Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.05

David Castriota, The Ara Pacis Augustae and the Imagery of Abundance in Later Greek and Early Roman Imperial Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. Pp. xviii + 253; 91 b&w illustrations. ISBN 0-691-03715-9.

Reviewed by Jas Elsner, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Despite the horrendously large bibliography which has now accumulated on the Ara Pacis, there has been no monograph in English (except for a translation of Erika Simon's 1967 Tübingen volume -- not very widely available, at least in the U.K.). So a new book on what is perhaps the premier of all the surviving Augustan monuments in Rome, is not a bad idea. As Castriota correctly claims in his introduction, "the altar remains a touchstone for the study of early Roman imperial monuments, and rightly so" (p. 3). However, (despite its title) this book is not about the Ara Pacis: it is single-mindedly devoted to the altar's admittedly abundant floral decorations. Likewise, there exists no up-to-date systematic study of the history and iconography of such floral ornament in Classical antiquity, though "what may well have constituted the single most widespread mode of ancient decorative art" (p. ix) certainly deserves to be treated seriously. But this book, which is a narrowly-focused study of floral ornament in one (albeit very significant) monument and its antecedents, does not quite fill that gap either. In short, despite the formidable learning and scholarship amassed in Castriota's more than fifty pages of minuscule endnotes, despite the coherence and force of his closely argued text, and despite the intrinsic value of the subject, I think The Ara Pacis Augustae and the Imagery of Abundance doesn't quite live up to all it promises in both the areas of its focus because it draws that focus too tightly.

The book has two methodological axioms. First, "the consideration of sources [is] vital to any real understanding of a monument like the Ara Pacis" (p. 55, c.f. p. 8) -- that is, the monument is only fully intelligible in terms of its Classical and Hellenistic precedents. Second, "to the ancient spectator familiar with the accepted lore and tradition of divine symbols and attributes, it was the various plants and other emblems ... that really disclosed the sense and nuance of the monument" (p. 25, my italics). This is a very important (and in fact far reaching) thesis which governs much of Castriota's interpretative strategy throughout the book. If it were to command assent in the manner in which it is developed in this book, it would have significant implications as a call for the close-reading and assessment of every iconographical nuance of every monument in antiquity (and every other period).

In his first axiom, clearly Castriota is right that the exploration of antecedents is essential to a full understanding of the creation and initial impact of a state monument like the Ara Pacis. He is very proficient in tracing the Hellenistic roots of the altar's floral imagery (pp. 13-33), of the altar's form in relation to now lost altars from Pergamon and Athens (pp. 33-41), and of the altar's animal imagery (pp. 41-57). On a less specifically art-historical level, he makes a good case for the Hellenistic origins of that archetypally Augustan concept, "the Golden Age", of which the Ara Pacis was a prime celebration (pp. 124-44). All this is excellent, and leads to the convincing conclusion that the Ara Pacis represents not a new beginning but "the summation of centuries of Greek efforts", with Augustan classicism a "veneer that masks" other Greek traditions which the art of the altar drew upon and syncretised (pp. 55-6). Yet the impact of this discussion of the altar in the context of its iconographic, formal and cultural sources is significantly weakened by being so partial. Why is there no space devoted even to recapitulating (let alone re-examining) "the Classical and Hellenistic precedents that informed the design and content of the allegorical panels and the processional reliefs" (p. 8)? Why is there no discussion of the religious and sacrificial precedents of a building with the Ara Pacis' functions? An understanding of the Ara Pacis as a reformulation of its sources can only be complete if it is complete in treating all those antecedents.

Castriota's second thesis concerns the interpretation of detail. He argues that "the highly naturalistic vegetal or floral additions were intended to go well beyond a generalized evocation of efflorescent terrestrial life and wealth. This usage was a distinct iconographic strategy that signified ... the cooperative involvement and blessing of the specific divinities responsible for such prosperity" (p. 21-2). To this end, he includes long discussions of the divine associations of plants (pp. 15-21), lists exhaustively various floral epithets for Apollo and Dionysos (pp. 26-7), and ultimately finds the naturalistic imagery of the entire lower zone of the Ara Pacis' outer walls to be an "harmonious assemblage of visual metonyms" (p. 86) nudging the Roman viewer towards "their significative function" (p. 31). The call, then, is for a minute and loving analysis of every visual detail of a part of the altar long dismissed as very pretty but merely decorative. This call is not simply answered in the main thrust of Castriota's discussion but it is justified as being part of what the ancient spectator knew- -that aspect which "really disclosed the sense and nuance of the monument" (p. 25).

But the problem is whether all the associations which Castriota traces in such careful detail ever really had the force and impact on a viewer's mind which the crescendo of his argument suggests. To put the issue in terms of an old saying, when is a spade a spade and when is it a "visual metonym"? By excluding most of the images which art history has always taken as central in the Ara Pacis -- the imperial processions, the mythical scenes at the altar's entrances, the images of sacrifice around the altar-table itself -- Castriota's discussion focuses on what has always been seen as marginal (or at least as ornamental) but with all the care and detail which would normally be accorded not to the margin but to the centre. Implicitly, he is claiming that all parts of all works of art must be viewed with equal care to every reverberance of their potential meaning. Implicitly a spade is never a spade -- it is always to be treated as a full "visual metonym". Certainly, this is a possible position to hold in the history of art, but I cannot say that this reviewer agrees with it. Surely, it must be always possible for spectators to "space out", and a well conceived work of art may build such possibilities for less attentive viewing into its structure. In the end, despite the force and often compelling weight of Castriota's argument, I still suspect that the great floral friezes of the Ara Pacis were an ornamental backdrop (full of possible symbolism, to be sure) to the main imperial, mythic and sacrificial themes of its prime images.

Finally, a few words about Castriota's cultural view of the Augustan period. His is yet another contribution to the art-historical side of this subject which has been expanding with extraordinary speed since Zanker's seminal contribution in 1988. Promised or very recently published books include new studies by Sauron (1994), Kuttner (1995), Pollini, Rose (both forthcoming). Castriota makes a strong case for the floral friezes of the Ara Pacis propagating an ideology of "beneficial concord" (p. 86) -- a version of Augustan ideology owing much to Zanker. He has a problem in that the "apparent preponderance of Dionysian elements [associated with Antony and not Augustus] over those of Apollo is nothing less than shocking" (p. 88), but manages to find evidence for Dionysos and Apollo as a "numen mixtum" (esp. pp. 106-23) which only reinforces "the overall theme of concord" (p. 119). I am not wholly convinced by the current tendency among art historians to read Augustan art and propaganda so smoothly as an affirmation of a blissful "golden age". Castriota himself rightly says that "beneath the surface is a patchwork comprised of the very contradictions and alternatives that propaganda strives to contain or suppress" (p. 89). It may be that giving more room to a reading of the non-floral imagery of the Ara Pacis -- its sacrificial themes, for example -- would have discovered a less consistently "seamless and unequivocal" (p. 89) propagandist thematics.


  • Kuttner, A. (1995), Dynasty and Empire in the Age of Augustus: The Boscoreale Cups, Berkeley and Los Angeles
  • Pollini, J. (forthcoming), The Image of Augustus: Art, Ideology and the Rhetoric of Leadership
  • Rose, C. B. (forthcoming), Dynastic Art and Ideology
  • Sauron, G., (1994), Quis deum? L'expression plastique des idéologies politiques et réligieuses à Rome à la fin de la république et au début du principat, Rome
  • Simon, E. (1967), Ara Pacis Augustae, Tübingen
  • Simon, E. (1968), Ara Pacis Augustae, New York
  • Zanker, P. (1988), The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Ann Arbor