Guess Who’s Coming to the Sacrifice: The Ara Pacis and Speculative Archeology

When I returned from Spain and Gaul after successfully settling the affairs of those provinces, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quintilius, the Senate decreed that the Ara Pacis should be consecrated for my return near the Campus Martius, and ordered that the magistrates, preists, and the Vestal Virgins should there make an annual sacrifice.” – Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 12.2

This week, I want to circle back to something I originally planned to cover in my entry about the Mausoleum of Augustus, until that post got plenty complicated enough on its own without throwing in another ancient monument. And that is the mausoleum’s next-door neighbor, the Ara Pacis Augustae — the Altar of Augustan Peace.

Both monuments are deeply entwined in Octavius’ aspirations for his family and how he wanted to project their legacy. While the mausoleum was mainly concerned with establishing the Julio-Claudians’ status in the political present and future (who’s in, who’s out, and who deserves to be honored), the Ara Pacis represents Octavius’ attempt to place his family almost fourth-dimensionally in space and time. The past, present, and future collide on its four sides; and Rome’s first family surrounds itself with Latin priests and barbarian princes to bring the full scope of the empire into the folds of a longed-for peace.

[The front (west) side]

But what you see in the picture above is a fair amount of recreation. The original altar exists in pieces, with some panels in much better condition than others. The result being that chunks of what Octavius meant to show us are missing, and there is to this day some, erhm, very lively debate among historians and archeologists on what’s in the lost pieces and even what’s going on in the fragments we do have. But sometimes it can be fun to not have all of the answers, so let’s take a closer look…

My flavor text above comes from the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, or The Achievements of the Deified Augustus, a pseudo-funerary text supposedly written by Octavius shortly before his death in 14 AD. Composed in the first person, it is, as it says on the tin, an accounting of many of his achievements for posterity. Octavius left it as a part of his will, with instructions to the Senate that it be publicly inscribed. It would be erected upon two bronze pillars in Rome, and we have evidence, especially from provincial sites in modern Turkey, that copies were posted in many parts of the empire.

[The Augusteum located in present-day Ankara, Turkey, has yielded one of our most complete single copies of the Res Gestae.]

Like the Ara Pacis itself, the Res Gestae is an important piece of historical evidence for how Octavius wished his empire and his fellow Romans to perceive him and his legacy. It’s because of this that it is generally believed that rather than being a last-minute autobiography, the text of the Res Gestae was likely composed over the course of Octavius’ life, with plenty of revisions before arriving at the copy we have.

In addition to perhaps expected things like his victory over the Liberatores (anonymously designated as “those who butchered my father”) and Mark Antony (“him with whom I fought the war”), most of Octavius’ real focus is on how he believes he has brought peace at home and abroad. He meticulously lists the many public works he commissioned over the course of his reign (of which the Ara Pacis is but one), and describes the lavishness of the games and festivals he had thrown for the Roman people, making sure to note all of which was paid for out of his personal resources. He also spends a great deal of time talking about how he chose to spare foreign enemies whenever possible, and made friendships with old antagonists like Parthia more than he made war upon them. He received ambassadors from India and had been entrusted with hostage princes from Parthia, the Medes, Germania, and Numidia by those land’s rulers. Perhaps painfully aware that his many military victories were won on the backs of much more talented generals (Antony, Agrippa, Tiberius — even his young grandson, Gaius), Octavius instead uses his last apologia to highlight what he clearly sees as his strengths: his abilities as a moderate consensus-builder, an architect of peace and stability. And this carries over to the Ara Pacis, which put into pictures what Octavius will put into words some thirty years later.

[The back (east) side]

The Senate commissions the construction of the Ara Pacis in 13 BC, upon Octavius’ return to Rome after three years abroad settling matters in Hispania and Gaul. It would take nearly four years to be built and was consecrated in early 9 BC. Originally located at the northeastern corner of the Campus Martius, its environment is part of the reason it has been less preserved than some other monuments in Rome, as the Campus has long been a periodic flood plain for the Tiber River. In short, it was slowly swallowed by river silt until it reappeared in parts during the mid-1500s.

As you can see, the altar is a four-sided, traditionally open-ended structure with stairs leading up to the main entrance. The panels on this front side, originally facing west, depict on the left (facing), the discovery of Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, being suckled by the she-wolf who saves them; and on the right-facing, a bearded man sacrificing a pig. And this is where we start to get into controversy.

[Buckle up, Virginia. We’re heading into academic brawling territory…]

I know it’s hard to see on the above photos, but with a lot of the friezes on these short end sides, we are missing huge chunks of the pictures. We have the (likely) head of Faustulus, the shepherd who finds Romulus and Remus, and that of the god Mars, looking on, but the part where we assume they’re looking at the twins and the she-wolf is almost pure speculation based on similar illustrations elsewhere. As for the other panel, for centuries it was presumed to be Aeneas sacrificing to Juno upon his safe arrival in Italy. But modern scholarship has challenged this view, based on the scene’s vast differences from the way the same episode was described in Octavius’ favorite Aeneas-based poem, Virgil’s Aeneid. With the argument essentially being, why would Octavius not want this scene copied verbatim from the Aeneid? My personal thought is, hey, one pig is a lot easier to carve than thirty piglets, but I understand that if Octavius wanted a sow and her thirty offspring, he could have made that happen. The early Roman king Numa Pompilius has been suggested as a substitute, based on his association with the Temple of Janus, whose gates where opened and closed in times of peace and war. Point is, more knowledgeable minds than mine disagree, but that also means that even you as a layperson are welcome to draw your own conclusions.

[Maybe there were thirty piglets in that piece of paneling to the right?]

The east side (the back) has two similarly mangled friezes. The right (facing) panel likely depicted Roma, the personification of the city, as a bellatrix, or female warrior. It is thought, again based on similar iconography, that she would have been sitting on a pile of foreign weapons, as a sign that Roma has brought peace by force (by literally taking away her enemies’ means to make war). But as you can see from the picture below, we’re extrapolating all of this from a fragment of the figure’s lap, so you’re probably free to design your own interpretation.

[Maybe this is Numa Pompilius’ crotch. Who knows?]

The left (facing) panel is usually thought to be the goddess Pax (Peace) herself, though arguments have been made for Italia (the personification of Italy), or Julii ancestress Venus Genetrix. But seeing how the altar is supposedly dedicated to peace, and Octavius was instrumental in promoting her worship and iconography throughout his reign, Pax is considered more likely. Pax is the daughter of Jupiter and the goddess Justice, and is usually depicted surrounded by abundance. Here, she sits with many animals, plants, and twin human infants— a sign of fertility. Her cult was a concentrated effort on Octavius’ part to shift Roman thought from the idea that bounty came from peace, not war (i.e., getting rich by taking other people’s stuff).

[Says the man whose entire inheritance might of well said Made in France.]

Which brings us to the two long friezes on the north and south sides of the altar. Both friezes depict prominent Romans walking westward to offer sacrifices, accompanied by a collection of non-Roman figures (singled out by their foreign clothes, some of whom are children). The north side shows the seven members of the septemviri epulonum, who were responsible for organizing public feasts (like the dedication of the Ara Pacis), as well as twenty-one of the members of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, a priestly college responsible for, among other duties, overseeing the worship of foreign gods in Rome, which is presumably why they are accompanied by the foreign figures on this panel. These figures are no doubt meant to invoke the unity between Rome and her peaceful imperial provinces. There are men in German and Parthian dress among the pontiffs, who may be defeated hostages, but based on the peaceful nature of the mural, are more likely supposed to be guests.

Some of the figures are children, like a German boy and another in Hellenistic attire. The Hellen boy is often thought to represent Ptolemy of Mauretania, son of one of those many hostage princes Octavius had protected over the years. Ptolemy’s place as a unifying symbol would be particularly potent, as he is the culmination of Rome’s tortured road to peace with Africa. He is the grandson of the last two great royal houses of North Africa: his paternal grandfather being Juba I of Numidia, and his maternal grandmother being Cleopatra of Egypt. Ptolemy’s parents, Juba II (given the new client kingdom of Mauretania) and Cleopatra Selene, though raised as hostages in Rome after their parents’ defeats and deaths, were also publicly acknowledged as part of Octavius’ family and it would be fitting for them to have a representative on this altar, because the last panel of the north frieze and almost the entirety of the south one are given over to members of the imperial family.

The remaining north panel is badly damaged, but likely family members on this piece are thought to be Octavius’ sister Octavia, her daughter Claudia Marcella the Elder, and her husband at the time of the altar’s dedication, Iullus Antonius (son of Mark Antony). As the Ara Pacis generally likes to group sub-families together, this seems plausible. This is also bolstered by the presence of two young boys and girl; Claudia and Iullus were known to positively have a daughter (Iulla Antonia), and at least one son (Lucius Antonius), but there is a strong argument for a second son who didn’t survive childhood.

[The imperial family on the north side]

And we’ve reached the part where historians and archeologists really throw down over the centuries, which is the south wall. Because, unlike many of the faces on the north side, much of the south frieze is intact, and copious amounts of ink have been spilled hashing out the identities of the thirty-odd figures depicted. The first panel is, however, severely damaged, which is why it took so long for scholars to recognize that the laureled figure at its center, leading the priestly figures around him, is likely the man of the hour himself, Octavius. His face is mostly gone, but the jawline and hairline match; not to mention if it isn’t him, he’d be missing from his own parade. 

[The south frieze, minus the fragment from the far left below]
[Octavius is main figure facing left in the middle above the hole, with a modern patch to the bottom of this face.]

Previously, it was thought he might be the tall, hooded man coming up behind the lictors and priests, leading the family. But a closer inspection of the man’s careworn face — not a look Octavius affected in public — has made consensus almost unanimous that this is Marcus Agrippa, Octavius right-hand BFF, and at this moment in time, son-in-law. This could be bolstered by the small Germanically-dressed child clinging to his robes. While sometimes thought to be one of Agrippa’s sons (but I’ve got a theory about them), the boy’s foreign dress makes this unlikely, and like the possible Ptolemy = peace with Africa symbolism on the north wall, this German child might represent Agrippa’s victories over many of the Germanic tribes in the late 30s BC, and his being the first Roman general since Julius to cross the Rhine.

[Agrippa, a German child, and Julia Augusti]

If the hooded man is Agrippa, then it is likely that the woman behind him with her palla over her hair is his wife in 9 BC, Octavius’ daughter, Julia Augusti. Many academics thought for a long time that is might be Octavius’ wife, Livia, who like her husband seems to be absent from the friezes. But at the time of the Ara Pacis’ dedication, Julia wasn’t yet in disgrace, and as the expected future first lady of Rome and mother of the empires’ heirs, she would’ve held higher status than her stepmother. But don’t worry about Liv, I have a theory about where she is, too.

The claim that the palla-ed lady is Julia is furthered by who’s behind her and what happens in the interim between the Ara Pacis’ conception and its completion. Because, see, Agrippa dies in 12 BC while the altar is presumably still under construction. But Octavius doesn’t keep his daughter single for long and her next husband is right behind her in line on the frieze— Livia’s son, Tiberius, who will be married to her by the time the altar is finished in 9 BC. The somewhat shadowy man behind Tiberius is often thought to be Publius Quintilius Varus, in recognition that he was the other consul alongside Tiberius when the Ara Pacis’ creation was decreed. Or possibly because Varus is married to Agrippa’s daughter, Vipsania at the time. I have not read any particular theory to this effect, but it is possible that Vipsania Agrippina could be the woman with her palla over her head next to him in that second row.

[Agrippa, Julia, Tiberius, Varus (?)]

Back in the foreground, the young woman with the uncovered hair and the toddler, along with the man behind her, are usually identified as Octavia’s youngest daughter, Antonia Minor, her eldest child Germanicus, and Antonia’s husband, Livia’s other son Drusus.

[Varus (?), Antonia Minor, Vipsania (?), Germanicus, Drusus]

And then, there’s a group of seven figures on whom scholars foist an amalgamation of remaining Julio-Claudians. Usually the main figures in front — the woman with her palla over her hair, the two children, and the man behind her — are identified as Antonia Major, her husband, Domitius Ahenobarbus, and some of their children. Plus some randos in the back.

[Annnnnd everyone else…]

But that doesn’t fully mesh. While it is possible that they had a second son, Antonia Major and Domitius have only one confirmed son (Gnaeus). So, here’s where I’m going to force you all to endure my own theory about who all of these people are.

[Me, a self-taught amateur. You’re welcome, PhDs…]

*** Another disclaimer: I don’t pretend to have read every academic treatise on the Ara Pacis, so I also recognize I might be falling back-assward into a legitimate theory. I’m just acknowledging that I haven’t directly read anything suggesting this is academically viable. End of disclaimer. ***

Ok, here’s my theory based on who’s left: the two figures in the back row (the young woman with uncovered hair and the older man wearing laurels) are Octavia’s only other daughter, Claudia Marcella the Younger, and her husband, Paullus Aemilius Lepidus. I do think Antonia Major and Domitius Ahenobarbus are here: Domitius is the man in the foreground, but Antonia is the young woman with uncovered hair hanging behind him, partially cut off by the break in the panel. It’s hard to tell the sex of the last person, but it looks like their dress goes down to their ankles, implying they are female. And if the head is an unknown male, then the stola skirt belongs to a separate, missing figure of Antonia on the edge. Additionally, if any of the Domitii children are present, I’m assuming they, too, would be in the missing part of the panel.

So who is the woman in front with her palla over her head and the two boys? I think, based on her covered hair (implying age or dignity), and her profile, which is not dissimilar from the coin of her below, that the lady is our missing Livia. Unlike everyone else, she’s separated from her husband, but she is with her sons, Tiberius and Drusus, and their families.

[A dupondius with Livia as the goddess Pietas for comparison]

As for the boys, we know they’re not Tiberius and Drusus, but we are missing Octavius’ two young heirs, Gaius and Lucius Caesar (ages 11 and 8, respectively). Sometimes the boys are placed among the various boys scampering around the north frieze, but most of those kiddos are not dressed as Romans, which makes many scholars hesitant to definitively identify them there. But Gaius and Lucius are Julia and Agrippa’s sons, so why would they be back here with Livia and not with their parents?  Well, that would be because by 13 BC, they’re not Julia and Agrippa’s sons anymore.

[Dun dun DUNNNN!]

When Lucius is born in 17 BC, Octavius formally adopts him and his older brother Gaius, marking the boys as his personal and political heirs. As we discussed with Octavius’ own adoption by Julius Caesar, once they were legally adopted, the boys ceased to be their father’s sons and became their grandfather’s sons. They were born Gaius Vipsanius Agrippa and Lucius Vipsanius Agrippa, but we know them by their adopted names of Gaius Julius Caesar (SIGH… yes, another one…) and Lucius Julius Caesar. But now that Octavius is their legal dad, that means their legal mom is no longer Julia, but… Livia. Which is why they’re with her, in my opinion.

[So, in conclusion, I think we have: Claudia Marcella the Younger, Livia, Lucius, Gaius, Paullus Lepidus, Domitius Ahenobarbus, Antonia Major]

And with that, we’ve made it all the way around the Ara Pacis and looked at its main artistic panels. The lower panels along the ground have beautiful floral scrollwork and triumphal laurels, again a nod to Pax and her role as a goddess of prosperity and victory. Like most things Octavius created in his life, it is a pretty piece of propaganda, but unlike say, calling himself the Son of God, it is also weirdly modest. The imperial family is depicted as unified and humble, simply-dressed citizens of Rome serving its peace and order by sacrificing to Peace for everyone. It might have rarely had much basis in reality, but it expresses hope for the future, and that is one of this family’s more noble impulses.

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