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Athenian amphora, 5th c. BC, depicting ritual pederastic behaviour: touching the youth's chin and genitals.

From the beginning of civilization, the penis has been both a symbolic and flesh-and-blood gauge of man’s place in the world.

It seems men have celebrated the penis for millennia, and often used their organ as a symbol of power and dominance. In Ancient Greece it was common for men to pursue teenage boys for sexual gratification. In Ancient Rome, it was said, generals sometimes promoted soldiers based on penis size.

Throughout history, the pursuit of the perfect penis has fuelled the search for cures for impotence. In the eleventh century a recipe involved sparrows and billy-goats. When honey was added, the ingredients were cooked until the mixture became hard. It was made into pills and men would take one before intercourse. Today men pop Viagra. IDEAS producer Mary O’Connell takes us on a historical tour of male sexuality in Phallus In Wonderland.


Episode One

Fresco of Priapus, Casa Dei Vettii, Pompei.

Priapus was a minor Greek deity, one of the smallest gods with one of the largest phalluses. There are eighty surviving Latin poems written in praise of Priapus. In this representation, taken from the House of Vettii in Pompei, Priapus is weighing his penis on a scale. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans were very impressed with his monumental member. Images of Priapus could also be seen in many Roman gardens and orchards, warning potential theives that he may bugger those who ran off with fruits or vegetables.


Monumental phalluses of Delos. From Eva C. Keuls, The Reign of the Phallus.

The Greek imagination was obsessed with phallic fantasies. In no other culture in history was the phallus so present. There were hundreds and hundreds of depictions of Hermes, the god of travel. Herms, as they were called, were often stone or wood columns with no body parts except for a head and erect penis. They could be found outside private homes, at cross-roads, in the Agora or market-place. They were as frequent as a stop-light in a Canadian city. Greek men believed the phallus carried magical, protective powers that guarded a house or public institution.

What ancient Greek and ancient Roman men believed about the phallus gives us much insight into collective masculinity and their ideas about male sexuality.




A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis by David M. Friedman, Penguin Books, 2001.

Art and Money by Marc Shell, University of Chicago Press, 1995.

The Book of the Penis by Maggie Paley, Grove Press, 1999.

Hidden Anxieties: Male Sexuality, 1900 - 1950 by Lesley A. Hall, Blackwell Publishers, 1991.

Impotence: A Cultural History by Angus McLaren, University of Chicago Press, to be released in Spring 2007.

Mapplethorpe, A Biography, by Patricia Morrisroe, Da Capo Press, 1997.

The Penis Book by Joseph Cohen, Broadway Books/Random House, 2004.

The Reign of the Phallus, Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens by Eva C. Keuls, University of California Press, 1985.

Roman Homosexuality, Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, by Craig A. Williams, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Sex Is Not A Natural Act by Leonore Tiefer, Westview Press, 2004.

White Over Black, American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812, by Winthrop D. Jordan, University of North Carolina Press, 1968.


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