Early in the The Judas Case, Solomon is invited to dinner by his old friend Nicanor from Alexandria, and is intrigued by the silver cup from which the doctor drinks his wine:
The younger slave carried a tray with a ewer and a set of silver bowls, the grandest of which was set before Nico. Engraved upon it was an image of a naked man taking his pleasure with a youth. They were both attached, in complicated ways, to an apparatus of ropes and slings. My own bowl was unadorned.
“A gift from a grateful client,” Nico said when he noticed my gaze.
The fictional cup could very well be mistaken for this one:
So writing characters in the ancient world presents a quite different challenge from that of novels set in the contemporary world of mass production, where domestic objects or material public wealth can more easily be used as a shorthand for social relations and as a way into a character’s interior life. The fact that a twist in The Judas Case’s plot revolves around a linen robe – a garment of extreme luxury that gives Solomon a very specific clue about its wearer – is a deliberate exploitation of this reality. I’ve been careful to portray Solomon and Zenobia (both with complicated backgrounds, both now just within a highly privileged minority that owns land and produces a valuable product) as just beginning to accumulate enough material wealth to feel a certain level of precarious security. A wrap made from an expensive textile, an antelope-hair brush, a brooch with an image of the goddess Isis are notable ornaments, but they’re also small and light enough to be packed up in a hurry and carried to safety. And I should admit at this point that it’s been authoritatively pointed out to me that Solomon’s preference for tunics of Egyptian cotton rather than hemp indicates a level of luxury that he and Zenobia have in other respects not yet attained.
Nico’s drinking cup fits into this world of ancient signification too, and is notable because it, or its twin, exists in the archaeological record. Go along to The British Museum in London and you can see it in Room 70. It’s known as ‘The Warren Cup’ after a collector who owned it for a while, and it has attracted some controversy because of its subject matter and the suggestion (since refuted) that it may have been a modern fake. It is dated to the early part of the 1st Century AD, and was found near Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th Century. It seemed to me to be just the sort of thing that Nico would use to serve a particularly good vintage either to a new lover or to honoured guests whom he could trust with his inner life.
I should add that the historical cup was dug up in a village just outside of Jerusalem some distance from where I have located Nico’s house. The mystery of how the fictional cup came to this resting place – was it stolen by a disappointed conquest, or buried for safekeeping in turbulent times? – must await another Solomon Eliades mystery.