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Ovid and the Ara Pacis

John F Miller

University of Virginia

This paper argues that Ovid’s commemoration of the Ara Pacis Augustae at Fasti 1.709–22 engages substantively with the monument’s iconography. The passage has been taken to encapsulate the official meaning of the Ara (e.g. Settis) or ‘to offer insight into what the Ara Pacis might come to symbolize . . . decades after the initial commemoration’ (Cornell), but scholars tend to see little attention by Ovid to the actual friezes visible to contemporary viewers.  Green speaks for many: ‘little attention is given to the powerful visual display of the monument.’ Momigliano fleetingly adumbrates a different approach, while Elsner notes that Ovid acknowledges the Ara’s recurrent sacrificial theme. But there is more.

Ipsum nos carmen deduxit Pacis ad aram. Ovid opens the entry by allusively affirming the poem’s place in the Hellenistic tradition of carmen deductum and concretizing his programmatic claim to sing of Caesaris aras. At the same time, the language evokes one the monument’s principal motifs, procession. Deducere is firmly attested in such contexts (TLL; OLD 10b). Ovid’s verse echoes or appropriates the processional motif. In place of lictors leading the impressive parade of worthies, the carmen escorts the vates and his readers (taking vos as a genuine plural) to the same destination. The motif continues in what follows. While triumphi in 713 need not (but could) refer to a triumphal procession, the pageant conjured up by verse 716 (pompa), given its decidedly unmartial dimension, is not unlikely to be the sort of sacral procession pictured running down the long sides of the Ara.

717–18 enjoins the world to respect imperial Rome, the people of Aeneas, perfectly aligning Aeneadas and Romam at caesura. The Ara’s external friezes likewise feature both the goddess Roma (seated on spoils) and, in the traditional interpretation, Aeneas (sacrificing to the Penates; cf. Pollini vs. Rehak’s claim for Numa). Their alignment in the distich might even be seen to mirror the figures’ diagonally aligned placement on the Ara, thereby associatively linked in a kind of narrative arc of Roman history. Ovid more conspicuously reflects architectural axiality with Mars Ultor at 5.563–66.

Ovid’s initial address to Pax frondibus Actiacis comptos redimita capillos is the only strikingly visual element in the movement. That quality reverberates with the marble intertext, even if no figure there wears a crown of laurel. The Ovidian figuration resonates with the polysemous divinity in the east side’s idyll who combines attributes of Venus, Ceres, Tellus, and also represents Peace herself (Galinsky; de Grummond). Ovid’s alternative iconography remakes the deity’s crown, composed of flowers and fruits on the Ara, into a victory wreath emblematizing the signal battle of the era, and thus underscores the ideological underpinnings of that frieze’s abundant fertility.

A dialectic between war and peace lies at the heart of the Ara Pacis, as in Ovid’s eulogy of Peace here. Whatever our reading of Ovid’s take on that thematic nexus, we need to acknowledge his intermedial engagement with pictorial details of the monument.

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Augustan Poetry

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