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Warren Cup, side A

The Warren Cup is a unique silver Roman skyphos (or drinking cup) featuring two representations of homoerotic sexual acts. It is recognised as an artistic work of extremely high quality. It is named after its first modern owner, the collector and writer Edward Perry Warren.



It was most probably commissioned from Greek craftsmen in 1-20 AD (or the first century AD in general) by a Roman client, perhaps during the Hellenising reign of Nero. It was made in five sections: the main bowl which was hammered thin from inside and subsequently finished off from the outside to produce the figures in low relief, a separate plain inner liner bowl of thicker sheet silver with a solid rim (to make the cup easier to use and to clean), a base in solid silver, a cast foot soldered to the base, and two handles (how they would have appeared can be seen in an intact example of a skyphos here,and right).

The cup shows signs of having been used over an extensive period; the handles are missing, and the gilding that may have been applied to certain features has been lost, but it is otherwise in an excellent state of preservation. Representations of sexual acts are widely found in Roman art, although more heterosexual scenes have survived than homosexual ones and such cups were intended as dinner-party conversation pieces (though Romans had no word for homosexuality, defining it as an activity not an identifier ), usually made in pairs.


Warren Cup, side B

One side depicts a man (the active participant or erastes) engaging in anal sex with a young man (the catamite, eromenos, or passive participant), who lowers himself onto the erastes using a rope or support from the ceiling in roughly the modern sexual position of reverse cowgirl. Meanwhile a boy, perhaps a slave, watches surreptitiously from behind a door - the inferior status of a slave in Roman eyes would make him suitable to this role of voyeur. The other side depicts a beardless youth making love to a younger boy as the catamite/eromenos in roughly the missionary anal position. Both scenes also include draped textiles in the background, as well as a kithara (lyre) in the former scene and auloi (pipes) in the latter. These, along with the careful delineation of ages and status and the wreaths worn by the youths, all suggest a cultured, elite, Hellenized, non-Roman setting with music and entertainment.


Warren purchased it from a dealer in Rome in 1911 for £2,000. One story suggests it was found in Battirmarker (ancient Bethther), near Jerusalem, with coins of the emperor Claudius. If so, it was probably hidden by its ancient owner and never recovered (possibly as a hoard during the First Jewish-Roman War), rather than being lost or buried as grave goods.


Some contend that the cup only first received scholarly analysis in 1993 due to its controversial subject matter. However, this is probably not the whole story. For centuries, at least since the time of the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, cultural and visual art objects with homoerotic scenes that survived censorship were traded privately in underground markets by people with like interests. In the 1980s, due to changing attitudes towards, and greater acceptance of homosexuality in general, many of these objects came onto public, non-clandestine art markets and onto view in public museums (the Cup was loaned by a private owner for public exhibition in the Antikenmuseum, Basel and the Metropolitan Museum of Artmarker, New York), for the first time in centuries. Thus, the increase in scholarly attention was probably due to excitement about the recently-surfaced objects and their histories, as well as a need for authentication and attention that capitalist art market require.

In the 1950s U.S. Customs refused the cup entry and a number of museums (including the British Museum) refused to buy it, thinking it unexhibitable.

British Museum

The cup was acquired by its present owner, the British Museummarker, in 1999 for £1.8 million (including Heritage Lottery Fund, National Art Collections Fund and The British Museum Friends contributions) to prevent it going abroad [114039]. This was then the most expensive single item ever acquired by them, and many times the price it had been offered to them at in the 1950s.

It was the subject of a devoted exhibition in Room 3 at the Museum from 11 May to 2 July 2006, entitled "The Warren Cup: Sex and society in ancient Greece and Rome" [114040]. Curator Dyfri Williams said of the exhibition
"We wanted to show this fantastic object in a context in which we could ask how much we understand about attitudes to sexuality when it was made. These objects seem extraordinary to us now, but there were many objects in common use, and wall paintings and mosaics in baths and in private houses, showing very similar imagery."

From December 1, 2006 to January 21, 2007 it toured to the Yorkshire Museummarker.

See also

Further reading

  • Williams, Dyfri. The Warren Cup. British Museum Objects in Focus series. British Museum Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-7141-2260-1 .

  • Sox, David. Bachelors of Art: Edward Perry Warren & the Lewes House Brotherhood. Fourth Estate, 1991.

  • Clarke, John R. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 BC–AD 250. University of California Press, 1998. ISBN 0-520-20024-1.

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