Ancient Roman oil lamps, or a ‘lychnus’ in Latin, offered an opportunity for the masses to own a useful object which nonetheless represented the stylistic and thematic fashions of their day. In these everyday objects, almost all aspects of Roman life are represented, with sexual, mythological, and entertainment themes forming the core iconographical motifs.
In this example, we see Cupid, the embodiment of passionate love, who is etymologically linked to the Latin verb cupio, cupiere ‘to desire’. In Greco-Roman mythology, there are multiple accounts of how and when Cupid came into being. For Hesiod, writing in the 7th century BC, Eros (the Greek counterpart of Cupid), was a primordial god and came into being after Gaia (Earth) and Chaos, and thus predates the traditional Pantheon of Gods. However, in the later Imperial Roman tradition, Cupid is perceived as either the child of Venus alone, or the child of Venus and Mars. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Cupid causes Dido to fall in love with Aeneid, thus serving to explain the historical enmity between Rome and Carthage. In this depiction of Cupid, he is depicted with the torch, representing the brevity of love; and the mantel, which is often placed over Cupid’s eyes, a reference to the idea that love is blind.