Who's Who on the Ara Pacis

By Leonard A. Curchin

The most important historical relief sculpture of the age of Augustus is undoubtedly that decorating the Ara Pacis or Altar of Peace, in the Campus Martius at Rome. Augustus ordered the construction of this altar in 13 BC after completing the conquest of Spain and Gaul. Anonymous sculptors worked on the reliefs for more than three years before the altar was officially dedicated on January 30, 9 BC. Although the sacrificial altar itself was the centrepiece of the monument, scholarly attention has focused mostly on the decoration of the rectangular enclosure surrounding it (fig. 1). An opening at either end of this structure was flanked by large, decorated panels, each representing a relevant deity or hero. One panel, only partly preserved, shows Aeneas sacrificing at an earlier altar. Other panels show Mars with Romulus and Remus, and the goddess Roma with the Genius of the Roman People. The only fully preserved panel is that depicting a goddess identified variously as Tellus (the earth mother) or Italia (fig. 2). Flanked by nymphs, plants and farm animals, and with a child at each breast, she symbolizes the fertility and prosperity that accompany peace. Below these panels, and on the lower portion of the two long walls, is an elaborate decoration of floral and vegetal motifs, among them wheat and grape vines, which likewise symbolize abundance and the flourishing of life. The whole effect contributes to the Augustan notion of the return of the Golden Age, already predicted in Vergil's fourth Eclogue.

Figure 1

Figure 2

But the most famous part of the Ara Pacis is the procession of people represented in the upper portion of the long walls, who have come to celebrate the emperor's safe return. The frieze on the north wall shows a lineup of men in togas (fig. 3) as well as a few women. Though most are not identifiable, and indeed many of the original heads do not survive, they appear to represent members of the emperor's court. More important is the procession on the south wall, with Augustus and his family (fig. 4). Of the emperor himself we have only the face and one half of the body. He is preceded by the lictors with their fasces, turned at various angles to indicate that they are surrounding and protecting him. Behind him come the two consuls and the three principal flamines (the priests of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus) wearing their distinctive spiked leather caps.

Figure 3

Figure 4

After them comes an attendant carrying a sacrificial axe for dispatching an animal victim (fig. 5). Conspicuous by his absence is the Pontifex Maximus or chief priest. At the time the monument was designed in 13 BC, the Pontifex Maximus was Lepidus, former member of the Second Triumvirate. No longer in power, and indeed accused of plotting against Augustus, he was living in seclusion in the coastal town of Circei. In fact, Lepidus died and Augustus became Pontifex Maximus in 12 BC, but it was too late to alter the relief to show the emperor in the chief priest's garb.

Figure 5

Next is Agrippa, his head respectfully covered with the end of his toga. Since Agrippa died before the monument was completed, we have another example of how the Ara Pacis was already somewhat obsolete by the time it was dedicated. Behind Agrippa come Augustus' wife Livia and her son Tiberius, the eventual successor of Augustus. Between Agrippa and Livia is a little boy, whose mother is shown in the background, patting his head. Although this boy might be Agrippa's son Lucius (born 17 BC) and the woman his mother Julia, he wears a tunic and Celtic neck-torc instead of a toga, and may therefore be a barbarian prince. It is known that many children of foreign monarchs lived in the imperial court. Some scholars believe that Julia, escorted by her elder son Gaius, is among the figures on the north wall.

Tiberius is followed by a sad-faced woman who might be his wife Vipsania (daughter of Agrippa), or possibly Augustus' sister Octavia (fig. 6). The couple behind them, who are facing each other in the only example of conjugal affection on this monument, are Livia's younger son Drusus (in military boots) and his wife Antonia Minor (the younger daughter of Octavia by Mark Antony). Antonia holds the son of the infant Germanicus, who was two years old when the altar was commissioned. His younger brother Claudius, the future emperor, was born in 10 BC, too late to be included. The couple behind Drusus are believed to be Antonia Maior (Octavia's elder daughter) and her husband, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, consul in 16 BC. Antonia Maior is flanked by her two children, Domitius and Domitia. Domitius (shown clutching his uncle's cloak, a neat way of giving unity to the composition) was the father of the later emperor Claudius; his sister is otherwise unknown. Between Antonia and Ahenobarbus is a male figure, sometimes thought to be Maecenas or Horace, though certainty is impossible.

Figure 6

In all, the figures on the Ara Pacis provide a unique look at the family of the first Roman emperor.