Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus

The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (source)

The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is an Early Christian marble piece of art in which Junius Bassus (June 317 – August 359), Praefectus Urbi (city prefect) of Rome in the fourth century A.D., was buried in 359. It was constructed by an unknown artist and contains both early-Christian and pagan images. The Christian images are scenes from both the Old and the New Testament. It was originally put near the tomb of St. Peter and can nowadays be found in the Museo Tresoro (Treasury Museum) of the basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City. [1]

In 1529, the sarcophagus was discovered during reconstructions of St. Peter’s. During the last century, several other parts of the lid were found and reconnected to the artwork. There is much discussion about the meaning of the images on the sides of the sarcophagus, as well as on the question whether it is a representation of the religious problems (see 3 Historical Context) that occurred in Rome in the fourth century.

1. Life of Junius Bassus
1.1 Career
1.2 Funeral
2. Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
2.1 Description of the Artefact
2.2 Iconography
2.2.1 Front Side
2.2.2 Side Panels
2.2.3 Top
3. Historical Context
3.1 Major Historical Events in the Roman Empire in the 4th Century AD
3.2 Historical Context of the City of Rome in the 4th Century AD
4. Message of the Sarcophagus
4.1 Side Panels
4.2 Connection of the Scenes
5. Conclusion

Life of Junius Bassus


Junius Bassus (June 317 – 25 August 359) was a member of the senatorial aristocracy in Rome. His family held high political positions. His father Junius Annius Bassus was praefectus urbi and consul (318 – 331). Junius Bassus himself was a praefectus urbi (25 March – 25 August 359) as well, which was the highest level of administrative function in the city of Rome at that time. He converted to Christianity and was baptized on his deathbed.


Junius Bassus died on 25 August 359, at the age of 42. His funeral was a public event. This was uncommon for members of the elite of Rome, since their families did not wish to let the public interfere with the burial. However, the Senate decided to give Junius Bassus this honour of a public funeral, because he was still in office as praefectus urbi at the time of his death. It meant that all citizens of Rome were able to join the funeral and was seen as a reward of honour being paid to the person that had passed away. The senators wore saga (dark, coarse clothing) – which they only did on rare occasions – instead of their regular togas. [3]

The sarcophagus was placed behind the confessio (typical early-Christian resting-place under an altar for a saint or martyr) of St. Peter. The back of the sarcophagus, which is blank, indicates that this side was presumably adjacent to this confessio.

Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus

Description of the Artefact

The artist of the sarcophagus is unknown. Also, it is unclear whether Junius Bassus himself, his family or someone else commissioned the creation of the art piece. The sarcophagus is entirely made of marble and is approximately 120 x 140 x 120 cm. On the front side, ten scenes derived from the Old and New Testament (see iconography) are carved into the marble. The left and right side also contain scenes (see iconography).

Remarkable is the level of detail of the front side of the sarcophagus. This is typical for Early Christian sarcophagi. Compared to the left and right sides, the little sculptures of the biblical persons on the front almost seem to be separated from the rest of the sarcophagus, while those on the other two sides have less relief.

sarcophagus of Constantina (source) sarcophagus of Stilicho (source)
Both sarcophagi contain a large amount of detail in the relief


Although some parts, more specifically the top, of the sarcophagus are severely destroyed, the ends and the front side are still relatively intact. The new way of art Christians used displayed biblical-historical scenes rather than symbolic figures [4]. More specifically, the front side depicts ten biblical scenes – six originating from the New Testament and four from the Old Testament.

Early-Christian artworks were a combination of Christian and classical elements [5]. Bassus’ sarcophagus also had these two styles combined. To take an example, the upper middle scene on the front side of the piece of art, represent Jesus Christ and the apostles Peter and Paul. On the one hand, Jesus is depicted in a different way than is used in later centuries. Instead of the powerful, bearded person or the suffering man, Jesus is depicted youthful, based on images of Jupiter and Zeus [6]. On the other hand, Peter and Paul are represented the same way other artists do.[7]

Front Side

The following ten scenes are depicted on the front side (from the left to right):

  • 1. The Sacrifice of Isaac [8]: The scene originates from the Old Testament (Genesis 22) and is a rather popular motive in Christian art [9]. Abraham holds the head of his son Isaac and grasps for the knife which is passed by a hand emerging from a cloud.
  • 2. The Arrest of Peter: The scene originates from the New Testament (Genesis 12). The apostle Peter is being arrested by two soldiers.[10]
  • 3. The Enthroned Christ with Peter and Paul (Traditio Legis): Traditio Legis is an iconographic type picturing Christ how he hands over a scroll to either Peter or Paul[11]. It is the central scene of the front side of the sarcophagus and shows from the New Testament (Acts 2)[12]. Christ's foot is placed on a head with rampant hair and beard within a semicircle, which symbolizes sky or heaven in classical art[13]. One proposed interpretation is that Christ is beyond heaven and therefore, beyond the real world.[14]
  • 4. and 5. The Trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilatus: It is a double scene from the New Testament (Genesis 23). Pontius Pilatus in the last niche is about to wash his hands in order to show that he is not responsible for the death of Christ. In this scene Christ is sent to death. The sarcophagus is built for Junius Bassus, an important person who died and converted to Christianity just before his death. This might point out that Bassus and Christ will encounter each other after his death. [15]
  • 6. Job at the Dunghill: It originates from the Old Testament (Job 2). Job lost all his possessions but kept his faith. Due to his endurance in believing in God, he was rewarded and retained his belongings.[16]
  • 7. Adam and Eve: The scene originates from the Old Testament (Genesis 2). Adam and Eve are depicted after the Fall of Man, the origin of human sins which is said to be the reason for Christ’s sacrifice[17]. Behind a lamb and a sheaf of wheat are shown, which were offered to be sacrificed for God by Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve.[18,19]
  • 8. Christ’s Entry to Jerusalem on a Donkey[20]: This scene originates from the New Testament (John 12). The donkey is an animal of peace opposed to a horse, which is referred to as the animal of war. Christ pictured riding a donkey rather than a horse might refer to his peaceful intentions when entering the holy city of Jerusalem.[21]
  • 9. Daniel in the Lion’s Den: It is a scene of from the Old Testament (Daniel 6). The heads in this relief have been restored[22]. After defying the command of Darius not to pray to any god, Daniel was arrested and supposed to be thrown into a lion’s den. Though, he was undamaged and the people responsible the danger opposed to Daniel were thrown into the lion’s den.[23]
  • 10. The Arrest or Leading to the Execution of the Apostle Paul: It originates from the New Testament (Acts: Chapter 21).[24]

Side Panels


The two end panels depict four scenes, two on each end, representing the four seasons[25]. They show typical occupations of the seasons, namely, harvesting grapes, wheat and olives executed by Cupids[26,27]. Typically, the image of seasons is used as a symbol for resurrection[28]. (See paragraph “4.1 Side panels” for the interpretation)


Drawing of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus – approximately drawn up in 1897 (source)

The sarcophagus was originally found incomplete. The drawing of the sarcophagus above shows this. Three pieces were found in 1942 and matched the sarcophagus. They were placed on the lid of it and are an Aqua Viva (short description of one’s life and career, written as a poem), a part of a scene on the right of the lid, and a part of what is presumed to be a face of a Luna (moon representation)[29]. The Aqua Viva contains a description of Bassus’ funeral:

“While governing the people of his city and the house of the senate, he died, to the everlasting tears of the city. Nor were his own servants allowed to carry his bier, but it was the burden of the people, vying . Everyone wept, married women, children and old men. Then too the reverent senate wept, discarding their togas. Then too the highest buildings of Rome seemed to weep, then too the very houses along the route made lament. Yield, high honours of the living; it is a yet higher distinction that death brings him.” [30]

Above the scenes of the biblical stories, an inscription states the following:

“Junius Bassus, vir clarissimus [of senatorial rank], who lived 42 years, 2 months, in his own prefecture of the city, newly baptized, went to God, the 8th day from the Kalends of September, Eusebisu and Hypatius, consuls [August 25, 359].”[31]

Historical Context

Major Historical Events in the Roman Empire in the 4th Century AD

The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus dates from the fourth century A.D. To understand the sarcophagus better, we should place it in its historical context. At the beginning of the fourth century, nothing pointed out that this century would change Rome forever. Under the reign of emperor Diocletian (284 – 305) a lot of martyring on Christians took place. The Christian historian and bishop of Caesarea Eusebius (AD 260/265 – 339/340) also mentions this:

"It was the nineteenth year of Diocletian's reign [A.D. 303] and the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, and the festival of the Saviour's Passion was approaching, when an imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire, and giving notice that those in places of honour would lose their places, and domestic staff, if they continued to profess Christianity, would be deprived of their liberty."[32]

In 313, Licinius, who became Augustus when Severus II died, and Constantine met each other in Milan. Together they proclaimed the Edict of Milan. It was this Edict that made an end to the persecutions on Christians and secured freedom of religion in the Roman Empire.[33]

In February 380 emperors Theodosius I, Gratian and Valentinian II declared by the edict of Cunctos populos (the Edict of all peoples) that everyone should become and trinitarian Christian[34]. This, in effect, made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

3.2 Historical Context of the City of Rome in the 4th Century AD

Junius Bassus was born in 317 AD and died in 359 AD. So he lived in the period between the Edict of Milan and the Edict of Cunctos Populos. During this period the city of Rome was Christianized but Christianization went slowly. Especially the senatorial aristocracy in the city of Rome, to which Bassus belonged, was conservative and remained true to the traditional cults for a very long time. In those days, the aristocracy paid much value to status. This included a certain lifestyle and included paganism as religion. Conversion to Christianity was at first seen as a possible threat to their status, since it was not certain whether a Christian aristocrat would have the same status as a pagan aristocrat.[35]

An example where it is clear that the Roman aristocracy remained dedicated to paganism is the story of the Altar of Victory. Originally placed in the Forum Romanum, after a victory of Augustus in 31 BC, it played an important role in the rituals of the work of the senators[36]. For example, they swore loyalty to the new emperors at the altar and statue and also performed a ritual at it at the start of a session of the Senate[37]. The statue was removed and put back for several times. First, Constantius II removed it in 357. It is unclear who put it back afterwards, but Gratian nevertheless removed it again in 382[38]. The Roman Senate unsuccessfully send a commission under the lead of senator (and later praefectus urbi) Symmachus to emperor Gratian and his successor Valentinian II with a request to place it back[39]. The latter emperor refused to reinstall the altar among others under pressure of archbishop of Milan, Ambrose.[40]

Augustine elaborates in his Confessions on a person being in a similar situation to Junius Bassus. Gaius Marius Victorinus, a Roman academic living in the 4th century AD, also wanted to convert to Christianity around 355[41]. Augustine wrote in his Confessions the following about him:

"Eventually the time came for making his [i.e. Victorinus’] profession of faith. At Rome, those who are about to enter into Your grace [i.e. became Christian, Augustine is talking to God] usually make their profession in a set form of words which they learn by heart and recite from a raised platform in full view of the faithful, but Simplicianus said that the priests offered to allow Victorinus to make his profession in private, as they often did for people who seemed likely to find the ceremony embarrassing."[42]

With this quote, Augustine shows the difficulty for Christians to convert. Baptism was more radical in those days, since newly converted Christians had to plunge three times into ice-cold water, naked and in public, to complete their conversion[43]. As Junius Bassus found himself in the aristocracy of the city of Rome, a class being highly suspicious to Christianity, it was clear that he could not convert publicly. Victorinus originally faced the same problem. Both men, as public figures, had to think about their social status in Rome. It is known that Bassus converted to Christianity on his deathbed. Probably, though this is only a speculation, the religious leaders presented the same arrangement of Victorinus to Junius Bassus. Therefore, he was able to convert in private on his deathbed. This being so and the fact that his sarcophagus contains Christian elements points to concluding that although he was Christian, it was not easy for him to publicly be known as such.

At the end of the fourth century, when Junius Bassus was already dead, something had changed:

"In truth, the line between Christian and pagan was long wavering and uncertain. We find adherents of the opposing creeds side by side, even in the same family at the end of the fourth century. Mixed marriages (imparia matrimonia) were evidently not uncommon."[44]

Under the reign of Theodosius I, Christianity became the dominant religion in the city and empire of Rome, mostly because of the actions against ancient pagan cults in Rome. The pagan cults survived until Justinian in the sixth century and beyond, but Rome was no longer the Roman Empire that it was at the time of Diocletian. The urban landscape was Christianised, the church dramatically increased in numbers, but especially in status. The Roman Empire was at the end the fourth century a Christian Empire.[45]

Message of the Sarcophagus

Side Panels

The symbols used on the end panels of the sarcophagus can be considered pagan as these symbols were also used in pagan sarcophagi[46], which in this context does not necessarily imply a connection to pagan cults but a connection to conventionalism. The integration of harvesting, “pagan” and Christian scenes emphasize both Christianity and “Romanness” and show an important characteristic of the fourth century. Even those who converted to Christianity continued to follow pagan traditions, because there were no Christian traditions yet. There were not Chrsitian traditions yet, because it was a new religion and traditions of a religion develop over time and do not evolove at the same time as the idea of a new religion does. One example of such a tradition and especially apparent was this in the funerary art beyond the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus[47]. A complete Christian way of funerals had not been developed and therefore, the Pagan traditions were still used. In Christianity the harvesting scenes might relate to the bread and wine of the Eucharist[48]. Further, harvesting scenes are a symbol of resurrection, connecting the conventional to the Christian scenes.

The cupids in the harvesting scenes originate from the Erotes from the Greek mythology[49]. The Erotes became a motif of Hellenistic and Roman art. The usage of cupids might emphasize the “Romanness” of the sarcophagus and the weak boarder between conventional and Christian art motifs and traditions in the fourth century.

Connection of the Scenes

The sarcophagus depicts ten scenes of the New and Old Testament. Several researchers argue that the Old Testament is “foreshadowing the passion of Christ” and by no means a coincidence[50]. Further, the scenes themselves are possibly connected as well. Several ways of connecting them are proposed concentrating either on the compositional or iconographical intertwines[51]. The most common pattern discussed is the following. Christ is depicted in the centre (both in the upper and lower panel), as he is the essential figure of Christianity and this sarcophagus, connecting the two panels and forming the Rho of the Chi-Rho[52]. Both scenes show Christ in triumph.[53]


The other inter-columns are always connected to the opposing inter-column in a “crossing” manner, resulting in the following connections: Scenes 1 and 9 show both a sacrifice.


Scenes 2 and 10 are obviously connected since they both depict the Apostles Peter and Paul. The two scenes show the arrests of those two important biblical figures for being Christ’s proponent. Furthermore, both Apostles are between two soldiers looking at the Apostle.[54]


Scenes 4 and 6 show two figures’ suffering and enduring their faith. Both Job and Jesus reached a very low point in their lives (Jesus being arrested and Job having lost all his possessions) and only their faith in God helped them to withstand and overcome it. [55]


Scenes 5 and 7 are connected in an artistic way depicting a mysterious background figure[56]. In the scene of Pilatus, there is a man in the background. He wears a halo and has facial similarities to Christ as depicted in other scenes. Does that mean that the man is another picture of Christ? We do not know. In the scene showing Adam and Eve there are a lamb and wheat behind them. Both the man and the lamb and wheat are not necessary for conveying the biblical stories. Thus, these mysterious backgrounds connect these scenes.[57]


Connecting the scenes in this way results in a Chi-Rho, which was used frequently as a Christian symbol in the time of Junius Bassus[58]. As recorded by Lactantius, Constantine had a vision of Christ telling him to use a certain symbol, which was similar to the Chi-Rho, in a battle. He had it drawn on the soldier’s shields and won the battle; the victory was considered as the result of divine protection.[59]



The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus represents – to a certain extent – the religious and political problems and processes of the city of Rome in the 4th century. On the one hand, the sarcophagus contains both symbols of pagan and Christianity, hinting to the conclusion that Bassus valued both religions or to the conclusion that Christianity adopted some aspects of paganism in order to popularise more and more in Rome.

On the other hand, Junius Bassus solves a personal problem with his sarcophagus. Using Christian elements, and the fact that he was baptized soon before his death, points to the importance of Christianity for Bassus as a person. History tells us that it was not commonly accepted to become a Christian as a public figure. Through the creation of this piece of art, and Bassus being baptised on his deathbed, this problem for Junius Bassus was solved.

It is questionable whether people noticed that Bassus solved this problem. This is because of the fact that although the sarcophagus contains all these Christian elements, the Senate nevertheless rewarded Bassus with a public funeral. So either the sarcophagus was not ready at the time of the funeral and the Senate did not mind rewarding Bassus with this honour or nobody recognised the images as being Christian. It is unlikely that the honour of a public funeral would be rewarded to a Christian, since the Senate was still very much pagan at the time of the death of Junius Bassus.

Because nothing is known about the artist – or the precise date of the creation of the piece of art – and few details are known about the procedure of the funeral, nothing can be concluded with regard to this question.

Uncertainty arises when this piece of art is researched in a larger context. The location where it was placed originally, next to the resting-place of St. Peter, can lead to the suggestion that Bassus was important to the Catholic Church in that time. It can be suggested that this location also played a role in the Christianisation of Rome. This suggestion would entail that Junius Bassus, as a member of the aristocracy of the city of Rome, would be a mean to display the Christianisation of even this class in the city. However, since not many primary sources are available to research, not much can be concluded with regard to the influence of this artefact to the Christianisation of Rome in the longer run.


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  1. Malbon, 1990, ix.
  2. Matthews, 2009, p133-134.
  3. Cameron, 2002, p290-292.
  4. De Waal, 1990, p2.
  5. Faber (website).
  6. Green, 196-197; and Faber (website).
  7. Faber (website).
  8. De Waal, 1990.
  9. Malbon, 1990, p14.
  10. Malbon, 1990, p47.
  11. Stracke.
  12. Wikipedia, 2013, "Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus” (website), De Waal, 1990.
  13. De Waal, 1990.
  14. Sapikowski, 2007.
  15. Sapikowski, 2007.
  16. Sapikowski, 2007.
  17. Wikipedia, 2013, “Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus” (website).
  18. Sapikowski, 2007, p11.
  19. Razza, 2010.
  20. Malbon, 1990, p53.
  21. Wikipedia, 2013, “Palm Sunday” (website).
  22. De Waal, 1900.
  23. Wikipedia, 2013, “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” (website).
  24. Phillips (website).
  25. Malbon, 1990 p91.
  26. Malbon, 1990, p91, p96.
  27. Faber (website).
  28. Malbon, 1990, p92.
  29. Malbon, p104-105.
  30. Cameron, p290.
  31. Malbon, p3.
  32. Eusebius, History of the Church VIII.2.
  33. Emperor Licinius (website).
  34. Hilson, 1995, p164.
  35. Salzman, p20.
  36. Lançon, Rome in Late Antiquity, p93.
  37. Ibidem.
  38. Ibidem.
  39. White, Emergence of Christianity, p89-92.
  40. Ibidem, p92-93.
  41. Wikipedia, 2014, “Gaius Marcus Victorinus”.
  42. Curran, 2000, p260; and Augustinus, Confessiones 8.2.
  43. Radcliffe, Why Go to Church?, p64.
  44. Curran, 2000, p261.
  45. Gwynn, 2011, p135-143.
  46. Smarthistory,
  47. Malbon, 1990, p140f.
  48. Smarthistory
  49. Wikipedia, 2013, “Erotes”.
  50. Malbon, 1990, p32.
  51. Malbon, 1990, p36, p127-129.
  52. Malbon, 1990, p68.; Sapikowski, 2007, p5.
  53. Sapikowski, 2007, p5.
  54. Sapikowski, 2007, p7.
  55. Sapikowski, 2007, p8-9.
  56. Sapikowski, 2007, p9., Malbon, 1990, p35ff.
  57. Sapikowski, 2007, p10.
  58. Sapikowski, 2007, p2.
  59. Wikipedia, 2013, “Chi Rho“ (website).