Size Matters…Not


Figure 1. Priapus “Busy weighing himself.”
House of the Vettii, Pompeii. Note the Phrygian cap, Priapus is very much a foreign, Greek deity.

In antiquity size mattered, just not the way it matters today. Interestingly enough, ancient Romans found large phalli humorous and replusive and actually preferred those with much smaller and more manageable sizes. As in my previous post here on the term “adpragmalic”, you can see an ubiquitous mosaic motif found in bathhouses. In Roman mosaics, the cultural use of blackness was two-fold. The dangers of the baths according to John Clarke, were the intense heat and the Evil Eye. The mosaics of the black African was a perfect way to warn individuals of both simultaneously. When heat is concerned, Clarke writes,

The heat of the baths constituted a physical danger addressed by images of  sandals . . . or images of the Aethiopes, or black African. The Aethiopes communicated the idea of heat in two ways. He comes from a hot climate, and his Greek name, Aethiopes, means “burnt by the sun.” The Greeks attributed the Aethiopes black skin to having been burnt by the sun. [1]

The city of Pompeii, having been destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 CE left a plethora of material culture. Among these we can see the function of the phallus in every day life, from protecting crossroads (Fig. 2), to household objects such as macrophallic slaves (Fig. 3) and of course cult objects (Fig. 4). In Figure 3, the bronze is known as the placentarius, a tray bearer and would have likely held a small silver tray with orderves. The grotesque and unappealing body of this bronze statue would have also enhanced the laughter that it would provoke. These are just many examples of the stylistic representation of the phallus in Roman Culture.

Decorative brickwork phallic symbol designed to ward off the evil eye

Figure 2. Decorative brickwork phallic symbol designed to ward off the evil eye at crossings.

xv. Giant Phallus in Painted Tufa Sculpture in Nocera tufa; height 251/4  in. (64 cm) From Pompeii regio IX, insula V (August 30, 1880) RP, Inv. no. 113415.

Figure 4. Giant Phallus in Painted Tufa
Sculpture in Nocera tufa; height 64 cm. 
regio IX, insula V (August 30, 1880)
RP, Inv. no. 113415.

Figure 3. Placentarius
Sculpture gilded in bronze; height
from Pompeii regio I, insula VII, nos. 10-12. House of the Ephebe, RP, Inv. no. 143760

In the hit series Rome by HBO, although some may argue that the historical accuracy off on many things, it sure was spot on concerning the cultural construction of the phallus, and how they prayed. This took place in first episode of the first season. Titus Pullo is incarcerated,  (in carcer, Latin for in jail) and some may think it shows him being a juvenile delinquent by drawing a phallus on the bench, (Figure 5)  in actuality this is a Roman expression of good luck so he is able to get out of jail. The  shows his darling artwork, and later in the episode, after the legion’s eagle was stolen, he is shown praying to Foculus, the fire of Vesta. His prayer is very Roman, and is usually written as Do ut des, literally “I give, so that you give.” It was a reciprocal relationship where if he is released from prison, he would give a fine white lamb, or 6 pigeons. If he doesn’t get out, then no sacrifice. One of which seems to have paid off since he is released into the care of Lucius Vorenus.

Titus Pullo Phallus Drawing

Titus Pullo, Season 1, Episode 1 “The Stolen Eagle”

But why did Romans have this cultural construction? The most accepted reason by scholars is that it was used to ward off the Evil Eye.  According to M. W. Dickie and Katherine Dunbabin, the Evil Eye was thought to have been  one of the inherent dangers of attending the baths.[2] Although the danger of the Evil Eye could manifest anywhere, hence the phalli present at road crossings (Figure 2). These dangers were the dangers of jealousy or envy phthonos (Greek) or invidia (Latin). These words are “best defined as begrudging envy that directs ill will against another person who possesses beauty or good fortune.”[3] The baths therefore became an opportune place for the Evil Eye. Since people were nude in the baths and some were more attractive than others, envy and the manifestation of the Evil Eye was considered a serious risk. Romans believed that someone using the Evil Eye “was able to focus this malice through his or her eye which emanated particles that surrounded and entered the unfortunate victim.”[4] In order to prevent this from happening these mosaics and other images were created with the purpose to cause robust laughter in order to distract onlookers and thereby prevent accidental or malicious thoughts transmitted through the Evil Eye.

In conclusion, the phallus is one of the most common forms of preventable devices against the Evil Eye. It is used to incite laughter, especially when it is attached to what Roman’s would have considered otherness such as  dwarfs, pygmies, and the Black African. The disembodied phallus also was used to protect people from harm and provide good luck. So, the next time you are in the bathroom, and someone has drawn a phallus on the stall, smile or even laugh aloud, it will ward off that Evil Eye!

[1] John Clarke, Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and transgression in Roman Visual

 Culture, 100 B.C. – A.D 250. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 75.

[2] The other danger being the hot floors, which was another reason the black African was used as imagery, the word for them being Aethiopes or “burnt by the sun”. In this way, the image served as apotropaic and a cautionary sign. See Clarke, Looking at Laughter, 75.

[3] J. Hellegouarch, Le vocabulaire latin des relations et des partis politiques sous la rèpublique (Paris, 1972), 195-199. 

[4] M. W. Dickie and Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, “Invidia rumpantur pectora: The Iconography of Phthonos/Invidia in Graeco-Roman art,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 26 (1983): 10-11..