The Ara Pacis Augustae is an altar dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of Peace, and consecrated to Roman Emperor Augustus. It is considered one of the most important monuments of Roman architecture.
History of the Ara Pacis
The Ara Pacis was commissioned by the Roman Senate on the 4th of July 13 BC to honour emperor Augustus. It is dedicated to Pax, the goddess of Peace, and celebrates the return of Augustus from his military campaigns in the provinces of Hispania and Gaul, where he had stayed for three years to supervise their administration. The monument, which consists of an open-air marble altar in a walled enclosure, was meant for the sacrifice of animals. The slaughtering and offering of animals were common rites associated with the Roman state religion and usually took place outdoors.
Initially, the Senate wished to erect the altar in the Curia, but Augustus decided to place it near his mausoleum in the Campus Martius, along the Via Lata (nowadays the Via del Corso). In this way, it would be close to other architectural complexes which proudly displayed Augustus’ power, legitimacy and suitability as a ruler. Moreover, the fact that the altar is dedicated to the abstract notion of peace symbolizes the role of the emperor as a key figure in the restoration of peace in the Roman Empire after a long period of internal and external instability.
The Ara Pacis took four years to be completed and was consecrated to Augustus on January 30, 9 BC. It consists of a central altar made of Italian Luna marble, which is set on a podium surrounded by high walls. The altar has relief scenes representing Vestal Virgins, priests and sacrificial animals. The interior part of the surrounding walls depicts fruit and flower garlands hanging from ox heads above fluting, whereas the exterior ones have richly sculpted acanthus scrolls intertwined with swans -sacred to Apollo, Augustus’ protector-. The whole monument was painted and had touches of gilding.
On the east and west parts of the exterior walls are represented several mythological scenes, including the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, Aeneas sacrificing to the Penates and a female figure with two children who could be Pax. On the south and north side of the walls we can see Augustus and the Imperial family, accompanied by magisters, senators, priests and their families, all wearing wreaths of victory. All of them are taking part in a procession and are portrayed in a very realistic way. The figures are seen talking to each other and we can spot a female figure calling for silence while the children seem very bored. It is interesting to note that, even though Augustus has an important role in the scene, he is not so easy to pick out. This contrasts with the later Roman sculpture, where the emperor becomes the focal point of the monument.
Discovery and Restoration of the Ara Pacis
From the second century AD onwards, the Ara Pacis fell into oblivion. This was because subsequent floods of the Tiber River buried the structure, which was located nearby. There is not much information regarding the first discovery of the monument, but historians think it was already known by the 16th century.
In this sense, in 1556 nine sculpted blocks were found in the foundations of the Peretti Palace and transferred to the Vatican Museums, walled up on the façade of the Villa Medici or sold. In 1859, the base of the altar and more fragments of the walls emerged in that same palace. This led to the start of the recovery works a few decades later, in 1903, which ended in 2014, marking the Augustan bimillennial. The Ara Pacis was then moved to the bank of the Tiber and placed in front of the mausoleum of Augustus. Nowadays, the monument has a museum dedicated to it and is protected by a glass and steel structure in a modern style designed by Richard Meier.