Secret Rome: Why You Need To See Ara Pacis

At the time of publishing this post the world is under a travel ban due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I have chosen to keep publishing stories about traveling to Italy for three reasons. The first is that one day hopefully sooner rather than later, the world will open back up to travel, making this a great time to learn about more places we want to visit and what to see when we get there.   

Secondly I hope this will change the way we travel. Hopefully cruise ships and big bus tours and the mass tourism they bring will become a thing of the past, replaced by a more sustainable means of travel that involves smaller groups of people with a germane interest in discovering new places, rather than the masses descending on any city to check it off their bucket list. Third, in this time of crisis our minds need a place to escape to, even if only for a few minutes. So let’s escape to Italy together.

Ara Pacis

This is one of those completely fantastic secrets in Rome that’s hiding in plain sight. Even when Rome is bursting at the seams with tourists you will find very few people here. It is one of my absolute favorites and I wrote about it in detail in my best selling book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome. (Find it in the 13 Places To Discover Ancient Rome chapter)

The Ara Pacis in Rome. A celebration of peace brought by Emperor Augustus
The Ara Pacis in Rome

The Ara Pacis was built around 13 B.C to commemorate Augustus’ victorious return to Rome. Rome had been mired in decades of civil war, and had spent centuries at war with other countries. Augustus ended all the fighting, bringing about the first time of peace in years at the same time becoming the most powerful man in history.

Originally it stood at the northeast corner of the Campus Martius. The altar was angled so that at sunset on Augustus’ birthday the shadow of the point of the obelisk in the Campus Martius would fall onto the Ara Pacis, symbolizing that he was born to bring peace to Rome. He really was a master of propaganda!

Centuries later the Tiber river was expanded and over time the Ara Pacis, in all of its white marble glory, became submerged in 4 meters of mud. It disappeared for more than 1000 years.

2000 year old carvings on the back wall of Ara Pacis in Rome
2000 year old carvings on the back wall of Ara Pacis

In the 16th century fragments of it were found under an old palazzo. More were discovered in the 1800’s.

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In 1937 the Italian cabinet decided to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birth by excavating the altar. 70 cubic meters of ground (beneath what at the time was the Cinema Nuovo Olimpia) were frozen and the altar was extracted.

When you visit the Ara Pacis you can see what a colossal undertaking that must have been. Working with comparatively few fragments and only a short amount of time, it’s amazing what they were able to achieve.

The Richard Meier designed Ara Pacis Museum
The Richard Meier designed Ara Pacis Museum

Buildings surround the mausoleum of Augustus were razed and the Ara Pacis was placed in its current location. It initially was protected by a pavilion but in 2006 got its current, very modern Richard Meier designed building. The building looks pretty incongruous surrounded by old Rome, but once you go inside you can appreciate the genius of it. There is an overwhelming amount of natural light, maximizing the magnificence of the altar.

Ara Pacis in Rome is bathed in natural light
Ara Pacis bathed in natural light

The Ara Pacis is both beautiful and majestic. A set of stairs lead up to the altar, all encased in white marble walls which are covered in carvings.

Carvings on the exterior of Ara Pacis in Rome
The right hand exterior of the Ara Pacis

The museum itself is really good. Entirely dedicated to the Ara Pacis, it is interactive and relatively small. Everyone working there is really well informed and incredibly helpful too.

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Ara Pacis carvings explained
One of the maps inside the Ara Pacis museum in Rome

This past summer while there I had a list of obscure things I wanted to find in the carvings that line the exterior of the marble walls. One of the guards came over, as this was his specialty. There were only a handful of visitors at the museum, so he was able to spend a half hour with me, going back and forth from the maps and interactive screens to the altar itself, finding the items on my list and pointing out missing pieces in between.

Agrippa and Julia on the exterior of Ara Pacis in Rome
Agrippa, Gaius and Julia on the exterior of Ara Pacis

I speak Italian relatively well, but I don’t speak archeological Italian, and he spoke only a little English, but was fully invested in helping me, taking me back to the English translations at the interactive area when we got stuck.

It really was a fantastic experience!

The windows look out over the Mausoleum of Augustus which is being restored but will be open to the public soon.

Mausoleum of Augustus renovations
The Mausoleum of Augustus, once the grandest building in Rome, is under renovation and will open to the public in 2022

I recommend first reading the Ara Pacis section of my Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome book to get some context of who Augustus was, who all the players that show up here are, and why their stories are so interesting. This will make discovering the different people represented on the walls of the Ara Pacis extra interesting.

You can take a virtual tour of Ara Pacis here

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You will probably only spend half an hour or so here. It is an easy walk from the Piazza Navona/Campo di Fiori area, is only a few minutes’ walk along the river to the Bridge of Angels and Castel Sant’ Angelo (in front of St Peters) and is just across the river from Trastevere.

Address: Lungotevere in Augusta, Rome

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