus. [Image 13]

3.3 Fertility

Another function of the Ara Pacis was stimulating Romans to increase the birthrate. One of the greatest anxieties of Augustus was that the birthrate in the Roman empire would drop. Therefore, another theme of the Ara Pacis became fertility. The floral friezes and the flowers and animals in these friezes are signs of fertility and abundance.[23] In the processions many children are depicted. The function of these children could have been stirring the audience emotions and encourage them to procreate. Augustus wanted to go back to the traditional family roles examplified by the she-wolf (besides Romulus and Remus) and the sow (besides Aeneas). The she-wolf, suckling Romulus and Remus is the model of female behaviour. She is important not only because without her there would not have been a Rome, but also because she perfectly fulfils her female destiny. The reliefs depict the nursing ability of the female animals, they resemble fertility and female morality.[19] The image of Mother Earth (if she is indeed mother earth), with a cow and a sheep at her feet, is a reference to fertility. The children on her lap strengthen this reference.

3.4 Roman pride

The scenes on the Ara Pacis not only celebrate Augustus, but also the Roman people. Augustus wanted to create a mythology of the state. While the Roman people may not have literally believed all myths, they did invoke a sense of pride, and the people were able to feel emotionally excited about the traditional stories of the gods. Augustus plays with the audience's emotions using images of the "good old days" and invokes feelings of pride, patriotism and heritage.[21] Because the Ara Pacis was located on the field where the soldiers used to train, it is likely that the soldiers were proud to see that the god of war was at their side.

3.5 Pater Familias

In Roman times, there was a role within a family, called the Pater Familias, or father of the family. This was one man who was utimately responsible of the fate of the family. Augustus had this role in his own family, as can bee seen by the processions on the long sides of the Ara Pacis. According to Paul Zanker this role of Pater Familias was extended to the entire realm: Augustus wanted to become the Pater Familias of the realm. The Ara Pacis plays an important role in the propaganda which was made to make Augustus the Pater Familias of the realm.[33]

4 Rebirth of the Ara Pacis

The building in which the Ara Pacis was housed in Mussolini's time. [Image 14]
Mussolini and Hitler in front of the "mother figure" scene.[Image 15]

After the fall of the Roman Empire the Ara Pacis was forgotten and was slowly carried of by the the nearby Tiber. [34]

After its disappearance, the story of the Ara Pacis starts again in 1568, when a number of sculptured blocks of marble came to light, in the cellars of the Palazzo Fiano (then named Palazzo Peretti). Pieces of the Ara Pacis were transported around the world, some disappeared. In 1859, when the foundations of the Palazzo were being consolidated more parts came to light and in 1879 all marbles recovered until now were recognized as parts of the Ara Pacis. In 1937-38 all parts were assembled in the Museo Nazionale Romano, as an honor to Augustus 2000th birthday, and the altar was finally complete again.[6]

4.1 Mussolini

The Ara Pacis was, according to Diane Atnelly Conlin, built to "symbolize and celebrate victory, prosperity, and dominance" in the age of Augustus and in that sense the altar helped to justify Mussolini´s ambitious agenda for a revitalized Rome within a new and restored Roman empire.[8] [9] Mussolini wanted to renew Augustan ideology, and therefore, also the Roman pride.[17] He constructed Piazza Augusto Imperatore, where he tried to connect the imperial past of military power and political glory with fascism. The reconstruction of the Ara Pacis is a part of this piazza. The idea of this piazza is similar to the area of monuments constructed by Augustus, and thus a sign that Mussolini tried to imitate Augustus.

4.2 Importance to Mussolini

By connecting the Ara Pacis to fascism, Mussolini impersonates Augustus, which increases his ethos. He also stirs the Italians emotions with the images depicted on the Ara Pacis of the "golden age of Augustus" and the ideas of return to this time. Along the eastern site of the building around the Ara Pacis Mussolini inscribed the Res Gestae, a description of Augustus´ achievements, composed by the emperor himself. This list is mirrored by an inscription of Mussolini´s accomplishments, located on the "Fabbricato B" across the piazza.[10] This way he uses logos to reinforce his legitimacy.

4.3 State of Preservation

Some scenes on the altar have been preserved better than others. The Roma scene, for example, is almost completely lost, whereas the Mother Figure scene is well preserved. Some of the lost parts have been reconstructed. For this they used ancient books and writings which describe the images. When Mussolini reconstructed the Ara Pacis he used concrete to assemble various pieces of the altar. After this reconstruction some missing parts of the Ara Pacis have been found, unfortunately these parts cannot be incorporated anymore because of fear that the whole altar will collapse.[10]

4.4 The Ara Pacis today

When Mussolini moved the Ara Pacis to its current location he hired Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo to design a protective building around the altar.[30] In 2006 a new cover building, designed by Richard Meier, opened. Many people considered this building to be an architectural flop. The residing mayor of Rome in 2008, Gianni Alemanno wanted to tear the building down, but eventually he agreed with Meier to modifications including drastically reducing the height of the wall between an open-air space outside the museum and a busy road along the Tiber river. [31]


Literature sources

  1. Petersen, E. and Niemann, G. (1902). Ara Pacis Augustae. Wien: A. Hölder. Page 1
  3. Rossini, O. (2007). Ara Pacis. Milan: Electa. Page 6
  5. Torelli, M. (1982). Typology & structure of Roman historical reliefs. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Page 29
  6. Toynbee, J. (1954). The Ara Pacis reconsidered and historical art in Roman Italy. London. Page 1-28
  7. Simon, E. (1968). Ara Pacis Augustae. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society. Page 7
  8. Conlin, D. (1997). The artists of the Ara Pacis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Page 104
  9. Le Glay, M., Voisin, J., Le Bohec, Y. and Cherry, D. (2009). A history of Rome. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. Page 218-221
  10. Conlin, D. (1997). The artists of the Ara Pacis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Page 14
  11. Wallace-Hadrill, A. (1993). Augustan Rome. London: Bristol Classical. Page 70-75
  12. Simon, E. (1968). Ara Pacis Augustae. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society. Page 13-14
  13. Rossini, O. (2007). Ara Pacis. Milan: Electa. Page 46-48
  14. Lamp, K. (2013). A city of marble. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press. Page 38
  15. Rossini, O. (2007). Ara Pacis. Milan: Electa. Page 78-88
  16. Rossini, O. (2007). Ara Pacis. Milan: Electa. Page 30
  17. Le Glay, M., Voisin, J., Le Bohec, Y. and Cherry, D. (2009). A history of Rome. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. Page 218-221
  18. Mazzoni, C. (2010). She-wolf. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. Page 190
  19. Mazzoni, C. (2010). She-wolf. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. Page 189-190
  20. Rehak, P. and Younger, J. (2006). Imperium and cosmos. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Page 107
  21. Lamp, K. (2013). A city of marble. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press. Page 42-43
  22. Diane Favro. The urban image of Augustan Rome. Cambridge university press. 1996. Page 230-231
  23. Theodor Kraus. Die ranken der Ara Pacis. Brüder Hartmann. 1953. Page 50-56
  24. Moretti, G. and Priestley, V. (1939). The Ara Pacis Augustae. Roma: Libreria dello stato. Page 9-19
  25. Rehak, P. and Younger, J. (2006). Imperium and cosmos. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Page 116
  26. Virgil., and Dryden, J. (2009). The Aeneid. [Auckland]: Floating Press.
  27. Gaskell, P. (1999). Landmarks in classical literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Page 161
  28. Rossini, O. (2007). Ara Pacis. Milan: Electa. Page 66
  29. Suetonius, (1796). The lives of the first twelve Caesars. London: Printed for G.G. and J. Robinson, Paternoster-Row. Augustus: chapter 29.
  30. Crow, Charlotte (June 2006). "The Ara Pacis". History Today 56 (6). Page 5
  31., (2015). BBC NEWS | Europe | Rome mayor vows to remove museum. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Nov. 2015].
  32. Elsner, J. (2014). Art and rhetoric in Roman culture. Page 4-5
  33. Zanker F., Thomas R. F.(1990). The Power of Images in Augustan Rome. Page 355-356
  34. Mazzoni, C. (2010). She-wolf. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. Page 187

Image sources