The phallus: ancient and modern

Greek herm

Greek herm, c.520 BCE

Marble and bronze herm of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, from Pompeii

Marble and bronze herm of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, from Pompeii

One of the striking features of ancient Greek and Roman culture is the apparently unembarrassed attitude towards sex. Depictions of the phallus (the erect penis) may illustrate this. To view overt representations of the phallus in modern western culture generally requires accessing hard-core pornography; but in ancient Greece and Rome images of the phallus would have been an everyday sight. Herms—sculptures depicting head and occasionally upper torso on a square plinth from which protruded male genitals—were commonly placed as boundary markers, and they would have been found in the home too. Generally depicting a god (frequently Hermes, a god of fertility and sexual intercourse), but including examples of citizens too, herms were intended to bring luck and fertility, as well as the apotropaic purpose of warding off evil.

Bronze tintinnabulum from Herculaneum; a man struggles with his phallus (in the form of a beast)

Bronze tintinnabulum from Herculaneum; a man struggles with his phallus (in the form of a beast)

Tintinnabulum, depicting gladiator fighting his phallus

Tintinnabulum, depicting gladiator fighting his phallus

Another object with an apotropaic function was the wind chime (tintinnabulum), and often this too assumed a phallic form. Wind chimes likely occupied similar places on boundaries, in gardens, porticoes, shops and houses. In the collection of the British Museum are examples of phallic wind chimes in the form of a winged penis, and a winged animal (possibly a lion); another bronze statuette, probably also a wind chime, is of a naked man, sticking his tongue out while sitting astride two phalluses. Other surviving tintinnabula include examples of struggles with the huge phallus: a gladiator fights his own huge phallus with a sword, while another is engaged in a fight with his penis which has taken the form of a beast.

Priapus in the form of Mercury; fresco from Pompeii

Priapus in the form of Mercury; fresco from Pompeii

The exaggerated nature of the phallus on display in these objects can also be seen in images of the Roman fertility god, Priapus (from whose name the medical condition of priapism—in which the erect penis does not return to its flaccid state—is derived). Excavations in Pompeii have unearthed frescos of Priapus (in one of which he also has attributes of Mercury), indicating that such images would have been found set into the walls of premises, on street corners and on shop signs.

Priapus, Roman god of fertility; fresco from Pompeii

Priapus, Roman god of fertility; fresco from Pompeii

Beyond their functions as lucky charms and protectors against evil and bad fortune, it is difficult from our historical and cultural distance to know how this phallic imagery was understood in antiquity. Were they considered erotic? Or were they looked upon as comic, ridiculous or even grotesque? Answering questions such as these is made more challenging by the inevitable tendency to view these images through modern eyes—and thus to view them loaded with the cultural and symbolic meaning of the phallus in the modern world. We may see in these phalluses the grotesque or the absurd or the aggressively sexual, or we may simply be offended by them—but whether the Greeks and Romans viewed them in this way is unclear.

Penis costume from San Francisco, 2005

Penis costume from San Francisco, 2005

30 St Mary Axe

30 St Mary Axe

It is tempting to think that, at least in respect of the phallus, we are far removed from ancient culture. In modern culture the phallus is generally thought of in two ways: as the subject of a risqué but safe exaggeration and amusement; or as something to be concealed as obscene and threatening. Because the phallus is generally restricted to the dark, pornographic margins of our culture, we may conclude that its open display in antiquity marks out ancient Greece and Rome as phallocentric, and hence radically different from our own culture.

But would that conclusion be right? A walk through most major cities may raise doubts. Stroll through London and we observe: the thousands of men wearing ties; Nelson’s column; 30 St Mary Axe; the Shard. Modern culture might not represent the phallus in as overt way as the Greeks and Romans did, but it may be just as phallocentric.