Featured Ara Pietatis Augustae -- the altar that never really existed!

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Roman Collector, Mar 3, 2019.

  1. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Show your coins depicting altars or altar enclosures -- real or imagined. Comments and anything you feel is relevant are most welcome.


    Researching the supposed subject of this coin, an as of Faustina I depicting an altar enclosure, uncovered one of the great misconceptions in the history of classical art -- that the temple enclosure depicted on this coin actually existed as the Ara Pietatis Augustae (The Altar of Augustan Piety). I wish to share some of what I've learned. But first, here's the coin:

    Faustina Sr PIET AVG S C As.jpg
    Faustina I, AD 138-141.
    Roman Æ as, 9.21 g, 26.5 mm, 11 h.
    Rome, AD 141-142.
    Obv: DIVA AVGVSTA FAVSTINA, bust of Faustina I, draped, right, hair elaborately waved and piled in bun on top of head; a band of pearls round hair in front.
    Rev: PIET AVG S C, rectangular altar with door in front; no flame on top.
    Refs: RIC 1191Aa; BMCRE4 1464-65; Cohen 259; RCV --; ERIC II 294.


    Phillip Hill[1] fell prey to the misconception that the building depicted on this coin existed outside of the imagination. Hill's work, in turn, misled David Sear. Writing about a similar coin, RIC 1191B, differing only in obverse inscription and the presence of a flame on the top of the building on the reverse, he states:

    This reverse type represents the Ara Pietatis Augustae, the altar vowed by the Senate in AD 22 on the recovery from serious illness of the Empress Livia. The structure was not actually built until AD 43, some fourteen years after Livia's death, when her grandson Claudius undertook the work and dedicated it to Pietas (cf. Hill, 'The Monuments of Ancient Rome as Coin Types', pp. 62-3).[2]​

    However, as Ashley Jones, an art historian at Yale University explains, the Ara Pietatis Augustae never actually existed.[3] Here follows a summary of Jones's work.


    The myth of the monument begins with the anonymously transcribed inscription, Corpus Inscriptiones Latinarum (CIL) VI, 562, which reads,


    This seems to record the vowing of Tiberius of a monument to the Augustan pietas in AD 22, and its subsequent dedication in AD 43/44, as noted by Hill and Sear, above. In 1796, the numismatist and historian Josephus Eckhel first connected the inscription to a passage from Tacitus (Ann. 3. 64) which reports that Tiberius, in AD 22, vowed games on the occasion of the recovery of his mother Livia from a serious illness. Eckhel, however, jumped to the conclusion that because both events occurred the same year, they must represent two separate reports of the same event.

    The archaeologist and historian Theodore Mommsen knew of a temple to Pietas in the neighborhood of the Theater of Marcellus and asserted in an 1850 commentary on the inscription that the object of the above dedication was an altar.

    The CIL commentary on the inscription solidified the myth by stating, "Eckhel revealed that this altar was vowed in the year 22 because of the recovery of Julia Augusta, cfr. Mommsen loc. cit. who suspected that it was situated near the theater of Marcellus [...] Mommsen related that Tiberius himself, however, did not complete the altar to Piety then vowed, which fell to Claudius, who, it has been noted, consecrated this and other honors to Livia."

    To recapitulate, Mommsen conjectured that the inscription referred to an altar to Augustan Piety; Eckhel conjectured that this was vowed on the occasion of Livia's recovery from an illness as related in Tacitus. All that remained to complete the puzzle were material remains.

    Those remains came in the form of several relief panels which had been known in Rome since the sixteenth century, when members of the Medici family incorporated five fragments of relief panels into the garden facade of their villa at Pincio. Here are plaster casts of two of them, from the Museum of the Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae).

    1112 canvas.png
    1113 canvas.png

    These panels were originally thought to have been from the Ara Pacis, the the famous altar to Augustan Peace mentioned in the Res Gestae. However, German archaeologist Johannes Sieveking demonstrated in 1907 that none of the panels in the Valle Medici could have belonged to the Ara Pacis. On stylistic grounds, he proposed a date in the reign of Claudius. On this basis, Franz Studniczka proposed in 1909 that these relief panels had come from none other than the aram pietati described in the CIL commentary on the inscription with with this story begins.

    In 1937, numismatic "evidence" entered the picture, when Raymond Bloch used two coin reverse types which each depict what seems to be the same or a similar altar together with the inscription PIETATI AVG (or an abbreviation thereof). These reverse types are the coins of Faustina I, of which mine is an example, and this one of Sabina issued posthumously, here illustrated by a specimen sold by Incitatus at V-Coins.


    Bloch published a reconstruction of the altar based upon the designs on the reverses of these coins, suggesting that it was similar in form to the Ara Pacis, but of more sophisticated artistry. Thus, a sanctuary and an altar to Augustan Piety was created out of little more than conjecture.

    The Ara Pacis, which, combined with the designs of the Sabina and Faustina reverse types, served as the model for Bloch's reconstruction of the hypothetical Ara Pietatis Augustae.


    The story began to unravel in 1977, when Mario Torelli contradicted Eckhel and denied any connection between the inscription and the story of Livia's recovery as recorded by Tacitus. Rather, he argues that problems arising from the succession of Tiberius preclude Eckhel's conjecture and he argued instead that the Ara Pietatis that was vowed became the Ara Gentis Iuliae that was actually constructed.

    The material support for the supposed existence of the Ara Pietatis Augustae collapsed shortly thereafter, when in 1982, Koeppel reexamined the Valle Medici reliefs and the whole history of the idea of such a monument and concluded that not only did the reliefs not come from the Ara Pietatis, but that the Ara Pietatis never existed outside of Mommsen's imagination.

    The final straw came in 1985, when Cordischi argued persuasively that the Valle Medici reliefs originally had a former life as components of the Arcus Novus of Diocletian. This cannot be definitively proven, however.


    It's important to note the reverse inscriptions are in abbreviated form: PIET AVG or PIETATI AVG. There is no reason to postulate that on these second century coins, the AVG in question refers to the Augustan dynasty of the first century. It seems to me, rather, that the most straightforward interpretation is they refer to the piety of the imperial family of the departed and divine empresses on whose coinage they appear. The altars or altar enclosures depicted are probably stylized archetypes, not a representation of an actual altar, sanctuary or temple. As noted numismatist and expert on architectural types Marvin Tameanko writes, such shrines "eventually became a standard consecration symbol on many coins and, over the years, it was used by emperors to commemorate the deification of the preceding emperor. The consecration shrine was used on coinage up until the reigns of Claudius II Gothicus and Quintillus, A.D. 270."[4]


    1. Hill, Philip V. The Monuments of Ancient Rome as Coin Types. Seaby, 1989, pp. 62-63.

    2. Sear, David R. Roman Coins and Their Values II: The accession of Nerva to the overthrow of the Severan dynasty AD 96 - AD 235, London, Spink, 2002, p. 276.

    3. Ashley E. Jones, "An Altar Imagined. A Historical Survey of the construction and Deconstruction of the Ara Pietatis Augustae," in Ricerche di storia dell'arte 3/2005, pp. 5-12, doi: 10.7374/72504. Available for download here.

    4. Tameanko, Marvin. Monumental Coins: Buildings & Structures on Ancient Coinage. Krause Publications, 1999, p. 220.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2019
  2. Avatar

    Guest User Guest

    to hide this ad.
  3. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    I'm glad that coin went to a good home I was nearly going to bid on it but already have one, top buy at that price. The portrait is fantastic and love the patina, I remember seeing those reliefs at Augustus Ara Pacis on the banks of the Tiber and thought they were part of his enclosure. Faustina altar (800x533).jpg
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2019
  4. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Hmm, that is a lot to digest! I think I followed it all, and all of it seems to be conjectural. It does seem reasonable that the altar on these Antoine coins is not a Julio-Claudian altar though. Nice catch!
  5. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    That's a lovely example, @Ancient Aussie !
  6. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    These men doing all the conjecturing were coryphaei in their fields and their conjectures were taken as having greater weight than warranted in retrospect. How influential were they? Well, you don't get your portrait on medals and stamps or your work assigned in college curricula for nothing.

    Eckhel 2.jpg
    Josephus Eckhel medals

    Mommsen 2.jpeg
    Theodor Mommsen stamps

    Bloch textbook
  7. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one step at a time Supporter

    Gardner.jpg @Roman Collector - an interesting coin, and a fascinating write-up. I received last week a copy of a Joel Malter annotated reprint of an 1877 work by Percy Gardner on Parthian coins. Your story reinforced an opening sentence in Gardner's writing:

    "There is scarcely any branch of history to which more aptly than to the Parthian can be applied the old saying that history consists of recognized fictions."

    I find optimistic, that eventually fiction was unraveled by diligent research.
  8. arizonarobin

    arizonarobin Well-Known Member Supporter

    A very interesting read, thank you!

    Sulla80, Ryro, chrsmat71 and 7 others like this.
  9. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    Love your coin, RR and mine don't have the fire or what's called lighted a variety not seen as much. Great patina as well.
    arizonarobin and Roman Collector like this.

    PMONNEY Flaminivs


    Attached Files:

  11. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    That is a lovely coin, indeed, @arizonarobin ! AA and I have BMCRE 1464-65; the one with the lighted altar such as yours corresponds to BMCRE 1466-67, depending on the die-axis. Here's the listing in that reference:

    arizonarobin likes this.
  12. arizonarobin

    arizonarobin Well-Known Member Supporter

    thank you @Ancient Aussie & @Roman Collector and thank you for the reference, I did not have the BMCRE number. I will have to pull her out and check the die axis.
    I have always liked the altar reverses. I have two denarius of Faustina II with altar as well, but neither has flame. (I don't know if the flame appears on any of the denarius type?)
  13. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Oh, I just noticed BMCRE 1467 has a veiled bust. Yours would be 1466, then, regardless of die-axis.
    Last edited: Mar 5, 2019
    Ancient Aussie and arizonarobin like this.
  14. arizonarobin

    arizonarobin Well-Known Member Supporter

    Well that makes it easy- thank you. :happy: A veiled bust version would be amazing! So many coins to look out for. lol
  15. randygeki

    randygeki Coin Collector

  16. chrsmat71

    chrsmat71 I LIKE TURTLES! Supporter

    Here is my most recent altar...


    Pontus, Amasia. Severus Alexander. 228-229 AD

    O : Laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right, AYT K M AYP CЄOYHPOC AΛEΞANΔPOC. R: Altar above which eagle stands facing, head left; behind, Sol in facing quadriga, holding whip; left of altar, tree. AΔP CЄY AΛЄΞ AMACIA MHT NЄ ΠP ΠON / ЄT CKH (date, CY 228). Dalaison 56. 26.4 g, 35 mm. Ex. stevex6 collection.
  17. 49erJosh

    49erJosh New Member


    These are all amazing guys
    Roman Collector likes this.
  18. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    Domitian altar.jpg
    Façade of altar-enclosure of the Ara Salutis Augusti, with double panelled door
    and horns of the altar visible above SALVTI AVGVSTI S C
    The identification of this altar is wholly uncertain. Hill ("The Monuments of Ancient
    Rome as Coin Types", page 64) suggests that it may have been erected under Titus
    because of the bad health of this emperor, but its precise location and subsequent
    history are unknown.
  19. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE

    Some Altars as Requested

    Sassanian Shapur I 240-272 CE AE Tetradrachm 10.78g 27mm Ctesiphon mint phase 1a mural crown korymbos - fire altar type 2 SNS IIa1-1a

    RI Hadrian, AD 117-138 Æ Limes Denarius 18mm 3.5mm after AD 125 Genius stndg sacrificing altar cornucopia RIC II 173
    Ex: @@John Anthony

    Bhuvanaika Bahu CE 1273-1284 Æ Massa 3.9g 19mm King throne solar symbol altar flame lotus - King reclining sankh-conch Nagari-Sri Bhuvanaika Bahu MNI 851-52

    India, Chalukyas of GujaratGadhaiya Paisa
    Billon drachm Gadhaiya Paisa), 4.6g, 14mm, 3h; ca 9th cent AD
    Obv.: degenerated Indo-Sasanian style bust to right, sun and moon above
    Rev.: stylized fire altar, sun above left, crescent moon above right
    Reference: Deyell 156-159

    RR AR Denarius 3.88g L Pomponius Molo 97 BCE Rome Apollo Numa Pompilius stdng Lituus alter sacrificing goat Cr 334-1 Syd 607
  20. 7Calbrey

    7Calbrey Well-Known Member

    Civic issue, with Tyche on obverse and flaring altar on reverse. Struck under Hadrian.
    CiviHad O.jpg CivicAlt R.jpg
  21. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    My Nero Ara Pacis Ae As is a bit worn but I still love it. Arapacis.jpg
Draft saved Draft deleted

Share This Page