Archaeologists excavating in Cordóba, Spain, have uncovered what may be one of the largest ancient phalluses on record. The sculpted carving, which measures almost half a meter in length, was discovered at a fortified enclosure at the archaeological site of El Higuerón. While the phallus is impressively large it blurs against the plethora of similar discoveries over the years. It feels as if we learn of some new Roman graffiti or sculpture celebrating the male appendage at least three times a year. All of which has to make you wonder, is it us, the Romans, or both who are fascinated by the phallus? Were the ancient Romans as obsessed by the “dick pic” as we are?
The current discovery was made by scientists working under the auspices of the Museo Histórico Local de Nueva Carteya. The El Higuerón site was first settled in the fourth century B.C. and was conquered by the Romans in 206 B.C. The most recent season of excavations, as Heritage Daily reports, focused on Roman and Medieval era layers. In addition to the 20 inch penis sculpture, which was uncovered at the base of a wall, archeologists also unearthed a mosaic floor, and human remains from the Roman and Medieval periods.
To those following along, it’s not that surprising that the phallus would be found in a Roman military context. As has long been observed by ancient historians, it was the Roman legions who were responsible for transporting this image across the Empire. The magical and supernatural properties attached to the phallus were borrowed from the Classical and Hellenistic Greek world, but it was the Roman military that was the most efficient conduit of the symbol as it spread throughout the Roman world. Arguably the best-known examples of phallic graffiti come from Hadrian’s Wall, where some 57 examples embellish the military defenses. A bakery millstone recently discovered in Leicester, England, was decorated with a phallus and testicles. Not your run-of-the-mill baking accessory (though etsy has some suggestions, if that’s what you are looking for).
The Roman interest in the phallus is hardly unique to Britain but it’s also about more than just the link between masculinity and sexual power. As Roman osteoarcheologist Kristina Killgrove has written, Pompeii is famously covered in erotic artwork: excavations have revealed a fresco of the minor deity Priapus (with his characteristic comically oversized penis) at the House of the Vetti; a flying penis amulet; and statue of Pan engaged in sexual congress with a goat (to be fair to Pan, he is half-goat himself). Doorways all over Pompeii were decorated with tintinabula, erotic wind chimes made of bronze phalluses hung with bells. One example blazoned the lintel of a bakery included not just a phallus but the inscription, “You will find happiness here.” As Sarah Bond as highlighted in her work, evidence like this has led some to suggest that bakeries might have served double duty as brothels. Lots of kneading and rising, one assumes.
The great number of phallic images in Pompeian artwork led the 18th century historian Richard Payne Knight to speculate that perhaps there was even a sort of ‘Cult of the Penis’ there. But in truth Pompeii wasn’t as debauched as a bunch of remarkably life-like oversized penises suggests. The phallus served a valuable protective purpose. It was thought to protect the wearer or residents from magical attack. This is one reason that an infant in Yorkshire was buried with no fewer than five fist-and-phallus pendants: They protected the vulnerable child.
That the penis was thought to serve as a kind of protective object can partially explain why it is that graffiti and engravings of phalluses are so regularly found in military contexts. It’s not just—as is still the case today—that military men are somewhat obsessed with the male sex organ. To be sure we should assume, as sociologist Ramon Hinojosa has written with respect to the modern military, that it is an emblem of how sexual prowess, masculinity, and power are linked in our cultural imagination. We should also recognize that penis graffiti might have been an act of immature rebellion. In a report on “Sky Dongs” (the phenomenon of Air Force personnel doodling dicks in the sky with multi-million-dollar jets), Jeff Schogol learned that some of the most prolific X-rated graffiti artists in the military were actually women. For Roman soldiers stationed in vulnerable posts at the edges of the empire, however, it wasn’t just about immaturity or masculinity, it might also have been about self-protection.
The interest in the phallus as perennial image of masculinity and power does not end with the Romans. Nor is the penis only the province of military men. It can play a somewhat subversive role as well. As medievalist Lucy Allen has written on her fascinating blog, some medieval women also took an interest in the subject. The artist Jeanne de Montbaston, who illustrated manuscripts alongside her husband in 14th century Paris, was fond of inserting rude images into the margins of copies of the racy poem the Romance of the Rose. The poem is an allegorical meditation on the nature of love, but it is also, as was standard for its time, stunningly misogynistic. It depicts women as sexual objects and body parts and traffics in what we now recognize as “rape culture.”
Perhaps the most well-known of Jeanne’s illustrations features a nun harvesting a basket of oversized pink-tipped phalluses (complete with testicles). As you do. Allen thinks this overpopulated medieval dick-in-a-box is a subversive commentary on the medieval tendency to see women as body parts. She argues that this image in the “margins of a romance full of mansplaining about female desire and the superior creative powers of men… is saying: ‘well, if you have to have a penis to tell a good story… look how many I have!’”
Perhaps, in the final analysis, it’s not the size that counts, it’s the sheer number of phalluses you have in your basket, basinet, windchime, or proverbial inbox.