Ara Pacis, the Altar of (Augustan) Peace

A short walk to the northwest from us is the Altar of Peace, in the Piazza Augusto Imperatore, a bizarre but interesting mix of ancient, Facsist, and modern architecture.

I’ve included here several photos of the altar.  Much of what we see today is a large degree of reconstruction based on many decades of archaeological finds.

The first thing to understand about the Altar of Peace, a monument from the Roman Senate to the Emperor Augustus, is just what peace was referred to. It’s certainly not a peace with non-Romans — indeed, Rome was made wealthy by conquering others — but a peace between Romans.

The altar was a celebration of the Imperial cult, identifying Augustus and his family with the Roman goddess Pax (Peace), to legitimize his authority.

The goddess Pax (Peace)
The goddess Pax, although this may be an amalgamation of multiple goddesses

The altar further recognized Augustus as the head of Roman religion. This was particularly important to Augustus, who wished to bring what he perceived as a decadent Roman society back to (in his opinion) a more moralistic one. And, showing a devout and large Imperial family, the altar was a propaganda masterpiece, showing all of Rome that the emperor had plenty of heirs to succeed him (although ultimately his blood-related potential heirs pre-deceased him, and his step-son Tiberius would become the next emperor).

The altar has a detailed depiction of the Imperial family in procession, including Augustus, his loyal friend, general and son-in-law, Agrippa, Julia (Augustus’ daughter and wife of Agrippa; there is debate as to whether this figure is the empress Livia), and the future emperor Tiberius.

Agrippa (head covered by a fold of his toga) leads the Imperial household. The child tugging on his toga may be one of his sons (and heir to Augustus, as his mother was Julia, Augustus' sole biological child). The woman directly after is thought to be Julia, or perhaps Livia, Augusts' empress.
Agrippa (head covered by a fold of his toga) leads the Imperial household. The child tugging on his toga may be one of his sons (and heir to Augustus, as his mother was Julia, Augustus’ sole biological child). The woman directly after is thought to be Julia, or perhaps Livia, the empress.

In addition, in a demonstration of “peace” between the emperor and the Roman Senate, another panel showed senators participating in the procession. Other panels depicted priests or family groups.

Men, women and children in procession.
Men, women, and children in procession.

The altar was an amazing piece of sculpture. In keeping with the religious procession (which would have culminated in animal sacrifice to the gods), there were garlands and ox-heads.

Garlands with ox-heads
Elaborate garlands with ox-heads

And then there was the foliage. It sounds dull compared to the personal portraits, but it is absolutely breathtaking. Enormous acanthus scrolls swirled around, with blooms and fruits, as well as the occasional swan or insect.

Beautiful vines
Beautiful acanthus scrolls

Look closely and you’ll find many kinds of plants, with exquisite detail.

Grape vines with hanging bunches of grapes ...
Grape vines with hanging bunches of grapes …

Beyond the alter itself, the building housing it is well worth a look. Designed by American architect Richard Meier, it’s a striking modern building. It was rather controversial when built. Personally, I like it because it gives glimpses into the altar even to casual passers-by. It also seems to naturally settle into the landscape between the river and the piazza while simultaneously imparting a sense of grandiosity inherent to a Roman emperor. And, Meier had to take over the remnants of a previous building and make it work — not an easy task. I look forward to the renovation of this square, plans for which are under way.

The modern museum building by Richard Meier
The modern museum building by Richard Meier
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