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Episode 36 - Warren Cup

Warren Cup (5 - 15 AD) from Bittir, near Jerusalem

I'm in Tate Modern in London, and I've been standing for a while looking at Rodin's famous sculpture, 'The Kiss' - it's a life-size white marble carving of a naked man and woman engaged in a passionate embrace. Almost everybody here circles the statue with unembarrassed curiosity, but just a hundred years ago this amorous couple was seen very differently - as unforgivably and, more important, "unexhibitably" erotic. When the wealthy American, Edward Warren, who'd commissioned the statue from Rodin, offered it to the Sussex town of Lewes, the townspeople rejected it as pornographic, as did the city of Boston. In 1914 neither Boston nor Sussex was ready for Rodin, and neither may yet be ready for the other famous artwork that Warren owned and also kept in his Sussex home: it's a Roman silver cup, two thousand years old, with scenes of sexual coupling between adult men and adolescent boys.

"I think this is one of the most beautiful objects in the British Museum. I love it because I just think it is so tender. I've got two daughters, and I've actually determined that this is how I'm going to introduce the subject of homosexuality to them, bring them to have a look at the Warren Cup and then explain what's going on." (Bettany Hughes)

"There is certainly an idea that the Greeks and Roman were a much more sexy culture than we are." (James Davidson)

Last week we looked at power and how it was exercised around the world two thousand years ago. The theme of this week's programmes is pleasure - social activities. We're spinning the globe again, taking in pipe-smoking and ball games in North and South America, and in China a kind of Debrett's Guide to court etiquette for women. We start and end the week, though, with the Roman Empire, and with spice - both actual and metaphorical. We end with pepper ... and we're going to begin with porn.

The Warren Cup is made of silver, it's a goblet, and it looks as though it would hold a pretty large glass of wine. It's in the shape of a small sporting trophy, standing on a small base, a bit wonkily now, and it would once have had two handles, although those are now lost. But you can see at once that this is a work of supreme craftsmanship. The scenes on the cup are in relief, and they've been created by beating out the silver from the inside. Given the subject-matter, it must have been used at private parties, but it would certainly have commanded the admiration and the attention of everybody present.

Lavish eating and drinking was one of the key rituals of the Roman world which, two thousand years ago, ran from Spain to Syria. Throughout the Empire, Roman officials and local bigwigs would use banquets to oil the wheels of politics and business, and to show off wealth and status. Roman women were generally excluded from events such as the drinking parties where our cup would have been found, and I think we can assume that it was intended for an all-male guest list. So I'm afraid you'll have to imagine that you're a man, arriving at a grand villa near Jerusalem, somewhere around the year 10.

Slaves lead you through to an opulent dining area, where you recline with the other guests. The dining table is set with beautifully embellished silver platters and ornate vessels, and this is the context in which our cup would have been passed around among the guests. On it are shown two scenes of male love-making, set in a sumptuous private house. The lovers are depicted on draped couches similar to the ones that you, the guest, are lounging on. And you can see a lyre and pipes waiting to be played as the participants settle to their sensual pleasure. Here's Classical historian Bettany Hughes:

"What you have on this cup are two different varieties of a homosexual act. On the front you've got an older man, and we know he's older because he's got a beard. Sitting astride him is a very handsome young man, it's all very vigorous and virile. This is kind of 'cam�ra v�rit�' if you like, I mean it's very realistic - this isn't an idealised view of homosexuality. What's quite interesting, if you go around the back, is here you've got something which is more a kind of standard portrayal of homosexuality; two very beautiful young men - we know that they're young because they've got locks of hair hanging down their backs - one is lying on his back, and the slightly older man is looking away. It's a lot more kind of lyrical, a rather idealised view of what homosexuality was."

Although the homosexual scenes on the cup are ones that today strike us as explicit - some might say shocking and taboo - homosexuality was very much part of Roman life. But it was a complicated part, tolerated but not entirely accepted. The standard Roman line on what was acceptable in same-sex coupling is neatly summarised by the Roman playwright Plautus in his comedy 'Curculio':

"Love whatever you wish, as long as you stay away from married women, widows, virgins, young men and free boys."

So if you wanted to show sex between men and youths who weren't slaves, it made sense to look back to the age of Classical Greece, where it was normal for older men to teach younger free-born boys about life in general, in a mentoring relationship that included sex. The early Roman Empire had idealised Greece and adopted much of her culture, and the cup shows what is clearly a Greek scene. Is this a Roman sexual fantasy of a Classical Greek male coupling? Perhaps by placing it in a Greek past, any moral discomfort is put at a safe distance, while adding to the titillation of the forbidden and exotic. And perhaps everybody everywhere believes that the best sex happens somewhere else. Professor James Davidson, author of 'The Greeks and Greek Love' explains:

"What's interesting is that although this vase looks back to the Classical period, the Greek vase painters - who were by no means prudish or modest when it came to depicting sex - nevertheless carefully avoided scenes of homosexual intercourse, at least penetrative intercourse. So, in a way, the Romans are showing what couldn't be shown five hundred years earlier. So you can say if you like that the Greek world, as it did for Warren and as it did since the eighteenth century or even in the Middle Ages, provided an alibi for societies to think about homosexuality, to talk about homosexuality, to represent homosexuality. It made it into a piece of art more than pornography, so it's a kind of cover, if you like, for something which is not necessarily very easy to depict. It needs some kind of excuse, if you like, and the excuse is provided by Classical imagery."

Looking at the scenes on the cup more closely, there's no doubt where these encounters are taking place. The musical instruments, the furniture, the clothes and the hairstyles of the lovers, all point to the past - and indeed to the Classical Greece of several centuries earlier. Interestingly, we can tell that the two adolescents shown here were not slaves. The style of their hair-cut, with a long lock of hair trailing down the neck, is typical of free-born Greek boys. Between 16 and 18, their hair would be cut and dedicated to the gods as part of their passage into manhood. So both the boys that we see here are free, and from good families. But we can also see another figure, who might have been part of the Roman banquet at which the cup was used. He stands in the background, peeping at one of the scenes of love-making from behind a door - we only see half his face. He is clearly a slave, although it is impossible to know whether he is simply indulging in a bit of voyeurism, or apprehensively responding to a call for "room service". Either way he's a reminder that what he and we are witnessing are acts to be conducted only in private behind closed doors. Here's Bettany Hughes again:

"In Rome there's a kind of notion that you have good wives, and that you should somehow manage without resorting to male sex, but we know, we know from the poetry, we know from the laws, we know from the kind of back references to homosexual relations, that actually this was something that did happen throughout the Roman world. And the Warren Cup is a good bit of exquisite hard evidence that proves that. This cup is telling us what actually went on, how homosexual activity was something which took place in high aristocratic circles. I think it's very interesting with this cup, because it's actually physically made from the inside out, so it's beaten from the inside and that's how you get the form on the outside, and that is almost what the Warren Cup is - it's a covert demonstration of what was actually going on in the real world outside."

Silver cups of this date are now exceptionally rare, as so many were melted down, and among the survivors, few in the world can match the virtuoso skill of the Warren Cup. To buy a cup like this you would have had to be rich, for it would have cost you somewhere around 250 denarii - and for that money you could have bought 25 large jars of the best wine, two thirds of an acre of land, or even an unskilled slave like the one we see peering round the door. So this indulgent little dining-piece places its owner firmly in the echelons of high society, in that very world that St Paul was so eloquently condemning for its drunkenness and its fornication.

We don't know for certain, but it's thought that the Warren Cup was found buried at Bittir, a town a few miles south-west of Jerusalem. How it got to this location is a mystery, but we can make a guess. We can date the making of the cup to around the year 10. About 50 years later, the Roman occupation of Jerusalem sparked tensions between the rulers and the Jewish community, and in AD 66 that exploded and the Jews took back the city by force. There were violent confrontations, and it is thought that our cup may have been buried at this date by the owner fleeing from the fighting.

After this, the cup disappears for almost two thousand years, until it was bought by Edward Warren in Rome in 1911. For years after his death in 1928, it proved impossible to sell - the subject-matter was just too shocking for any potential collector. In London, the British Museum declined to buy it, as did the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and, at one point, it was even refused entry to the United States of America, when the explicit nature of its imagery offended a customs official. It was only in 1999 - long after public attitudes to homosexuality, and indeed the law, had changed - that the British Museum bought the Warren Cup, then the most expensive acquisition it had ever made. A cartoon at the time showed a Roman barman saucily asking a customer, 'Do you want a straight goblet or a gay goblet?'.

A hundred years after he bought it, Warren's cup is now on permanent public display here in the British Museum, and it serves I think a very useful purpose. It's not just a superb piece of Roman Imperial metalwork - from party cup to scandalous vessel and finally to an iconic museum-piece - this object reminds us that the way societies view sexual relationships is never fixed.

And it's not only changing views of sex that the Museum can demonstrate. In the next programme, we have an object that once carried enormous social importance, but which is now virtually banned from all public gatherings ... the tobacco pipe.

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