The modern Western world loves a big fat dick. Beyond porn norms and pop culture glorifications, several studies indicate that the average woman who has sex with men may prefer a larger than average penis. (There has been far less research on the type of penises men who have sex with men prefer, on average.) The idea of a bigger dick having bigger value is so entrenched that a few evolutionary biologists have even tried to find a deeper reason for it. The enduring sense that a man’s worth may be measured by his length and girth leads all too many men, who, on average, have five- to six-inch penises, to feel woefully inadequate. (Seven-inchers aren’t that uncommon, but anything over is.) These anxieties, in turn, fuel dubious supplement and experimental surgery industries.
So it may be shocking to learn that the Ancient Greeks, the ostensible progenitors of Western cultural and aesthetic values, abhorred big dicks. “[In Ancient Greek culture,] the proper or beautiful penis is dainty,” said John Clarke, an ancient erotic art scholar, of their worldview. "A human with very large genitalia, especially male genitalia, is considered to be grotesque, laughable.” This preference for petite penises runs back to at least the eighth century BCE, as is reflected in statuary of the era, noted Timothy McNiven, an associate professor at Ohio State University who has studied antique penile depictions, and continues straight through most classical Greek art and literature.
According to Clarke, this preference endured, to some extent, well into the Christian era and extended beyond the Greek heartland, touching much of Western history and culture. All of which raises the question of why the Ancient Greeks and others were so into small dicks, and when and how exactly the modern cultural elevation of much larger penises emerged.
It is possible, said art historian Ellen Oredsson, that the Greeks valued the aesthetics of modest penises because their “artistic ideals were all about balance; nothing should be too big or out of balance.” Similar quests for balance may account for shrunken or enlarged anatomical features, including dicks, in other cultural traditions, as well. It is also possible, McNiven noted, that the Greeks may have been reflecting a culturally ingrained and acceptable eroticization of young men in all images of ideal male bodies. “The underdeveloped genitals align with the lack of body hair, male pattern baldness, etc., in the development of the ideal body type, even for adults,” he said.
However, the more commonly accepted interpretation, every art historian interviewed for this article agreed, is that the ancient Greeks saw a small penis as a sign of modesty, rationality, and self-control, which they valued, and a large penis as a sign of idiotic, animalistic lust—of a complete lack of restraint. They may have associated dangerously large lingams with animals, driven to follow their erections above all else. Half-human creatures like satyrs, goats from the waist down, tended to be depicted with huge erections, sometimes the size of their torsos—and often drunk off of their asses. They were, said McNiven, “the poster boys for losing self-control.”
It would be easy to dismiss this as an artistic metaphor, or an elite value that the wider Greek population may not have shared in sexual preferences expressed in their private lives. But, Oredsson pointed out, some Athenian plays—their pop entertainment—clearly articulated this elevation of smaller dicks, as evidenced by the lionization what Oredsson translates as "small pricks" in Aristophanes's The Clouds and the use of big, erect dicks for laughs in his Lysistrata. So these values were likely well-known by most Greeks over the centuries, and accepted as something more than an artistic convention or literary device.
It's unknown if the Greeks were unique in their time or place in terms of their penile preferences. One famous Egyptian papyrus satirically depicts ugly men with long and tapering cocks, possibly suggesting a similar sense of amusement at that which might amaze us today, but that is an isolated image. For the most part, McNiven pointed out, neighboring cultures didn’t show as much skin in their art, or talk about their concepts of an ideal body in their surviving texts.
Similar genital tropes did carry over into subsequent cultures, though. Notably the Romans, whose elites drew heavily from Greek culture in their own art and academics, continued to make statues with diminutive dicks. Like the Greeks, they thought gigantic penises were ridiculous. The carved amulets of large penises, sometimes with wings, for young men to wear or had people parade through the countryside with king-sized cock carvings to ward off evil forces with the power of laughter. Clarke noted that they especially loved the god Priapus, “a scarecrow, basically, with a big phallus, a guardian originally or gardens and orchards… [who] punishes transgressors with penetration by his ridiculous and oversized element.” He was a laugh riot.
Medieval artists likewise occasionally used big dicks to depict evil or heresy or, some scholars believe, to provoke a laugh. Into the Renaissance and Neoclassical artistic eras, Oredsson said, Greek-style sculptures of modest measure continued to show up as well. And, classicist Kirk Ormand added, it’s still possible to find strains of that ancient belief in the impulsive and absurd lust associated with a large penis in modern culture, even if small penises don’t show up in our art as often. (Think of the derision attached to people following their dicks, but also the racist views of Black men, commonly stereotyped as well-endowed, as wild, lusty sub-humans—a trope that is shockingly persistent and at times still explicit in much modern Western culture.)
So when did big dicks flip from items of grotesque humor and curiosity to idols of desire and admiration? Art historians and cultural critics have thrown around all kinds of speculation, from the Renaissance with its explicitly erotic engravings, like the early sixteenth century I Modi, to the modern era and the everything bigger, everything better ethos of our hardcore pornography.
There probably was no definitive flip because our conceptions of penis size have always been fluid and multi-faceted. As Joseph Slade, a historian of cultural depictions of sex and sexuality, pointed out, penises are often endowed in art and myth with a sense of power; they act as symbols of potency, fertility, and strength. When they’re a bit ridiculous, they often still retain that sense of admirable force. “Even in the Greek world,” added Ormand, “there are times and situations when a large member might have positive connotations.”
No culture, the experts I’ve spoken to said, seems to have been as directly enamored with small penises as the Ancient Greeks. (Counterexamples in Eastern, African, and Indigenous art that feature highly stylized or exaggerated visible genitalia can be found in works like Japanese Shunga prints, Kongo fertility statues, and Peruvian Moche pots, respectively.) Romans and other Western cultures just ran with Greek sculptural tropes, or downplayed dicks in tandem with Christian conservatism. The Romans, ardent followers of the Greeks in many ways, laughed at Priapus and chiseled little chubbies onto their statues in one breath, but in another exalted enormous erections as signs of manliness. David M. Friedman, in his cultural history of the penis A Mind of Its Own, noted that Roman generals at times promoted soldiers based on the size of their genitals. In private, some Romans apparently saw the sexual appeal of a prodigious penis: “There is some indication,” noted Ormand, “that there were male prostitutes in Rome who were prized for the size of their genitalia.”
“Roman concepts of the body were different” from Greek ideas about size, said McNiven, “But the elite class was so involved with Greek culture that the change is not very obvious.”
This seesawing sense of big dicks as absurd and disgusting, or powerful and desirable, within the same culture repeats itself throughout history. The Medieval age featured crazy dick monsters, but also codpieces showing off his lordship’s mighty junk as a sign of virile power. Nowadays, big dicks can play for humor, menace, or desire depending on how you frame them. “Even today, I think our cultural perceptions of the penis are very complex,” said Oredsson.
It’s likely, said Clarke, “that there were always individuals attracted to large penises, despite the negative implications of such proclivities in Greek and Roman thought.” Likewise, despite what porn or pop culture might try to teach us, not everyone today actually desires a humongous hard-on. Horror stories abound about the pain and pitfalls of sex with an overlarge organ. People's actual attractions line up with their own unique anatomies, and the sensations they like for getting off, if they can move past pop cultural depictions and get in touch with their own wants. Desire is flexible—it doesn’t hinge on dick size as much as many men may fear.
The idea of an ideal or culturally desirable dick has always been complex. What occupies the most cultural space likely depends on who possesses cultural power and what trains of thought they’re most obsessed with. "It’s definitely not a linear path,” added Oredsson. “There was no point at which social perceptions of penises flipped… Many different perceptions have existed and co-existed throughout history.”
All in all, there’s no real reason to get hung up on dick size or put too much stock in big dick porn and pop cultural depictions of substantial endowment. They are not gospel, but passing cultural moments. No matter what you’re packing, there are points throughout history when your dick has been laughable and grotesque, or admirable and desirable. Today, too, it’s both of those things. It just depends on how you look at it. Or carve it, for posterity.
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.