IN A CORRIDOR within the British Museum is Cupboard 55, an antique wooden cabinet numbered with a bronze plaque, containing more than 1,100 objects itemized into a registry and sequestered into an archive. It was created in 1865 and known as the Museum Secretum. Until the 1960s, the Secret Museum was a storeroom of erotica from the ancient world, including Asian, Egyptian, Greek, Near Eastern, and Roman artifacts. Many of them were objects of worship, such as pre-Christian fertility gods and goddesses. Also concealed in the cupboard were phallocentric objects, wax votive phalluses from churches in Isernia, Italy, and 8th- and 9th-century animal membrane condoms in original paper wrappers and tied with silk ribbons at the open end.
It was against this backdrop that the museum acquired the Warren Cup, a 1st-century masterpiece of Roman art from the Julio-Claudian dynasty that depicted unambiguous homoeroticism. The silver drinking cup was the largest single purchase at that time at 1.8 million pounds, and it caused something of an uproar. Observed Dyfri Williams in The Warren Cup (2006), a monograph written for the Museum: “It was prominently illustrated in all the major daily newspapers. … It was the
subject of cartoons, such as a bartender serving a Roman soldier, armored and helmeted, ‘Do you want a straight goblet or a gay goblet?’” The cup presents in high relief on both sides explicitly detailed representations of two males engaged in sexual intercourse. The front scene of anal intercourse is a classical idealization of the erastes—a dominant adult male, mentor, and role model—and the eromenos—his youthful and subordinate beloved. The youth reclines onto the lap of his older partner using a leather strap as a sexual support, frequently seen in works of Greek and Roman art. The difference in size between the two figures is more noticeable on the other side of the cup, with the mature male cradling the youth and using a hand to lift a right leg to enable penetration.