Sarcophagraphic Novels: Understanding the Classical Comics

Arguably the most well-known piece of early Christian relief is the Junius Bassus Sarcophagus. Dated to 359 CE, it is a visual mix tape all recorded in expensive marble. It depicts a number of biblical scenes both from the New Testament (e.g., the lives of Christ, Peter, and Paul) and the Old Testament (e.g., Isaac, Garden of Eden), and frames each with ornate columns. An inscription above these scenes notes that Bassus was a prominent statesman and city prefect, and even had pallbearers competing to carry his body. The text serves to tie the vir clarissimus (senator) to known scenes celebrated by other Christians. Bassus elevated his status by noting he was a humble neofitus (“new convert”) to Christianity, and by depicting celebrated early Christian stories for visitors to follow visually, he seems to advertise: “See?! I really am a Christian!”

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Here I have labeled the scenes on one side of the Junius Bassus (d. 359 CE) sarcophagus (Now in the Museum of St. Peter’s, Vatican City). Note the use of columns as register separators. Image originally via Art History Timeline. Inscription via the EDH (CIL VI, 32004).

Roman sarcophagi commonly contained what to many today might look like a comic strip. Much like a Latin scroll, many can even be read left to right and have either familiar mythological or religious tales (like Junius Bassus’ did) or depicted biographical progressions (usually of the deceased) that tell the story of an individual to posterity. Literacy rates in the ancient world, while disputed, were probably around 10%, making this potent mixture of text and graphics important when interacting with an audience. Kind of like speaking to an Italian when you only kind of know the language: The hand gestures help you to understand the words, amiright? I have spoken about the importance of labels on mosaics and other pieces of ancient art before, and the same is true in this case: Text and graphics have always worked together to aid understanding.

The mid 2nd c. CE sarcophagus from Ostia of Marcus Cornelius Statius, a young boy, who (as the inscription [CIL XIV, 4875] by his parents notes) died too young. The relief is read left to right and shows the life cycle of a young boy–likely that of Statius himself. Image via but it is now at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The mixture of text with relief sculpture in order to communicate a crafted narrative is not unique to Roman sarcophagi. We see it on Athenian vase painting, on memorial columns such as the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, and on triumphal arches.

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Scene from the Column of Trajan (113 CE), which depicts events from the Dacian Wars about a decade earlier. Note the use of the ground and of architecture to separate the scenes. Image via Wikimedia.

For instance, the inscription on the Arch of Constantine (c. 315 CE) works together with the reliefs, the variantly colored marble, and the marble elements pilfered from Constantine’s highly regarded predecessors (e.g. Marcus Aurelius, Trajan), in order to legitimize the ascension of the emperor Constantine to the position of emperor following the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE.

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The North Side of the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Note how the reliefs, roundels, inscriptions, colored marble, statues, and columns work to communicate a narrative to the reader. Images via Oxford Education Resources (CC).

In order to try and process this, I went to the modern handbook of comics history and definition, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993), who defines a comic simply as “juxtaposed sequential art” (8). εὕρηκα! (NB: Eureka is Greek for, “I have found it!) Comics do not exist solely in books or in the back page of a newspaper. As sarcophagi suggest, it is only the vehicle of transmission that has transformed. We are currently experiencing a renaissance of the use of comics–albeit largely through the new (well, to Romans) media of the blog, graphic novels, and the internet meme –in part because humans continue to respond to graphic communication.

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Mcloud explains what a comic really is, in Understanding Comics (1993: 6).

Which gets me to why we need to start using comics more as a pedagogical tool in this information age. Frankly, it has been a big year for graphic novels and comics focused particularly on the classical world, and I am here to tell you it is alright to assign them as textbooks in your classes (I am a Doctor! Trust me!). For instance, I recently bought and then consumed Abraham Kawa, Alecos Papadatos, and Annie Di Donna’s riveting Democracy , which takes place in 490 BCE Athens. The book is historically accurate, gorgeous, and (perhaps most significantly) emphasizes human issues relevant to the modern world: the formation of democracy, the impact of immigration on the polis, and the social toll of war.

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Explaining Athenian tyrants and the use of Archaic vase painting to reconstruct history–all in one image from Democracy (2015).

Another engaging graphic novel follows the history of something I have spoken extensively on: The History of Beer. Jonathan Hennessey’s The Comic Book Story of Beer: The World’s Favorite Beverage from 7000 BC to Today’s Craft Brewing Revolution (2015) is fun to read and largely accurate–though there isn’t a full understanding of the low perception of beer in the Roman empire or the cervesarii who brewed it. Despite this, the comic makes the history of this popular beverage accessible, and shows the deep roots of the current craft beer craze gripping the globe.

This is all just to say that comics are not only old tools, they are effective ones. If we want to reach our students, the traditional model of publishing may have to shift. Academic books and articles will continue to exist as a type of writing, but we must also expand to accept others as valid forms. Democratize! For example, as the L.A. Review of Books exemplified, you can write an erudite review of a book in comic form.

And why not a dissertation or an M.A. thesis? Nick Sousanis, who defended his illustrated dissertation, titled: “Unflattening: A Visual-Verbal Inquiry into Learning in Many Dimensions,” in 2014, earlier told the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Text is powerful and useful..and it shouldn’t be thrown away because someone did something with comics. But why are we privileging one form over the others?” (I mean, the Romans certainly didn’t, so why should we?) Sousanis’ dissertation is now a book from Harvard University Press called Unflattening. Clearly, the archaic idea of dissertations and the strict construction of what is “academic writing” needs to adapt and to encompass a number of different media and modes transmitted both digitally and through print. In fact, if the hallowed dissertation is to live on as a relevant form of publication, it may have to.

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Image from Nick Sousanis’ comic-book dissertation. Image via Boing Boing.

7 thoughts on “Sarcophagraphic Novels: Understanding the Classical Comics

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  1. There’s a very nice, but irregularly-published, series of graphic novels depicting the Trojan War. Of course I can’t remember the title or artist right now.

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