Famous Roman Painting of Priapus May Include Painful Penis Condition

Illustration for article titled Famous Roman Painting of Priapus May Include Painful Penis Condition

Uh-oh, it looks like not even gods of sex and virility can avoid problems in their dick game. New research speculates that a famous Pompeiian painting of Priapus depicts the deity not just packing a huge cock, but also strutting around with a painful and embarrassing medical condition.


Discovery has delved deep into issue, speaking to M.D. Francesco Maria Galassi, author of the recent paper. He speculates that the god in the fresco may be suffering from phimosis, an inability to retract the foreskin. Not only that, but he believes that Priapus’ phimosis (say that ten times fast) is of the highest grade, with his penis being shut all the way.

To be honest, it’s not that surprising that an ancient god would have a penis disorder (Zeus, who stuck his dick in anything that moved, and probably some things that didn’t, comes to mind). But it’s ironic that Priapus’ giant schlong might be afflicted with a condition that can contribute to infertility—probably the biggest problem for a fertility god to have.

So why is Priapus depicted with his portal of power shut tight? It might be that phimosis was common and men of the time were making offerings to the god in order to have it removed. This, says classical studies lecturer Jessica Hughes, might be the reason that phimosis was so often depicted on votives. (The condition can now be handled with steroids or circumcision, so you figure the Romans’ treatment options weren’t great.) In addition, Priapus’ phimosis may have been a way to show that gods had such power that they could overcome a condition that left mere mortals unable to conceive.

Illustration for article titled Famous Roman Painting of Priapus May Include Painful Penis Condition

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Contact the author at mark.shrayber@jezebel.com.


Sybil Ramkin

This is particularly interesting because Priapus more or less is his penis in terms of symbolism, so it is odd that he would have a problem with fertility. I think it is possible that the phimosis is more symbolic than anything else.

I have a book (“A world full of gods” by Keith Hopkins published in 1999) which captions this simply as “Jolly (? - he looks rather morose to me) man weighs his erect penis against a bag of money in the entrance hall of the House of the Vettii, Pompeii”. The Vettii who owned this house were both freedmen but were successful enough to own one of the luxurious residences in Pompeii. This implies that they probably did well in trade, as when a master freed his slaves it was considered polite to set them up with a shop.

Whether the man is Priapus or not (he probably is from the size of his erection, but not necessarily - he is wearing a red phrygian bonnet, which was traditionally worn by freemen like the Vettii) my interpretation would be that this is not particularly related to votives or godly power.

We have to look at the connotations of penises in ancient rome because he is shown weighing his erection against money. Little (or not so little) models of phalluses called fascini, sometimes with wings, bells and animal legs added like in this photo, representing “the divine phallus” (Romans were weird) were good luck charms in the Roman Empire. One of the jobs of the Vestal vigins was even to tend the cult of the “fascinus populi romani”, or “sacred penis of the Roman people. However in art the Romans tended to follow the Greek tradition that large penises (often seen on satyrs) were a symbol of bestial and uncivilised behaviour, which is why classical statues of beautiful young men tend to run quite small.

The fact that this Priapus has phimosis means that while he is a symbol of luck, wealth and fertility he is also “restrained”, and therefore more civilised (Priapus was cheifly a country god). This is iportant to the owners of the house because it shows that while they are ex-slaves they are also civilised and sophisticated city-dwelling Romans who, through self control symbolised by the phimosis, have acquired wealth symbolised by the bag of money. The fruit on the ground, meanwhile, could symbolise fertility.

tl;dr: I think the phimosis actually symbolises civilised self-control on the part of the people in whose house this fresco was found, leading to their wealth - a way of showing off, in a way.

(Can you tell I’m going to study classics at uni next year?)

ETA: In some legends Hera/Juno cursed Priapus with impotence, and the phimosis could also simply be the artist’s way of symbolising that legend, in which case the painting could just be a straightforward depiction of wealth and fertility.