If you spend enough time staring at the penises and testicles of ancient Greek statues, a thought may cross your genital-obsessed mind: why do they all appear to have smaller genitals than the average male today?
Well, the answer probably lies outside of the tunic (more on that later). First, let's be thankful that we can gaze upon these penises and their friends the testicles at all. Though the statue-makers of ancient Greece and Rome had no qualms about portraying nudity, audience attitudes have changed over the years, as one historian discovered when he was confronted with a drawer full of disembodied penises at the British Museum.
"When researching my book, The Erotic Arts [...] I applied for permission to examine the various restricted collections of erotica in the British Museum," lecturer in art history at Middlesex University, Peter Webb, wrote in a letter to the Guardian.
"In the Greek and Roman Department I was shown the Museum Secretum, and among the fascinating items was a selection of marble phalluses. I was informed that these had been removed from classical sculptures by 19th-century curators in order to make them suitable for public exhibition."
Webb generously offered to restore the penises to their owners, but was declined.
"I later discovered that similar prudery was the rule in other countries. Michelangelo's 'David' was provided with a marble fig leaf in the early 16th century which was not removed until 1912. Thankfully, fig leaves were employed more often than hammers by European curators, and many have now been removed, leaving tell-tale drill holes in the pubic area."
But why was only a relatively small fig leaf required for modestly? Well, that too has its roots in changing values – namely that back when a lot of Ancient Greek statues were made, smaller penises were seen as more desirable than larger ones.
"Ancient Greece was a highly masculinist culture," photographer Ingrid Berthon-Moine, who created a series in which she captured images of ancient statues' testicles, told Hyperallergic. "They favoured ‘small and taut’ genitals, as opposed to big sex organs, to show male self-control in matters of sexuality. Today, the modern users as in commerce, cinema, and advertising converted it into a mass commodity telling us about domination and desirability, size matters and the bigger, the better."
Art historian Ellen Oredsson added on the same topic that people with larger penises were seen to be “foolish, lustful, and ugly”, while Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes writing of the ideal male traits as “a gleaming chest, bright skin, broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks, and a little prick.”
Penises haven't grown larger over the intervening years, but it is no longer considered unattractive to have a more sizeable appendage, nor to display it (in an art context) fig-free.