Accipe me sitiens, forte placebo tibi—Looking for the Missing Warren Cup

11 June, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have my memory of a British Museum Object in Focus. In the British Museum nevertheless one may buy the booklet:

Williams, Dyfri. 2006. The Warren Cup. British Museum Object in Focus. British Museum Press. London. Pp 64—

but be careful, it may contain illustrations that under law at least in Sweden are held to be pornographic pictures of a child, illegal to possess and disseminate, perhaps even to look at – at least if doing so is your habit. It may not help to argue that the drinking cup in question is a 2000 year old work of art and its embossed silver decoration thus artistic fiction belonging to our cultural heritage rather than a picture of a child. As I write the Supreme Court in Stockholm is considering an unfortunately not so similar case concerning pictures harvested from Manga Series – we hope for a precedent. While we do so, I think that one of the scenes is child pornography [0].

With their growing wealth around the beginning of the Common Era, Romans explored different qualities in silver tableware. In fact they laid the foundation for the use of silver tableware also in Post Medieval and Modern Europe and in the process they firmly established the notion of good and bad. Since they hadn’t yet coined the phrase de gustibus non disputandum est they were aware of the difference.

The Warren Cup belongs to the first century BCE/CE and its vogue in silver tableware and drinking cups. Materially speaking, this vogue is quite well-known because of a number of find contexts reflecting more or less traumatic situations in the first century CE: the Hildesheim hoard is related to spoils from the battle in the Teutoburger Forest 9 CE when Varus’ legions were annihilated. The pair of cups from the grave in Danish Hoby indirectly links-in with the military activities in Northwest Germany during the first decades of the Common Era. Two hoards, Boscoreale and Casa del Menandro, were lost 79 CE when Pompeii, Casa del Menandro, and its surroundings, Boscoreale, were covered in pumice and ashes. There are many more finds out there, but for my purpose the drinking cups from these four contexts are enough to inform me. In the second century CE this drinking cup vogue came to an end.

Embossed tableware featuring everything from olives and birds to sleaze and myth was an integral part of an extravagant 1st century BCE/CE table culture detested by a number of conservative intellectuals in the late 1st century CE Rome – Tacitus to name but one. To begin with, in the late first century BCE, luxurious silverware bridged the gap between wealth and Bildung. As it happened, collectors in the highest echelons of society, among them Julius Caesar, invested in decorated silver – embossed and partly gilded. Often Greek civilization was in focus and silver smiths in vogue. Ageing Horace, albeit a man of modest means pointed out that ridet argento domus—the house is laughing with silver—to make a favorable impression on Phyllis (after he spotted vanity in the beautiful boy Ligurinus). ‘Silver laughter’ has continued to ring [1].

In the 1st century CE, society changed when the nouveau-riche entered the scene. Contrary to the middle classes, who could afford nothing but education to gain status, the upstarts  down-graded classical and formal education and up-graded wealth. Wealth formed their links with the upper classes. Consequently, the possibilities to gain status and recognition by means of education and learning tended to diminish. Hence the intellectual critique. Social change echoed all the way down to dinner parties and drinking cups and there were two extremes to relate to: (1) The educated classes, versed in everything Greek, who knew how to read the scenes of the decorated cups and indulged themselves in lengthy comments. (2) The ignorant parvenus, who knowing nothing bought whatever they fancied in their endeavor to demonstrate and proud themselves of their economic success and lack of culture, taste, civilization, education and modesty. Trimalchio, the wealthy freedman who figures in the Roman novel Satyricon, was a model first century CE parvenu, but from what we read in today’s tabloids – since once again the intellectuals aren’t invited – we gather that the parties thrown by Berlusconi are modeled on the ones thrown by Trimalchio. Luckily, Petronius who created Trimalchio – and thus indirectly Berlusconi – has given us more complete insights into the combined efforts of wealth and ignorance that squeezed the educated classes. Decorated silver drinking cups were lost in the process, but the two backdrops: silver cups and satire will make it possible to write about the missing Warren Cup.

Decorated cups fit an art form—a performance: two human beings drink together forming a dyad. Aided and confined by the dyadic pair of cups and their structure, the performers are invited to analyse and comment upon the scenes in relation to the dyadic and themselves as human beings – getting wasted. In some of the decorated cups, the dyadic qualities are subtle, not least why they involve turning the cups in order to structure performance and interpretation. Obviously the interpretation may involve only oneself, but also part of a conversation—within the dyad or in front of an audience. Besides being brilliant, one might easily make a fool of oneself knowing to little or too much; misunderstanding this or that; protesting too much, protesting too little; being too modest or not modest enough. Everything depends on your capability to handle yourself, your company and your state of intoxication. Writing about these cups today, exposes us to the difficulties of understanding them, and 2000 years ago our interpretations might well have been labelled stupid, commonplace or uninformed in Pompeii, Borscoreale, Hildesheim or Hoby. Whatever the latter knew about the Trojan War illustrated on his cups, it would have been worth listening to.

I will look at three narrative compositions before trying to describe the missing Warren cup.

In Casa del Menandro the labouring Hercules figures on two drinking cups in a big hoard of table plate [2]. This hoard represents an almost complete set for at most 8 persons and its composition is based on subsets of 16, 8, 4, and 2 items. There are 15 drinking cups, seven pairs and one singleton, which probably lost its partner.

The silver was stored in a robust wooden chest, 1.2×0.8xc.0.7m, which stood in a low vaulted cellar, Room B, below the bath-suite. Sometime before the eruption 79 CE, work on the rebuilding of the bath was started and the rooms C and D were sealed off by means of the walls w-w1 and x1-x2, and abandoned . Simultaneously a breach was made in the wall between room A and B making A-B a cellar with an outer and an inner room. In room B there were two chests, a and b, and they were placed as far west as possible considering that the lids of the chests were supposed to clear the low vault. Similarly the amphorae that would have prevented the lid of Chest a to lean against the wall, were placed to the right of the chest. Likewise the big tiles standing next to Chest a between the chest and the wall towards Room A, would seem to have filled up a space created when Chest a was fitted into the cellar. It stands to reason therefore that when Room B was walled off from Room C and the breach between Room A and B was made, Chest b was placed in Room B along the new wall. Chest a may have been there already considering the tiles and amphorae stored around it.

Three facts are worth mentioning when it comes to the find context.
(1) Some fragile items, such as the figured drinking cups, were placed at the bottom of the chest below the rest of the silver, as if they were among the first things one thought of saving. The weight of this silver did them no good.
(2) Since their feet and handles were separately wrapped up in cloth and wool next to the cups, someone took off the feet and handles – breaking the solder that kept them in place – before everything was wrapped up. This procedure is common when storing drinking cups in chests [3]. It also indicates that the missing cup was never in the chest. The preparation of the cups before putting them into the chest seems to have been done rationally with an eye to protecting them and in no great hurry, but putting the most fragile objects at the bottom rather than on the top signals lack of time. The cups were not as well preserved as the majority of the pieces and two fragile shell-shaped bowls, similarly placed, were completely crushed by the heavy ware above them.
(3) Outside the chest, next to tiles and amphorae, there was a silver tray and below it two or three silver vessels. It has been suggested that the tray was too large for the chest, but that is true only if the chest was already filled-up. Putting the tray at the bottom of the chest with the rest of the items above it would have been natural, trays being what they are, and had not time been an issue, emptying the chest wrapping up the vessels that didn’t fit into it after having packed it the first time, would have been sensible.

For three reasons, therefore, we should conclude that getting the silver down into the cellar and packing it was done under some kind of stress. The context points to a controlled situation somewhere else in the house when the table ware was wrapped up, and a stressed one – caused by the eruption? – when pieces and parcels were stored in the chest. This again suggests that the table ware was in good order, except for a few pieces, among them the missing ‘Cup no. 16’, a modiolus with floral/faunal decoration.

This means that if we had been invited to a convivium (‘living together’ – a get-together more or less) at Casa del Menandro 78 CE, we might have formed a cup dyad drinking from the Hercules cups (M3 or M4) with another guest. This pair alludes to twelve Herculean labours. On M3 Hercules meets opponents or antagonists – three male and three female. On M4 he is in control of his tasks – three non-domestic ones concerning boars, centaurs and birds and three domestic ones concerning mares, apples and a dog . In the latter situations he is not attacked. If we want to follow the chronology of the labours during a dinner conversation, each guest nursing a cup must be aware of ‘his’ pictures and myths in order to turn the cup and fall-in correctly. The labours start with the first scene on the A-side of the third Menander cup (M3, A-side) and they come to an end in the last scene on the B-side of the fourth cup (M4, B-side). The twelve labours are obviously not the twelve usual ones. The cleansing of Augias’ stables for one is not there.

In a dinner conversation there are several points to make when drinking from the cups and certainly many opportunities to show-off commenting upon Greek mythology and what it means to be Heracles, i.e. ‘The Glory of Hera’. Aging too is an issue.

The option to turn and jump between the cups is a choice when drinking from the Hercules cups, but in two of the drinking cups from Hildesheim turning becomes much more important [4]. The Hildesheim hoard represents what Roman officers brought with them into the field and also what they lost when they lost the battle in 9 CE and their silver became the spoils of the barbarian victors. In the first half of the first century CE, it is typical of the area south of the Elbe, where Varus lost his legions and Gemanicus conducted his punitive expeditions up and until 16 CE, that there are no luxury Roman artefacts in the graves, but well in a hoard like the one from Hildesheim. This is easy to understand given the brutality and the ideological overtones of the wars – Rome and its artefacts were simply not popular and nothing to exhibit at funerals. There was in other words a point in burying the silver spoils because they were ostentatiously Roman. In the area north of the Elbe, on the other hand, Roman luxury goods, not least drinking cups, were popular in prominent graves. This indicates that the Romans had successfully turned Germans against Germans, but also that prestigious drinking cups had a role to play because they paired officers – Roman-Roman; German-German and Roman-German.

On two of the cups from Hildesheim, the panels take us in and out of a sanctuary when we turn them. In the scenes there are a number of allusions to Dionysus, Heracles and others, to dramatic action and masks—to tragedy as well as satire. In formal ways the two cups are similar, but the masks are different and so are the positions of the symbolic artefacts. It’s the turning of the cups that determines the narratives, which are parallel but slightly different as dyads are. In the beginning of the narrative two masks are staring at something that is not in front of the cup, but somewhere next to it. In the first cup this field of view is somewhere up to the left. In the second it is somewhere down to the right.

What are they staring at? They are staring at you when you are about to begin your performance!

Holding the first cup in your hands, this cup is to the right and your face is somewhere above the cup, holding the second one, you have lifted or placed the cup somewhere above your eyes to the left. As you are about to drink form the cup you turn it anticlockwise and the masks keep looking at you eventually from somewhere below your eyes. Then you turn it again, lifting it, and when you start to drink from it, you look straight into the central and horrified (tragic) mask. When you have finished, you turn the cup 90 degrees the last time and look into four comic masks making faces at you from a scene in front of you. And you may ask yourself whether you have had too much to drink. One of the things implied in the wry faces of the cups is that you steal or behave badly when you drink from them. In effect that means that you have become part of the context of the cup by drinking from it. In short, you are yourself a mask responding to the others. In the Hildesheim cups an essential way of understanding them has nothing to do with learning, the situation itself is complex enough to beg a comment. Perception, more or less, is all it takes to understand what’s happening in the panels and the scenes are humorous. Their mock criticism embedded in the composition befits drinking between officers in the camp.

The two drinking cups from Hoby on Lolland, belong to a lavish drinking set [5]. The pair is the piece de resistance of an inhumation grave belonging to the first part of the first century CE. The grave is remarkable in itself, but it is even more astonishing that an inscription at the bottom of the cups shows their Roman owner to have been Silius, the prefect of Upper Germania, known for his good contacts with Germanic chieftains during the punitive wars. The reason why ‘Silius’ is Silius the prefect, rests with the fact that the cups belong to the very best of the Augustan drinking cups and thus in all probability to someone from the Roman aristocracy. Moreover, presenting a German chieftain with such a pair can only be contemplated by a member of the Roman military elite. And doing it in the beginning of the first century CE limits the donors to the prefect.

The artistic quality of the Hoby cups is striking and was so already when they were made, since Cheirisophos, i.e. (he who is) ‘skilled-with-hands’, made them. The themes illustrated on the cups are also befitting inasmuch as one must keep in mind that the decade around 10 CE was one of war, a ten-year war of Trojan length, between Romans and Germans. In this conflict the Romans adopted a principle of divide et impera—divide and rule, which makes it sensible to give away a pair of posh drinking cups referring to the Trojan War befriending a German chieftain living north of the tribes that confronted the Romans. When we turn the cups clockwise, they illustrate two stories from the wars. One from Homers and one from a lost play by Euripides. One cup depicts Priam who begs Achilles to grant him Hector’s corps, the other one shows us how Ulysses, helped by Diomedes, steals Philoctetes’ bow (which he inherited from Heracles). Ten years earlier Ulysses had left Philoctetes on the deserted island Lemnos because a horrible wound in the man’s right foot, he was bitten by a snake, smelled so badly that nobody could stand the stench. Now, ten years later the Greeks have learned that only if they have the bow can they win the war. This forces Ulysses to go back to Lemnos in order to get hold of the bow despite the fact that Philoctetes hates him bitterly. Cunning and deceitful, Ulysses steals it.

The tales are about enemies who meet during the war as individuals in odd situations without killing each other – the bereaved old father and the young hero; the cunning middle-aged hero and the old handicapped man. The central scenes are puzzling and poke the question what the pair drinking from the cups would have done had such roles fallen to them. It is easy to imagine that similar situations may have occurred among the leaders of the long first century wars.

Perhaps Chief Hoby understood nothing of tales that the cups told, and Prefect Silius commented upon, but we must not forget that contemporary young Germanic princes such as Arminius, who was a Roman officer and citizen, could make a carrier in the Roman army, speak Latin and access classical education. And the Trojan War has obvious didactic qualities when it comes to educating generals and war lords alike.

The structure of the dyadic tales in Hoby may be described in several ways, but none the less the hook is a situation in which something odd that we are not quite sure of seems to take place. Curiosity drives us to take a look at what happens, and when it has prompted us to turn the cup clockwise a scene comes into focus with clues enough for us to recognize the situation. When we continue to turn the cup we enter into a pause when Priam leaves his charioteer among the sleeping Greeks and enters Achilles’s quarters. On the other cup Philoctetes’ bow hangs in the tree for ten years after he got his wound. When we break the pause barrier and turn to the central scene we see the negotiation between the two couples. We may contemplate this situation, but eventually we turn the cups into the domestic domain where the slaves work and the exceptional tales end in commonplace daily life in the field [6].

With these three pairs in mind what then can we say about the missing Warren cup? We start by analysing the existing one. Owing to Swedish legislation this not-missing Warren Cup must be shown severely damaged.

However, bearing Satyricon in mind and what is on display in British Museum, we can compare the damaged couple to Ascyltus and Giton engaged in an adult-boy situation. The cup can be read by turning it anticlockwise. Similar to the attraction created by the outstanding masks on the Hildesheim cups, we start by following the slave boy’s gaze from his observation point peeping out behind the door (to the right). He sees the first couple, man-adult, in the draped room. By turning the cup we look through the first part of a room and its curtains into the next and the pederastic adult-boy scene. Turning the cup once again we look through this part too and follow the slave boy out of the room. This cyclic structure is a trick with perception – we follow the slave’s gaze although we look directly at the cup and eventually at the slave when he leaves. The slave boy looks at no one and no one looks him in the eye. The scenes are impassionate, textiles are abundant, a flute and a lyre hang on the walls and there are some indications of furniture too. Similar to Hildesheim and contrary to Hoby, there is no time depth in the scenes. Dyfri Williams (DW) points to the instruments, the garments, disinterested looks, especially characterizing the passive participants, and goes on to haircuts and the man’s non-Roman beard. He concludes, convincingly, that the persons on the cup are Greeks. In Roman scenes of intercourse the bed is central, but not in Greek images. The lack of actual beds may thus be yet another indication of the non-Roman character of the scenes. That first century Roman cups depict Greek ways is to be expected.

As DW points out the setting is non-brothel. Consequently, owing to his Greek experience Encolpius, who is Petronius’ protagonist, would have recognized himself as one of the guests in a private house.

With all this in mind we can turn to the reconstruction of the missing Warren Cup and expect it to illustrate a narrative with the same structure as the one we know, i.e. a slave looks into a room, sees what goes on between two Greek couples, one in each part of the room, and leaves again. Similar to two of the cups from Casa del Menandro, depicting Mars and Venus with a serving Cupid in two different capacities: either holding Mars’ weapons or Venus’ perfume flask, we expect a small variation also between the Warren cups. A slave girl suggests herself as a slave in the house and an outsider. The room would be more or less the same perhaps with other instruments displayed on the walls. The essential variation nevertheless must be related to the couples. It seems probable that the couples were composed differently and that sex positions differed too. It is reasonable, therefore, that the reconstructed pairs are male-boy and adult-adult respectively. Falling back on the juxtaposed male-female pairs on wall paintings from Pompeii, we can expect the first scene to show the male kneeling behind the boy, and the second to depict the two adults facing each other, one of them lifting his arm above his head [7].

Taken together, this would mean that we are in a private Greek house where the owner of the house, probably the male, entertains two adults and a boy. They are looked after by the slaves of the household. The scenes on the missing cup may have been the more passionate, but I don’t think so! Foreign ways, distance, alienation and impassion are prominent themes on the existing cup and that indicates that foreign ways, distance, alienation and impassion is the reason why the cups fitted a convivium in a private house belonging to the educated and well-to-do. Irrespective of the drinking dyad being unisexual or not, discussing criminal offence and child pornography would have been pointless, but the talkative bowl and its ambiguous cue line: receive me thirsting, perhaps I will reconcile you, might just strike up a conversation between the two who made up the Warren cup dyad. Obviously, the first answer is: ‘I don’t think so!’ but that will be followed up by new questions. Owing to the impassionate air of the boy it is not impossible that a Phyllis, drinking from one of the missing cup, will recite a line of two from Horace, Ode 4.10, to her. Horace points to the ievitable cruel vanity and insolence of beautiful boys.

As it happens, this convivium is all about testing each other the Socratic way.


[0] On June 16, the Supreme Court ruled not guilty in the Manga case, but the court referred to the pictures being phantasy rather than true to life, except for one. The Warren cup scenes are obviously realistic and the ruling thus not a precedent applicable to a ‘Warren Case’. Actually, in picture (g24.jpg) according to the Supreme Court, the drawing of the child stands out as real. The drawing as a whole must be considered realistic and pornographic . This description fits the realism of the Warren cup. If a drawing is true to life then the protective interests (of children) are applicable. This leaves us with the divide, the divide as it were is the very point, between g24.jpg and the other pictures. Nevertheless, we are unable to see the divide because we cannot see picture g.24.jpg. None the less we are left with a strong suspicion that one of the scenes on the Warren cup is indeed child pornography.

[1] Usually, this quotation from Horace, Odes Book 4: Ode 11 to Phyllis, it is translated ‘the house is smiling with silver’ or ‘the house gleams with silver’. However, given the fact that Horace, before mentioning the silver, has told Phyllis of his splendid wine and envisaged her shining with ivy in her hair (reminding us of a Maenad) and given the fact that he proceeds to describe the busy preparations for their meeting, the (characteristic) sound of silverware ought not to be excluded. After all, what point is there in telling someone that you silver is polished. It is putting it out in the house that matters. Ligurinus, by the way, is dealt with in Ode 4.10.

[2] Facts an interpretations on the Menander hoard can be found in:
Maiuri, Amadeo. 1933. La casa del Menendro e il suo tesoro de argenteria. Vol 1+2. La libreria dello stato. Roma.
Painter, Kenneth S. 2001. The Silver Treasure. The Casa del Menandro at Pompeii. Vol iv. Calderon press. Oxford.

[3] See Maiuri, Amadeo. 1933. La casa del Menendro e il suo tesoro de argenteria. Vol 1+2. La libreria dello stato. Roma. Page 246 and notes.

[4] On the Hildesheim hoard see:
Pernice, Erich & Winter, Frantz. 1901. Der Hildesheimer Silberfund. Verlag W Spemann. Berlin.
On the cups see pp.37-40.

[5] The cups from Hoby were published by:
Friis Johansen, Knud. 1923. Hobyfundet. Nordiske fortidsminder. Vol 2:3 Pp. 119-164. København.

[6] The general structural approach in the Hoby cups has affinities with the two propagandistic cups from Boscoreale – the Augustus and the Tiberius cup:
Héron de Villefosse, Antoine M. 1899. Le tésor de Boscoreale. Monuments et mémoires publiés par l’académie des inscriptions et des belle-lettres. Vol 5. Pp. 1-290. Ernest Leroux. Paris. See pp. 134-148.

[7] Roman ways of looking at sexuality can be understood in:
Clarke, John R. 1998. Looking at lovemaking. Constructions of sexualities in Roman art 100 B.C.—A.D. 250. University of California Press. Berkeley.


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