My Latin education ended over 40 years ago apologies if my usage or translations in this piece don’t quite cut it, but I was looking for a title that meant status symbol or something similar. I ended up with things of importance which while not quite the same will have to do.
One of the “things” that was new to me on my most recent visit to Rome was an altar. Not a holy table in any of the churches I entered, but if not Christian in origin, nevertheless something from the Christian epoch. Ara Pacis was not open to visitors on my school trip here, nor when I spent my honeymoon here years later, and so I was oblivious to its existence when I passed on the way to my hotel. Nevertheless a newspaper article that I’d read in preparation for my trip did mention the possibility of including a marble altar on my route between the Caravaggio’s of Piazza Popolo and Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi.
I was surprised therefore when I made the detour for this marble was more than a table. It was the size of a small house, which to my modern eyes made it something of a statement. It’s entirely possible that this was more typical in classical times; and my daughter who has a Classics degree might no more. No matter, because whether the size was an important factor or not, this was a statement piece.
Ara Pacis Augustae is the fuller description of the structure; the Augustan Altar of Peace. After nearly 500 years as a republic Julius Caesar had been assassinated for his attempt at dictatorship, yet the aftermath of that act resulted in the creation of the Roman Empire, and with it a succession of such dictators, though they were dignified with the title of Emperor.
The first of these was Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son Augustus who of course needed to be a master propagandist to make this change stick and remain in power for 40 years.
National treasure Mary Beard says of autocracy that it
does not just operate through political reform or by military power, important as they may be. It works by inscribing the autocrat indelibly into the world of his or her subjects.
The altar is a perfect example of this. The magnificent decoration combines symbols of victory and subsequent peace, control over nature, images of the emperor and his family and scenes from Roman history. Thus it establishes the legitimacy and value of the new ruler. It was one of many acts of self aggrandisement that included Augustus’ own autobiography Res Gestae (Things Achieved).
In the centuries that followed its inauguration it was buried by silts from Tiber flooding and forgotten until the Renaissance when of course all things classical were admired and replicated. Ownership of artefacts from the period became status symbols and so fragments of the altar were acquired by the rich and powerful. The Vatican, the Medici Villa, the Louvre and the Uffizi became homes to marble pieces while more remained buried, but there’s a second phase to this story of self promotion. I’ll tell that in my next post. Meanwhile, Trump has his tower and Boris wants a bridge.