Did the men of Pompeii have a penis problem?

A first century fresco in the ruins of Pompeii could reveal an embarrassing truth about ancient Roman men, an Italian researcher told The Local.

Did the men of Pompeii have a penis problem?
The Vettii fresco. Photo: Christine McIntosh

The fresco in question is found in the entrance to the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, which survived Mount Vesuvius's eruption in AD 79, and depicts minor Roman god Priapus and his famously large, erect penis.

Priapus was a Roman god of livestock, fruit, plants, gardens and male genitalia. 

But according to research by Dr Francesco Galassi, in the fresco, Priapus was suffering from a debilitating condition known as phimosis.

Phimosis is a medical condition where the foreskin fails to retract from the head of the penis, and its depiction in the fresco could suggest it was a problem that blighted the men of ancient Pompeii. 

The Vettii fresco is notable because in other surviving depictions of Priapus he is not shown to be suffering from the phimosis.

So why did the artist choose to give him the condition?

Perhaps a prominent member of the Vettii family suffered from the condition and wanted to hide their shame by having Priapus suffer from it too, Galassi said.

“Or it could be that the condition was so widespread that the artist chose to depict it,” he added.

Put like this the evidence seems a little flimsy and anecdotal, but when considered alongside archaeological finds it starts to become more convincing.

In the area around Pompeii a huge number of anatomical votives have been found. These are small penis-shaped objects, made from wood and stone that were believed to ward off evil.

There could be some mileage to the theory.

Jessica Hughes, a classics lecturer at the Open University, told Discovery news: “Anatomical votive offerings made in Italy between the fourth to second centuries B.C. do often show the penis with the foreskin closed around the top, as in the later Priapus painting from Pompeii.”

Perhaps these trinkets were a way for the ancient Romans to ward off even the condition itself, which can be quite debilitating.

“The Romans didn't have the technology to treat it. It is a condition that causes pain, infection and problems during sexual intercourse,” Galassi pointed out.

Today, the problem is easily treated, through steroid creams, stretching techniques or circumcision.

This is by no means the first time scholars have attributed Priapus with physical illnesses. In 2007, an academic writing in BJU International argued that Prapius suffered from Proteus syndrome, otherwise known as gigantism of the penis. 

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Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

Pompeii archaeologists said Saturday they have unearthed the remains of a "slave room" in an exceptionally rare find at a Roman villa destroyed by Mount Vesuvius' eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists in Pompeii who discovered a room which likely housed slaves. 
Archaeologists said the newly-discovered room in Pompeii likely housed slaves charged with maintaining chariots.  Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The little room with three beds, a ceramic pot and a wooden chest was discovered during a dig at the Villa of Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa just a few hundred metres from the rest of the ancient city.

An almost intact ornate Roman chariot was discovered here at the start of this year, and archaeologists said Saturday that the room likely housed slaves charged with maintaining and prepping the chariot.

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“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite,” said Pompeii’s director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The “unique testimony” into how “the weakest in the ancient society lived… is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in my life as an archaeologist,” he said in a press release.

Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, killing those who hadn’t managed to leave the city in time. They were either crushed by collapsing buildings or killed by thermal shock.

The 16-square metre (170-square feet) room was a cross between a bedroom and a storeroom: as well as three beds – one of which was child sized – there were eight amphorae, stashed in a corner.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The wooden chest held metal and fabric objects that seem to be part of the harnesses of the chariot horses, and a chariot shaft was found resting on one of the beds.

The remains of three horses were found in a stable in a dig earlier this year.

“The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room,” the Pompeii archaeological park said.

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Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

Experts had been able to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects in perishable materials which left their imprint in the cinerite — the rock made of volcanic ash — that covered them, it said.

The beds were made of several roughly worked wooden planks, which could be adjusted according to the height of the person who used them.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, covered by blankets.

While two were around 1.7 metres long, one measured just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The archaeological park said the three slaves may have been a family.

Archaeologists found several personal objects under the beds, including amphorae for private things, ceramic jugs and what might be a chamber pot.

The room was lit by a small upper window, and there are no traces or wall decorations, just a mark believed to have been left by a lantern hung on a wall.

“This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

“Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today. Pompeii is a model of study that is unique in the world.”

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The excavation is part of a programme launched in 2017 aimed at fighting illegal activity in the area, including tunnel digging to reach artefacts that can be sold on illicit markets.

The Villa of Civita Giuliana had been the target of systematic looting for years. There was evidence some of the “archaeological heritage” in this so-called Slave Room had also been lost to looters, the park said.

Damage by grave robbers in the villa had been estimated so far at almost two million euros ($2.3 million), it added.