Table in Rome I: Altar as Locus
Charlottesville, Virginia

The Table in Rome I exhibit was installed at the University of Virginia School of Archiecture in 2010 and connected to work completed by Jana VanderGoot as a Reiger Graham affiliated fellowship at the American Aacdemy in Rome. The exhibit was made of low heat materials (described in more detail in photo captions below) and visitors were invited to interact with and change the exhibit over time. The design scheme included 3D drawings, sculpture, grain, wine, and the eating of traditional Italian biscotti.

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Excerpted from: “Table in Rome: Altar as Locus and Ground Activated by Food,” The Classicist 10 (2013): 94-101. This article was commissioned by the Institute of Classical Art and Architecture through the Rieger Graham Prize at the American Academy in Rome.

Food and eating is critical in Rome in the 21st century as it was in antiquity. What emerges alongside the journey that food makes from the fields to the city is the idea of Table (denoted here with a capital “T” for clarity). Table in Rome is a series of dispersed civic centers, or locus points, that together constitute a network through which food is exchanged. This network is laden with meaning and connected to the land as a source of food.

The Table in Rome I exhibit celebrates two food plants in particular: wheat (connected to the goddess Ceres) and grapes (connected to the god Liber). Images of these divine figures and the plants they personify appear carved into many ancient altar tables, artifacts, temples, and fresco work around the city of Rome.

What is Table?
The word table refers to both the Classical Latin mensa and modern Italian tavola, which is derived from the Latin tabula. Even as a word used in English, “table” has many nuanced meanings. Table is the constructed horizontal board that supports food, the food itself, and the less tangible product of a communal meal including ideas and conversations, particular qualities of the group of people that gathers around the table, and social engagement that unfolds in the space of the table. Like the word table, the larger idea of Table in the urban context of ancient and modern Rome shape-shifts. It defies simple definition by changing meaning and scaling up or down to fit time and circumstance. Nonetheless, it can be said with some certainty that Table most often describes the collective sphere. In this regard it is an analogue to the shared world in which all humans live and civilizations unfold. This Table has both a physical and cultural presence in the city of Rome.

Table as altar activated by food
The table has been considered a practical necessity in civic religion since the time of early Rome (753 BCE-509 BCE) and was therefore given a special name: the ara. The Latin wordara is usually translated into Italian as altare and into English as altar. The altar was the space upon which domestic and agricultural belief systems of the Latin Leagues gradually expanded to the life of the state and gave form to the early Roman government (reggia) and city (urbs).[1]

Two grand altars in particular articulate the character of collective Table as it evolved in the culture of the altar laden with food. In ancient Rome the Augustan Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae) and the Great Altar of Hercules (Ara Massima Ercole) were loci of ritual activity that was tied to eating. In 21st century Rome their scattered remains are virtual repositories of civic behavior. The Altar of Peace has a powerful physical presence in modern Rome; it was excavated, meticulously restored, and is housed in a museum designed by the firm of American architect Richard Meier. Although it has been moved from its original location, the Altar of Peace left behind a site that has continued to function as the informal political center of Rome. The Great Altar of Hercules on the other hand has not been verified with any physical evidence in 21st century Rome. The importance of it as Table lies in the fact that through substantial historical documentation, speculation, and debate it has informed current understanding of food systems in Rome.

Augustan Altar of Peace
On the fourth of July in the year 13 BCE after a century of war the Roman Senate authorized the construction of an altar that was dedicated to peace under the rule of Caesar Augustus who was the heir of Julius Caesar. The design of the altar incorporated many rustic features, which played to a Roman nostalgia for pastoral living in times of peace. Unified peace was thought to have characterized the past. The altar was Augustus’s vision of civic religion and its construction represented a return to social mores, mos maiorium. These mores were woven through with the notion that Roman ancestors were unified by a particular set of communal expectations.[2] Carved into the marble of the Altar of Augustan Peace, therefore, are icons of bountiful earth, familial allegiance, and ritual piety.

At eye level along the outer surfaces of the vertical slabs that form the altar enclosure, carved assemblies of vegetal growth spiral up from the ground. Noble laurel, floral rose, oak, and pine are clearly identified. Woven among them a splendor of ivy and grape vine unfurls across the marble surface. On this bed of foliage rests the horizontal altar slab and its podium. A table is the colorful first fruit in a vast field of undergrowth.[3] This layering of food from the earth with a collective table was a significant gesture. As the locus of an urban space that was activated by food, altar became Table.

The realistic representations of foods on the vegetal panels were part of a language. This pictorial narration was compelling because the foods featured were essential components in the relationship of many Roman citizens to the land. People who lived in Rome were dependent on wheat and wine that was made affordable by the taxation of Roman cities throughout Italy, Greece, and Africa. Many Roman citizens were not themselves farmers, however they could recognize that the foods depicted on the panels held the power to determine the welfare of the state. The vegetal panels are particularly accessible; they are immediately within reach of the hand and the life-sized plant forms are easily identified.

Each plant on the walls represents its own sacred power or deity, and this would have been apparent to Augustan Romans. David Castriota in his work Ara Pacis Augustae makes a strong case for the Altar of Peace as one monument in a long line of artistic works that depict not only images of plants but also their corresponding gods. Castriota suggests that the human personifications of divinity, if they had been included in the vegetal panels of the Altar of Peace, would only have served as emphasis. He writes:

…one can scarcely doubt that all these plants were deliberately intended to evoke the specific power and blessing of the various divinities to whom they were sacred, even though the Roman monument (Ara Pacis) no longer retained the actual figures of the gods themselves among the decorative foliage.[4]

In the sacred space of the Altar of Peace the laurel is Apollo, the grapevine is Liber (the Greek Dionysus), the wheat is Ceres (the Greek Demeter), and so on. The floral imagery of the Altar of Peace most noticeably invokes the noble Apollo with whom Augustus personally associated himself.  It also invokes the Aventine Triad, otherwise known as the plebian cult of Ceres, Liber, and Libera. This reference to the Aventine Triad no doubt garnered the support of the plebian population of Rome.

Upon crossing the threshold and entering the modestly scaled enclosure that is created by the vegetal panel walls, it is possible to see the horizontal altar table as it rests on an elevated podium. The altar stands in a military field, but celebratory libations and an anniversary outpouring of blood from a sacred animal onto the altar declare that a new life of peace will emerge from what was before a place of war.[5] Above the podium base along the walls of the enclosure a series of weep holes were cut to allow the liquid remains of the sacrifice to drain off the sloped interior floor out onto the Field of Mars (Campus Martius). Technical details like the weep holes make it clear that the Altar of Peace was made for use; this table furnished real food for the ritual act of collective eating.

The interior walls of the altar enclosure exhibit the elements of a divine meal. Dense garlands of fruit, skulls of sacrificial oxen (buchranium), and the patera vessel for wine offerings are carved on the walls. The zone of the table is intimate and scaled to the human body. By contrast the massive processional area around the enclosure of intimate space expands without barrier into the Field of Mars.

An altar was the only structure required for a religious gathering. The altar stood without an accompanying temple in an open floodplain that was dedicated to Mars, the Roman god of war. The Field of Mars in the time of Augustus was outside of the city proper and had a long history of use. The Tarquins supposedly used the floodplain for the growing of wheat.[6] Through the Republic it was a field with many uses. It was Rome’s hinterland for pasturing sheep. Soldiers and generals used it for military exercises, meals, and lodging. It had also been the meeting place for foreign politicians, who were not allowed to stay within the city proper.[7] It is significant that the space Augustus chose for his altar lay along the major North-South road, Via Flaminia (in modern Rome known as Via del Corso) that cut through the Field of Mars for his altar. This decision contributed to the expansion of the city limits and the idea of the collective urban Table into the Field of Mars. The expansion changed the nature of the floodplain from one type of ‘field’ that supported the feeding of animals and production of agriculture into another type of ‘field’ that was an urban framework or ground, which could support a series of civic locus points like the Altar of Peace.

In many ways the activity in the Field of Mars shifted the city center away from the Capitoline Hill (Il Campidoglio). In medieval times the population of Rome moved from the surrounding hills and concentrated in the Field of Mars. Modern Romans refer to the Campus Martius district informally as Roma vecchia or centro meaning ‘old Rome’ or ‘center.’ Campus Martius is the colloquial old city center because it draws crowds with its romantic tourist attractions, markets, street cafes, and traditional trattoria restaurants. The actual antique religious and political city center is located near the Capitoline Hill.

Table in the context of the Altar of Peace is many things. It became the political maneuvering that was folded into ritual gatherings where food was present. Table was also the locus, or center of gravity, that gathered a crowd when it was activated by food. In 21st century Rome, the governing Table remains on the very place that Augustus chose for his Altar of Peace. The remnants of a solar obelisk set up by Augustus to flank the altar signals the ground, but the altar itself as locus point has long since been removed.

Piazza Colonna now flanks the main North-South thoroughfare through Rome known as the Via del Corso (formerly Via Flaminia). This piazza and the one that is beside it, Piazza di Monte Citorio, comprise the one truly open space in the Campo Marzio district of modern Rome. Unlike other piazzas in the area that buzz with daily activity, the Piazza Colonna is empty of people except on those days when a crowd gathers for a political event.[8]The buildings of these piazzas are Palazzo Monte Citorio, the government’s Council of Deputies, and the Palazzo Chigi, the official residence where the Prime Minister of Italy entertains guests.

The Altar of Peace itself, after years of waiting silently under four meters of waterlogged Tiber River silt, was finally recovered in 1937 on the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus. The sumptuous altar was reset and with it the imperial Table of politics and civic religion that directly preceded the shift from Roman Republic to Empire made its way above ground again. In past millennia this Table extended the earthen floor and created a locus point for public, political, and religious activity on the most important feast days of the Roman calendar. Now intact and highly visible near its place of origin, the Altar of Peace represents what remains of a network of thousands of altars that were scattered across Rome.

Many ancient altars are tucked away in the galleries of ticket-only museums. While this protects the altars from weathering and vandalism, it makes them less visible and accessible. It also disconnects them from their ground. However, one small-scale, unlabeled outdoor altar still spans the physical distance between Piazza Colonna and the Ara Pacis Museum. This altar is no taller than waist height and features fruit garlands, ox skulls, and a fire pit on its top. It holds the center of a small piazza, which carries the name Field of Mars (Campo Marzio). Archaeological maps of Rome reveal that an altar centered many outdoor spaces and public forums. This network of altars made Table in Rome expand across the city and into the daily activities of its inhabitants. 

The Altar of Peace was the Table of an Imperial family. Augustus, as head of the imperial family and patron to city plebs, publicly engaged in a sacred meal with Rome as is suggested by the expansive martial field in which the Table is set. This sacred meal became an annual state holiday. That he did this in the name of peace (Pax Augusta) was an unambiguous act of propaganda. Modern scholars of Classical Rome credit Caesar Augustus with great skill in knowing how to cultivate the support of common people.[9]

The Altar of Peace Table continues to serve political purposes. Mussolini called the altar into service as a tool of propaganda in 1938 when he tried to secure the connection between his dreams of modern empire and the grandeur of a Roman past in the reconstruction of the physical city of Rome. The architecture of the Piazza Imperatore Augustae,which flanks the Ara Pacis Museum and the Mausoleum of Augustus, is a visual testament to this day of the fascist style of building. The altar continues to be a contentious center of gravity as current Mayor Alemanno launches plans to reconnect the open space in front of the museum with the Tiber riverfront, or all that is left of the floodplain that Campus Martius once was. In as much as it is still a driver of events that change the course of the city of Rome, the altar and its original ground along Via Flaminia are more than relics of the past. They still serve as Table and are significant in modern Roman urbanism.

[1] Further discussion of the Latin Leagues involves the feriae Latinae, an annual religious event that supposedly brought together the heterogeneous Latin Leagues as a community and involved sacrifice on top of Mons Albanus. Refer to: Wiseman, T.P. The City that Never Was: Alba Longa and the Historical Tradition, p435. William Sinnegan also discusses the transition from belief systems connected to life in the fields to rule of the state.

[2] For a discussion of the role of mos maiorium in Early Republican Roman society refer to: Sinnegan, William G. and Boak, Arthur E.R.  A History of Rome to A.D. 565, Sixth Edition, p87. See also discussion of the city of Alba Longa, the location of an annual celebration of unified Latin Leagues. Archaeologists believe Alba Longa did not exist in history, but was rather a very persistent myth.

[3] Polychromy. Remnants of paint exist on the Altar of Peace.

[4] Castriota, David. The Ara Pacis Augustae, p25.

[5] The Ara Pacis was dedicated on January 30 anniversary 9BC, a date that was susequently celebrated as an official holiday with a sacrifice at the altar. Richardson, L. A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, p208.

[6] Original source is Lacus Curtis

[7] Lacus Curtis

[8] The activities in Piazza Colonna and Monet Citorio are highly orchestrated. High security deters political rallying and car traffic. Festivals of a political nature take place in the pizzas occasionally. The most recent was the celebration of the 150 years anniversary of the Unification of Italy during which 3D visual digital art imagery on the theme of ‘Unity’ was projected onto the building facades. Progetto 150 Italiamobile: Rifrazione Permanent April 21, 2011, to celebrate 150 years anniversary of the Unification of Italy. Innovazione e Nuove Technologie con il progetto 150 Italiamobile April 28, 2011: June 08, 2011.

[9] For further discussion of the political motivations of Augustus refer to: Sinnegan, William G. and Boak, Arthur E.R.  A History of Rome to A.D. 565, Sixth Edition, p255. See also Castroita, David. The Ara Pacis Augustae, p96.

Above details from left to right: wooden mensa (elevated slab) with ritual patera (plate) in terra cotta filled with Ceres (goddes of cereal grain) and wheat; large and small ritual patera (plate) in terra cotta filled with Liber (god of wine) and grapes; wooden mundus (pit) filled with Liber (god of wine) and grapes; small patera in terra cotta and stains on cotton made from immolare (blessings) of wine offered by exhibit visitors.

Immolare (blessings) of cereal grain offered by exhibit visitors

Offerings of food were determined by the particulars of time and place. Food was inevitably linked to seasonal weather, fertility cycles, the solar calendar, and perennial celebrations of a particular locality. A sacrifice of eggs, garlands of spring flowers, verdant foliage, or pomegranates bursting with crimson seeds was associated with fecundity, birth, and new life for the growing season. Grape must, salt, honeyed wine, milk, and water were used to celebrate lasting harvest, preservation, and perpetually healthy flocks. Boar, goat, lamb, and ox—animals that could feed hundreds of people in one sitting—were reserved for the most momentous occasions. Aromatic olive branches, pine twigs, juniper and laurel were used as means of purification.[1]

Wheat or mola salsa(salted flour cakes) made of cereal grains was likely the most usual sacrificial offering. Staple crops were always appropriate and in most times they were also plentiful. Every household and market had them. As a result meal (mola) was often sprinkled on the offering or the altar. The act of sprinkling “to put on the mola” is the root for the word immolare and eventually came to be used as the word for sacrifice in general.[2]

[1] This list was developed from the author’s careful study of the Roman festival calendar, holidays dedicated to gods and their respective ties to flora and fauna, as well as an understanding of the seasonal cycles of vegetable and animal produce of ancient Rome. Reference: Feemster Jashemski, Wilhelmina and Meyer, Frederick (ed). The Natural History of Pompeii, Roman Calends: Fasti Antiates (prior to 46 B.C.) and Fasti Praenestrini (6-10 A.D.) Palazzo Massimo, Rome.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary online accessed October 13, 2010.

Table in Rome drawing - Punica granatum, Vitis vinifera, Aedes Cereris-Liberi-Libera, collage, Jana VanderGoot, 2010

The wooden table features the mundus (pit) and mensa (elevated slab) altar types. A blanket of cotton cloth and cereal grain extend the figure of the table along the ground a create a field condition.  

In the case of the Augustan Altar of Peace food was placed on an elevated mensa (table). In other cases the altar was set within a subterranean pit in which offerings were ‘consumed’ with fire. Near the Great Altar of Hercules in Rome were two additional altars of this subterranean type. They were locations for the worship of infernal gods of the underworld. Ceres was the goddess of agriculture. The mundus, a Latin word, which directly translates as ‘world,’ is described as a pit in the earth into which food was offered to Ceres on the holiday called Cerealia.[1] Consus was the protector of grain storage and seed. The altar of Consus (Ara Consi), near the Great Altar of Hercules in the Circus Maximus, stayed underground and was exhumed on Consualia,the festival that honored the sewing of seeds.[2]  In both of these cases the ground and the design of the altar reflects the nature of the god whom it revered. In the precinct of ancient altars, Table activated ground and Table was ground.

[1] Reference to Ceres mundus and Ludis Cerealis: Johnston, Sarah Iles (ed.) Religions of the Ancient World, a guide.

[2] Reference Altar of Consus: Rykwert, Joseph. The Idea of a Town.

Wooden mundus (pit) and cereal grain

Small patera in terra cotta and stains on cotton made from immolare (blessings) of wine offered by exhibit visitors

Immolare (blessings) of cereal grain offered by exhibit visitors

Modern Romans use both the words il tavolo and la tavola. Il tavolo describes a horizontal board or surface used for working, dining, cooking, construction scaffolding, and even windsurfing. La tavola, however, is invoked for those special occasions when il tavolo is laden with food or ready for a feast. The feminine gender, when used to describe a food-laden board, recalls rustic roots of a Roman belief system organized around the household and the fields. Other Latin terms that refer to a fertile or plentiful earth use the feminine gender as well: terra (earth), anonna (a year’s harvest), and epulae(feast). In modern Italian, food from the earth furnishes la tavola. La tavola (table) also generates Table. The move from earth to la tavola has proven to be valuable for both ancient and modern Romans because Table is ultimately the people, culture, and city that la tavola bears.

Wooden mundus (pit) with Liber (the god of wine) and grapes

Wooden mundus (pit) with Liber (the god of wine) and grapes

Wooden mensa (elevated slab) and mundus (pit) were made with hardwood scraps left overs from a local furniture manufacturer.

Wooden mensa (elevated slab) and mundus (pit) were made with hardwood scraps left overs from a local furniture manufacturer.

Large and small terra cotta patera (plate), wine stains on cotton made from blessings of wine offered by exhibit visitors.

2018, National Center for Smart Growth + low heat, Washington, DC