Letter: Nero is the subject of the Warren Cup

One of the British Museum's finest treasures may depict a notoriously licentious Roman emperor

I read with interest this month’s entry about the Warren Cup (The Art Newspaper, No.93, June 1999, p.12). He was the same collector who owned the Madonna and Child with St John by Vincenzo Catena, recently exhibited at Maastricht.

A perusal of the text of Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars seems to indicate that the “sitter” on the Warren Cup are the Emperor Nero with his male “wives”: first, the boy Sporus whom Nero castrated in an attempt to turn him into a girl and whom he took around Rome on a litter, and, second, the freedman Doryphorus, who, “on his wedding night imitated the screams and moans of a girl being deflowered”. It was said that the world would have been a happier place if Nero’s father, Domitius, had married that sort of wife.

Nero’s identifying attributes, to judge from the same text, are the lyre and the laurel wreath with which he is crowned. He was awarded the wreath for a lyre solo, Latin verse and oratory. (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 12 and 28).

Ronald Cohen