Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Ara Pacis from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Elaborately sculpted altar in Rome, consecrated in 13 BC to mark the return of Augustus from the provinces of Spain and Gaul, and dedicated in 9 BC. Intended as a symbol of the new age of imperial rule, it stood in the Campus Martius, surrounded by a rectangular enclosure. Intricate relief sculpture, among the greatest artistic achievements of the Augustan era, pictured the act of consecration and the imperial family, alongside scenes from Roman mythology.

Summary Article: Ara Pacis Augustae
From The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

The Altar of Augustan Peace was authorized by the Roman Senate in 13 BCE, on Augustus' return from Spain and Gaul. It stood in the Campus Martius and consists of an enclosure wall, measuring 11.6 m by 10.6 m, which surrounds a stepped altar (see Figure 1). The relief sculptures of the marble wall project a powerful political message, intended to convince the Roman people of the benefits of Augustan rule (see augustus (imperator caesar augutus)).

Ara Pacis Augustae, Rome. © Photo Scala, Florence. Courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali.

The inner surface of the wall is carved with garlands containing fruits from all seasons, suspended from bucrania (ox skulls). The outer surface is divided into two registers. The lower register is decorated with acanthus scrolls, insects, small animals, and birds. The upper sections of the north and south walls display solemn sacrificial processions, consisting of the priests of major religious cults, senators, and members of Augustus' extended family. Augustus, veiled for his role as pontifex maximus (chief priest; see pontifex, pontifices), is towards the forefront of the south procession. Two legendary panels on the west side show Aeneas sacrificing to the ancestral gods on his arrival in Italy and a representation of the twins, Romulus and Remus, suckled by the she-wolf. Matching allegorical panels on the east represent respectively, the goddess Roma seated on a trophy of captured weapons and a matronly woman, identified as Tellus (Earth) or Italia. She holds two infants on her lap and is surrounded by plants and domestic animals.

The overt message of the decoration is a celebration of the Pax Augusta, the peace and plenty resulting from an end to the devastations of civil war and the pacification of the empire under the leadership of Augustus. The Tellus panel, the decoration of acanthus scrolls and the fruitful garlands of the inner wall embody images of peaceful abundance. More subtle messages delineate the sources of Augustan power, his control ofreligion and the army as pontifex maximus and imperator (commanding general), together with the assurance of peaceful dynastic succession indicated by inclusion of his family in the sacrificial processions. The processions also testify to Augustus' cultivation of traditional republican virtues, pietas (dutiful piety), respect for the gods and for the Roman family, attributes regarded by the Romans as the basis for their success. The Aeneas and Romulus panels emphasize Augustus as the founder of a "restored republic," associating him with the original founders of the Roman state. His right to rule is validated by his putative divine and heroic descent from Aeneas, son of Venus and hero of the Trojan War. The reliefs of the altar itself are a reiteration of the theme of pietas, showing a sacrificial procession, sacrificial animals, and representations of the gods.

The use of visual imagery for political purposes was a genre that enjoyed notable popularity and development in the Roman imperial period. The sculptures of the Ara Pacis represent one of the most complex and successful examples ofthis genre, employed in order to reconcile the Roman people to the dominance of Augustus and the initiation of dynastic rule.


Aeneas; Art, Roman; Augustus; Religion, Roman; Roma, goddess; Romulus and Remus.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Castriota, D. (1995) The Ara Pacis Augustae and the imagery of peace and abundance in later Greek and early imperial Roman art. Princeton.
  • Holliday, P. J. (1990) "Time, history and ritual on the Ara Pacis Augustae." Art Bulletin 72: 542-57.
  • Kleiner, D. E. (1992) Roman sculpture: 90-9. New Haven.
  • Rossini, O. (2007) Ara Pacis. Rome.
  • Roger Von dippe
    Wiley ©2012

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Ara Pacis Augustae
    The Bloomsbury Guide to Art

    Roman monument decorated with important sculptural reliefs , begun in 13 bc and dedicated on 30 January, 9 bc by the Senate to celebrate...

    Full text Article naumachia
    The Cambridge Guide to Theatre

    Mimic sea combat, devised by the ancient Romans as a spectacular entertainment, staged by constructing basins in amphitheatres which were...

    Full text Article Theatre of Marcellus
    Key Buildings from Prehistory to the Present

    Audience and actors in a Roman theatre were arranged in the same way as in a Greek one, but the structure holding the audience was completely differ

    See more from Credo