The Real Reason That Men in Classical Portrayals Were Given Small Manhoods
Today, bigger is widely regarded as better. But was this always the case? This article sheds some light on how the Western culture changed in its phallic preferences. Over the past few decades, pornography has played a role in the infatuation of inflated sizes. But in ancient times, men were intentionally portrayed with small genitals. Why was this the case? The story starts all the way back in ancient Greece…
Classical Preferences in Penis Size
If you have ever walked around a museum of classical work (meaning from ancient Greece or Rome) or if you have ever seen a photo of Michelangelo’s David, you may have noticed that male genitals are depicted with a smaller than average size. You are not mistaken. Greeks preferred their heroes to have small members. This preference was then transmitted through Roman, Christian, and ultimately Renaissance art.
Apollo Belvedere. Roman copy after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. attributed to Leochares. Found in the late 15th century. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
It may sound like a silly thing to think about; maybe a tour guide or teacher scolded you for even asking about it. But academics have deeply considered the penis size of classical works of art. For instance, a study entitled “Penile representations in ancient Greek art” was conducted in 2013 by the University of Athens and published in the US National Library of Medicine. The study’s stated methods were “The examination of a great number of penile representations from the ancient Greek pottery and sculpture and the review of the ancient theater plays (satiric dramas and comedies)” (Rempelakos, Tsiamis, and Poulakou-Rebelakou, 2013). So leave your giggles aside – this is serious stuff.
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Laocoön and his sons , also known as the Laocoön Group. Marble, copy after a Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506. ( Public Domain )
There are a couple of important things to bear in mind. First, as art historian Ellen Oredsson notes in discussing penis size in classical sculptures, “they’re flaccid. If you compare their size to most flaccid male penises, they are actually not significantly smaller than real-life penises tend to be.” (Oredsson, 2016)
Second, as the study mentioned above explains, “It is noteworthy that many of these images belong to athletes during or immediately after hard exercise with the penis shrunk” (Rempelakos, Tsiamis, and Poulakou-Rebelakou, 2013). Finally, with regards to Michelangelo’s David, a 2005 study by two Florentine doctors “offer a scientific explanation: the poor chap was shriveled by the threat of mortal danger. Michelangelo's intention was to depict David as he confronted Goliath. What the new study shows is that every anatomical detail - right down to the shaping of the muscles in his forehead - is consistent with the combined effects of fear, tension, and aggression.” (Hooper, 2005)
Michelangelo's David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell'Accademia (Florence). (Jörg Bittner Unna/ CC BY 3.0 )
Social Factors in Penis Portrayals
However, there are plenty of sculptures depicting men and gods who are not athletes and who are not scared. So why are these guys shown with small sex organs? The answer turns out to be a matter of cultural taste. As mentioned above, the Greeks preferred to see their heroes with small penises. This preference derives from several factors.
The ancient Greek ideal man was not a lustful lover but a wise public servant. “Greeks associated small and non-erect penises with moderation, which was one of the key virtues that formed their view of ideal masculinity,” explains classics professor Andrew Lear, who has taught at Harvard, Columbia, and NYU. “There is the contrast between the small, non-erect penises of ideal men (heroes, gods, nude athletes etc.) and the over-size, erect penises of Satyrs (mythic half-goat-men, who are drunkards and wildly lustful) and various non-ideal men. Decrepit, elderly men, for instance, often have large penises.” (Goldhill, 2016)
There is the contrast between the small, non-erect penises of ideal men (heroes, gods, nude athletes etc.) and the over-size, erect penises of Satyrs (mythic half-goat-men, who are drunkards and wildly lustful) and various non-ideal men. ( public domain )
Indeed, there are many sculptures from this time that show large penises, but they are not of Zeus. For example, one god who is always depicted as ‘well-endowed’ by modern standards is Priapus, god of fertility, protector of livestock and gardens. Priapus is the son of Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) and Dionysus (god of wine). While still in the womb, Priapus was cursed by Hera (wife of Zeus) to be forever impotent, foul-minded, and ugly (she cursed him because Paris choose Aphrodite, see The Iliad ). He was so grotesque that the other gods refused to allow him to live with them. So he was raised by lustful satyrs. Forever filled with lust, there are several myths in which Priapus tries to rape sleeping goddesses, nymphs, and maidens. But each time he loses his erection before he can. He is a ridiculous figure and always portrayed with an enormous penis. (Interesting side note: the medical condition known as priapism was named after Priapus. It is when an unwanted erection lasts for hours.)