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Pax, the Senate, and Augustus in 13 BCE: a new look at the Ara Pacis Augustae

Amy Russell

The Ara Pacis Augustae is one of the most-studied monuments of the ancient world. It forms the centrepiece of any number of classes on the ‘Age of Augustus’ and graces the cover of hundreds of books. Its sculptural decoration, rich with symbolic imagery, is a key touchstone for interpretations of Augustan ideology. Yet this most Augustan of Augustan monuments was not commissioned by the princeps himself, but by decree of the Senate. This fact, well known but little explored, can help us enrich our understanding of the altar itself and of the events surrounding its commissioning in 13 BCE.

In this paper I ask what it would mean to take seriously the fact that the Ara Pacis is a senatorial monument. I explore the textual sources for the year 13 alongside the evidence of the altar’s topography and decoration, as well as broader evidence for the operation of the imperial Senate from Suetonius, Dio, and epigraphically-preserved decrees. At the time of Augustus, the process by which the Senate used honours to the princeps as a way of negotiating its own position (explored by Lendon 1997; Roller 2001; Rowe 2002) was still evolving. The textual and epigraphic sources confirm that the Senate’s control over the decision of what honours to award was not a mirage: they could and did make decisions displeasing to the emperor. The honours they did award, including the Ara Pacis, were prescriptive as well as descriptive, and made claims about the importance of senatorial support for the continuing success of the Augustan regime. In this approach, the emperor becomes the primary audience, rather than the author, of honorific monuments, and imperial iconography and ideology are generated in a complicated and multidirectional process.

The Senate was for centuries the most powerful organ of the Republican government, and its integration into the imperial regime was not easy. Scholars have investigated how individual senators’ conceptualization of their identity changed by examining their individually-commissioned statues and inscriptions (Eck 1984). In the same way, the monuments which the Senate commissioned as a body can be read as evidence for their corporate identity. The Ara Pacis, with its frieze of togate figures surrounding an emperor who is primus inter pares, fits easily into this model. Taking into account the specific setting of 13 BCE and Augustus’ return from Hispania, we can say even more. The Ara Pacis forms part of a pattern of honours upon the successful conclusion of overseas campaigns which stretches back into the triumviral period but is most well known for Augustus’ previous return from overseas in 19 BCE (Rich 1998). On neither occasion did Augustus celebrate a triumph, forswearing that honour after 29 BCE. The Republican Senate had used its control over the award of triumphs to reward or chastise its generals. With that avenue closed to them, the Augustan Senate had to think innovatively to come up with an honour for Augustus which underscored their importance and fit their conception of their own role. The altar’s dedication to Pax recalls the Senate’s prerogative (emphasized by Augustus himself in the Res Gestae) of deciding when the gates of the temple of Janus should be shut, and positioned the Senate as arbiter of peace just as it had been arbiter of victory.

The partial shift from a rhetoric of triumphalism to one of peace and prosperity during this decade stretches well beyond the Ara Pacis, but with the commissioning of this monument the Senate staked a claim in the way the new rhetoric evolved and was presented. A careful consideration of the process of commissioning in its historical context can shed new light on the altar’s imagery, and on its contribution to Augustan ideology.

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Empire and Ideology in the Roman World

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