Priapea critique brutalizing & commodifying stereotypes

Priapus weighs penis against money

Today even in societies professing ideals of gender equality, men’s bodies are brutally penetrated in institutionally structured men-on-men violence. Outside of battlefields, men’s sexual value is commonly measured in material resources — whether an outrageously expensive luxury car or state-imposed payments for forced financial fatherhood. These brutal structures of gender oppression are deeply rooted historically. In ancient Roman art and literature, the figure of a man with a rigid, hyper-exaggerated penis, known as Priapus, appears in a variety of contexts. Priapus doesn’t merely represent misandry through a depersonalizing caricature of masculinity. Highly polished and sophisticated Priapea (Priapus poems) became a focal point for urbane critique of the brutalizing social construction of men’s person.

Priapea figure Priapus as a minor god who receives offerings and provides services in return. While such reciprocity was common in ancient Greco-Roman religion, Priapea dedicatory poems are typically parodies. For example, a woman offers Priapus a sex manual illustrating a variety of coital positions and requests that he bring those acts to life with her. A man delivers to Priapus a picture of his penis in fulfillment of a promise to do so if his injured penis were healed. A dancing girl dedicates her instruments to Priapus and requests that she continue to arouse men.[1] No ancient Roman reader could possibly interpret these poems literally. Priapea dedicatory poems are better understood as ridiculing the commodification of men’s sexuality.

Priapea also ridicule stereotypes of Roman masculine sexuality. Priapus emphasizes the size and hardness of his penis and compares it to that of other gods and men.

no other god than Mars has a brawnier chest;
but it’s Priapus who’s much better cocked than the rest.

The size of my member has this great use;
For me no woman can be too loose. [2]

Priapus expresses his insatiable desire to fornicate with young women, boys, and men.

I’ll plainly tell you what I have to say
(My nature is to be open and blunt).
You’d like some apples; I want to stick your ass;
Give me what I seek — you take what you want.

Priapus cruelly disparages the bodies of old women while expressing the evolutionary-biological truism that typically men sexually prefer young women to old women.[3] Modern scholarship has tended to stereotype Roman men’s sexuality.[4] Priapea were an ancient, parodic response to disparaging men with sexual stereotypes.

A conventional setting for an objectified Priapus is guarding a garden. This Priapus is commonly a rustic, wooden statue. The statue threatens to rape any person who steals goods from the garden. Of course, a wooden or stone statute cannot rape anyone, but that reality is no more relevant than the reality of rape is to social discourse today. The rigid statue doesn’t question why guarding the garden is his responsibility.  In one poem, Priapus observes:

You will say that this is a shameful duty for a god to have. I know myself that it is shameful, but I would have you know that for this purpose I was set up. [5]

Priapus, like men generally, are socially set up in a degrading position. For the set-up statue, his penis is a weapon at the service of protecting the household’s goods.[6] The penis is thus alienated from the person of the man.

A significant protrusion in Priapea arises from conjoining penis as weapon with penis as means of desired pleasure. In another poem, a Priapus guarding a garden angrily complains that the householder has built a fence around the garden. That fence punishes Priapus by denying him the vigorous sexual activity of punishing thieves. Undermining a crude interpretation of Priapus as a sexual sadist, Priapus elsewhere appeals:

O citizens, Romans, I pray you, please,
There must be a limit — I’m brought to my knees;
For passionate women from hereabout
Importune me nightly and tire me out [7]

Lamentationes Matheoluli, a medieval masterpiece of men’s sexed protest, provides a highly sophisticated commentary on the figure of penis as weapon. Matheolus laments:

Ha! often, often I played! My summer passes,
Winter follows, and no power for erection.
And why do I further endure? Now that winter has yielded to spring,
I am not what I was, my manliness has totally faded,
who once nine times his wife’s garden tilled,
I have been made frigid who used to be hot.
My wife wants it, but I can’t. She petitions for her right.
I say no. I just can’t pay.

Then she sharpens her claws, and devours me. They
without grace rain on me, and I lose a thousand hairs.
After this, face painted with blood, I leave.
Every day the wife renews her curses.
My sword and shield are worth nothing against her;
I always yield, or retreat out into the street. [8]

Without a vigorously functioning penis, Matheolus experiences brutal punishment from his wife. His penis isn’t an instrument of violence, but a key to peace.

Some recent scholarship has recognized that Priapea aren’t a description or celebration of the Roman masculine ideal. Brutish, farcical representations of Priapus serve an urbane critique of cultural crudeness. That critique aims at crudeness in reading as well as in other forms of behavior.[9] Within the large Priapea collection Carmina Priapea, the poems are ordered so as to lead to Priapus experiencing sexual problems and impotence.[10] That’s far from any plausible ideal of Roman masculinity. The sensuous poetry of the Carmina Priapea enacts within the reader the pleasure of being a receptive body, whether man or woman.[11] Beautiful poetry isn’t brutal rape. Priapea critique the mass-media popularity of extreme, wildly unrepresentative stories of sex and violence.

Ancient Rome encompassed an alternate perspective on masculine sexuality. A singular ancient Roman Priapus poem teaches:

Assemble together, each and every one of you,
young women who dwell in the sacred grove
and the sacred waters,
assemble all and in winning tones
say to charming Priapus,
“Hail, Priapus, holy father of the world.”
Fasten a thousand kisses on his crotch,
gird his phallus with fragrant garlands
and again all say,
“Hail, Priapus, holy father of all things.”

All of you say, “Kindly Priapus, show favor;
hail, holy father Priapus, hail.
Priapus, potent friend, hail,
whether you desire to be called parent
and origin of the world or nature itself and Pan, hail.
For it is through your potency that everything is conceived
that fills sky, sea and land.
Therefore hail, Priapus, hail, holy one.”

Priapus, potent friend, hail.
Chaste maidens call on you in prayer
that you untie their girdle long knotted,
and married women call on you that their husbands
have penises often erect and always potent.
Hail, holy father Priapus, hail. [12]

Charming and kindly, holy father, potent friend — that’s an understanding of Priapus far from his narrow job of guarding a garden. That understanding doesn’t serve to draft men into military service on behalf of the Empire. It doesn’t value men’s sexuality relative to fungible commodities. Not surprisingly, that understanding has long been socially disfavored. A highly cultured and discerning Roman poet responded:

Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.
{I will fuck you in your ass and fuck you in your mouth.} [13]

Priapus as Mercury, racing to provide money

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[1] Carmina Priapea 4 (Obscaenas rigido deo tabellas), 37 (Cur pictum memori sit in tabella), 27 (Deliciae populi, magno notissima circo), Latin text with English translation available in Parker (1988) and Hooper (1999), and online in Smithers & Burton (1890). The Erotopaegnion of Hieronymus Angerianus (Girolamo Angeriano), published in Florence in 1512,  provides Priapea in Latin. An edition of the Erotopaegnion published in Paris in 1798 is available online. Priapea formally have a distinctive Latin poetic meter, but here I use the term Priapea thematically.

The number of poems associated with Carmina Priapea varies somewhat. The poems probably were written sometime between the establishment of the Roman Empire and the early second century. Subtle connections between the poems and the ordering of the poems suggest that they are the work of a single author. Holzberg (2005) pp. 369-70.

[2] Carmina Priapea 36 (Notas habemus quisque corporis formas) excerpt, trans. Hooper (1999) p. 70; and Carmina Priapea 18 (Commoditas haec est in nostro maxima pene),  trans Parker (1988) p. 87. The medieval woman physician Calabre of Paris reportedly could make women’s vaginas small again. The subsequent quote is Carmina Priapea 38 (Simpliciter tibi me, quodcunque est, dicere oportet), trans. Parker (1988) p. 129. Id. translates pedicare volo as “I want your back way.” Above I have substituted “I want to stick your ass.”

[3] E.g. Carmina Priapea 12 (Quaedam serior Hectoris parente), 32 (Uvis aridior puella passis). Some sophisticated Hellenistic epigrams celebrated the sexual allure of old women. In a famous early Arabic love poem, Jamil laments that Buthaynah describes him as old. Jamil declares that Buthaynah hasn’t aged at all, or at least as he sees her.

[4] In a text that reflects contemporary academic orthodoxy, Williams declared:

{Priapus} can be seen as something like the patron saint or mascot of Roman machismo, and his vigorous exploits with women, boys, and men indiscriminately are clearly a mainstay of his hyper-masculine identity. Like this phallic deity, a Roman man is ideally ready, willing, and able to express his domination over others, male or female, by means of sexual penetration.

Williams (1999) p. 18. Reasoning superficially from the brutalizing and commodifying Priapus stereotypes of men, Hooper opines:

Since men controlled both the political and economic worlds, the phallus, as the organ of penetration, came to symbolize the right to rule.

Hooper (1999) p. 16. Similarly, Richlin (1992) p. 127.

[5] Greek Anthology 16.260, from Greek trans. Paton (1920) vol. V, p. 315. Priapus threatens to rape women vaginally, boys anally, and men orally. That’s known as the tripartite punishment.

[6] Amid discussion connecting patriarchy, pornography, sadism, and rape, Richlin described the Carmina Priapea as “hymns to phallocentrism — not serious, of course.” Richlin (1992) p. 79. Scholars who ignore violence against men, social contempt for men’s paternity interests, gross anti-men bias in determinations of child custody, and imprisoning men for being too poor to pay state-ordered sex payments are not serious, of course. Id., p. 8o declares: “The arguments in favor of humor and against it reach no conclusion.” Nonetheless, “humor itself is a patriarchal discourse.” Id. p. xvii. Keuls (1985) and much similar work provide a strong argument for obscene humor.

In reviewing Hooper (1999), Butrica (2000) dared to speak truth to dominant ideology:

more surprising is the suggestion that these poems — apparently dolo malo — “increase societal violence” and “institutionalize” the “debasement of women.” First of all, I wonder whether even in the collection itself women are “debased” any more than the male thieves who are to have a penis shoved down their throats; nor do I perceive any opportunity for “institutionalization” of Priapus’ behaviour. Hooper has earlier cited the Priapea as “an excellent illustration of the subordinate position of women in Roman society” on the grounds that “the male narrator consistently defines women according to his standards” (4-5), which seems nothing more than an inevitable consequence of human nature. Determined to find hostility toward women, Hooper continues: “They are beautiful if he desires them, ugly if he does not (no surprise here), and unbelievably ugly if they are old and lust after him” (one would hardly guess that there is not a single poem in the collection where an ugly old woman lusts after Priapus). … That wit and humour {of the Priapus poems} is unfairly reduced to brutal invective against women and cinaedi, so that one is left wondering why one should bother to read this poetry at all, except as a curiosity from an intolerably primitive age. Recent advances in Puritanism now allow us to read and speak the dirty words, but it seems we must still tut about something.

[7] Carmina Priapea 26 (Porro — nam quis erit modus? — Quirites) excerpt, trans. Parker (1988) p. 111. The Priapus poem with a fenced garden is 77 (Immanem stomachum mihi videtis). Medieval European literature recognized women’s vigorous sexuality.

[8] Lamentationes Matheoluli ll. 571-78, 585-590, from Latin my translation. Van Hamel (1892) vol. 1, pp. 40-1, provides the Latin:

Ha! quociens, quociens lusi! Mea preterit estas,
Cui succedit hiems, est nulla morosa potestas,
Et cur plura feram? Ver brume jam quia cessit,
Non sum quod fueram, virtus mea total recessit,
Olim qui novies uxoris claustra colebam,
Factus sum glacies qui fervidus esse solebam.
Vult uxor, sed ego nequeo; petit hec sua jura;
Non sovendo nego factus; …
Tunc ungues acuit, ut eis me devoret; illi
Gratia nulla pluit; pereunt michi mille capilli.
Post hec cum facie discedo sanguine picta.
Hec quasi quottidie renovat conjunx maledicta.
Nil adversus eam michi prosunt ensis et umbo;
Semper succumbo vel ei dimitto plateam.

On tilling the garden nine times and then failing, cf. Ovid, Amores 3.7.23-26, and Greek Anthology 11.30.1-2, from Greek into Latin trans. Paton (1920) vol. IV, p. 83, from Greek into English trans. Richlin (1992) p. 117. Jehan Le Fèvre summarized Matheolus’s experience:

he tells us how forcefully he used to dig long ago, but now he complains that he can’t plow anymore; this is what made him cry that times were bad for him, and that he couldn’t do it anymore, even in Parrette’s little garden, for his quiver was empty and his bow could no longer stretch. So he had no way to defend himself. He who has nothing to make peace with must suffer forever after.

Le livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), ll. 720-32, from French trans. Burke (2013) p. 80. Amid considerable attention to domestic violence in recent years, domestic violence against men has largely been ignored.

Poem 8 of the Arundel Lyrics provides an earlier, contrasting narrative of a man’s sexuality in relation to the seasons and beasts:

Sevit aure spiritus
et arborum
come fluunt penitus
vi frigorum,
silent cantus nemorum.
Nunc torpescit vere solo
fervens amor pecorum;
semper amans sequi nolo
novas vices temporum
bestiali more.

{The wind’s blast rages and the leaves stream away from the trees completely before the violent frosts. The birdsong in the woodlands falls silent. Now the sexual passion of animals, ardent only in the spring, becomes inactive. Ever the lover, I refuse to follow new changes in the seasons like a beast.}

Latin and English from McDonough (2010) pp. 36-7. Matheolus’s phrase gratia nulla pluit also recalls the common phrase gratia plena.

[9] Uden (2007).

[10] Holzberg (2005).

[11] Young (2015).

[12] Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 14.3565, from Latin trans. Courtney (1995) p. 149, with my minor adaptations to more closely reflect the Latin. Parker (1988), pp. 28-9, and Hooper (1999) pp. 118-21 provide alternate, looser English translations. The latter also provides the Latin text. Antonio M. Fuentes’s transgressive Himno a Príapo page provides the full Latin poem and a variety of translations into a variety of languages, along with many images of Priapus.

The text reportedly was inscribed  on the sides of a herm-pillar at Tibur (now known as Tivoli). Located about 30 kilometers northeast of Rome, Tibur was a resort area with elite Roman villas, including that of Maecenas. The text includes a dedication:

To the genius of the mighty, powerful, invincible god Priapus, (set up) by Julius Agathemerus, freedman of Augustus and in charge of access to the emperor, on the admonition of a dream.

Courtney (1995) p. 149. The stone containing the inscription apparently hasn’t survived. Id. pp. 148, 18 (indication of double asterisk is that the actual inscription “not seen by the compilers of CIL or their informants nor since”). Courtney dates the inscription to the first century and notes some suspicion that it’s a humanistic forgery. Id. pp. 356-7. The text has considerable similarities with the Greek girl’s ode to the penis in Maximianus, Elegies 5.86-104. Maximianus is generally regarded to date to the mid-sixth century.

[13] Catullus 16. In Horace, Satires 1.8, a statue of Priapus scares away two witches with an enormous fart. Farting is as much an ideal of Roman male sexuality as is raping.

[images] (1) Fresco of Priapus in the Casa dei Vettie, Pompeii. First-century Italy. Priapus, wearing a soldier’s helmet, weighs his hyper-exaggerated, erect penis against a bag of gold. The fruit basket below similarly indicates commodity wealth. Thanks to Fer.filol and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Fresco of Priapus, from Pompeii. Priapus, with the attributes of the commercial Mercury, races to deliver a bag of gold. Fresco currently in the Secret Room, National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Thanks to Carole Raddato and Wikimedia Commons.


Burke, Linda, ed. and trans. 2013. Jehan Le Fèvre. The book of gladness / le livre de Leesce: a 14th century defense of women, in English and French. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Butrica, James L. 2000. Review of Richard W. Hooper (ed.), The Priapus Poems. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.23

Courtney, Edward. 1995. Musa lapidaria: a selection of Latin verse inscriptions. Atlanta (Georgia): Scolars Press.

Holzberg, Niklas. 2005. “Impotence? It Happened to the Best of Them! A Linear Reading of the Corpus Priapeorum.” Hermes. 133 (3): 368-381.

Hooper, Richard W. 1999. The Priapus poems: erotic epigrams from ancient Rome. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Keuls, Eva C. 1985. The reign of the phallus: sexual politics in ancient Athens. New York: Harper & Row.

McDonough, Christopher James, ed. and trans. 2010. The Arundel lyrics; The poems of Hugh Primas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Parker, W. H., ed. and trans. 1988. Priapea: poems for a phallic god. London: Croom Helm.

Paton, W.R. 1920. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16).

Richlin, Amy. 1992. The garden of Priapus: sexuality and aggression in Roman humor. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smithers, Leonard C. and Richard Francis Burton. 1890. Priapeia, or, The sportive epigrams of divers poets on Priapus: the Latin text now for the first time Englished in verse and prose (the metrical version by “Outidanos”). Cosmopoli.

Uden, James. 2007. “Impersonating Priapus.” The American Journal of Philology. 128 (1): 1-26.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Williams, Craig A. 1999, 2nd ed. 2010. Roman homosexuality: ideologies of masculinity in classical antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young, Elizabeth Marie. 2015. “The Touch of the Cinaedus: Unmanly Sensations in the Carmina Priapea.” Classical Antiquity. 34 (1): 183-208.

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