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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome

What is the Ara Pacis Augustae?

The Ara Pacis Augustae, or “Altar of Augustan Peace”, is an ancient altar erected by the Emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC to commemorate the peace that he had established within the empire.

Ara Pacis Augustae figures

Ara Pacis Augustae History

The reign of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, was a golden age in Roman history. It was during his rule that Rome’s literary scene flourished, producing its most influential and celebrated writers, such as Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. The city itself underwent an incredible reconstruction, with Augustus boasting that he found Rome as city of bricks, but left it a city of marble. He passed sweeping reforms and instituted new laws to stabilise marriages, penalise adulterers and increase birth-rates across the empire. In fact, so strictly did the emperor adhere to his new rules that he even banished his own granddaughter for committing adultery. However, arguably most important of all was the political transformation that took place in the Augustan age, establishing a system of imperial rule that lasted for centuries.

In the 1st century BC, a young Octavian, who had not yet been granted the honorific title of Augustus, made an alliance with two other senior statesmen, Mark Anthony and Marcus Lepidus – together known as the Triumvirate. When Mark Anthony scandalously abandoned his wife and took up residence with his Egyptian lover, Queen Cleopatra, the political allegiance began to break down. Augustus saw Caesarion, the professed son of Cleopatra and the deceased Julius Caesar, as a major threat to his own power. He launched a campaign against his eastern opponents and finally, in 31 BC, won a decisive naval victory at Actium, just north of modern day Cephalonia in Greece. With Lepidus in exile following the defection of his legions, it meant that Augustus became the undisputed ruler of Rome. A city that had been plagued with civil wars and cruel bloodshed for over half a century was finally peaceful.

And if we were still left in any doubt, Augustus himself tells us just how much he transformed Rome. Unusually for an ancient ruler, he lived well into his seventies, and so had the time to create his own memorial inscription entitled Res Gestae, or literally, ‘things that have been done’ in his reign. If you head out to via di Ripetta, the street running parallel to the museum, you’ll see a recreation of his magnificent and remarkably detailed inscription on the wall.

The emperor’s building projects were unparalleled, and one of the most impressive monuments that he erected is housed in this museum, the Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace. The monument didn’t survive intact, but it has been reconstructed following excavations and a number of pieces donated from private collections. The altar originally lay nearby, in an open-air space, and, as you might have guessed, commemorates the new peace established by Augustus’ rule. Its iconography discreetly honours the emperor and portrays him as a worthy successor of both Romulus, the first king of Rome, and Aeneas, its original founder.

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