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DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're standing in the marvelous new museum that was just done by Richard Meier to hold the Ara Pacis, one of the most important monuments from Augustan Rome. DR. BETH HARRIS: Ara Pacis means altar of peace. Augustus was the first emperor of Rome. DR. STEVEN 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' triumphal return from military campaigns in what is now Spain and France. DR. BETH HARRIS: And when he returned, the Senate vowed to create an altar commemorating the peace that he established in the empire. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And apparently, on July 4 in the year 13, the sacred precinct was marked out on which the altar itself would be built. It's really kind of wonderful because today, it's July 4, 2012. DR. BETH HARRIS: Now 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. STEVEN ZUCKER: Actually, it's a small miracle that we've been able to reconstruct this at all. It had been lost to memory. DR. BETH 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 altar. DR. STEVEN 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. BETH HARRIS: Sure. We talk about the altar, really what we're looking at are the walls of the precinct around what is in the middle, the altar where sacrifices would have occurred. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The altar itself is interesting and important when we think about Augustus. Augustus is establishing a centralized power. Rome had been, since its earliest founding years when it was under the rule of kings, it had been controlled by the Senate. It had been a republic. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's right. And the Senate was basically a group of the leading elder citizens of Rome. So Rome was a republic, and it really was a republic until Julius Caesar, who was a dictator and Augustus' uncle. And then Caesar is assassinated, there's civil war, and then peace is established by Augustus. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. Augustus, whose real name was Octavian, is given the term Augustus as a kind of honorific 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. BETH HARRIS: He made himself princeps, or first among equals. But of course he controlled everything. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: He also held the title of pontificus maximus, that is, the head priest of the state religion, and so he held tremendous power. DR. BETH HARRIS: Now don't forget, too, that his uncle Julius Caesar had been made a god, and so he also represented himself as the son of a god. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so the idea of establishing this altar has a political as well as spiritual significance. DR. BETH 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 is reestablishing some of the ancient rituals of traditional Roman religion. He is embracing traditional Roman values. DR. STEVEN 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. BETH 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. STEVEN ZUCKER: One of the most remarkable elements of the Ara Pacis is all of the highly decorative relief carving in the lower frieze. DR. BETH HARRIS: And that goes all the way around. It apparently shows more than 50 different species of plants. They're very natural in that we can identify the species, but they're also highly abstracted, and they form these beautiful symmetrical and linear patterns. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There is a real order that's given to the complexity of nature here. Let me just describe quickly what I'm seeing. 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. BETH HARRIS: And there are also animal forms within these leaves and plants. We find frogs and lizards and birds. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And the carving is quite deep, so that there is 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. BETH HARRIS: And art historians interpret all of this as a symbol of fertility, of the abundance of the golden age that Augustus brought about. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: You 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 phrases. DR. BETH HARRIS: These panels relate again to this golden age that Augustus establishes. These refer back to Aeneas, Rome's founder and Augustus' ancestor. We see other allegorical figures representing Rome and peace. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We have to be a little bit careful when we try to characterize what precisely is being represented. There are lots of conflicting interpretations. DR. BETH HARRIS: And 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. STEVEN ZUCKER: We've walked around the outer wall, and 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. BETH 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 a figure of peace, some the figure of Tellus, or Mother Earth. In any case, she is clearly a figure that suggests fertility and abundance. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: She's beautifully rendered. Look at the way the drapery clings to her torso so closely as to really review the flesh underneath, like the goddesses on the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Greece. DR. BETH 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. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, look at the way the drapes that they're holding whip up, creating these beautiful almost halos around their bodies. DR. BETH HARRIS: And at her feet we see an ox and a sheep. So there's a sense of harmony, of peace and fertility. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And that must have been such a rare thing in the ancient world. DR. BETH HARRIS: Well, Augustus reigns after decades of civil war after the assassination of Julius Caesar. So I think there is a powerful sense that this was the golden age. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So, let's walk to the sides now, and take a look at the procession. 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. BETH HARRIS: Art historians are not really clear what event is being depicted here. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Art historians aren't clear about any of this, are we? DR. BETH HARRIS: No. There are a couple of possibilities that have been raised. One is that what we are seeing is the procession that would have 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 Augustus' family, although their identities are not quite firmly established. DR. STEVEN 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. BETH 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. STEVEN ZUCKER: But these are portraits. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's right. And we can't always identify them for certain, but they really are specific individuals on a specific date taking part in a specific event. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's interesting to think about it, because of course 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. BETH HARRIS: We also notice those differences in the depths of the carving. Some figures are represented in high 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. STEVEN 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. BETH HARRIS: There are a couple of interpretations that have been offered about the presence of children here. Augustus was actually worried about the birth rate and passed laws that encouraged marriage and the birth of children. It originally was painted. We would have seen pinks and blues and greens, and it's very difficult to imagine that when we look at the marble today. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, it's true, 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. They were pretty bright. DR. BETH HARRIS: They were. So one of the things that Augustus said of himself was that he found Rome a city of brick, and he left it a city of marble. Augustus created an imperial city. And here we are 2,000 years later in the room that Augustus created.