The Warren Cup: homoerotic love and symposial rhetoric in silver.

Author:Pollini, John

One of the most exquisite works of toreutic art to have been created in the early Roman Imperial period is a silver ovoid scyphus,(1) or drinking vessel, approximately 6 inches (15 centimeters) high, known as the Warren Cup [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1-9 OMITTED], so-named for the American collector Edward Perry Warren, who originally acquired it in the early twentieth century.(2) Previously on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Warren Cup is now in the Stanford Place Collection in Oxford, England. Although this Roman scyphus is said to be from the Greek East or Pompeii, its true provenance is unknown.(3) In workmanship, it certainly surpasses many other figural silver cups of the early Imperial period. Like most other drinking vessels of this sort,(4) the Warren Cup once had ring handles attached to the opposite sides of its rim [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 3, 4 OMITTED]. These handles divided the cup's figural reliefs into two separate scenes, designated side A [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] and side B [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. Just below the rim of the cup is a narrow margin, probably once decorated with a gilded pattern.(5)

The Warren Cup is remarkable especially for its representation of two homoerotic scenes, each featuring an older, idealized male "pedicating" (that is, anally penetrating)(6) a younger male. Unlike scenes of heterosexual intercourse, those of a homoerotic nature are relatively uncommon in Roman art,(7) with the Warren Cup providing the only known representation of homosexual copulation in the medium of decorative Roman silver. Its uniqueness in this respect has added to the suspicion that the cup may not be an authentic work of ancient art. However, neither its form nor its imagery suggests that the cup is anything but genuine.(8) Furthermore, certain details would be inexplicable if the cup were not authentic.(9) It is also worth noting that although scenes of males anally penetrating other males are occasionally found in various media in Roman art,(10) anal penetration of a younger male by an older male lover is very rarely, if at all, depicted in Greek art. In the considerable body of visual representations of pederastic activities in Greek vase painting, the ideal form of homosexual sex was intercrural, or copulating between the legs.(11) Anal intercourse between two Greek males was considered demeaning and a form of subjugation that violated the social etiquette established for pederastic love. Since the norm for Roman homosexual lovemaking(12) was between a dominant Roman male and a passive slave, or noncitizen, anal intercourse was more popularly practiced in Roman culture.(13) In this respect, the homoerotic scenes on the Warren Cup are typically Roman rather than Greek in character.

As for related artistic media, homosexual symplegmata, or scenes of sexual intercourse, are sometimes found in early Imperial terra-cotta drinking vessels, commonly known as terra sigillata, or Arretine relief ware.(14) Heterosexual lovemaking scenes, as well as a variety of other subjects, are also represented in this medium.(15) This mass-produced Arretine pottery, which was especially popular from about 30-25 B.C.E. to 40 C.E., has generally been taken to be a "poor man's" version of costly vessels in precious metals that had themselves inspired the production of their terra-cotta counterparts.(16) Our evidence for Roman drinking scyphi in such precious metals as silver derives from not only the extant objects themselves but also representations of such vessels in various media, including ancient wall paintings.(17) One painting from Pompeii, in particular, shows three slave boys of different ages at a banquet, with the eldest slave boy extending what is clearly a scyphus in silver to one of the guests.(18)

The Warren Cup demands close attention because of not only the high quality and rareness of its subject matter but also its neglect in the scholarly literature until quite recently.(19) Although this vessel had been known for a long time and mentioned briefly before, it was not until an excellent article by John Clarke in the Art Bulletin in 1993 that the cup received any detailed analysis.(20) The reasons for this lack of attention are quite clear: the inability of modern society - not to mention earlier twentieth-century scholarship - to deal with subjects of a homosexual or homoerotic nature.(21) Even museums that were offered the cup in the 1950s would not buy it because of what they considered its obscene subject matter.(22) This negative attitude with regard to its graphic homoerotic nature may have led some - consciously or subconsciously - to reject the cup as an authentic work of ancient art.(23)

Clarke's 1993 article on the Warren Cup marks an important point of departure for understanding the nature of homoerotic scenes, as well as the social dynamics reflected in such an artifact. Although there are a number of points on which I would be inclined to agree with Clarke, I shall advance a somewhat different interpretation of the scenes on the Warren Cup and focus on a number of aspects of it dealt with either partly or not at all by him or the few others who have discussed the cup in a considerably less thorough way. From a number of other surviving examples, such as the so-called Menander Treasure from the House of Menander at Pompeii(24) and the famous Boscoreale Treasure from near Pompeii,(25) we know that such silver drinking cups with both figural and decorative scenes were created in pairs and that these pairs were thematically related.(26) Consequently, we can be fairly certain that the Warren Cup, too, once had a mate. However, no one to my knowledge has ever mentioned this possibility. Despite the fact that we are obviously limited in what we can say about this absent mate, I shall offer a few suggestions about not only its possible subject matter but also its correlative function.

Homosexuality in Rome and the Lex Scatinia

Before dealing directly with the homoerotic scenes on the Warren Cup, I shall discuss in this section the nature of homosexual relationships in Roman antiquity, since this subject is rather complex and quite different from modern concepts of homosexuality. Despite all that has been written on this subject, there still remains a great deal of debate on some fundamental issues, most notably whether it is legitimate to employ such words as homosexuality or homosexual in the context of antiquity. Part of this terminological problem results from a failure to distinguish between homosexuality as a sexual condition and as a sexual preference.(27) In this section, I shall also discuss and offer a few suggestions about a problematic law known as the lex Sca(n)tinia that relates to homosexual behavior in ancient Rome. All of these issues are important for understanding the social and cultural background that informed the Warren Cup's artistic imagery.

When we deal with ancient belief systems, problems often arise if we attempt to impose on them various modern terminological distinctions and/or modern biased conceptions about certain sexual practices.(28) Classical antiquity had its own distinctive forms of prejudice regarding human sexual behavior, as well as its share of social and moral critics.(29) The ancients had definite ideas as to what constituted normal and abnormal sexual behavior and attempted to regulate sexual activities through social ridicule and even moral legislation. In short, with regard to sexual behavior we share with the ancients certain cultural biases, while differing from them in other respects. For example, in contemporary American society, an adult male who has sex with a fourteen-year-old boy would be considered a child molester and, if caught, would be prosecuted. In ancient Rome, by comparison, it was legal and generally socially acceptable for an adult Roman male to have homosexual relations with another male, whatever his age, provided that, first, the other male was a slave, freedman, foreigner, or male prostitute (who would have been a slave, foreigner, or former Roman citizen), and, second, the Roman male citizen was the active, not the passive, sexual partner in the relationship. By contrast, it was not socially acceptable or even licit for one adult male citizen to have any form of sexual relationship with another freeborn Roman male, whatever his age.(30)

In Roman society, homosexual acts were regarded as normal or abnormal depending on who was doing the sexual penetration and who was being penetrated. For one male to submit sexually to another male was tantamount to playing the part of a woman, that is, muliebra pati (to suffer a woman's part, or experience).(31) In short, it was both the sex and the civic standing of the individual that mattered in determining acceptable and unacceptable homosexual behavior.(32) Whether in war, politics, or lovemaking, the phallocentric society of ancient Rome expected the male citizen, who was a descendant of the war god Mars, to conform to the national image of male dominance. His role was socially defined as the impenetrable penetrator.(33) At least that was the theory. The reality was somewhat different. As is well attested in the ancient written record, homosexual acts between freeborn Roman males, whether of equal or unequal age, certainly took place.(34)

In the scholarly literature there has been considerable debate about whether the terms homosexual and homosexuality can properly be applied to a time before these terms were coined some hundred years ago.(35) As a result of this concern about anachronistic usage, some have replaced "homosexual" with such faddish and cumbersome designations as "male-to-male" and "female-to-female" to describe same-sex relationships. Although a bastardized compound of Greek (homos, or same) and Latin (sexus, or sex), homosexual is a well-established term, and a perfectly good one if used correctly. To say...

To continue reading