Roman Sex, Online and Broadcast

Posted on January 18, 2011

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“We end with pepper, and we’re going to begin with porn.”

Now, that’s an eye-catching sentence. Or really, since this is a broadcast made available by BBC Radio, an ear-catching sentence.

In 2010, the BBC collaborated with the British Museum to produce a history of humanity– through descriptions of 100 objects. The series is fabulous history.

This episode deals with a silver cup reportedly found not far from Jerusalem, a product of Roman Imperial silver-smithing and artistry dated to the first century CE.

The cup is back in the news this week, due to a museum exhibit opening soon at the University of Nottingham Museum, promoted in a press release that is worth comparing to the 15 minute audiocast.

The BBC program makes a strong argument that the sexual relationships between free men and boys shown on the cup occupied an ambiguous position in Roman Imperial society– “tolerated, but not entirely accepted”.

Scenes on the cup reflect the kind of setting where vessels like this would have been used. A silver drinking cup of this quality was such a luxury that it had to have been purchased by a wealthy, upper-class owner.

The image on the Roman silver cup has details that connect the scene to sexuality in an idealized Greek past. One side shows explicit sex between a older, bearded man and a younger one, while the other side is described by historian Bettany Hughes as a “standard” idealized scene of sex between two young men.

For the Romans, this kind of sexuality was less acceptable than it had been for the Greeks. Roman writers warned men against having sex with free boys, or indeed, anyone other than their wives. Where Greek ideals of masculinity saw sexual relations of older men with youths as contributing to their maturation and formation into adult males, Roman ideologies of gender and masculinity were framed around marital heterosexuality.

Yet, the program notes, Greek vase painters never showed the kind of explicit scene of penetration found on one side of this Roman cup. Historian Hughes argues that the cup gives insight into what really happened, as opposed to the admonitions of proper behavior.

The BBC series used the cup as the first object in a series about sensual pleasures (hence the porn to pepper quote with which I began). But like most imagery of sexuality from the Classical world, it simultaneously reflects as much about wealth and privilege as about sexual experiences in everyday life.

Drinking parties where a cup like this would have been used were as much about the negotiation of business and political relations as about individual pleasures. Trying to see this object as a Roman would have demands that we place it in a wider context.

The new exhibit seeks to do just that. The press release describes an exhibit of showing that in Roman culture

art, from luxury items such as the Warren Cup, to wall paintings, sculpture and everyday tableware and lamps, was filled with depictions of the body and human intimacy

including

objects which to modern eyes may appear to be sexual but to the Romans conveyed other meanings connected to fertility, superstition or humour.

Putting this drinking cup in the context of depictions of body parts used as religious offerings, or to ward off harm, undercuts its associations with the experience of sexual pleasure that the BBC broadcast conjures up so well. The ordinariness of depictions of sex organs in no way negates the sexuality of the images on the Warren Cup. What these images should remind us is that prudishness about the body is a modern attitude.

At the same time, we might also put into question some of the implications of the evocative characterization of this silver cup as “porn”. While the modern history of collecting shows that the Warren Cup was viewed as pornographic from the Victorian era well into the 20th century, it is, again, our sexual mores that equate naturalistic depiction of sexual penetration with pornography. If we take porn to imply the kind of contemporary understanding of an image as intended to create sexual arousal, then to judge this cup as pornographic is to conjure up a vivid scene associating all male drinking parties with male sexual arousal. That may be justified– or it may, as easily, be yet another projection of contemporary experiences onto a sexual past that seems familiar, and yet may be very much different.

In a world where “Roman orgy” is a significant metaphor embedded in popular media, trying to understand the reception of an object like this extraordinary silver cup may require feats of self-questioning that will defeat even the most dedicated student of sex and gender in the past.