Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Warren Cup (Roman, mid-1st century AD) - Antique Domestic Silver

The Warren Cup - Silver, Roman Mid-First Century BC (H:11 cm D: 9.9 cm) - British Museum

I confess I have a particularly strong feeling for ancient domestic objects, as opposed to 'great art'. The marble sculptures of the Parthenon are all very nice in their way (!), but, for me, there is something more effecting and intimate about objects such as The Warren Cup, a Roman silver cup in a Hellentistic (Greek) style. And of course part of its attraction must be its gay subject.

The cup takes it name from its first modern owner, the art collector Edward Perry Warren (1860-1928). And has only been in the public arena since the 1980's, when it was acquired by the British Museum.

It is said to have been found in Bittir (ancient Bethther), near Jerusalem. Questions immediately arise. How did it get to the Middle East? Or was it locally made? What kind of people owned it? What were their lives like? Did they lead an openly gay life, given this piece of their dinnerware? Or was the cup something only privately used? Or was it only for display? Was it part of a larger silver service and what would the other pieces have been like? Do they still survive somewhere, as yet undiscovered? And these questions simply don't arise for 'great art'. Well, not many at least.

What is particularly beautiful about this object is the presentation of its erotic scenes.

One 'side' of the cup (above and below, including two more detailed photographs) shows two beautiful men reclining on a couch. There is a younger beardless man (the passive eromenos or 'beloved') lying back against the head and chest of an older bearded man (the active erastes).

They are intimately and lovingly entwined. The youth gently rests his hand on that of the older man. And drapes his right leg over that of the other, so his bare butt naturally fits into the other's crotch. Though it's difficult to see, I think the youth is being fucked. But to indicate the loving quality of the sex , the older man nestles his laurel-wreathed head into the hollow of the youth's back, between his shoulder blades.

The two even more detailed views:

The beautiful diaphanous Hellenic (Greek) draperies add to the sensation of langorous gentleness. Draped over the younger guy's outstretched left arm and the older's left shoulder, the textiles are so organised so as not to obscure their bodies too much. The Hellenistic motives are repeated in the lyre (kithara) resting on a chest, and the pipes (auloi) suspended over the cloth over the wall.

Another side of the cup (below) shows an even younger man lying on his stomach on a draped couch, with an older lifting the youth's leg, to show his cock. And threading his own leg in-between, up to the butt crack. Preparing to fuck. Or has it already begun? Don't know.

Here, all seems to be done in a gentle even caring way. The young man looks relaxed - his hands tensionlessly folded. He almost seems unaware of what is about to happen. His head slightly turned to the left and up, perhaps watching what the first couple are doing.

There is a third figure in the initial scene, someone I haven't mentioned. It's a man, who peers round a door he's just opened to watch the initial couple in sex. As does the younger man in the second scene. The Peeping Tom smiles at what he sees - he is amused, but there is nothing sleazy in his reaction:

So I guess what's special about this piece of ancient silver is that it shows that homosexual eroticism can be imagined in sweet, gentle and even loving terms. While still remaining sexually charged and arousing to the viewer. And I am in no way critical of rough and raunchy sex. Everything can depend on the mood, and the guy.


  1. Thanks for bringing the Warren Cup to your readers' attention. The Cup is important not only in its relaxed and tender depiction of male/ male sexuality, but in it's depiction of sensuality in general. This easy and guilt free acceptance of the physical nature of human existance seems to have been lost to us permanently with the dominance of monotheistic, transcendental religions.

    As for the role of the Cup in Hellenistic/ Roman society, I suggest that the modern devision between art and every day objects that we take for granted today isn't quite applicable in dealing with ancient cultures. Because ancient Roman culture, with its easy acceptance of the physical aspects of being, had no trouble in accepting everyday existence, they had no problem in turning the everyday into art, as the Cup quite clearly shows.

    The Cup is, nevertheless, an aristocratic object. That quality of technical perfection is rare even in Hellenistic/ roman metalwork. It's original owner probably paid quite a high price either for the cup itself or for the silversmith- slave who made it.

  2. hi bruce. i remember studying fine art as a young guy, and another angle i quickly became aware of (with respect to your comment on the division of art and everyday objects being modern) was the strange arbitrariness of the division today [another layer of complexity in this] - some objects were easily categorized (statue = work of art, pair of ancient sandals = curio) but there were lots of 'things' in the middle, stuff which the art establishment were unsure of how to deal with. and all were equally functional in the ancient world. good to hear from you again. nick

  3. and then what's interesting is - who and what are driving the modern definition of 'work of art'? among others, there is the gallery-dealer system which has a vested interest in a definition that includes things that are durable, fit on a wall, unique, etc. and not things such as installations, mass reproduced work, etc