Italy, The Roman Empire

An Altar to Peace

When I returned to Rome from Gaul and from Spain, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quintilio, having brought to a satisfactory finish my works in these provinces, the Senate decreed that there should be consecrated in the Campus Martius an altar to the Augustan Peace and ordered that the officials, priests and vestal virgins should celebrate a sacrifice at it every year.”

In these words from Res Gestae, Augustus himself described the Senate’s decision to honour him with an altar to Peace, following the sucessful campaigns North of the Alps in 16-13 BCE, having subjected both the Reti, the Vindelici and effectively put the Alpine passes under Roman rule. Augustus also had recently visited Spain, finally at peace, where he founded several new colonies and had received new tributes for Rome.

The official ceremony and dedication of Ara Pacis took place on the 30th of January in 9 BCE. According to Cassius Dio the Senate initially planned to build the altar within the Curia, but instead the northernmost part of the Campo Martius was chosen, a recently urbanised vast field, previously mostly used for military exercise of infantry, cavalry and gymnastics of the Roman youth.

The Altar of Augustan Peace is a richly decorated altar, standing within a sculpted marble enclosure.  The reliefs on the upper part of the monument represented various subjects relating to the legendary founding of Rome, such as Romulus and Remus and a double procession unfolds along the monument’s length: Augustus, members of the imperial family, priests, magistrates, and senators. A fragment of this procession is currently in the Louvre, portraying a family with two children. Their identity has not been firmly established, although they may be members of the emperor’s own family.

The altar depicts the Augustan state religion, it’s lower frieze consisting of vegetal works signaling abundance and prosperity and a new peaceful age. The coninous frieze of the north and south panels is a confident display of the participants of a sacrificial ceremony; Romans in togas wearing laurel crowns, senators, priests, magistrates, lictors, the occasional slave or freedman, along with women and children, normally not portrayed in these circumstances. At least two of the little boys might be foreign princes, on account of their gallic and asiatic costumes. The base is adorned with acanthus scrolls intertwined with swans (birds sacred to Apollo who was a protector of Augustus). These luxuriant natural elements evoked the peace and prosperity that Augustus had brought to Rome.

On the southern panel the Emperor himself is in the process of performing the ritual accompanied by his closest family in tow, a symbol of the the stability and guaranteed succession of the regime. The shorter western and eastern panels, pierced by entryways to the altar are adorned by mythological motifs pertaining to the founding of Rome, it’s people and gods like mother earth, godess roma (or perhaps venus), the mythic forebearer Aeneas who also might be the first king after it’s founder Romulus who along with his brother Remus is seen suckling the she-wolf that legend has it once nurtured them.

Song in the film is Sungam Zorba by Hands Of Doom and animations made by

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016