Week 12 Blog: Ara Pacis

Discuss the purpose, function, meaning of the Ara Pacis. Who commissioned it? What is depicted on it? What is it meant to represent? How were people to respond? Take into consideration the comments/analysis of this monument by both Paul Zanker and Brian Rose.  How compelling do you find Rose’s arguments?  How does his reading affect the interpretation of the monument as presented by Zanker and its meaning with respect to Augustan ideology?

Images of the Ara Pacis: Ara Pacis



6 responses to “Week 12 Blog: Ara Pacis

  • Allene Seet

    Pacis is a visual manifestation of the post-Actium Augustan social policy, which identified and implemented children as a significant component in maintaining Rome’s supremacy. As a dynastic tool, children symbolize stability and optimism, fertility and abundance (Zanker’s “Aurea Aetas”).
    Zanker places great emphasis on the acanthus panels- lush, winding tendrils and curl and uncurl; there are some incredible details underneath the tendrils, including a snake slithering by a bird’s nest. While these are bountiful and look surprisingly realistic close-up, they are nearly mirror images of each other, still curbed and carefully guarded within a specific framework. This creation isn’t spontaneous, which reflects the order imposed by Augustus’ moral and marital legislation, as referenced in Horace’s Carmen Saeculare: ““Duly open wombs at their proper season…Goddess, rear our children, uphold the laws our leaders have enacted to govern wedlock…” (170) Other images on the altar’s enclosure, such as the Pax/Tellus relief, reflect the ‘joys’ of childbirth which are paralleled in the animal kingdom. I don’t think it matters as much to identify the figure as Pax or Tellus or Ceres, as to realize that she could be an assimilation of all three.
    Zanker mentions that Augustus’ procreation plan failed. Contrary to Zanker, I think that is significant precisely because it didn’t change the visual content of Augustus’ images; having looked at monuments like the Ara Pacis, would we really have known that his program’s wasn’t successful?
    I agree with Zanker’s analysis of the altar’s fertility imagery, but I also think it’s important to point out the obvious contradictions between pre and post-Actium Augustan imagery; or maybe it’s just that I can’t get over the fact that Octavian bluntly broke way too many laws to present himself as some paragon of piety (not that Antony and Caesar didn’t break laws, murder indiscriminately, etc.). In this case, I found Zanker’s interpretation overly optimistic.
    The fertility imagery was meant to spur creation- not only of children, but of new ideas as well. I’d want to see the exact laws enacted by the marital legislation of 18 BCE to see what benefits were promised to those families who bore numerous children; this raises the possibility that the results of Augustus’ reform (failure, according to Zanker) were spurred not by any particular goodwill to the State, but by a desire for reward.
    I found Rose’s interpretation intriguing, because he manages to dig past the traditional “fertility, etc.” interpretation—and convincingly so. Rose posits that the two children normally identified as Gaius and Lucius Caesar are, instead, barbarian children from the East somehow connected to Agrippa’s sojourn to the East 16-13 BC. He identifies the child on the south frieze as (possibly) the son of Dynamis (?), a Bosporan queen.
    First, I agree with Rose on his identification for two reasons: the hair, which is not Roman, and the way in which the child relates to his surroundings—he looks on toward Agrippa, who is paying him absolutely no attention. This image makes no sense in light of a father/son relationship (and, significantly, nobody anywhere on the frieze seems to be paying any attention to the children, contrary to their new role in Augustus’ policy).
    I find his identification of Dynamis less likely, but more interesting. My only issue is with his discussion of the diadem and its relation to Dionysian imagery. I had always been under the impression that there was some post-Actium removal of Dionysus/Antony-related themes from the public monuments. Moreover, this also references Mithridates Eupator. Rose interprets this as referencing the extent to which the Pax Augusta has permeated Rome’s territories…but…I have trouble seeing this as anything other than slightly disingenuous. I think that the inclusion of Eastern royalty, if that is what the figures are, still indicates some form of subordination…and the fact that this conquered queen may be a descendant of Mithridates only serves to increase Rome’s self-gratification. Perhaps her lineage explains her prominence on the southern frieze, next to Agrippa?
    In general, I think it’s far more interesting to view the monument with an Octavian-Antony angle: Antony’s children with Cleopatra effectively removed his Roman-ness, or whatever you want to call the essence of being a Roman male. To most Romans, their children were illegitimate heirs to Caesar. Octavian has to make this distinction clear: there is a ‘morally right’ way to expand one’s empire.
    I know this is getting really long, but there’s one question I wanted to pose. The figure traditionally identified as Agrippa on the south frieze is presented as a (priest?) capite velato. Augustus had been designated Pontifex Maximus after Lepidus died…so why is Agrippa presented this way? Was it customary to present more than one sacrificial participant with his toga drawn over his head?

  • Ena Dekanic

    The Senate commissioned the Ara Pacis Augustae to commemorate Augustus’ establishment of peace in the empire after decades of civil strife. The “sculptured masterpiece of the age of Augustus,” the Ara Pacis served as the visual “vehicle by which the emperor…chronicled the history of Rome and the related story of a youthful dynasty that leveraged a promising past into a vital present that presaged a visionary future” (Kleiner, 221). According to Kleiner, the Ara Pacis “did not hesitate to weave myth, legend, and current events into a dramatic narrative of Rome’s illustrious past, promising present, and visionary destiny” (219). To do so, it featured not only motifs from Rome’s legendary past, such as the myths of Aeneas and Romulus, but also connected them to the personal history of Augustus’ family dynasty.

    The eastern face of the Ara Pacis depicts a female goddess, “Pax Augusta.” As Zanker discusses, the goddess, associated with peace, fertility, and abundance, symbolizes the saeculum aureum brought by Augustus’ reign. Panels on the western side depict Romulus and Remus and Aeneas offering sacrifice. In order to legitimize the rule of the Julian dynasty, Augustus combined two traditional myth cycles, the legend of Troy and that of Romulus. In this way, Zanker argues, Augustus connected his family, and by extension the Roman state itself, to both Venus, who granted fertility and prosperity, and Mars, who guaranteed virtus. The north and south panels depict a procession of the entire imperial family. Kleiner claims that all of the family members purposefully represent each other, thereby creating a unified image of Empire that ensured the perpetual flourishing of Rome.

    The “intentioned multiplicity” of the interrelated narratives in the Ara Pacis has led, as Kleiner notes, to multiple interpretations. Unlike other scholars, Rose argues that the two children in foreign dress on the south frieze of the altar are not Gaius and Lucius Caesar, as commonly understood, but rather Bosporan and Gallic barbarian princes. Interestingly, however, Zanker and Rose come to similar conclusions, although they do so by different paths. Both agree, for example, that children signify the future maintenance of the Pax Augusta, a point that remains valid regardless of the specific identification of the two contested youths. To me, the specific identification of the children seems largely irrelevant, especially if the main message remains the same. Given the aforementioned fluidity between narratives in the Ara Pacis, how can we even be sure that the Roman audience itself was able to, or supposed to, firmly identity the figures?

  • Lili Dodderidge

    The Ara Pacis was created as a tangible manifestation of the Golden Age of Augustus, proclaiming the glory of the era and suggesting its infiniteness within the future of Roman culture and identity. Commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 BC, this altar continues to represent the ideologies of Augustus. This ideology, however, can be interpreted in different ways; one of the clearest examples of this difference can be seen in the two children at the feet of Agrippa. No matter if this scene is interpreted as Lucius and Gaius, or an Eastern and a Celtic prince, the figures still ultimately reflect the main mission of the architecture—to glorify the power and prestige of Roman culture that would sustain the Empire for generations to come.

    Paul Zanker suggests that the young boys represent Lucius and Gaius, the successors of Augustus. The boys are in a prominent position on the relief, surrounded by other members of the imperial family, emphasizing their connection to the dynasty of Augustus. Furthermore, the artist portrayed the boys in a very striking manner. Around their necks rests a torque necklace, a prize given for honorable and successful athletes in the Troy Game; this reference would resonate with contemporary Roman citizens who would take this symbol as a representation of the strength and courage of these future successors (Zanker 217). In his later years of life, Augustus concerned himself with promoting the future leaders of the empire; this chief concern, Zanker explains, makes the interpretation of the boys as Gaius and Lucius very plausible.

    Brian Rose, on the other hand, believes these characteristics signify the boys as, “barbarians from the eastern and western regions of the Empire who were brought to Rome in 13BC,” the year the altar was commissioned (Rose 453). Rose believes that the dress and hairstyle of the child, commonly presumed to be Gaius, label this boy as an Eastern prince. He supports this observation with the historical relevance of the east at this time—Agrippa returned to Rome in 13 BC from a trip through the eastern part of the Empire, and brought with him the son of Herod the Great (457). Similarly, Rose suggests that the other boy is of Celtic roots, resembling other images of Celtic children more so than any other depictions of Lucius. Current events play another factor in the plausibility of this theory—Augustus had just returned from his Celtic campaigns (460). Taking these two perspectives together, Rose suggests that the eastern prince represents “Agrippa’s role in securing peace in Asia Minor,” and that the Celtic prince evokes peace that Augustus brought to the west in his military campaigns (461). The contemporary nature of such a perspective would relay to the Romans the power and domination of their empire; to see these successes marked forever in the altar, and further represented by young children—a natural symbol for growth and prosperity—would be quite effective in transmitting a message to the Empire’s people.

    Augustan ideology emphasized connecting the past with the present, keeping this reflection and respect of the past into the future. Both interpretations serve this purpose, using children to signify the establishment and infinite legacy of the Age of Augustus. While Rose’s argument is highly plausible and emphasizes more technical, social policy oriented details in characterizing this age of peace within the Empire, it is not as immediate of a reference to pick up on as Gaius and Lucius would be. The successors of Augustus would be the obvious first interpretation of this image, a logical choice that people of this era and more modern ages can relate to. That being said, the beauty of the ambiguity in ancient art and architecture leaves room for such interpretation, allowing general assumptions as well as detailed historical references to exist simultaneously, enabling the viewer to be affected by the image in the way he or she so chooses.

  • Danielle Lee

    As discussed by the various scholars and my fellow classmates, the Ara Pacis was commissioned by the Senate as a commemoration of the splendor of the Rome under Augustus. Not only did it depict the glory of Rome’s past—looking back to its origins in Troy with Aeneas as well as the mythological story of Romulus and Remus—but it also linked that glorious history to the present and future of Rome. By depicting the imperial family adjacent to the famed figures, they seem to be promising just as glorious future to the citizen audience. This is especially emphasized in the presence of children throughout the images. As important as the portrayals of the current leaders were, it was also important to demonstrate that the peace and prosperity established in this generation is already being translated into the lives of the posterity (no matter how ambiguous those child figures may be). Perhaps, it is exactly that ambiguity that communicated a faith in the succeeding generations rather than a faith in only Lucius and Gaius alone.

    One thing that struck me as I was looking through the images of the Ara Pacis was that the procession of the imperial family and other leaders seemed to depict them as moving from East to West—moving from (or just between) the images of divinities in the east to the images of actual Roman historical figures on the west side. This is, of course, from my limited perspective of looking at the given images that cannot show every detail. But, from what I saw, it seemed as if the general movement of the bodies was indeed from East to West. Going from East to West almost seems to indicate a translation of divine will into earthly reality. Though we may question the truth of some of the stories surrounding Aeneas and the brothers Romulus and Remus, the Romans of this era looked back upon them as Americans look back on George Washington and other founding fathers. Therefore, the imperial procession in that same direction may be a symbol of the royal family as channels between divine power and will and earthly Rome.

    It is also interesting that they are moving from East to West. First, it seems as if they are solidifying and finalizing their adoption as well as domination of Hellenistic culture—at least their version of it. This is also highlighted in the fact that there are eastern ‘barbarians’ depicted throughout the frieze. Though they are dressed differently so as to differentiate their origins, they are portrayed nonetheless. They are forever memorialized in this structure as if to say that from that point on, despite the difference in appearance, the eastern culture will be absorbed by the Romans.

    Also, coming from Troy, Aeneas also traveled from East to West making the imperial procession a fulfillment of their historic past.

    Finally, as Zanker points out, vines span much of the frieze. Though I do not question Zanker’s interpretation of the vine motif as symbols of fertility and growth, his discussion of the vines reminded me of Rose’s reference to Dionysus. According to Rose, the ‘barbarian’ woman depicted is an allusion to Dionysus because her diadem is at the tip of her forehead rather than encircling her head. Then, as I began to notice the East-West trend of all of the figures, it seemed more and more appropriate that Dionysus was an underlying theme to the entire Ara Pacis. Since he was indeed a Greek divinity (which the Romans have adopted in their own way) but came from further east, it makes absolute sense to have vines (his trademark as the god of wine) spanning the Ara Pacis. The importance of Dionysus, however, is questionable. Did the Romans adopt the Dionysiac cults and festivals that were so important in Rome?

  • Ryan Day

    The Ara Pacis seems to be trying to represent the entrance of Rome into a period of stability, after many years of civil war. The beginning of an age of peace, fertility and abundance., and of power. Peace is clearly represented by a Goddess. Fertility is clearly present in the appearance of several children, who also serve to represent the future transition of power. If two of these children are in fact Gaius and Lucius Caesar, they personify the the leadership of the next generation. Abundance is represented by what appears to be a surplus of flora and fauna, and the presence of animals that have the potential for being food.

    Rose’s theory that the Ara Pacis has barbarian influences is a good theory that doesn’t appear to have been fully fleshed out. Why are there supposedly barbarian princes in the procession? The answer, Rose seems to imply, is that they were brought back from the recent campaigns in Gaul and the East. This, however, fails to identify why these children are in the procession on the Ara Pacis. Were the Romans known for kidnapping the children of opponents and bringing them back to Rome?

  • Brendan Dorsey

    The Ara Pacis was commissioned by the Senate, though given Augustus’ status at the time it seems highly unlikely that this happened without his approval, if not at his suggestion or insistence. As both Zanker and Rose make clear, it is (like its name suggests) a depiction of the peace and unity that Augustus and Agrippa brought to the Roman world by the end of their campaigns. More specifically, there are four significant mythological representations (Roma, a nature-type goddess, Romulus and Remus, and probably Aeneas), flanked by processions of the most prominent men and women of Rome at the time. It seems quite clear, both from the imagery of the altar structure itself and from the interpretations of both Zanker and Rose, that the Ara Pacis was intended to display the order and peace that Augustus and Agrippa had brought to Rome and her holdings, the prosperity that was sure to come from that peace, and, perhaps most importantly, the stable future that Augustus had finally guaranteed. Zanker argues that much of the imagery is generic, draws on old images of myth to conform to the new Augustan mythologies, and that it repeats the most frequent themes of Augustan art. This seems particularly convincing with regards to the depictions of the matronly goddess, the image of Roma, and the highly structured order given to the work as a whole. Everything is in its proper place, and the mythological imagery evokes many different mythological traditions while combining them into a new order. However, Rose suggests that there are some very specific representations of contemporary events on the Ara Pacis. He identifies the boys commonly labeled as Gaius and Lucius Caesar as Bosporan and Gallic princes, respectively. I find his evidence in support of this persuasive, as this sort of representation would tie the Ara Pacis into the events of its time much more concretely than the rest of the rather generic imagery. These two figures being Eastern and Western royalty reinforces the theme of peace and order across the Empire, and furthermore their youthfulness stresses the fact that Rome’s power and stability is secure for the coming generation. Given the historical context (an end, more or less, to the civil and border wars after a century of turbulence) and the many youths found on the Ara Pacis, this motif has to be regarded as central to the message of the structure. The peace and order it depicts would be meaningless if they were not secure for the future, and the imagery of the Ara Pacis clearly reflects this. The orderliness and preeminence of Rome, Augustus, and Agrippa reflects the current state of affairs, but the repeated theme of youths and children reinforces the fact that Augustus has secured not only peace, but a peaceful succession and transfer of power over generations as well.

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