Ara Pacis Augustae (roughly translating to ‘Altar of Augustan Peace’) was conceived as an altar in Rome dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of peace (equivalent to her Greek counterpart Eirene). As opposed to the crowd-pleasing projects sanctioned by the emperor, the monument was actually commissioned by the Roman Senate, on occasion of Augustus’ return to Rome in 13 BC. The altar in its original scope was erected on the northeastern corner of the Campus Martius (Field of Mars); and in Dr. Jeffrey Becker’s words – “it represented in luxurious, stately microcosm the practices of the Roman state religion in a way that is simultaneously elegant and pragmatic.”
The resourceful folks over at Altair4 Multimedia have digitally reconstructed the Ara Pacis on its original location, atop a high podium in Campus Martius (currently the monument is housed inside Museo dell’Ara Pacis, an enclosure designed by renowned architect Richard Meier). And as we progress through the animation, one can certainly discern the scope of colorful vibrancy on the facades of the altar – an artwork practice that was probably followed by both ancient Greeks and Romans for (many of) their sculptural specimens and engravings.
Now in terms of the artistic ambit of the Ara Pacis, the monument is believed to allude to the symbolic status of Roman pax (peace). This allusion directly conforms to the ‘advertised’ notion fueled by Augustus on how he brought peace to the burgeoning realm of the (now) Roman Empire at the early phases of the 1st century AD. This idea of Pax Romana (Roman peace), while having some propagandist elements to it, was significant at the time, especially after years of incessant wars (many of them civil) that afflicted the last mercurial decades of the late Roman Republic.
The engravings on the north and south outer facades of the Ara Pacis showcase processional scenes with figures who are fittingly clad in their stately garb. Depicted to be advancing towards the west, these figures probably portray four main Roman groups – the lictors (civil servants who performed their duties as bodyguards for magistrates), priests, members of the Imperial household and finally the other attendants. The occasion of their procession is hypothetically related to the celebration of peace.
As opposed to ‘realistic’ nature of the aforementioned facades, the east and west outer facades of the Ara Pacis mostly depict scenes from Roman mythology and legends. These include a female goddess or a female warrior (bellatrix), possibly Roma, seated on a pile of weapons – thus symbolically mitigating the instruments of war. She is accompanied by another seated female goddess (on the other panel on the east side), possibly depicting Pax herself.
The west side features customary depictions of Romulus and Remus – the mythic warlike founders of Rome. And finally, the other panel on the west also portrays a bearded figure offering a sacrifice. Now while in early 20th century, the figure was believed to have depicted Trojan hero Aeneas, recent theories (based on an re-interpretation offered by the late Paul Rehak) put forth him as Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king – known as a peaceful ruler and the founder of the Roman religion. All of these engravings are presented in their colored avatars by the following video (unfortunately only available in Italian) –
Considering these antithetical (yet ultimately related) themes of war and peace represented by the facades of the fine Roman architectural specimen, this is what Dr. Jeffrey Becker had to say about the symbolism espoused by the Ara Pacis monument (one can also follow the video below for a more detailed explanation of the history and symbolism of the monument) –
The dedication of the Horologium (sundial) of Augustus and the Ara Pacis, the Augustan makeover served as a potent, visual reminder of Augustus’ success to the people of Rome. The choice to celebrate peace and the attendant prosperity in some ways breaks with the tradition of explicitly triumphal monuments that advertise success in war and victories won on the battlefield. By championing peace—at least in the guise of public monuments—Augustus promoted a powerful and effective campaign of political message making.