The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Peta Greenfield
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
For me it is hard to go past the Ara Pacis Augustae. It’s such a detailed piece of architecture with incredible friezes. The layers of iconographical meaning embedded in something like the ‘Tellus’ panel alone is something that I find incredibly engaging. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful piece.
When did you first come across this source?
This source is really important for understanding Augustus’ rule. By the time the Ara Pacis is dedicated, he has ensured his position of power and is very secure. This altar is really famous for its depiction of the familial procession, but the reason it caught my eye initially was as part of my study of the changing role of the Vestal Virgins. There’s one small panel which depicts the Vestals – it’s not a flashy part of the ara by any stretch, but very significant in terms of thinking about the connections between Augustus, who was pontifex maximus, and the variety of priesthoods depicted on the monument.
Can you tell me a bit about the altar and its context?
This ara is an important monument for Augustus. It’s first proposed by the Senate in 13 BCE after he returns from Gaul and is dedicated in 9 BCE, on the 30th of January. This coincides with Livia’s birthday which appears to be part of a plan to ensure she is also connected with the monument.
The legacy of this monument is just as interesting as its origins. The pieces we have now exist as part of Mussolini’s reconstruction so there’s always more questions to be asked about the structure, what it really looked like, the layers of political manoeuvring from Augustus onwards, and so forth.
Today you can find this reconstruction housed in a purpose-built museum and it’s one of my favourite places in Rome.
What is it about this source that appeals to you most?
This source really appeals to me on an aesthetic level. It’s easy to dismiss the frieze panels of foliage that make up the lower decorations of the outside of the Ara Pacis, but one moment in front of the monument is enough to convince you that there’s something grand and deliberate in this. Not only are they incredibly beautiful in their own right, but a good deal of study has been done on their iconographical significance as well.
But it’s also more visceral than that. As a viewer, you’re never at eye-level with any of the processional or mythological friezes; they loom above you asking you to put Augustus and his family on the same level as the legendary and divine figures of Rome. The monument really imposes the legacy of Augustus’ rise and domination over the City. You can feel it.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Outside of the Classics, I love to paint. I find the universe a humbling thing and I love trying to catch the infinite nature of it as well as the sense of liminality that space suggests to me. The pictures from the Hubble telescope inform most of my work.
Dr Peta Greenfield attained her PhD in Classics and Ancient History from the University of Sydney and currently teaches English literature. Her interests in the classics include women in the ancient world, Latin poetry and the intrigues of the late Republic and Principate. She is the co-host of The Partial Historians podcast which she runs with Dr Fiona Radford.