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Why do ancient statues have such small penises?

Suzanne Cords
March 29, 2023

It is considered a symbol of masculinity: the penis. As Michelangelo's David makes headlines as "pornographic," a look at how tiny genitals were once perceived as a sign of merit.

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons in Vatican Museums in the Vatican City
The statue of Laocoön and His Sons in the Vatican Museums, RomeImage: picture alliance / Zoonar

In the Vatican Museums in Rome, a group of tourists stands in front of one of the showpieces: The statue of Laocoön and His Sons (also known as the Laocoön Group).

The roughly 2,000-year-old sculpture stands at a little over two meters in height, and depicts the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons. He is said to have advised his compatriots against bringing the Greeks' wooden horse into the city because he suspected it was a trick.

And it was. Warriors were hiding in the horse, which sealed the downfall of Troy. That was the plan of the gods, and because Laocoön wanted to interfere with them with his warning, they had him and his children killed by snakes.

An exciting story from an ancient period, but one detail in particular catches the eye of the tourists: Laocoön's penis is extremely small — and his is not the only one. Throughout the museum, there are statues of muscular men with tiny genitals.

A close up image of the statue of Laocoön and His Sons in the Vatican Museums, Rome
Larger private parts were not becoming in ancient timesImage: imagebroker/IMAGO

Small penises show 'rational intellectual with urges under control'

People in the group wonder why the sculptors of antiquity endowed men so modestly. One Dutch tourist, who mentions with a grin that as a retired gynecologist he's not necessarily an expert on "the bottom part of male anatomy," nevertheless offers his theory: "Statistically speaking, southern European penises are supposed to be smaller than those from the north," he says. 

That was definitely not the reason, clarifies archaeologist and guide Chiara: "For the ancient Greeks and Romans, large genitals were considered ugly," she explains. "The stonemasons modeled only small genitals because they wanted to make it clear: This man is a rational intellectual, and as such he has his urges under control."

Thus, the ancient man had a high degree of self-control and knew how to control himself — unlike the barbarians and some gods, including Dionysus, the god of wine, pleasure and ecstasy. He is usually surrounded by satyrs — a short half-man, half-goat (or horse) creature, always naked and depicted as being animalistic and hideous. They celebrated debauched feasts and amused themselves with the nymphs who lived in the forests.

"These gods and forest spirits were voluptuous, and their genitals were depicted accordingly," Chiara says. Dionysus' son Priapos, whom he fathered with the goddess of love Aphrodite, clearly had the largest. She abandoned the child with the abnormally huge phallus in the mountains. There, shepherds found him, raised him and revered him as a fertility bringer because of his impressive privates.

Image of Priapos: The god of fertility
Priapos: The god of fertilityImage: picture alliance / imageBROKER

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

The small penis as an ideal of beauty was initially a Greek affair. Around 2,400 years ago, the comedy poet Aristophanes recorded what the ideal male body should look like: "A gleaming chest, bright skin, broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks and a little prick."

The Romans adopted this idea. And not only them — Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo or Raphael were enthusiastic about the perfectly modeled masterpieces of antiquity and based their work on them.

Michelangelo's David, for example, created between 1501 and 1504, also has a modest manhood — even though his exposed genitals have been at the center of a recent controversy.

The sculpture, which can be admired in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, became even more famous than it already was in the United States after a school in Florida decided to force the resignation of its principal over parents' complaints that their children were exposed to the "pornographic" Renaissance masterpiece in a lesson.

Michelangelo's David on display at the Galleria dell' Accademia
Attracting the crowds in Florence — Michelangelo's DavidImage: Steffen Trumpf/picture alliance/dpa

Study: 'Piselli' are getting longer

Nowadays, society's perception of the male genitalia has changed. Micro penises are no longer perceived as a sign of intellectual eminence, and for many, large penises are considered masculine and represent success.

According to a study published earlier this year by Stanford University in California, they are even getting bigger. The male genitalia has grown by 24% in several regions of the world over the past 30 years, the scientific team reported in The World Journal of Men's Health.

In ancient times, these proportions would probably have caused aesthetic horror. "The length doesn't matter, women have known that for a long time," comments a tourist from Israel, who is standing in front of the Laocoön group and photographing the ancient appropriately sized genitalia.

Incidentally, in Italy penises are colloquially called "piselli" — which translates as "peas."

This article was originally written in German and adapted by John Silk.