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Theseus (center) invented wrestling

The Real Reason That Men in Classical Portrayals Were Given Small Manhoods

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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.

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.

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.

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)

Anatomical Influences

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).

Michelangelo's David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell'Accademia (Florence). (Jörg Bittner Unna/CC BY 3.0)

Social Factors in Phallic 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.

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. As an interesting side note, the medical condition known as priapism was named after Priapus. It is when an unwanted erection lasts for hours.

Fresco of Priapus, Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii. Depicted weighing his enormous erect penis against a bag of gold.

Fresco of Priapus, Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii. Depicted weighing his enormous erect penis against a bag of gold. (Public Domain)

In addition to mythical creatures, ancient Greeks saw other negative examples of large penises: the barbarians. In addition to being foolish, a large penis indicated a person was uncivilized. Remember, at this point in history Greece was something of an island of civilization amid more primitive hunter-gather tribes who frequently tried to raid Greek towns.

For better or worse, a barbarian stereotype of crazed men ruled by their lustful urges emerged. “Many barbarians surrounding Greece whom had raided and warred with Greece had demonstrated their penis worship and such practices were therefore a sign of barbarism and cultural vacuum in the eyes of the Greeks” (Admin, 2016). Whether a fool or a barbarian, large penises were considered signs of a man ruled by desire (not rationality) and were associated with uncivilized, animal-like behaviors.

A young Greek would not want to end up like Priapus and definitely would not want people to think he was affiliated with barbarians. As Ellen Odredsson wrote, “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” (Oredsson, 2016)

Moreover, the most ideal of all human beings was the male youth (Greek men did not prefer women). The prepubescent male was considered beautiful, innocent, and full of potential because he had not yet ‘burst forth.’ For those who don’t know, the male genitalia increase in size during puberty. Therefore, “the smaller your penis is the closer you are to the ideal and the more attractive you're considered” (Admin, 2016).

Anavysos Kouros, c. 530 BC.

Anavysos Kouros, c. 530 BC. (Steven Zucker/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Proportionality was sought instead of size. As with the arms, legs, and face, Greek sculpture made a radical departure from previous cultural artwork (think Egyptian and Sumerian) because the Greek artists tried to capture man as he really was, with all the curves and proportionate sizes that entailed. Remember, “Greek men saw each other nude all the time in the gymnasium,” said Lear. “So they must have been aware, at some level, that not every admirably moderate man had a small penis, and not every immoderate, cowardly, drunken man a large one.” (Goldhill, 2016) In addition to the preference of proportion over size, the Greeks did not like circumcised penises. At the time, circumcision was mainly practiced by Egyptians.

Bronze statue of a man. Mid-2nd-1st century BC.

Bronze statue of a man. Mid-2nd-1st century BC. (Sailko/CC BY SA 3.0)

Setting the Norm

Like other Greek artistic innovations, the Greek preference for small but proportionate penises became the norm for artists for centuries to come. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans had a far more positive attitude toward large penises and enjoyed a rich, erotic culture (the hedonism of Romans is one of the several factors that is considered to have contributed to its downfall). Like many things Roman, their fondness for big penises may have contributed to today’s similar interest.

Nonetheless, when it came to high art, the Romans stuck with the Greek standard of the smaller penis. This practice was then adopted by the Christian artists of the Middle Ages, partly because they did everything as the Greeks/Romans had done, but also because the humble and supposedly less noticeable small penis worked for their portrayals of saints and biblical characters.

Finally, when the Renaissance occurred, small penises were the preferred stylistic standard, even if viewers and artists like Michelangelo did not recognize why.

‘Adam and Eve’ (1425) fresco by Masolino da Panicale.

‘Adam and Eve’ (1425) fresco by Masolino da Panicale. (Public Domain)

Today, the obsession with penis size is just as widespread as it was in classical times. The size preference is just reversed. Yet, this is not to say that one impression is more correct than the other. It is important to realize that there is “no clear evidence that a large penis correlates with sexual satisfaction. Nor is there proof that a small penis is a sign of moderation and rationality” (Goldhill, 2016).

Top Image: Theseus (center) invented wrestling Source: CC BY 2.5

By Kerry Sullivan

Updated on November 19, 2020.


Admin. "Penis Size in Classical Art."  Penis Sizes. Penis Sizes, 25 Dec. 2016. Web.

Goldhill, Olivia. "Why Do Greek Statues Have Such Small Penises?"  Quartz. Quartz, 21 May 2016. Web.

Hooper, John. "Was David Scared Stiff of Goliath?"  The Age. The Age Company Ltd., 2005. Web.

Oredsson, Ellen. "Why Do All Old Statues Have Such Small Penises?"  How To Talk About Art History. How To Talk About Art History, 13 Aug. 2016. Web.

Rempelakos, L., C. Tsiamis, and E. Poulakou-Rebelakou. "Penile Representations in Ancient Greek Art."  Arch Esp Urol 66.10 (2013): 911-16.  Department of History of Medicine. Medical School. Athens University. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web.



Pete Wagner's picture

Informative, thanks.  But another aspect is, as you mention, the damage to the statues, intentional and unintentional.  With so many having their noses smashed off, seemingly by people who either DID NOT LIKE the beauty or shape of the ancient nose, or wanted to destroy the truth of the common appearance of the ancient face - mostly like the fair-haired Atlantean/pre-Ice Age recovered from the rubble/ruins, compared to the Semitic nose from the black-headed Sumerians, which is obviously different shape.  But for penises, there doesn’t seem to be a big difference between that of the ancient Greek and the Semite.  So a statue like this one – how apparent and easy it would be for the penis to wind up being broken off at the base, along with a arm or two, in the cataclysmic event that created the rubble and ruins.  The erect penis, let’s imagine it as a spouting fountain in an ancient gymnasium, would be the mostly likely appendage to break off accidentally.  And IF broken off, not to far down the base, the Roman culture that resettled the ruins and recovered the damaged statues, might see fit to try to rework the broken stub into a small one that might look a bit off, a bit TOO SMALL.  It’s not likely that the ones that obviously look TOO SMALL were the original size and shape.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

A compelling theory about Michelangelo’s David, aside from the fact that it was commissioned not for the public square where it was placed for almost 400 years but rather to be displayed as purely religious art in a niche on the exterior of the cathedral in Florence, is that perhaps the statue simply has the genitals of the man who modeled for Michelangelo.  David is believed to be modeled from a young marble quarry worker, a young man who had a fine physique from doing strenuous manual labor.  His name is lost to history, but a number of Michelangelo’s known live models for other works were quarrrymen, and he generally selected his marbles himself on-site.  Perhaps David has a small penis simply because the live model had a small penis.

Regarding the Roman divergence from the classical Greek ideal, it likely has something to do with the greater social agency of women in Roman society and under Roman law.  Women had no say in art or in any other respect in ancient Greece as to what an ideal penis was.  Roman women had far more influence and authority over their lives, and spending hours nude daily, men and women often in large groups together, at the baths during the Roman era was the norm.  Roman women of all social classes were better informed about male anatomy, and they had far more say about their lovers than Greek women of several centuries earlier had. Roman women didn’t select their husbands, but they certainly could influence those selections, and they most certainly selected lovers.  Writers such as Marcus Martialis and Petronius Arbiter tell us a great deal about the Roman attitude toward penis size (bigger being better, and the smallest being laughable), but the numerous grafffiti on the walls of the bath complexes and elsewhere tell us far more clearly and certainly that this was the prevailing attitude in the Roman era.  Women as well as men shared this view, and it may be the voice of Roman women that tipped the balance away from the Greek ideal.  The idea that when it comes to men and penises “smallest is best” would have been laughable to Roman women, and there would have been no point in attempting to maintain such a myth. 

Men with large penises were admired for them at the baths, and men with small penises had no choice but to show them off as well, but they did so at the risk of derision.  In classical Greece, men and women spent far less time at public baths, and they had strictly separate bathing facilities for men and women.  The earlier Greeks never would have found themselves in mixed male-female groups nude.  The later Romans, at larger public bath complexes certainly would have, in the hundreds of people at one time and of all social classes.  During the Roman era, people spent hours per day at the baths for a number of reasons, but it was essentially the only place to meet to arrange business deals, to discuss land sales, cultivate relationships with clients or patrons, or arrange a marriage.  The wealthiest Romans had private bathing facilities at home, but even they spent some time at the public baths, and it would have been common for men and women to bathe nude togther in private baths or within each others’ view at the public baths.  It would have been widely known in any social circle which men were well endowed, and which men had the smallest penises.

Ancient Romans decorated their houses with erect phallic symbols throughout in ways that would shock us today, but it was merely a symbol of nature and fertility, exactly as we may display a bowl of fruit or vase of flowers in various places in a home or in framed art on the walls.  The Greeks certainly had nude male statues in public places, but they didn’t have everyday household objects in the form of phalluses (such as oil lamps and candle-holders), and much less interest in large penises as a popular cultural symbol than the Romans did.

The ancient Romans also had depictions of the modern equivalent of pornography, especially painted on the interior, and sometimes exterior, walls of brothels, which were numerous. They showed men and women joined in sexual acts.  The men and women in these frescoes really fall within modern standards of male and female attractiveness, body shape, and hairstyle in mainstream porn.  The men tend to have large, but not gargantuan, penises. These painted images look like thoroughly modern pornographic photographs.

Not only was a substantial erect penis a symbol of fertility for the Romans, but the Romans placed much more emphasis on prosperity and good luck, personified by the Goddess Fortuna, and for a man to be well endowed was a sign that Fortune favored him.  Having a noticeably small penis meant to a Roman man, and to those who knew him or might see him at the baths, that Fortune had denied him favor, that some good luck had eluded him.

The theories about the classical Greek ideal manhood as corresponding with ideas of high culture, youth, and self control are all plausible.  There’s also another compelling explanation that’s often overlooked.  The Greeks did wonderful things in mathmatics, architecture, astronomy, and government, but their ideas about biology and medicine were virtually all wrong.  The ideal of a short, thin, tapered penis was based on a gross misunderstanding about how sperm travels and how fertilization occurs.  The ancient Greeks believed that men with small penises were more fertile because the semen traveled the shortest course to leave the male body.  They mistakenly believed that fertilization occurred exactly at the tip of the penis at the moment of ejaculation.  They had no idea that a longer penis or one with a bulbous glans might pose advantages in producing offspring.  Ultimately, it may have been this misunderstanding about biology that originally led the ancient Greeks to idealize a small manhood as a sign of manliness.

My only negative criticism of the article itself is the inclusion of the photograph of the Appolo Belvedere sculpture .  Its inclusion is in error.  When unearthed south of Rome sometime between 1485 and 1489, the ancient work in marble was missing his lower right arm, left hand, and penis, long-since broken off and never located.  A sculptor who was a pupil of Michelangelo restored the upper extremities a century later, but no effort was ever made to restore the statue’s penis.  The photograph of the work, as it still stands in the Vatican Museums, illustrates only that most sculptures of nude male subjects, especially in marble from classical Greece and Rome, had their penises broken off long ago.  What we see of this Apollo’s former manhood is a short stub of jagged broken marble where the statue’s penis used to be.  We have no idea of its size or appearance in antiquity, nor of the manhood of the long-lost earlier Greek original bronze from which the extant marble figure was copied during the Roman era.

There are plenty of images of ancient works with very small penises stil attached and present.  It would have been better to make the point attempted regarding penis size by including one of them, rather than the Apollo Belvedere wtih its penis completely absent.

I viewed Michelangelos’s David statue in Florence and one “mistake” is evident David is shown as “uncircumcised” which cant be right as all Jewish men are circumcised on the 8 eighth day Besides this “imperfection it is a brilliant peice of art

AmyVenus's picture

These comments LOLOLLOL


and I though the article was about willies. not so reading the comments.


Kerry Sullivan's picture

Kerry Sullivan

Kerry Sullivan has a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts and is currently a freelance writer, completing assignments on historical, religious, and political topics.

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