Transference of Iconography
in Fourth Century Roman Art
Was Jesus a pagan god? The answer depends on how one defines the word “pagan.” Merriam-Webster
dictionary traces the word to the Latin pangere, or country dweller. It also lists two distinct definitions.
One is “a follower of a polytheistic religions” and the second is “someone who delights in sensual
pleasures and material goods: an irreligious or hedonistic person.” Whether or not followers of Christ
are particularly sensual or hedonistic will certainly vary from individual to individual but Christians, by
definition, are neither polytheistic nor irreligious. Yet among all of today’s major religions Christianity
is the only one that still reveres a god-man in the Greco-Roman tradition. For the purposes of this paper
the term “pagan” will be used to describe Greco-Roman religious practices with the exclusion of
Judaism and Christianity. Looking at the artworks commissioned for Roman Christians and pagans
during the early 4th century one can find clues as to the beliefs of religious practitioners at the critical
moment when Christianity went from being an outlaw cult to the official state religion.
Featured prominently on the cover of Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy’s controversial 1999 book The
Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? is a ring-seal amulet once housed in a museum
in Berlin (Figure 1). Unfortunately this interesting artifact was lost during World War II. The image on
the amulet is that of a crucified figure and its inscription clearly reads Orpheus Bacchus. The authors
“came across a small picture [of the ring-seal] tucked away in the appendices of an old academic
book.” The ring-seal amulet is supposed to be the smoking gun that proves their point that Jesus,
Dionysus, Hercules, Mithraism, Osiris and others are all basically the same god-man archetype in the
Jungian tradition. Freke and Gandy’s scholarship has been rightfully called into question. This sort of
thinking has led many to speculate that Constantine simply united the various mystery cults under one
tidy orthodoxy, Christianity. One can imagine the Emperor’s efficient Roman mind believing this
would also be a fair compromise to Rome’s large Jewish population. Of course it is difficult, if not
impossible, to get at Constantine’s true motivations for his various religious decrees. The Jesus
Mysteries falls flat for many reasons including making such a big deal about the ring-seal featured on
its cover. But their dubious smoking gun is unnecessary. Competent scholarship has shown that no wild
speculation about questionable artifacts is needed to understand the Christian god in the same light as
other Roman gods from the same time period.
Was there an abrupt change in the artistic styles between pagan and Christian Rome? There are scholars
who fall on both sides of this question. According to H. P. L’Orange from Princeton University Press’
Art forms and Civic Life in the Late Roman Empire, “[a] completely new aesthetic was developed
during the third century: Beauty does not reside in the proportions of the body, but in the soul which
penetrates and illuminates it.” Thirty years later in 1995 Jas Elsner writes in Cambridge University
Press’ Art and the Roman Viewer that “[he accepts] that almost everything in Christian art (indeed, in
Christian culture) is the direct descendant of elements, attitudes and forms present for centuries in
Classical civilization.” It is difficult for an objective viewer to distinguish any sharp division of artistic
styles in Rome during the early Christian era. What is clear is a general degradation of artistic quality
in the Western Roman Empire from its heyday in the 1st century until the sack of Rome in 410 of the
Common Era. This can be seen as part of a larger cultural decline in several areas. Looking at two
examples of pagan frescos from the first and fourth centuries one can see a distinct evolution in style
(Figure 2). The first century painting, on the left, “record[s] details of musculature, pose and expressive
gesture as well as information on lighting and spatial relationships. But the fresco on the right from
“the fourth century [shows] little more than a schematic frontal view of a figure consisting of little
more than an outline filled with patches of color.” One would expect stylistic changes to be apparent in
any artistic tradition that spans several centuries. But unlike at times of other religious ruptures, like
that of the advent of Buddhism or Islam, there is no dramatic change in the art production of the Roman
Empire in the early 4th century. To put it simply, early Christian art looks like pagan art. Later
developments would occur without the complication of competing religions.
The 2nd , 3rd and 4th centuries also saw the decline of fiction as a literary art and the rise of rhetoric.
Much of these rhetorical works involved the descriptions of paintings and sculptures. “This was
because the reading and writing of descriptions of such works became a principal instrument of
education.” But as the rhetoric became more elaborate the artworks, themselves, became more
stylistically simplistic. The period preceding the rise of the Emperor Diocletian in 284 CE is known as
the Crisis of the Third Century. Fifty years of economic collapse, plague, civil war and invasion had led
to a sort of crisis of faith in the Empire and its gods. “In religion a symbiosis of the most divergent
beliefs was established simultaneously with the penetration and transformation of the traditional Greco-
Roman Olympus by an invasion of influences from the provinces, especially by Eastern religions and
philosophies.” When Diocletian entered the scene there was a period of relative peace. This would be
followed in the next few decades by the rise of Constantine, the most important Roman Emperor in the
eventual triumph of Christianity over paganism.
Diocletian was known to be a pious man. Like Constantine he united the Empire under worship of one
father god and his half-human son. In this case it was Jupiter and Hercules. But unlike Constantine,
Diocletian ferociously persecuted those that didn’t care to practice his preferred brand of religion. The
Manichee edict from 297 outlawed Manichaeism, a religion similar to Christianity that was founded by
a Persian prophet Manytos. This was soon followed by the worst persecution of Christians by the
Roman authorities, the Diocletian Persecution of 303. It is important to remember that the Edict of
Milan was in 313 and the Council of Nicea was in 325. So within twenty years Christianity went from
being an outlaw cult to a recognized state religion. Constantine’s religious convictions have been
speculated upon by historians and theologians to a point of confusion. But what is certain is that there
is no obvious Christian imagery on his famous triumphal arch (Figure 3), despite the legend of the
Emperor winning the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after a vision, and supposed blessing, from the
Christian god. The fact that Diocletian declared the worship of Jupiter, the father, and Hercules, the
god-man son, the official state religion within a few decades of the legitimacy of Christianity seems
more than consequential. It is amazing that this seemingly crucial fact is routinely ignored by those
trying to understand the origins of orthodox Christianity.
“In their relentless campaign to eradicate Paganism, Christians have portrayed its so-called polytheism
as primitive idolatry.” In actuality pagan religions could be very sophisticated. One can only imagine
that, like today, any particular religion might have very philosophically minded adherents and also
more emotionally driven ones. When the 1st century stoic Lucretius wrote of the Olympians he didn’t
seem to be referring to a god-man in the tradition sense but rather an abstract concepts more like the
Tao or Allah, or how many contemporary Christians understand the concept of God. In the 20th century
tradition of logical positivism and analytical philosophy any talk of metaphysics will ultimately come
down to the definition of words. What is a god? Yet even without a concrete definition, Hercules is
without question a god, as is Christ. The former has fallen out of favor during the last couple of
millenniums while the latter can now count his followers in the hundreds of millions.
Besides Greco-Roman origins Christianity is obviously also closely linked to Judaism. The number of
Jews living in the Roman Empire at any given time is hard to determine precisely, but according to the
Encyclopedia Judaica “It has been estimated that there were 50,000 Jews in Italy during the first
century of the empire, of whom over half were concentrated in or around Rome.” If the city had a
population of between 600,000 and 1,000,000 that would put the percentage of Jews around 2.5 and 4.1
percent. This is almost twice that of America today. The dearth of early Christian images has been
traced back to the Jewish law and the second commandment. Jewish shops and residences of the early
Christian era in Rome centered around the Trastevere district. After the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE the
Jewish religion lost its primary temple complex and the tradition of animal sacrifice came to an end. In
the arch of Titus (Figure 4) one can see the taking of the spoils of Jerusalem. These spoils include a
Menorah, the Table of Shewbread and the Silver Trumpets used to call the faithful to Rosh Hashanah.
No god-man images would have been found in the temple in Jerusalem, as they would have in most
other temples throughout the Roman World. Jews of the early 4th century would have rejected imagery
in the same way many do today.
A gold-glass medallion from the time (Figure 5) shows typical Jewish ornamentation. This medallion,
now at the British Museum, lacks the figurative elements found in most art from the classical world.
Gold glass, or fondi d-oro consist of “pictures cut out of gold foil and sealed between two pieces of
glass.” These, along with sarcophagi and frescos represent practically all known examples of early
Christian art. “The ever-increasing popularity of inhumation instead of incineration after the beginning
of the second century [CE] led to the widespread use of marble sarcophagi adorned with rich and
varied relief decoration.” These sarcophagi would have been commissioned by both Christian and
pagan worshipers. Without a good knowledge of the individual mythologies represented, it would be
difficult to distinguish between the various gods shown in the sarcophagi reliefs.
Because it was illegal to bury the dead within the city walls, large catacombs were established outside
to house the deceased who were able to afford it. Though the majority of the tombs within the
catacombs are Christian, this is actually due to the fact that they are from the from the 4th and 5th
centuries after that religion became the dominant religion of the empire. The sarcophagi would have
been commissioned and constructed by fossors, the catacomb diggers who also worked as artisans. The
client would have had a number of pattern books from which to chose his or her iconography. In some
cases generic designs were created in which the central portrait would be left incomplete and later,
upon purchase, be fashioned into the likeness of the deceased. In one sarcophagus belonging to a
Roman General from the early Christian period, (Figure 6) one can see the deceased represented as a
soldier, a devout religious man, and as pater familias with his wife. By the 2nd century the imagery on
the Roman sarcophagi had come to chiefly represent the best virtues of the dead person they signified.
One can imagine that at the time of death the Roman citizen would have been concerned with the
deeper meanings and mysteries of life that religions address. So it is not surprising that besides
biographical scenes we also find much mythological subject matter portrayed throughout the
catacombs. The General on the sarcophagus is portrayed sacrificing a bull in a religious ceremony.
Another example from 250 CE (Figure 7) shows portrait carvings of a husband and wife above a scene
of Achilles carrying the dead Penthesilea as described in the Iliad. This depiction is believed to
associate the couple with the noble god-man. Religious and mythological scenes on sarcophagi from
this time commonly show the “punishment of vice.” Virtue was reflected in the iconography and
associated with the deceased. “There was a new focus on the relationship between morality and the
afterlife in the middle and late Empire.” Contemporary Christians might assume that pagan religions
were somehow immoral. A careful look at the religious art created by pagans in the early Christian era
reveals just the opposite. This fundamental misunderstanding can be traced to the association of any
particular religion with a more universal morality. The pagans recognized bravery, duty, fidelity and
piety as fundamental virtues just as most cultures do today. There is nothing unique in any religious
tradition that might give it a special claim to virtue. It is evident that many, if not all, mythological
systems have a moral component. These tales of gods and goddess also have the nature of just-so
stories. How similar any of these legends are to actual, historical events is, for the most part,
Presupposing postmodernist ideas of relativism and multiculturalism, there is no need to accept the
notion that the legends surrounding Christ are any more or less true than those of his contemporary
god-men. The early Christian leaders were well aware of similarities between their god and that of their
neighbors. The parallels were explained away by a theological idea known as diabolical mimicry. “The
Church father Tertullian [wrote] of the Devil’s diabolical mimicry in creating the Mysteries of
Mythras.” In one particular sarcophagus relief, now at the Walter’s Art Gallery in Baltimore, a religious
scene is portrayed (Figure 8). Various legends of Dionysus are shown in its iconography. One figure in
the top right motif is carrying what appears to be a crucifix (Figure 9). According to Freke and Gandy
this depicts “[a]n old man bringing the holy child Dionysus a large cross as an omen of his ultimate
fate.” This is the sort of questionable scholarship that fills The Jesus Mysteries. What exactly the figure
with the supposed crucifix represents on the Baltimore sarcophagi remains a mystery. Perhaps this is
just a Christian friend of the deceased. The work is dated from the second or third century and is well
preserved. The carvings of the animals and figures are expertly crafted. This shows that, despite a
gradual decline in quality of art objects in the early Christian era, there were still fine stone carvings
One sarcophagus dated to 270 CE depicts Jesus in the guise of Hermes the Good Shepard (Figure 10).
There is a bearded philosopher-type reading on the center left and an orans figure on the center right.
The handling of the figures with their togas and contrapposto looks extremely similar to pagan
sarcophagi from the same period. This work can be compared to a dramatically different image of
Christ from the end of the 4th century (Figure 11). A century later Jesus is shown bearded like the
philosopher in the 270 sarcophagus. This could represent a dramatic change in theology or simply show
a change in fashion. A large combination of factors must have contributed to the evolution of Christ’s
iconography. This would get both more complicated and more structured as Christian orthodoxy
continued to solidify over the centuries. Similar changes must have taken place in the religions of other
god-men from the Greco-Roman world as their dogmas were tinkered with and refined. Christianity
was only one of a number of religions that benefited from the Roman Empire’s efficient bureaucracy
and no one denies the subtlety of Greek philosophy.
One sarcophagus relief discovered below Saint Peter’s and dated to the 400 CE shows Christ as a youth
handing the scroll of the law to Saint Peter (Figure 12). Saint Paul stands on Christ’s right side. Given
the location and quality of this sarcophagus one would think it belonged to a powerful Christian
devotee. Also it would have been created in Rome, the new center of the Christian world, about
seventy-five years after the Council of Nicea. So one can see the influence of what will eventually
become a solid orthodoxy. The iconography shows Pilate being watched by a youthful Christ as the
Roman official washes his hands. The sacrifice of Isaac is also represented on the far left of the
sarcophagus. The imagery comes mostly from the New Testament or Hebrew Bible. In the center of the
sarcophagus Christ “feet are resting on a veil that Caelus spreads above himself.” Caelus is the Roman
sky god often associated with Uranus. Why he is depicted in a Christian sarcophagus is a mystery.
Besides Christ as a youth other early Christian imagery included Moses striking the rock to produce
water, the miracle of the loaves, the healing of the paraplegic, the adoration of the Magi, curing the
blind man, healing the woman with issues of blood, the marriage feast of Cana, the baptism of Jesus,
Noah, the sacrifice of Isaac and, Susanna and the elders. It is possible that the pious Susanna was seen
as a model of the dutiful roman matron.
The crucifix, Christ’s means of execution, shows up in another 4th century sarcophagi (Figure 13).
Christ is still represented as a beardless youth. Here the iconography is overwhelmingly Christian
showing the Crown of Thorns and Last Supper along with one scene of Christ carrying the cross. John
Onians speculates in Yale University Press’ Classical Art and the Culture of Greece and Rome that
Constantine cynically adopted the cross as a symbol of his power because of its similarity to the Roman
military standard. As stated above, Constantine’s religious leanings are widely contested. There are
several interesting things about this particular sarcophagus. Roman soldiers are shown persecuting
Christ. One has to wonder how this kind of iconography would have gone over with the authorities at
the time. There are also two small figures mourning below the center crucifix. Perhaps they represent
the deceased. There are also two birds on the crucifix. Freke and Gandy see the crucifix as an
archetypical symbol. They believe it is associated with other god-men besides Jesus. In The Jesus
Mysteries they reproduce an image of “Dionysus [being] lifted up on a tree during the spring festival of
the Mysteries” (Figure 14). The figure of the god is remarkably Christ-like. It is reminiscent of many
later paintings including Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter, but of course Dionysus is not upside
down. This sarcophagus is currently in the Princeton University Art Museum.
Besides sarcophagi, other early Christian funerary art included two-dimensional art. One of the earliest
examples of this is the famous Alexamenos Graffito. It shows a donkey headed figure being crucified
and reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.” The drawing has appeared in many history books, probably
because of its easy accessibility and its humorous nature. Freke and Gandy understand it as
representing a sort of Gnostic “lower ‘animal’ nature, which [is] put to death in the process of initiation
so that [the donkey-headed figure] may be spiritually resurrected.” Authors like Freke and Gandy,
building on the work of Elaine Pagles, believe that early Christian Gnostics represent an “authentic”
view of the religion. Furthermore the Gnostics were systematically eliminated by what eventually
became the orthodox, or state, religion. Freke and Gandy quote the early Church Father Clement as
saying “Mark did not preach only the familiar gospel in the New Testament, but three different gospels
suitable for different levels of initiation.” This is meant to draw a similarity with mystery cults like that
of other god-men. The authors go further to use the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark as an example of
one of these other versions of the gospel that early Christian Gnostics would have had gradually
revealed to them. With so many authentic Gnostic works from legitimate Church archives and the Nag
Hammadi library, one wonders why Freke and Gandy would reference a dubious source like the Secret
Gospel of Mark.
Early Christian frescos from the Roman catacombs depict various scenes from the New Testament and
Hebrew Bible. One example (Figure 15) shows Noah in an ark that looks like a box. The goddess
Danae and her son Perseus are often represented floating in a box, but this correlation is dubious. Noah
in the undersized ark is probably just an efficient way to depict the figure. Few would deny that the
Noah legend came into Christianity through Judaism. It is interesting that it was at this time that Jesus
was often shown using a “magic wand.” In one fresco (Figure 16) Christ is shown using his wand to
perform the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Here Jesus is wearing a toga and is beardless with short
hair. There are also numerous depictions of Hercules in the Via Latina Catacomb. The god is usually
depicted nude and carrying a club. Though images of Hercules have few outward signs that would
confuse him with Christ, worshipers of both gods shared similar tombs. One fresco (Figure 17) of
Hercules shows the god restoring Alcestis to Admetus. The hellhound Cerebrus is also featured
prominently. This fresco is dated to about the time of the Council of Nicea.
Like Christ raising Lazarus, Hercules is shown leading Alcestis back from the dead. The Hercules
iconographic program “form[s] a parallel to the biblical scenes in the other rooms [of the catacomb]
which impart a Christian message of salvation.” It is clear from this illustration that the messages a
devotee of Hercules might have gleamed from his or her god’s legends would have provided him or her
with comfort in much the same way as legends of Christ provided comfort for his followers. It is
unimaginable that, at the time of death, the 4th century pagan reacted dramatically differently than the
average 4th century Christian. Hercules must certainly have provided the same sorts of emotional
comfort as Jesus to his followers. The choice of the resurrection of Alcestis as subject matter for a tomb
painting is not surprising. Perhaps this is an appeal to the god for aid in the afterlife. In the legend,
Alcestis chose to die for her husband Admetus and is brought back from the land of the dead by the
Another image of Hercules from the Via Latina Catacomb dated to the 4th century shows the god in a
similar fashion to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic character of Adam. If not for the figure’s club, a classic
symbol of Hercules, the nude male standing beside a snake in an apple tree would be reminiscent of
later Christian iconography. Though at the time, one imagines, the different stories of Adam and
Hercules would have been commonly known. Here Hercules is pictured clean-shaven. The Hercules
frescos in the Via Latina show the god’s feats and emphasize his conquering death. It is certainly
reasonable to expect that the 4th century Roman followers of Hercules practiced their religion in a
fashion similar to that of the Christians of the same period. There would have been social norms and
standard religious practices. Looking at the religious symbolism from the early Christian era it appears
that animal sacrifice was falling out of fashion. The numerous representations of the sacrifice of Isaac
certainly imply some sort of continuation of the theme of sacrifice. Whatever its origins, sacrifice, with
Jesus as the lamb, has historically been a fundamental part of Christianity.
In The Jesus Mysteries Freke and Gandy associate all sorts of god-men with Christ as he is understood
today. In the miracle of the fishes it is oddly noted in the Bible that the number of fish caught was 153.
The New International translation of The Gospel of John chapter 21, verse 11 reads, “Simon Peter
climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net
was not torn.” Freke and Gandy associate this number with Pythagoras, who also performed a miracle
of the fishes. Pythagoras is also associated with the number 153. According to the authors this is related
to sacred geometry. It is known as the vesica piscis and is composed of the ratio 153:265. This
somehow involves the convergence of two circles that Freke and Gandy claim form the Jesus fish and
the mandorla. “It is…the nearest whole number approximation of the square root of three and the
controlling ratio of the equilateral triangle.” They claim that Archimedes called the formula the
“measure of the fish.” There are certainly legends of Pythagoras having supernatural powers and he is
reported to have performed a miracle of the fishes. But a consistent underlying message in the
teachings of Pythagoras seems to be vegetarianism. In his miracle of the fishes he makes a deal with
the fisherman that if he can name the number of fish they caught then the fishermen should let them go
free. There is no known specific number. Freke and Gandy say that this number might be 153. It is odd
that the New Testament would be so specific about the number of fish in the miracle of the fishes and
that this number might be seen as being related to the Jesus fish and the mandorla.
The thought of Christ being a philosopher is more intriguing than that of him being a pagan god. The
correlation between Christ and other god-men from the same period is obvious upon close inspection.
If the actual man Yeshua, or Jesus, existed, his character could not be farther from the multitudes of
interpretations that have been devised for him over the centuries. People seem to pick a persona for
Christ that fits their own particular personality. One must imagine that this was the same for the
followers of Hercules. By the 4th century CE Hercules had been worshiped for centuries if not
millennia. His character must have been well established. Philosophers like Lucretius prove that the
worship of Zeus/Jupiter could be extremely sophisticated. But the thought of Jesus as a mathematician
similar to Pythagoras would seem unusual. There were many gods to choose from in Rome during the
early Christian era. Today there are many different versions of Christ to choose from in America.
It is amusing to make comparisons between contemporary America and the Roman Empire. There is no
lack of scholarship on the subject. Americans embraced the term Pax Americana without irony. When it
comes to depictions of the deity, today’s Christ has as many, if not more, faces than the entire Roman
pantheon. Freke and Gandy reference the dubious Secret Gospel of Mark that apparently reveals Jesus
to be a homosexual. The homosexual Jesus is alive and well in the minds of many Americans in the
21st century. Yet the homophobic Jesus is too. There are numerous legends of Hercules from the
Mediterranean area. Many of these stories are contradictory. From the evidence in the Via Latina
Catacomb his persona in 4th century Rome must have been similar to that of Christ from the same
period. Like Jesus, Hercules’ persona varied from different locations and times.
The British Museum has a marvelous collection of gold-glass from the catacombs. In one example
(Figure 18) one can see the deceased couple represented with their primary deity, in this case Hercules.
This exact same motif (Figure 19) can be seen in another example, but now the god represented is
Jesus. What conclusions people draw from this relationship will vary. Freke and Gandy believe this
similarity is due to Jesus and Hercules being basically the same character. L’Orange might say the
dissimilarities are glaring. How individual Romans felt toward gods in the early Christian era would
certainly depend on the individual. Some must have been loyal to one particular god and others may
have changed religions often in their lifetimes. One can only speculate that these people behaved not
too different than we do today. The major difference would have been the sheer number of gods to
choose from and the various sweeping, yet arbitrary, religious decrees established by the Emperors. It
seems extremely significant that Diocletian would have made the worship of Jupiter and Hercules
mandatory so few years before the Edict of Milan and the Christianity’s eventual dominance over the
Empire. Many of the same people must have switched from worshiping Hercules to worshiping Jesus.
The majority of the population might not have been particularly pious. They might have just wanted to
avoid trouble and do as the Emperor commanded. A later Emperor might have changed the state
religion to another god. But, as fate would have it, the strong central government of the Western Roman
Empire collapsed and Christianity began its slow transformation into the early 21st centuries largest
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