The Fascinating Tale of Greco-Roman Penises

Ellen over at How To Talk About Art History answers a question: why do the ancient Greco Roman statues have such small penises? This was something that I had always noticed and giggled about with my schoolmates back in the day, but as an adult I never really thought about it much. I figured that, as far as flaccid penises go, they’re not so terribly tiny, and anyway the artists back then probably didn’t think to focus on that part so much.

And yet, it turns out that the little penises were sculpted so very much on purpose.


Cultural values about male beauty were completely different back then. Today, big penises are seen as valuable and manly, but back then, most evidence points to the fact that small penises were considered better than big ones.

One of the reasons historians, such as Kenneth Dover in his landmark book Greek Homosexuality, have suggested that small penises were more culturally valued is that large penises were associated with very specific characteristics: foolishness, lust and ugliness.

All representations of large penises in ancient Greek art and literature are associated with foolish, lustful men, or the animal-like satyrs. Meanwhile, the ideal Greek man was rational, intellectual and authoritative. He may still have had a lot of sex, but this was unrelated to his penis size, and his small penis allowed him to remain coolly logical.


That, is, fascinating. I wonder how, and when, fluctuations in opinions on penis size happened, and why.



  1. cartomancer says

    In this particular case it is worth distinguishing between the Greeks and the Romans. While Dover’s contention may very well hold true for Greek sensibilities (and, even then, mainly for Athenian sensibilities – it is unlikely that every Greek city was as in love with the idea of rationality as the highest good, the Spartans certainly were not), the Romans had rather different ideas.

    Nude statuary as an art form in Rome followed the Greek aesthetic very closely. It was an art foreign to Roman culture until about the 2nd century BC when Roman dominance of the Greek world caused Romans to start imitating Greek models and importing Greek art. Much to the consternation of many old-fashioned Romans. As such Roman nudes tended to adopt the small penises of the Greek style.

    But if you look at all the other penises in ancient Roman art (and there are loads!) they tend to be bigger and more stylised. Also disembodied quite often, so there is no real size comparison to make. Wall paintings in Pompeii and Herculaneum tend to reveal fairly large penises, and the erect penis had much more by way of symbolic power in Roman society (they were used for talismans and luck charms all over the Empire – we’ve dug up thousands of the bloody things!). Many Roman graffiti are boasts about having a large penis as well – perhaps indicative of the culture of the less aristocratic and snobbish Romans. The attitudes of Roman (and Greek) society below the level of the philosophers and statesmen whose writings have come down to us are notoriously hard to discover, and historians have often neglected them.

    That’s one of the big criticisms of Dover’s work, actually, pioneering though it was in the mid-late 20th century. He tends to generalise the views of Athenian aristocrats in the 5th century to everyone in the Classical world from Homeric times to late antiquity.

    I would guess that the modern notions of a big penis being better are derived from a combination of working-class Roman attitudes and the attitudes of Celtic and Germanic peoples in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. It’s certainly prevalent by the 12th century, when pornographic stories in manuscripts tend to assume that big penises are most satisfying.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … large penises were associated with very specific characteristics: foolishness, lust and ugliness.

    Hmmm. Maybe what The Donald™ says about his own anatomy deserves reconsideration.

  3. perodatrent says

    Anyone looking for some enlightenment about how ancient Romans (at least the newly enriched) considered penis’ volume should take a visit to “Gabinetto segreto” at Naples’ Archaeological Museum. Been there, seen things, now educated.

  4. Robert,+not+Bob says

    I’ve wondered if the Greek ideal of small genitals is related to pederasty. Youth-evoking traits being popular in a sexual context (and possibly why women don’t have beards…).

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