Penis depictions are alive and well in America, whether in all-boys-Catholic-school graffiti or a bachelorette party’s baked goods. Usually, though, the social accepted-ness stops there, right at those specific kinds of situations. You wouldn’t walk into a neighbor’s house and be greeted by a phallus statue, or paint a mural of one in your bedroom. (Well…usually. We can’t speak for everyone.)
Ancient Rome, though, held back no penis punches. There were graffiti scratchings, carvings, mosaics, frescoes, statues, wind chimes, necklaces, and more featuring everyone’s favorite third leg. And they were found everywhere, from the brothels to around a child’s neck.
For example, in Pompeii, penises have been found carved into the streets, pointing to the nearest brothel:
There are plenty of frescoes, too. Like this one of the god Priapus weighing his member against a sack of gold, from the entryway of the House of the Vetii, Pompeii:
And of course there were loads of graffiti penises and graphic writings all throughout Pompeii. This one below was written to a woman named Thyas, and reads “Thyas, don’t love Fortunatus. Goodbye.”
And this carved going into a Pompeiian theater:
They were even found on some controversial coins/tokens known as spintriae:
Obviously, penis depictions were far more acceptable in the public sphere than they are now—and they were everywhere. But why? What’s the difference?
It’s hard to categorize a culture that spanned over 1,000 years, but there are many attitudes that were generally true across the years. Probably the most important distinction is the general attitude towards sex and nudity in ancient Rome. Instead of sex being a fairly stigmatized, shameful act, it was a well-accepted and occasionally encouraged facet of life.
For example, male and female prostitution was legal for nearly the entire length of the empire. And it was normal to have regular sex (unless you were a virgin woman) or for men to have sex outside their marriage (with men or other women[iii]).
Indeed, sex generally only became an issue if you couldn’t exercise the proper level of self-control over your desires and became hypersexual, which could indicate that you were unfit to govern others[iv] or were uncultured[v].
Further, when the Roman population had dipped too low, Emperor Augustus made it a high honor for men to have three male offspring[vi], and instituted laws such as the Lex Julia and Lex Papia Poppaea, which provided tax breaks for those who had a certain number of children, and granted men with larger families preferential treatment when applying for public office. Penalties were struck against those who failed to comply[vii].
This new emphasis on children can be seen in Augustus’ Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace), a monument dedicated on his wife’s birthday that actually features images of their children—an incredibly rare feature on Roman art up until that time.
Because of this lack of stigma, certain images—like penises, or images of various sexual acts—were prevalent throughout Pompeii and the Roman world, where even children were exposed to them.
But more than that, penises had different connotations outside of the sexual. They were often a source of humor in images and writings[x]—much like today—but they also could represent luck, protection, fertility, and guidance[xi].
In fact, the phallus was seen to be protective against the evil eye and to bring prosperity and luck—hence children and soldiers wore them as amulets in the form of fascina. Fascina were also fashioned into windchimes, known as tintinnabula, which were believed to protect and grant fortune to homes. (The bells attached to the penises were seen as protective as well, and were tied to religious use[xii].)
Penises were tied to certain gods. For example, Greek Hermes (who served as the god of boundaries) was often carved into boundary stones and signposts known as herma, which featured his head and genitals[xiii]. Romans adapted the same practice for their equivalent god, Mercury:
But even more heavily tied to phalluses was the deity Priapus, who was a god of fertility and male genitalia. Famously, he has an enormous, permanent erection—which is now called priapism in his honor.
Like before, his phallus was seen to avert the evil eye and grant good luck[xiv], but he was also seen as a god of navigation—and his penis was a guiding force. Naturally, this made him popular among mariners, but his penis was also used in domestic setting to point people in certain directions[xv]. As indicated in the famous collection of poems to Priapus, the Priapaea, it seems statues of Priapus used his penis to guide people to certain features of a town, like a fountain:
Falce minax et parte tui maiore, Priape,
ad fontem, quaeso, dic mihi qua sit iter.
(“Priapus, terrific with thy sickle and thy
greater part, tell me, prithee, which is the
way to the fountain?”)
This may add a second explanation to why phalluses were used to point out brothels (besides the obvious).
Penises were also tied to healing magic; votive offerings (vota) in the form of penises have been discovered at various Roman healing sanctuaries, like these ones discovered at Pompeii:
Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons
[i] Pliny, Natural History 28.29; Varro, De lingua latina7.97; Barbara Kellum, “Concealing/Revealing: Gender and the Play of Meaning in the Monuments of Augustan Rome,” in The Roman Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 166.
[ii] Henig, Religion in Roman Britain, p. 176; Portable Antiquities Scheme, cat num: LIN-2BE126, http://finds.org.uk/database/search/results/q/LIN-2BE126.
[iii] Amy Richlin, The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor (Oxford University Press, 1983, 1992), p. 225.
[iv] Catharine Edwards, “Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome,” in Roman Sexualities, pp. 67–68.
[v] Edwards, “Unspeakable Professions,” p. 68.
[vi] “The Romans: From Village to Empire: A History of Rome from Earliest Times to the End of the Western Empire” by M. Boatwright, et al. 2nd edition. 2011.
[vii] Neurath, Paul (1994). From Malthus to the Club of Rome and Back. M.E. Sharpe. p. 7. ISBN 9781563244070.
[viii] Plutarch, Life of Caesar 61:1.
[ix] Crowther, “Nudity and Morality: Athletics in Italy,” pp. 119–121.
[x] David Fredrick, The Roman Gaze: Vision, Power, and the Body (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), p. 156.
[xi] Amy Richlin, “Pliny’s Brassiere,” in Roman Sexualities, p. 215.
[xiii] Paus. vii. 22. § 2; Aristoph. Plut. 1121, 1144; Hom. Od. xiv. 435, xix. 397; Athen. i. p. 16.
[xiv] Clarke, John R. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B. C. – A. D. 250. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1998.
[xv] Neilson III, Harry R. 2002. “A terracotta phallus from Pisa Ship E: more evidence for the Priapus deity as protector of Greek and Roman navigators.” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 31.2: 248-253.