Augustus’ Youth Council
Updated: May 9
What we can learn from the role of teenagers at the transition of Rome’s Republic to Empire
Ara Pacis Augustae, West Wall, Numa_Aeneas Frieze. (Wikimedia Commons)
What was it like to grow up in Ancient Rome? Youth is a ubiquitous theme in Roman imperial poetry and art since we do not have any surviving accounts or writing from teenagers offering first-hand accounts of their experiences, but only records of how adults wrote about and represented them. Yet, in reading between the lines, especially when examining the images of youth left behind, we can imagine what these representations would have meant to a potentially youthful audience.
In the first century BCE, Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, left behind some evidence of the complex and challenging roles young people played in Roman religion, which was beyond passive observers of ceremonies. By taking a closer examination of a frieze from Augustus’s Altar to Peace, we begin to see how young people were crucial to the emperor’s message of prosperity and hope for Rome’s future. In the early empire, this future was uncertain. There was a real challenge in transitioning from the reign of the senate and upper-class magistrates who were re-elected every year, into a government with an emperor and imperial family at the helm who intended to last for generations. Young people were a key symbol in helping the population come to accept this change as they were direct representations of this promised prosperity; they were the future.
This symbolic power of youth still holds today, a time when we can demand a seat at the table and a role that goes beyond optics.
The altar to peace, or Ara Pacis Augustae, was a religious space set up for the performance of sacrifice to the gods and its decoration. A series of grand friezes carved into each side of its square structure, depicting kinds of activities. Though children of all ages were represented on every side of the building, the West Wall (pictured) is of particular interest as it possibly depicted teenagers. The proximity of these young people to a figure that has been alternately theorized to be Aeneas, the mythic Trojan founder of Rome, or Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king who introduced religion to the city, shows a way adults taught civic responsibility to young people while they were coming of age.
Each of the teenagers depicted had a very specific job. One of them held a basket or box full of sacred accessories or a dish with which offerings of wine were poured. They were called a camillus or camilla, depending on their gender. This was a role for higher-class young people, often offspring of religious officials. Artistic representations of sacrifice often abbreviate the scene which involves the entire community, thus, the layout and chosen figures signify importance. We often find the camillus/a right in the focal point of the image, next to the most powerful agent in the sacrificial scene: the person who did the sacrifice, a priest, or the emperor. Being close to this person and helping him imbued power on the camillus/a in turn.
The other young figure on the Ara Pacis frieze, who is crouched slightly lower with a pig, was known as a victimarius. This was often a lower-class freed or enslaved person, and they did the difficult, dirty, but entirely crucial work of keeping the sacrificed animal controlled as the ceremony proceeded. Roman sacrifice was very particular, and if the sacrificial victim was seen to be resisting, it would be read as a bad omen from the gods. Thus, the skill of the victimarius ensured the religious efficacy of the act of sacrifice. Here, depicting a lower-class figure as an adolescent and in parallel with the camillus represents the negotiations of power between the emperor and the whole community. Augustus’s early policies benefited many lower-class people in Rome, and, represented by this young victimarius, Augustus telegraphed a promise of future benefits for the lower-classes under the new imperial system.
This brief consideration of the scene on the Ara Pacis shows a great deal of symbolic power. Art serves as much more than neutral representations of everyday life. It showed how hierarchies of power could ideally play out and teach these values to any audience of these grand monuments. It’s unclear whether a central place on these grand images could confer agency onto the young people of the past, but this symbolic power of youth still holds today, a time when we can demand a seat at the table and a role that goes beyond optics.
Neha Rahman  is an ancient Roman historian, focusing on the lives of adolescents. Apart from classics, she writes poetry and is passionate about social justice and youth civic engagement. She is from Toronto, Ontario, Canada.