A Very Pagan Christian? The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus c. 359 C.E. …and an apology

      I will start with by issuing my unashamed apologies – this post; the first official post relating to anything historically significant; this the post that will surely set the pattern for which all future posts will follow; yes this monumental post in the history of this blog…is actually a rehashed post from my old Tumblr. But I love it and I love the subject and I want you all to love it too, so for that reason I’m sticking it back up for your eyes to feast upon. It concerns the most wonderful of objects, the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, and I hope it has the same effect on you that it had on me when I first learned about it. Aaaaaand (drumroll please) here it is!


(Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, front, c. 359 CE)

The Man

      Junius Bassus (317-359 C.E.) was a Roman politician who gained the illustrious titles of vir clarissimus (a senatorial title indicating status), Vicarius (the Urban Prefect’s deputy) and Praefectus Urbi (Urban Prefect of Rome) during his career. He can be placed within the highest circles of aristocracy; his father had held the position of Praetorian Prefect (318 – 331) the highest civil office which gave him control of the administration of Italy. He died during his urban prefecture of Rome and was interred in the sarcophagus above, in the old basilica of St. Peter which was rediscovered in the 1600s.

The Material

      The sarcophagus is wonderful to the Late Antique historian (as any Late Antique artefact is…or any artefact for that matter!) not only because it is of such high quality and beautifully detailed but also because it shows the interplay of Christian biblical iconography and traditional pagan imagery.

So – before we really delve into any kind of interpretive analysis – a brief description of what you’re looking at. The front side of the sarcophagus (shown in the image above) shows 10 panels, each depicting a biblical scene.


From l-r: (top) the sacrifice of Isaac; St Peter being arrested; Christ enthroned over Caelus (the roman god of the sky) between Peter and Paul; Christ being arrested and judged by Pontius Pilate.


From l-r: (bottom) the distress of Job; Adam and Eve; Christ’s triumphal entrance in Jerusalem; Daniel in the lion’s den; St Paul being arrested.

The inscription above these images  translates to:

Junius Bassus, a man of Senatorial rank, who lived 42 years and 2 months, went to God newly baptized, while he was Prefect of the City, on the 8th day from the kalends of September, when Eusebius and Hypatius were consuls (25 August 359) [1] 

As I couldn’t get a close up image of the inscription, for those interested the inscription reads verbatim:


The lid and the ends of the sarcophagus have images depicting traditional Roman funerary themes such as a funerary meal, images of Putti (chubby winged infants similar to cherubs) harvesting wheat and grapes and personifications of the seasons. The lid also has an epitaph detailing all the traditional funerary themes of people weeping and the city going into mourning upon hearing of J. B’s death (though the lid is now in a very fragmented condition)


(one end of the sarcophagus showing harvesting Putti)

      The imagery on the sarcophagus can be interpreted in two ways that are both historically significant. The first is to interpret the ‘pagan’ imagery as just that, overtly pagan imagery. From this it could be claimed that the sarcophagus of J. B. represents the merging of these two religious iconographies into a mismatched but still unified iconographic whole – known as syncretism. This needs to be put into context , however, as it doesn’t necessarily mean that J. B. held any form of syncretistic beliefs. Christianity was granted official toleration by Constantine in 314 with the Edict of Milan, but with this toleration (and arguably, most importantly, imperial promotion) does not mean that the entire circle of elites simply renounced their old views and converted. That would honestly have been a far too simplistic…and, lets be fair, very boring, response, at least to the Late Antique historian). Rather this period should be considered as one where the traditional beliefs, championed by the aristocracy as they were so integral to their identity, gradually came to stand on an equal footing with new Christian beliefs that were promoted by the Constantinian family. What the sarcophagus of J. B. may show is how the aristocracy dealt with these two seemingly irreconcilable beliefs – by visually and materially reconciling them. Or, as Jaś Elsner puts it far better than I ever could:

They represent what might be called the elite pagan convert’s educated and antiquarian response to the problem of Christianising Rome. [2]

This would have enabled J. B. to remain loyal to the Roman traditions whilst accepting that he should respond positively and pro-actively to an ever Christianising society.

     But wait, what about that inscription regarding J. B’s. death-bed baptism? And if he was only paying lip-service to Christianity then surely Christ would not be depicted as seated above Caelus (a clear reference to Christ’s cosmic dominion above the pagan gods [3])? This brings me onto the second interpretation regarding the visual presence of these two conflicting ideologies. If we are to accept that J. B. did convert to Christianity at the end of his life (and why would he lie? J. B. died twenty years before the Altar of Victory dispute, Christianity was not yet so securely established amongst the aristocracy – or the empire – to necessitate a physical conversion where belief was lacking) then we should view the Biblical representations as J. B. physically and visually promoting his personal faith. The pagan imagery should instead be recast as secular imagery, tied into notions of Roman traditions and heritage, of which the aristocracy were a strong bastion. This secular imagery was necessarily pagan but not exclusively so. This is also important when we consider the craft involved in making J. B’s sarcophagus. Roman craftsmanship was a long established practice. Craftsmen would have been trained to replicate the classical images as the ideal and these classical images would have been based around traditional pagan stories. Subsequently we get Christ (in the central top panel) depicted curiously akin to Apollo with his youthful, unbearded visage and long curly hair (specifically juxtaposed between Peter and Pauls’ more mature bearded faces) [4]. Therefore J. B. used his sarcophagus to promote his personal faith whilst still conforming to traditional aristocratic notions of romanitas and the accepted norm of secular patronage and promotion.

      J. B’s sarcophagus is not just a wonderful thing to look at. It’s overall signigicance lies in the way it highlights how a populace were able to reconcile the old and new by secularising ‘pagan’ elements of roman traditions so that they were compatible with a growing Christian aristocratic following (though the J. B. sarcophagus should be considered in the early stages of this process). It also shows one of the methods by which Christianity began to offer a viable alternative to aristocrats. By assimilating itself visually and materially into ‘pagan’ or ‘secular’ iconography it presented a vision of Christianity that was not incompatible with the traditions and history the aristocracy viewed themselves as honour bound to protect. Assimilation rather than antagonism enabled Christianity to spread more easily amongst the upper echelons of Roman society, making the spread of Christianity throughout the empire a much quicker and smoother process.

    The sarcophagus is now below the modern basilica in the Museo Storico del Tesoro della Basilica di San Pietro in the Vatican. It seems like only a plaster cast of the sarcophagus is viewable to the public but don’t quote me on this as I’ve ripped that little piece of info straight from Wikipedia. Being the highly qualified and professional Roman-historian-in-the-making that I am, I have never actually made it to Rome yet, though hopefully that should all change soon enough!

Thank you for looking at my first, practically antique by now, post. For those interested I’ve attached the references, bibliography and some further reading below.


Bibliography and Further Reading:

Jaś Elsner, ‘The role of early Christian art’ in Catherine Edwards and Greg Woolf, Rome the Cosmopolis (Oxford, 2006), pp. 71 -99

Felicity Harley, ‘Christianity and the Transformation of Classical Art’ in Phillip Rousseau,A Companion to Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2009), pp. 306 – 326

I also highly recommend the Companion in its entirety, it has many excellent chapters from leading Late Antique scholars such as Conrad Leyser, Kate Cooper, Simon Loseby, Éric Rebillard, Guy Halsall, Jan Drijvers to name but a few.

Elizabeth Malbon, The Iconography of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (Princeton, 1990)

[1] This translation was taken directly from Elsner, J., ‘The role of early Christian art’ in Edwards, C., and Woolf, G., (eds.) Rome the Cosmopolis (Cambridge, 2003), p. 83.

[2] Elsner, ‘Christian Art’, p. 79.

[3] Harley, F., ‘Christianity and the Transformation of Classical Art’ in Rousseau, P., (ed.)A Companion to Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2009), p. 312.

[4] Again Harley discusses Christ’s Greco-Roman portrayal in this instance in her chapter in Rousseau’s A Companion to Late Antiquity, pp. 308-309.


2 thoughts on “A Very Pagan Christian? The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus c. 359 C.E. …and an apology

    • Why thank you! It’s really nice (and reassuring) to see that it doesn’t take an age and a boot-load of shameless self promotion to get someone to see my blog. Ooh I’ve recently been exploring all about social anthropology’s influence on ethnic archaeology…it was for an essay but it still counts if I enjoyed writing it! Anthropology is an area I’d love to know more about.

      Now off I go to to plaster myself all across the twitter-sphere! 🙂

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