Panel of Tellus
Marble.
13—9 BCE.
Rome, Museum of the Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae)

Panel of Tellus.

Marble.
13—9 BCE.

Rome, Museum of the Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae)
(Roma, Museo dell’Ara Pacis)

Description:
Most of the studies and the interpretations regarding this panel, perhaps the best known of the whole Ara Pacis, have aimed, above all, at establishing the identity of the seated goddess appearing in the middle of the scene. The subject was open to debate between those who thought it to be the personification of Italy (Van Buren 1913) and those who identified the figure with Tellus, or Mother Earth (Petersen 1902, Moretti 1948). This interpretation eventually prevailed and the relief became known as “the panel of Tellus.” However, in the second half of the 20th century new research evidenced that such interpretation is far from being unquestionable and conclusive, and that recognizing the goddess as Venus genitrix is just as convincing (Galinsky 1992). Such hypothesis, other than being supported by numerous iconographic and literary sources, would suitably fill a manifest gap in the mythological cycle of the Ara Pacis, that is to say the absence of Aeneas’ divine mother and, consequently, of the ancestress of the gens Iulia.

Other authors (Zanker 1989) have preferred to recognize in the central character the Pax Augusta bestowing prosperity, thus resolving another substantial problem: that of the absence of a personification of Peace on an altar entitled to peace itself. Those who agree with this hypothesis strictly relate the panel to the corresponding one on the eastern façade, on which triumphant Rome is shown seated on a trophy of weapons, with an apparent reference to the role of Rome as peacekeeper among the peoples. Finally, when it seemed that all arguments had been exhausted, the question was taken up again in the nineties, when the panel’s central figure was identified as Ceres, the patron goddess of the harvests and of men’s fertility (Spaeth 1994).

The point is that in particular this area of the decoration of the Ara Pacis, is ruled by a sort of polysemantic programme, if not by an intentional and, in this case, well-chosen ambiguity, that characterizes the monument’s sculptural complexes and the Augustan propaganda in general. In the seated goddess, actually, the attributes of Tellus are combined with those of Venus, the elements that characterize the iconography of Ceres, like the ears of wheat or the poppies, are blended with those belonging to Italy; not to mention the potential allusions to the two women close to Augustus, his wife Livia and his daughter Julia. For instance the two children on the goddess’ lap can be interpreted as an allusion to the nephews and heirs of Augustus, Gaius and Lucius Caesar. The resulting picture is that of a synthesis of visual suggestions that was probably meant as a figurative summa of the propagandistic programme, as well as of the religious reform, undertaken by Augustus. The goddess is seated on the rocks, she is clad in a light chiton that, draping from her right shoulder, delicately emphasizes her bosom and her abdomen. On her veiled head she wears a wreath of fruit and flowers. Crouching peacefully at her feet are an ox and a sheep. The goddess is flanked by two puttos, one of which captures her benevolent and tense glance, offering her an apple. Moreover, on her lap, a bunch of grapes and pomegranates complete the portrait of this generating divinity, under which men, animals and plants are prosperous. On both sides of the panel are two young women, the Aurae velificantes of the Hellenistic tradition, holding the hems of billowing mantles: the first is on horseback of a sea dragon, the second of a swan with open wings. They represent, respectively, the beneficial earth and sea winds.

The peaceful atmosphere evoked by the scene, as well as the attributes of fecundity, refer to the felicitas temporis istantis, at which also the floral frieze hints, that had been celebrated only four years earlier in the choruses of the Ludi Saeculares like the rebirth of the golden age under Augustus. In terms of literary sources, the authors most frequently quoted to explain this scene, that will eventully constitute a long-lasting model in western art and also in Christian imagery, are Horace and Lucretius. The first in 17 BC, on the occasion of the Ludi Saeculares, celebrated the new opulence of the times with an invocation to the Tellus: “Fertilis frugum pecorisque Tellus / spicea donet Cererem corona; / nutriant fetus et aquae salubres / et Iovis aurae…” (Carm. Saec. 29-32): “May Mother Earth, fertile in fruit and cattle, crown Ceres with a wheat wreath, and may the healthful waters, and Jupiter’s gentle breezes nurture the seeds for the fertility of the land…” Just as famous are the verses that open the De rerum natura, where Lucretius associates expressly Venus, who generated Aeneas’ race to a vision of universal peace and happiness, like the one that the Augustan propaganda will later divulgate: “Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divumque voluptas / alma Venus, caeli subter labentia signa / quae mare navigeru, quae terras frugiferentis / concelebras… te, dea, te fugiunt venti, te nubila caeli / adventumque tuum, tibi suavis daedala tellus / submittit flores…” (De rer. nat., I, 1-8, translation by W. Ellery Leonard: “Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men, dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars makest to teem the many-voyaged main and fruitful lands for all of living things, through thee alone are evermore conceived, through thee are risen to visit the great sun, before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on, flee stormy wind and massy cloud away, for thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers…”).

Credits:
© 2007. Photo, text: O. Rossini. Ara Pacis. Rome, Electa, 2007, p. 37.
Keywords: γλυπτική sculptura sculpture sculptural scultura skulptur ρωμαϊκό roman romana romano romani römisch römische römisches römischen römischer romain romaine romains romaines ανακούφιση relief rilievo ara pacis augustae altar of augustan peace altare della pace augustea des friedens augustus autel de la paix auguste marble august tellus venus demeter demetra ceres cerere personification italy pax augusta wreath fruit and flowers aura velificans sea dragon snake swan bull ox cow sheep boy boys children kids babies grain ear ears wheat poppy lily grapes pomegranate blow veil female dress garment garments clothes clothing outerwear chiton tunic cloak jug pitcher cane rush reed fruits flower