Why I love history: Ancient Roman Dick Jokes

Venus on Alert in Ancient Pompeii
Venus on Alert in Ancient Pompeii

I have been doggedly trying to find out more about the Roman Republic (pre-Caesars, pre-decline, pre-depravity). It’s almost impossible. The Romans were a successful self-governing people with a working republic for five hundred years and change, but damn near every resource I can locate begins at the point where their corrupt senators handed over control to individual despots and everything went to hell. I want to know how they succeeded for five hundred years. I think Americans, as a self-governing people, might all want to know that.But no. Apparently everyone else only wants to know how they failed.

Anyway, I was watching a history of the excavation of Pompeii. My husband was half-watching, but at the same time discussing with our son the sensationalist structure of the show we were watching and its emphasis on destruction and depravity, with the documentary collectivist mindset of “this was all the Roman people lumped into one vast generalization,” rather than “this was a one-day snapshot of the lives of some rich Romans on vacation.”

Watching the show, listening to my husband and son, an object I couldn’t quite believe passed before my eyes.

I said, “Dude, stop. Whoa, stop, stop, stop, you gotta see this. Back it up.” My husband did the Manly Remote Thing, and backed up the documentary. He didn’t have to ask me where to stop. The object on display for just that instant was a bronze phallus. Sort of. It was a bronze phallus with legs and feet, wings, a tail that ended in another phallus…and the phallus had its own phallus, neatly situated between its legs. And bells. Don’t forget the bells.

And this…er…creature…was looking around a corner.

I was laughing my ass off. My husband and son burst out laughing too.

The narrator had been droning on about the Roman equation of the phallus with luck, and here was this amazing, beautifully finished, exquisitely detailed, frikkin’ hilarious piece of artwork that some dude one day before 79 AD had created, and the massive bore of a historian and the flat-voiced narrator didn’t stop for so much as a giggle. They were intent on turning this goofy, delightful bit of creativity into a tedious proof of a deadly dull point, and frankly, I didn’t give a shit about the speculative Roman collective mentality regarding the significance of the phallus.

I wanted to know who the guy was who made that thing, because he was a funny, funny guy. It was the fact that he made the thing look around a corner that got me.

Bugger has been dead for pretty close to two thousand years now. And what he created made me laugh.

To me, this is history. Not who were those people, but who was that guy?

(Found a picture here: Tintinnabulum lookin’ around a corner.) (Opens in new tab.)


The questions really driving me batty:

  • Was this the guy’s job, or was it his hobby?

    If job, what was the job title for this particular specialty, so that if someone asked you where you got your interesting front porch ornament, you could say, “You can by them from Phallius, the … what?”

    If hobby, well—okay. Sure. I’m betting some guy in Kansas has a similar one.

  • How many guys had this job, and if so, were they in competition?

    I’m saying there were at least two, because there are some significant differences in style in some of the…chimes.Matt suspects this was two guys and an elaborate practical joke on each other, with one sneaking his latest creation onto the other guy’s front porch in the dead of night and hanging it there, and the other guy making one with one more phallus than his friend made, and hanging that thing in front of HIS house. And the two of them, caught by neighbors in the midst of these shenanigans, saying, “Oh, these are good luck charms.” And the neighbor saying, Really?! I could use some luck. Could I buy one? Only with more dicks?”

    That’s the sort of thing that could spawn an industry.

  • Was this the equivalent of the tourist T-shirt?

    Go to Pompeii, get a dick? Nobody found any of these things (that I know of) prior to the excavation of Pompeii, so was this actually a tourist collectible, emphasizing the thing the town of 20,000 was best known for? “Pompeii, Home of the Dick?”
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25 responses to “Why I love history: Ancient Roman Dick Jokes”

  1. Lain Hart Avatar
    Lain Hart

    Hi, Holly! I don’t know much about Ancient Roman society but my own impression is that the Republican Period, while very different from the Imperial Period, represents “the good old days” only in the frenzied imaginations of frustrated members of the senatorial elite, who may or may not have been the same sort of ignorant reactionaries who crucified Christians and chained them to posts in the arena to be devoured by wild animals in honor of old pagan gods.

    Even in Republican Rome, it was a hard life. Even for senators. Because a number of senatorial clans were unable to reproduce, the wealthiest few were able to gobble up the estates of the less successful lineages, then raise larger and larger armies to wage wars farther and farther from Rome and bring back more and more slaves — which made it harder and harder for free Republican Romans to earn a decent living. From time to time, Republican tribunes and senators butchered their own people in a series of civil wars so brutal that their conclusion (“Pax Augustus,” the quiet dawn of the Imperial Period) was hailed throughout Rome as the best thing since flat bread.

    In some important ways, the Imperial Period represents a turning point. In other ways, it represents a continuation of the Republican Period. However, the idea that Romans were, in general, more oppressed during the Imperial Period is simplistic. It is worth bearing in mind that Rome (even before the Republic) had always been a city of immigrants and refugees, and during the Imperial Period, there were a lot more opportunities for people from all over Europe, from Syria to Scotland, to come to Rome (even if they were on the lowest rungs of society) to exchange goods, amass wealth and advance their positions in society. The coins, statues, letters, paintings, etc., that materialized this wealth was much greater supply in the Imperial Period, and maybe that’s part of the reason it is so much easier to research Imperial Rome compared to Republican Rome: We know so much more about people at that time because there were a lot more of them, and they had so much more to leave behind.

    Anyway, good luck with your research, and please bear in mind the fact that the Ancient Romans would have thought about a representation of the male anatomy in a way that was probably very different from yours, your husband’s or your son’s. The sight of a penis might leave you and your family in fits of hysterics, but rest assured, whoever made that phallus was definitely not a comedian. In fact, in Ancient Rome, a phallus was a common magical amulet, a representation of extremely powerful forces — the very same forces that perpetuated Roman society.

    So, to get a better sense of the real significance of the sacred object you deride as a “dick joke,” you might want to delve into the work produced by any one of the many, many classicists, archaeologists, historians and art historians who do, in fact, “give a shit” about what you refer to as “the speculative Roman collective mentality regarding the significance of the phallus.” Maybe it makes you uncomfortable, maybe it makes you laugh, but instead of making fun of what you don’t understand, why don’t you try and see things from another person’s perspective (isn’t that what understanding history is all about)?

    1. Holly Avatar

      Hi, Lain, I’m actually pretty familiar with the phallus part of Roman culture. Hadn’t seen any of the artifacts, but had read about them. It doesn’t make me in the least uncomfortable: Catheterizing my male patients in the ER also didn’t disturb me. I’m an ex RN, and essentially unembarrassable.

      My point on the history of Rome is that it was made up of individuals, none of whom can be lumped into one vast clump of generalizations. And since the majority of artists in Rome at the time of the eruption of Pompii were Greek slaves who did not hold with the screwed-up Roman mysticism of their owners, I rather doubt they did hold the same reverence for their masters’ dicks that their masters did. And I suspect the man who made that particular creation had a FINE sense of humor.

      1. Lain Hart Avatar
        Lain Hart

        Hi, Holly! I take your point. However, I think that a rather fanatical notion of the value of “the individual” might be interfering with your understanding of Ancient Roman culture.

        Look, neither one of us was there. I didn’t get to see exactly how this penis was made, and neither did you. So you might be right: Perhaps this particular amulet was made by one person who originally intended it to be a joke. I don’t know.

        However, based on what historians and archaeologists say, I’m more inclined to believe that this amulet was modeled according to an established pattern for religious iconography, then produced in a workshop by a team of workers (not an individual) with all the same hilarity that factories today produce Catholic crucifixes, Buddha statues, and elephant-headed Ganesh figurines (which might also look bizarre, and hardly worthy of worship, to people 2000 years from now).

        1. Holly Avatar

          There is no such thing as “a rather fanatical notion of the value of the individual.” Those who reject the value of the individual reject life, because without the individual, life does not exist.

          And your line “team of workers (not an individual)” is an oxymoron. There is also no such thing as “a team” or “a government” or “a school board,” or “a collective.” These are all individuals who choose to identify with each other to accomplish a specific goal: however, everyone involved is still an individual, and actions taken by the individuals in the group are still the direct responsibility of those who took them.

          Teams, governments, school boards, collectives: all of these are disguises under which individuals, who think individual thoughts, experience individual pain or joy, act individually. The only question is whether they act freely, or under coercion.

          I looked that tintinabula and saw one poor, enslaved bastard—the one who designed that particular mold—making a mockery of the thing his owner valued most, and the owner being too in love with his own image to see that he was being mocked.

          People who are made slaves will find the way to express themselves, and whenever possible, they will exact the price of their expression from their owners. As well they should. Those who claim the right to enslave others forfeit their own rights.

  2. Lewinna Avatar

    Speaking of ancient cultures, someone posted a link to this today:


    Really cool!!

  3. Lewinna Avatar

    What a great sculpture! I love it. Especially the wings. It’s kind of cute really. XD

    Ancient cultures are amazing. I’ve been very much into the Vedic culture/civilization lately, which according to its scriptures is REALLY old (thousands, millions of years). Plus all the cool cosmology of the changing physics and character of the different ages. Other cultures (especially their own view of history in their own words, rather than, as you say, our ‘scholars’ view of them) are great inspiration… the book I wrote most recently mixed in a lot of Vedic ideas for the dying fantasy civilization in my book.

    1. Holly Avatar

      It does pay to remember that the majority of those ancient cultures were class-based and permitted slavery, and most of them were dictatorships of one form or another (kings, priests, etc.) and none of them gave a damn about the rights of the individual.

      I find the ancient world fascinating, but living in any ancient culture (as well as most of the modern ones) would have been hell.

      1. Lewinna Avatar

        Ancient Vedic culture was very much class-based, though as described in its scriptures this was by qualification and not by birth (as it is largely today in India). There was a laborer (shudra) class, but the view of this and of how they were to be taken care of (they were to serve and be protected, but be fed and clothed sumptuously, and never mistreated), as well as how women were to be taken care of and protected, was not how we would see it through our modern-day lens. Rights of individuals were very, very different–I’m not convinced their brand of individual rights were inferior, with the exploitation, depression, and crime that go on in our modern societies. Vedic culture in particular was always very spiritually focused, putting the good of the soul above that of the body and ego. Kings were trained and required to be righteous and selfless (an art called raja-dharma) in exchange for the fourth of each citizen’s wealth that they received, and even capital punishment was seen as a compassionate method to relieve karmic reaction for the criminal in his next life.

        I told someone once about this cartoon:

        It’s a good illustration of how very differently the world can be viewed. The woman I told about the cartoon said she had heard from a Muslim woman about how safe and sheltered it felt to be covered that way. The complaint I hear from some about comparisons like this is “well one of them has a choice”. I’m more familiar with the cultural issues of women than of slaves or laborers, but it is important to remember that in our culture we actually don’t have a choice either–if we WANT to be protected, we don’t have the option. We pretty much have to learn to be hard-nails, have gone through exploitation and heartache, and protect ourselves. Some people are very convinced this is just the way reality is, yes (especially if it is all they have experienced). But not everyone: talking with women in cultures where they aren’t subjected to that… it’s an experience for sure.

        Just saying… there are many perspectives from which to view the world, quality of life, and priorities… many different standpoints. That’s what is so fascinating about it–I think a lot of people don’t fathom just how different (and seeming equally right and sensible and good to those on them) the different platforms can be.

  4. Alexa Avatar

    Holly, you may be interested to know there’s a new book coming out in May 2012 called “Rome and the Mediterranean 290 to 146 BC: The Imperial Republic” (by Nathan Rosenstein), which as far as I know only deals with the Republic era of Rome. I did Classical Studies for my degree and still keep up with the latest books on the subject, so know what you mean about the lack of info about the Republic. But I focused more on the Greek side of things, as I found them more interesting then the Romans, who I always saw as bullies and thugs. (I’m Scottish, so there’s a bit of hereditary hatred there!)

    The Romans had some odd ideas about sex and body parts. We were taught that one of the dining rooms they found in Pompeii had images of men giving oral pleasure to women on the walls; and that the Romans would have found that hilarious, as it was something you would never actually do. The Greek pots, with satyrs balancing plates on the end of their “manhoods” and generally having a good time with each other, were also highly amusing to my 18-year-old self (and still are). A segment of my Degree course was all about the imagery and techniques in pottery, which my boyfriend still calls my “pots and cocks” course.

    I love ancient history 🙂

    1. Holly Avatar

      Alexa, thank you so much. That looks like exactly the book I’ve been trying to find for the last couple years. (Research for Dreaming the Dead)

      And the ‘pots and cocks’ course sounds like a lot of fun. My fourteen-year-old is amazed at the things people put on their dinnerware back then.

      The Roman government was a bunch of bullies and thugs. Nor would Rome thank me for my interest in it. Would definitely not thank me for how I intend to use my take on the Empire in my fiction.

      I love the L. Sprague de Camp novel Lest Darkness Fall, which as a deeply pro-Roman take on alternate history. It’s a marvelous story. But I wouldn’t have written it.

      Still, a 500-year Republic is not something to scoff at when you look at your own republic and the predominance of empire-builders over the last 75 years in the White House who’ve run roughshod over the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, aided and abetted by the spineless, snivelling ass-lickers in Congress.

    2. Holly Avatar

      Added note: Preordered the book. It definitely looks like what I want. Thank you again.

    3. Erin Avatar

      I was fortunate enough to see an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science this past weekend about Pompeii, which included some artifacts from the city. One of them was a wall fresco that featured two men and a woman in a boat having sex. There was also an oil lamp with a penis on it, as well as other penis-related things scattered throughout just that small sample.

      Also, a few years ago, I went to the Getty Villa in California, and there was lots of ancient pornographic crockery there as well. It’s amazing that porn hasn’t really changed in the last 2000+ years…

      1. Holly Avatar

        Wow. I just found this. And they literally rocked her world…

  5. classicist Avatar

    Artisans were often slaves or freedmen (freed slaves, still a pretty low social class); these things were sometimes also made in the provinces and imported, although usually regional production could be assumed. Clearly phalluses and ‘erotic’ art was everywhere in Pompeii leading some scholars to dub every second building as a brothel. Sounds unlikely but also remember it was approximately the equivalent of a rich resort town!

    The documentary was right: phalluses are atropiac (warded off evil spirits). Which doesn’t mean the don’t have a sense of humour – for example the Greek satyr plays featured comic characters with giant phalluses. However in many ways the Romans had a vastly different mind set from our modern ones.

    I don’t think you would particularly like the “good” Romans that built the Republic; it was highly militaristic, prized tradition above all else, strongly patriarchic, incredibly class conscious, politically fractious, and often extremely brutal to its conquered peoples.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Oh, agreed on the quality of character of Rome. It was the same rule-by-force nightmare that still governs most of the rest of the world, and as a form of civilization, was as appalling as what still passes for civilization in most of the world. I would have detested Rome.

      Any society in which the people who create, work, and make money are looked down on, despised, and even enslaved by the people who don’t—the people who take what they haven’t earned by force—is a society that has not earned its survival.

      I suspect there would have been individual Romans I liked, though.

      But the question of how people with self-rule kept their nation from collapsing into the hell of kings, Caesars, and other oligarchs for 500 years remains valid.

  6. Dyre Avatar

    I too would love information on Rome -before- the fall of it. As well as how they lived day to day as opposed to only their greatest accomplishments and failures. I adore history, and my favorite bits to learn were always the little ones.

    The phallic wind-chimes are a new thing to me. Not the look of them, however, just that they existed so long ago.

    One of my favorite artists makes a habit of drawing odd phallic creatures. Now I wonder if she knew about the wind-chimes…

    The oddly adorable creatures are here, if any are interested (she is an amazing artist and most of her pieces have a well written story to go along with them)- http://ursulav.deviantart.com/gallery/?q=phalloi

  7. Jane Avatar

    Hi, I have a question I’d like to ask re writing and having another job…I’m confused about life right now and would love to just ask you a couple of questions (I can condense the long story because I know you don’t have time). It would be incredibly helpful. I’m just not sure how to contact you via email…the contact on the main page was for people in courses I believe.
    Let me know. Thanks!

  8. Nan Avatar

    You might like: graffitti from Pompeii. 🙂

  9. Joyce Sully Avatar

    Well, they’re certainly more fun than a key chain in the shape of a surfboard from Hawaii.

    It’s frustrating that so much of what we know about past cultures and civilizations comes from the little everyday objects people left behind, yet historical sources are so much more concerned with the majestic (or depraved) sweep of history. I want to know more about how they cooked and played and cleaned house and, yes, made dick chimes.

  10. Lynne B Avatar
    Lynne B

    Having visited Pompeii a couple years ago, there’s a lot of really fun graffiti (and you can get most of the written phrases at http://www.pompeiana.org/Resources/Ancient/Graffiti%20from%20Pompeii.htm ). What’s even better, though, are some of the deliberate illustrations in houses. Like the menu on the wall in the brothel. Obviously useful when you had a lot of visitors who spoke foreign languages — you could just point to the picture of what you wanted the prostitute for. O_o I’m pretty sure that the phallus-beasts showed up in Herculaneum as well, too.

    If you are ever able to get to Pompeii it’s well worth a visit. There is the obvious tragedy. But Pompeii is a very human town, as well, and one you can completely imagine living in, with little neighbourhood restaurants and shops and tiny little bars and family feuds and just general local business, quite aside from any tourist presence.

    There are a lot of things about the ancient world which bring home the whole “the more things change, the more they stay the same” about human nature, to me. Like a letter from a girl in ancient Crete to her mother on a different island, which went something along the lines of “Dear Mother, please don’t worry about me; I’m living in a very respectable boarding house, they have a curfew and boys are not allowed in the rooms or in the building after dark, and the house owner makes sure we all eat properly.” Or the famous letter home from the Roman Legionnaire stationed in northern Britain which read roughly, “Dear Mother, I’m fine, the weather is lousy. Please send money so I can buy decent food.”

    Or the fact that Hadrian’s Wall ended up being more than 5 years over deadline, considerably over the allocated budget, and finished up as a rushed bodge job. Hell, projects like that obviously have a lot of tradition behind them. ;-P

  11. kimi Avatar

    Hey I’m from ks. We aren’t that bad. Brsides I know two guys who would do that to each other and they were NJ and ny collectively.

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      It was not an insult to Kansas. It was a suggestion, rather, that people a sense of humor exist everywhere. 😀

  12. Deb Salisbury Avatar

    ROFL! I love the idea of those … wind chimes … as tourist collectables.

  13. Krista Avatar

    Holly, as a Grad student I have access to scholarly articles in a number of journals. I’m more than happy to do some searches for you and forward what PDFs I am able to find on the subject. Let me know if you’re interested. I can be reached at krheiser at gmail dot com.

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