Warren Cup

Contributed by British Museum

Click on the image to zoom in. Contains explicit scenes. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 4

This luxurious silver cup was used at Roman dinner parties. The cup originally had two handles and depicts two pairs of male lovers. One side shows two teenage boys making love, while the other shows a young man lowering himself onto the lap of his elder, bearded lover. A slave-boy peers in voyeuristically from behind a door. The luxurious fabrics and musical instruments indicate that these scenes are set in a world heavily influenced by Greek culture, which the Romans admired and largely adopted.

What was the Roman attitude to relationships between men?

Images like this were not unusual in the Roman world. Some of the boys on this cup are underage by today's standards, but the Romans tolerated relationships between older and younger men. Relationships between men were part of Greek and Roman culture, from slaves to emperors, most famously the emperor Hadrian and his Greek lover, Antinous. Today such ancient images remind us that the way societies view sexuality is never fixed.

Due to it its explicit imagery, the cup was refused entry to the USA in 1953

Life, love, luxury – in one cup

This Roman silver cup is a fascinating and very versatile object, combining drinking, money and sex all in one!

To the Romans it was a drinking cup to be used not just admired. Picture a dinner party, course after course of exotic food and lots of fine wine. The guests talk about politics and love as they pass round the table this luxurious, tactile silver cup. Their host is delighted that they admire its decoration (and its value).

As a work of art it’s a masterpiece – its fine decoration achieved by beating the silver into shape from the inside using fine hammers and chisels. Luxuriant fabrics and musical instruments indicate a world heavily influenced by Greek culture, which the Romans admired and adopted.

So what is so special about the decoration that made it one of the British Museum’s highest-profile and most controversial acquisitions? What kept the piece out of permanent museum collections until 1999, and ensured that its purchase by the British Museum earned it a place in all the British media?

Sex.

One side of the cup shows two teenage males, while the other shows two older men, all of them caught in the act of making love. The older men are watched by a peeping-tom, a young slave who spies on them from behind the door.

Were the dinner party guests offended by this? Probably not at all. Scenes of love-making were everywhere in Roman art. The cup is unique today, but in Roman times there were many others. Same sex relationships? Love and sex between men, often of differing ages, was part of Greek and Roman culture. One of the boys looks underage to us, but he was of marrying age to the Romans.

So this little cup embraces the Romans’ love of banqueting, their passion for conspicuous shows of wealth, their love of beautiful things and their skill in creating them. It also allows a glimpse into the private life of the Romans, challenging our traditional view of how they lived and loved.

Today some people take the cup out of its Roman context and see it as a symbol, either of sexual liberation, an affirmation of gay identity and proof of this identity through time, or of ancient decadence and a cautionary lesson in modern liberalism.

And here is the real beauty of the piece. It makes you think, and what better tribute could there be for an object from the past than to stimulate and provoke debate in the present?

Paul Roberts, curator, British Museum

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Comments

  • 18 comments
  • 1. At 09:44 on 24 May 2010, David gardiner wrote:

    Interesting how this beautiful object comments on today's society.

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  • 2. At 19:56 on 24 May 2010, aethlestane wrote:

    What makes you say some of the boys are underage by our standards? The current age of consent in Britain is 16, so you are saying they are <16; how can you tell?

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  • 3. At 20:23 on 24 May 2010, Eric wrote:

    What a beautiful object. Are reproductions of it available?

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  • 4. At 00:49 on 25 May 2010, Pansceptic wrote:

    Why is it said that women would not have been present at the party? Respectable women were not present at Greek symposia ('drinking-parties') but they were present at Roman dinner-parties.

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  • 5. At 12:23 on 25 May 2010, Simri wrote:

    Now, before we all get carried away saying how wonderful it would be to emulate the enlightened Roman attitudes to sexuality shown on the Warren cup, we may want to bear a few points in mind. First, committed homosexual relationships between adults were frowned upon and ridiculed: gay sex was encouraged only between adult, married men and adolescent boys. Second, the boys were not supposed to enjoy the advances of the men, but to reject them: to encourage such attentions was considered effeminate. Third, homosexual advances were often (though not apparently in this case) forced upon slaves, who had no right of consent or rejection. If consent, adulthood and fidelity to a single partner are considered normative in today's society, modern gay people should really hesitate before lauding Greco-Roman norms as a benchmark of sexual liberation, the work on this cup included.

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  • 6. At 01:16 on 26 May 2010

    Failed moderation

  • 7. At 05:07 on 26 May 2010, Robin wrote:

    Simri,
    You're posting politically correct historicism. In an age where an English man can be called a pedophile for simply walking through a park alone, one can understand your urge to belittle the sexual freedom depicted on the Warren Cup.

    I'm sure ancient Roman boys quite enjoyed sex as much as boys today enjoy sex. Despite the current hysteria a good roll in the hay has always been enjoyable.

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  • 8. At 09:53 on 26 May 2010

    Failed moderation

  • 9. At 21:18 on 26 May 2010, ejoh wrote:

    Why such a short video (20 seconds vs 2 minutes) compared to the previous objects? Subject still too risky?

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  • 10. At 00:44 on 27 May 2010, Robin wrote:

    BBC is literally afraid of the Warren Cup. Notice how the side that depicts older males having sex is completely zoomable, while the side depicting the boy having sex is a small photograph and not zoomable at all; further, the video has been darkened and is difficult to see detail. The altering of history like this is simply a symptom of the hysterical sickness that festers at the heart of British society.

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About this object

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Location

Bittir, near Jerusalem

Culture
Period

AD 5 - 15

Theme
Size
H:
11cm
D:
11cm
Colour
Material

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