To describe the Ara Pacis and the significance of what its art and architecture mean and represent, one must understand the position and mindset of Augustus. Without this understanding, the Ara Pacis may appear to be nothing more than a nicely ornamented building with an intricate altar. The deterioration of the Roman Republic and the military commanders repeatedly breaking with cultural norms in order to get personally wealthier forms an important backdrop to Augustus’ accession to power. This resulted in, as Zanker expressed it, ‘Roman values… becoming no more than a meaningless ideology.’ When the classically Roman-minded Augustus took power, he aimed to change the set of Roman culture back to a more ‘Golden Age’. He achieved this through various ways and means, one of which is the art and architecture that he caused to be commissioned during his reign. One such item for example was the Ara Pacis. The harkening back to a golden age of peace and plenty forms part of the reason that the Ara Pacis Augustae was commissioned. As was the modis operandi at the time, it is a effective example of traditional Greek forms being used to create a distinctly new Roman character.
A side effect of the change in the Roman culture during the Late Republic before Augustus came to power was a decline in birth rates and marriages in the upper class. This is due to the laws that were enacted which incentivised marriage and the bearing children. The significance of these laws are portrayed on the Ara Pacis, which depicts many children, when contrasted with the art and architecture from the Late Republic era. This was one of Augustus’ ways of communicating the message that children were valued and wanted in the new Roman culture that he was fostering, and hoping that the citizens would multiply and spread in his era of peace.
The Tellus relief continues the theme of children and the propagndic media of the Ara Pacis. It is an interesting conglomeration of images that seems to have perplexed and divided scholars on its interpretation for years. On this particular freize, there is a mother figure surrounded by grains, harvest foods, cattle, and flowers. The symbols have caused difficulty in composing an appropriate and accurate identification due to the symbols more often being associated with various Greek and Roman goddesses, such as Tellus, Venus, Ceres, and Pax. On the lap of this mother figure are two infants. In this author’s opinion, it is possible that these infants could represent Romulus and Remus, and the woman the Earth, nurturing Roman culture from the beginning, however there is insufficient evidence and detail to verify that deduction. The items in this frieze pull together to promote the idea and message of a peaceful, prosperous, and plentiful period of a Roman Golden age. They do this by the above mentioned notions of mother Earth nurturing Romulus and Remus, the foundations of Rome, and by the wind gods that are depicted to the sides as well. The wind gods signify the abundance and fertility of the Roman land.
However, even if the Tellus frieze doesn’t actually depict Romulus and Remus, there is a relief across the Ara Pacis from it that does. In this relief, the god Mars looks over the two brothers as the she-wolf from the foundation myth nurses them. The depiction of Romulus and Remus in the foundation myth of Rome on the Ara Pacis was possibly chosen to be depicted by Augustus to demonstrate that he was intending to return to the roots of Roman society and culture. It is possible that the story of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome would have conjured feelings of national pride and sentiment in the hearts and minds of the Romans who viewed this relief. If so, this would have only served moreover the aims of Augustus in trying to rekindle the golden age of Rome and bring about peace and prosperity to his people.
Augustus’ main goal and theme during his reign was the promotion of a peaceful and plentiful time through the resurrection of old Roman values and morals. To this end, when Augustus commissioned monuments, he had himself placed in peaceful scenes from both reality and myth, and this remains true in regard to the Ara Pacis in both form and function. The original site of the Ara Pacis was at the edge of the Campus Martius (Field of Mars). While there, the altar was positioned by Augustus and the Senate so that the person that was making the sacrifice had to turn their back to the field, and by association, the god whose field that was, namely Mars. Thus, the implication was that those who used the Ara Pacis would have to turn away from war and focus on peace.
The Ara Pacis is a representation of the ideals that Augustus held in relation to turning Rome back to its original values in the effort of creating another Golden Age. Thus Ara Pacis can be viewed as a piece of propaganda used by Augustus in helping to transform the Roman populace from the state that it was in at the end of the Late Republic to a more peaceful and receptive one. The placement of himself in the peaceful and pleasant settings depicted mentioned above was also a way of communicating to the Romans that he was going to be a ruler of peace and plenty rather than one of war, which had been so common in recent times. The inclusion of children in the Ara Pacis brought to the minds of the Romans a sense of family and of growth, which Augustus was trying to promote, and is also a sign of good and plentiful times and expansion. All of this was done on a monument, built on the side of the Field of Mars, designed so as to have the patrons turn their backs to that said God of War and focus on the Altar of Peace. Thus, the Ara Pacis is an ultimate symbol by Augustus of a peaceful Golden Age for Rome.
Brunt, P.A., and Moore, J.M. (1969). Res Gestae Divi Augusti: The Achivements of the Divine Augustus, Oxford University Press, NY.
Castriota, David. (1995). The Ara Pacis Augustae and the Imagery of Abundance in Later Greek and Early Roman Imperial Art, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Ehrenberg, V. and Jones, A.H.M. ‘Translations from Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius’, Res Gestae, http://www.mq.edu.au/about_us/faculties_and_departments/faculty_of_arts/department_of_ancient_history/teaching_materials/documents_illustrating_the_reigns_of_augustus_and_tiberius/#Res%20gestae%20divi%20Augustus
Freibergs, G., Littleton, C.S., and Strutynski, U. (1986). ‘Indo-European Tripartition and the Ara Pacis Augustae: An Excursus in Ideological Archaeology’ in Numen, Vol. 33, Fasc. 1, pp. 3-32.
Zanker, Paul. (1988). The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI.
HST265 Week 8 Tutorial Images, Mars, http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/mod/glossary/view.php?id=1474824&mode=&hook=ALL&sortkey=&sortorder=&fullsearch=0&page=0
HST265 Week 8 Tutorial Images, Relief from the eastern façade – the panel of Tellus i, http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/mod/glossary/view.php?id=1474824&mode=&hook=ALL&sortkey=&sortorder=&fullsearch=0&page=2
 P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, (Ann Arbor, 1988), pg. 2.
 D. Castriota, The Ara Pacis Augustae and the Imagery of Abundance in Later Greek and Early Roman Imperial Art, (Princton, 1995), pg. 4
 P. A. Brunt and J.M. Moore, Res Gestae Divi Augusti: The Achivements of the Divine Augustus, (Oxford, 1969), pg. 46-47
 HST265 Week 8 Tutorial Images, Relief from the eastern façade – the panel of Tellus i, http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/mod/glossary/view.php?id=1474824&mode=&hook=ALL&sortkey=&sortorder=&fullsearch=0&page=2
 Castriota, The Ara Pacis Augustae, pg. 66
 Ibid, pg. 70
 HST265 Week 8 Tutorial Images, Mars, http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/mod/glossary/view.php?id=1474824&mode=&hook=ALL&sortkey=&sortorder=&fullsearch=0&page=0
 G. Freibergs, ‘Indo-European Tripartition and the Ara Pacis Augustae: An Excursus in Ideological Archaeology’ in Numen, Vol. 33, Fasc. 1, pg. 7