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Male Homosexuality in Greece and Rome by Peter Xiao

The Warren Cup (15BC-AD15)

The front (first image) and back (second image) of the Warren Cup

Images from the British Museum


The decoration on this cup consists of two scenes of male homosexual love-making. On the one side, the older active lover (the erastes) is bearded and wears a wreath, while the younger man is a passive partner (the eromenos). The Romans believed that, in sexual intercourse, the penetrative lover was on the dominant side of the social hierarchy, which is clearly exemplified here.

On the reverse side of the cup, the erastes is a beardless youth, crowned with a wreath, and the eromenos is a boy. The boy at the door with short hair, who is observing the scene, is probably a slave.

Roman men were free to engage in same-sex relations without a perceived loss of masculinity, only as long as they took the penetrative role, and their partner was a social inferior such as a slave or prostitute. The primary dichotomy of ancient Roman sexuality was active/dominant and masculine/feminine. It was socially acceptable and even expected for a freeborn Roman man to want sex with both female and male partners, provided he took the penetrative role.

Marble Busts of Antinous (left) and the emperor Hadrian (right)

Images from the British Museum


Relationships between men were common in ancient Greek and Roman culture, at all levels of society. Antinous, the Emperor Hadrian’s lover, was drowned in the Nile in AD 130. Hadrian was so devastated by the death of his lover that he founded a new city, Antinoöpolis, and commissioned buildings and sculpture connected with the worship of Osiris for his villa in Trivoli, near Rome.

Hadrian spent much of his reign touring his empire, and visited Claudiopolis in June 123, which was probably where he first encountered Antinous. Classicists like Royston Lambert argue that ‘The way that Hadrian took the boy on his travels, kept close to him at moments of spiritual, moral or physical exaltation, and after his death, surrounded himself with his images, shows an obsessive craving for his presence, a mystical- religious need for his companionship.’

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