Bittir (ancient Bethther), near Jerusalem, Roman, AD 5 – 15
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A silver cup with relief decoration of homoerotic scenes, this object takes its name from its first owner in modern times, the art-lover and collector Edward Perry Warren (1860-1928).
After Warren's death the cup remained in private hands, largely because of the nature of the subject matter. Only with changing attitudes in the 1980s was the cup exhibited to the public, and in 1999 the British Museum was able to give this important piece a permanent home in the public domain.
The cup was originally made up of five parts - the thin-walled bowl with its high relief scenes, raised by hammering; an inner liner of thicker sheet silver with a solid rim, which would have made both drinking and cleaning easier; a pair of handles (now lost) and a cast foot soldered to the base.
The scenes on each side show two pairs of male lovers. On one side the erastes (older, active lover) is bearded and wears a wreath while the eromenos (younger 'beloved', passive) is a beardless youth. A servant tentatively comes through a door. In the background is a draped textile, and a kithara (lyre) resting on a chest.
In the scene on the other side the erastes is beardless, while the eromenos is just a boy. Auloi (pipes) are suspended over the background textile, and folded textiles are lying on a chest. The surroundings suggest a cultured, Hellenized setting with music and entertainment.
Representations of sexual acts are widely found in Roman art, on glass and pottery vessels, terracotta lamps and wall-paintings in both public and private buildings. They were thus commonly seen by both sexes, and all sections of society.
The Romans had no concept of, or word for, homosexuality, while in the Greek world the partnering of older men with youths was an accepted element of education. The Warren Cup reflects the customs and attitudes of this historical context, and provides us with an important insight into the culture that made and used it.