Note: Someone pointed out to me that all sites in Rome are Roman and hence I have added the adjective ancient- I hope this clarifies the point I am trying to make if the posts don’t by themselves
In the second part of my ancient Roman sites to visit in Rome, I will describe the monument of the Altar of Augustan Peace located on the Lungotevere. This monument is quite special in my perspective because the entire reconstructed monument is located within a modern museum- thereby forming once again that overlap of different eras that is so unique to Rome but more on that further down.
The Ara Pacis Augustae or the Altar of Augustan peace is quite literally an altar, but a massive altar constructed entirely out of Luna Marble and adorned with intricate carvings. The altar was consecrated by Augustus in 13 B.C and the construction completed in 9B.C. The structure is open to the skies.
Essentially the altar is shaped like a U and is placed within a raised 4 walled structure. There are two doors to the interior altar possibly referring back to the Shrine of the two headed God Janus in the Roman forum- the significance of which was that if the doors to the shrine were closed then peace prevailed in the empire- and the concept of Pax Romana was itself conceived in the Augustan age so it is probably a fair notion that Augustus was proud of his achievements for the Empire. Interestingly the altar was commissioned on the occasion of a successful return by Augustus from Spanish and Gaulish provinces where there had been disturbances. And so the Altar of Augustan Peace.
The decorations are lavish- on the exterior- acanthus plants – so prominent in Roman sculpture (Remember the Corinthian capitals with their rolled acanthus leaves?) is once again present in a larger background- beneath the processional figures. There are also mythological decorations on the sides with the doors- though a bit more fragmentary in their preservation. On the inside you see decorations of strung garlands interspersed with skulls of bulls that have been sacrificed – a theme popular in Roman painting as well.
There are two friezes on the exterior side of the marble structure (the ones without the doors)- we can see Augustus and a procession of people from his court- Livia, Marcus Agrippa and the like along with numerous other people. Ironically the figure of Augustus is a bit battered whereas those of the others are a bit better preserved. To go into a bit of context again- the current location of the Ara Pacis was not the same as the ancient one. Over the course of time the altar had fragmented but Mussolini had the surviving parts all put together and placed in a location that was quite significant for the Ara Pacis is now right opposite the Mausoleum of Augustus thereby forming an Augustus zone. The Mausoleum itself is currently closed – unfortunate- but to glimpse it from inside the Ara Pacis museum is a treat.
The structure of the museum itself has been a controversy. As I had mentioned earlier the Ara Pacis is located inside a modern museum constructed by Richard Meier in 2005. It is the first new museum within central Rome after the early 20th century and it has drawn a lot of opinions both for and against it. The glass and concrete casing of the museum has drawn a lot of critical review for not being in character with the rest of the location. But if you asked me, I loved the concept- here was a 2 millenium old marble altar enclosed in an aesthetic modern enclosure that allows people on the inside to feel that they are still in open air (which was how the Ara was originally meant to be). But for people on the outside as well it can provide a glimpse into the altar inside. The outside wall of the museum has a further reference to Augustus- with the entire text of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Deeds of the Divine Augustus)- his autobiographical listing of achievements in his life- inscribed on the wall.
Visiting Tips: The entrance to the museum is a bit steep, so the better value would be to get hold of a Roma Pass. Technically the Roma Pass allows free entrance only to the first two monuments and reductions thereon but the counter staff just waved me in without scanning my card – not that I was cheating- the Ara was the second monument I was visiting- but I’m just telling you that you could get lucky and not have to pay anything (if you’ve already covered a few monuments) or worst case scenario- shell out a reduced price. There is a nice giftstore within the museum (like all good museums) and a temporary exhibition space as well.