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Ara Pacis

Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace), 13-9 B.C.E.Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're standing in the marvelous museum that was designed by Richard Meier to hold the Ara Pacis, one of the most important monuments from Augustine Rome. - [Dr. Harris] Ara Pacis means alter of peace. Augustus was the first emperor of Rome. - [Dr. Zucker] And the person who established the Pax Romana, that is the Roman Peace. The event that prompted the building of this altar to peace under Augustus was Augustus's triumphal return from military campaigns in what is now Spain and France. - [Dr. Harris] And when he returned, the Senate vowed to create an alter commemorating the peace that he established in the empire. We're talking about the Ara Pacis but, of course, this has been reconstructed from many, many fragments that were discovered, some in the 17th century, mostly in the 20th century. - [Dr. Zucker] Actually, it's a small miracle that we've been able to reconstruct this at all. It had been lost to memory. - [Dr. Harris] The remains of it lay under someone's palace. When it was recognized, what these fragments were, it became really important to excavate them and to reconstruct the alter. - [Dr. Zucker] That was finally done under Mussolini, the fascist leader, in the years leading up to the second World War and during the second World War, and that was important to Mussolini because Mussolini identified himself with Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Mussolini was very much trying to reestablish a kind of Italian empire. We should talk a little bit about what an altar is. - [Dr. Harris] We talk about the alter, really what we're looking at are the walls of the precinct around what is in the middle of the altar, where sacrifices would have occurred. - [Dr. Zucker] The altar itself is interesting and important when we think about Augustus. Augustus is establishing a centralized power. Since its earliest founding years, when it was under the rule of kings, Rome had been controlled by the Senate. - [Dr. Harris] The Senate was basically a group of the leading older citizens of Rome. So Rome was a republic and it really was a republic until Julius Caesar, who was the dictator and Augustus's uncle, and then Caesar is assassinated, there's civil war, and then peace is established by Augustus. - [Dr. Zucker] Right. Augustus, whose real name was Octavian, is given the term Augustus as a way of representing his power, and it's interesting, the kind of politics that Augustus involved himself with. He gave great power back to the Senate, but by doing so, he established real and central authority for himself. - [Dr. Harris] He made himself Princeps, or first among equals, but of course he controlled everything. - [Dr. Zucker] He also held the title of the head priest of the state religion, and so he held tremendous power. - [Dr. Harris] His uncle, Julius Caesar, had been made a God, and so he also represented himself as the son of a God. - [Dr. Zucker] And so the idea of establishing this altar has a political as well as spiritual significance. - [Dr. Harris] He's looking back to the Golden Age of Greece of the fifth century BC, but he's also looking back to the Roman Republic. He's reestablishing some of the ancient rituals of traditional Roman religion. He's embracing traditional Roman values. - [Dr. Zucker] But even as he's doing that, he's remaking Rome radically. He's changing Rome from a city of brick to a city of marble and the Ara Pacis is a spectacular example of that. - [Dr. Harris] And when we look closely at the Ara Pacis, what we're going to see is that this speaks to the sense of a golden age that Augustus brought about in the Roman Empire. - [Dr. Zucker] One of the most remarkable elements of the Ara Pacis is all of the highly decorative relief carving in the lower frieze. - [Dr. Harris] And that goes all the way around. It shows more than 50 different species of plants. They're very natural in that we can identify these species, but they're also highly abstracted and they form these beautiful symmetrical and linear patterns. - [Dr. Zucker] There is a real order that's given to the complexity of nature here. This massive, elegant acanthus leaf, which is a native plant, which were made famous in Corinthian capitals, and then almost like a candelabra growing up from it, we see these tendrils of all kinds of plants that spiral. - [Dr. Harris] And there are also animal forms within these leaves and plants. We find frogs, and lizards, and birds. - [Dr. Zucker] And the carving is quite deep, so that there's this sharp contrast between the brilliance of the external marble and then the shadows that are cast as it seems to lift off the surface. - [Dr. Harris] Art historians interpret all of this as a symbol of fertility, of the abundance of the Golden Age that Augustus brought about. - [Dr. Zucker] We also see that same pattern repeated in the pilasters that frame these panels and then we also have meander that moves horizontally around the entire exterior, and it's above that meander that we see the narrative friezes. We have to be a little careful when we try to characterize what precisely is being represented. There are lots of conflicting interpretations. - [Dr. Harris] These panels relate, again, to this Golden Age that Augustus establishes. These refer back to Aeneas Rome's founder and Augustus's ancestor. We see other allegorical figures representing Rome and peace. - [Dr. Zucker] We're now looking at a panel that's actually in quite good condition, but that doesn't mean we really know what's going on. - [Dr. Harris] No, there's a lot of argument about what the figure in the center represents. Some art historians think this figure represents Venus. Some think it represents the figure of peace. Some the figure of Tellus or Mother Earth. In any case, she's clearly a figure that suggests fertility and abundance. - [Dr. Zucker] She's beautifully rendered. Look at the way the drapery clings to her torso, so closely, as to really reveal the flesh underneath like the goddesses on the Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Greece. - [Dr. Harris] And on her lap sit two children, one of whom offers her some fruit. There's fruit on her lap. On either side of her sit two mythological figures who art historians think represent the winds of the Earth and the sea. - [Dr. Zucker] Look at the way the drapes that they're holding whip up, creating these beautiful almost halos around their bodies. - [Dr. Harris] And at her feet, we see an ox and sheep, so there's a sense of harmony, of peace, and fertility. - [Dr. Zucker] And that must have been such a rare thing in the ancient world. - [Dr. Harris] Augustus reins after decades of civil war after the assassination of Julius Caesar, so I think there's a powerful sense that this was the Golden Age. These allegorical or mythological scenes appear on the front and back of the altar, and then on the sides of the altar we see a procession. - [Dr. Zucker] The frieze moves from the back wall of the precinct, up towards the very front on both sides, and the figures are also facing towards the main staircase. - [Dr. Harris] Art historians are not really clear what event is being depicted here. - [Dr. Zucker] Art historians aren't clear about any of this, are we? (laughs) - [Dr. Harris] No, there are a couple of possibilities that have been raised. One is that what we're seeing is the procession that would've taken place at the time that the altar was inaugurated. The figures that we see here are priests and we can identify those figures because of the veils on their heads, and there also seem to be members of our Augustus's family, although their identities are not quite firmly established. - [Dr. Zucker] We think we know which figure is Augustus. Although the marble itself is not in especially good condition and we've lost the front of his body, and we also think we can identify one of his most important ministers. - [Dr. Harris] And that would be Agrippa. If we think about this as looking back to the frieze on the Parthenon from the Golden Age of Greece, those figures are all ideally beautiful. They don't represent anyone specific, so much as the Athenian people generally. - [Dr. Zucker] But these are portraits. - [Dr. Harris] That's right, and we can't always identify them for certain, but they really are specific individuals taking part in a specific event. - [Dr. Zucker] Throughout the republic, portraiture in stone was something that the Romans were extremely good at and so it doesn't surprise me that they would not look to the idealized so much as look to the specific. - [Dr. Harris] We also noticed those differences in the depths of the carving. Some figures are represented in higher relief. Other figures that are supposed to be in the background are represented in low relief. So there's a real illusion of space and of a crowd here at the procession. - [Dr. Zucker] Another way that the specificity of the Romans is expressed, is through the inclusion of children. This is a sacred event and a formal event, and yet there are children doing what children do, that is to say, they're not always paying attention. - [Dr. Harris] Augustus was actually worried about the birth rate and passed laws that encouraged marriage and the birth of children. The Ara Pacis originally was painted. We would have seen pinks, and blues, and greens, and it's very to imagine that when we look at the marble today. - [Dr. Zucker] Especially in Meier's building, which is so stark and modern. It's almost a little garish to imagine how brightly painted this would have been. - [Dr. Harris] So, one of the things that Augustus said of himself was that he found Rome a city of brick and he left at a city of marble. Augustus created an imperial city and here we are 2000 years later in the Rome that Augustus created. (light piano music)