Posts Tagged ‘ ancient art ’

Conservative Politics in the Ancient World

The Ara Pacis Augustae

The Ara Pacis Augustae

The tropes of conservatism are well known: religion, family values, patriotism and a wider natural order of things. Politicians pose with their progeny, their wives, and have themselves seen in places of symbolic importance to their values. They evoke the rural, the family, the state as homeland and mother/fatherland in speech and symbology.

By its very nature, conservatism is not a political programme, it is instead in the realm of symbolic politics because it is rhetorical and demonstrative rather than programmatic and substantive.*

Conservatism is often a misnomer, since “the past”, “nature” and “the way things were and should remain” has very often been mobilised to convince people to accept the very opposite: sweeping changes, the destruction of nature, and the corrosion of the past. As a system of belief strays from its ideals, it often does so by fervently and paradoxically propounding those ideals.

The Ara Pacis, housed in the Museo dell’Ara Pacis, is a template example of the way conservative tropes are ironically employed to cement a radical power shift.

To give it its full name, the Ara Pacis Augustae (The ‘Altar of Augustan Peace’) is an altar to Peace, a minor Roman goddess. The monument was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 B.C. to honour the return of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, to Rome after his three years commanding Roman legions in Hispania and Gaul.

Having completed those conquests, Augustus ushered in a period commonly known as Pax Augusta (Augustinian Peace) in which peace was maintained within the boundaries of the expanded empire by means of Roman military supremacy.

However, the real danger to Augustus’s power was not invading or rebelling barbarians, but the Roman people themselves, and the living memory of the Roman Republic which Augustus had officially abolished (Julius Caesar had done the groundwork by becoming dictator).

The Ara Pacis was therefore a centrepiece in the Augustinian programme of winning hearts and minds at home. While ostensibly an altar to Peace, it serves to visually encompass the mythic requisites for Augustinian reign and the new ideology of Julio-Claudian power (the dynasty that would rule until Nero’s death).

Ara Pacis - procession of nobles

Frieze showing the procession of nobles. Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus, is shown with his toga drawn over his head. The depiction of children was very rare at the time, the child is probably Gaius Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’s grandson and favored heir.

Religion and piety is presented not only in the existence of the altar itself but also the frieze running around it. Augustus himself and several members of his family (of which many are realistically represented and identifiable) wear hoods (their togas drawn over their heads actually) which symbolise them acting in a religious capacity (Augustus appointed himself as high priest of Rome). Bulls are led to sacrifice by priests, and children are shown among the procession (children were unusual subject matter at the time).

Augustus then, is inscribing his reign into Roman religious life and even into Roman cosmology. Aeneas, Romulous, Remus and Mars are also depicted on the altar, and Augustus had already engineered the notion that he had descended from them, that he was in his rightful place in the pantheon of Roman religion.

The lower part of the internal wall imitates the type of rural wooden fence that would have enclosed a sacrificial altar. The upper part bears festoons that hang from ox skulls (bucrania, symbolic of sacrifice), with ritualistic shallow bowls in the intervals. The hanging festoons include ears of wheat, berries, and a variety of fruit and nuts, all underscoring the economic value of peace (and military domination). Between the “fence” boards and the festoons is a palmette border, a common motif.

Internal Wall - Ara Pacis

The internal walls of the altar are decorated with festoons and skulls, common agricultural and devotional symbols associated with rural life.

All this adds up to a symbology of power – of inscribing the new autocratic regime into the natural, the rural and the religious. It is ironic that these “timeless” and “unchanging” aspects of the Roman imagination were transformed by this symbolic intervention.

*While modern conservatism sees itself as broadly in favor of free markets and small government, history has shown conservatism to be pragmatic to the core. Look, for example, at agricultural subsidies, the British post-war consensus, the huge state borrowing and military expansion under Ronald Reagan.