Philo of Alexandria, Circumcision, and the Construction of the Ethnic “Other” in Greek and Roman Art
By Thomas R. Blanton IV, Associated Researcher, Max Weber Centre for Advanced Social and Cultural Studies, University of Erfurt.
Probably because of an academic division of labor between scholars in biblical studies, classics, and art history, discussions of the Judaic rite of circumcision as practiced during the Hellenistic and Roman periods have made only limited use of Greek and Roman frescoes, mosaics, and statuary. That is a pity, because the artistic material transmits a series of cultural perceptions concerning culture and barbarism, rationality and passion, and self-control and libidinousness that colored the ways in which circumcision was perceived and practiced in antiquity.
As Kenneth Dover showed in 1977, the Greeks associated the small penis whose glans was amply covered by the akroposthion, referring to the portion of the foreskin that overhangs the tip of the penis, with rationality and culture. This is evident, for example, in the sixth–fifth century BCE vase painting depicting the binding of Patroclus’s wound by Achilles. Patroclus’s akroposthion is shown elegantly draped over his right ankle.
Fig. 1. Achilles binds the wound of Patroclus. (Source: “Akhilleus Patroklos Antikensammlung Berlin F2278 resized solid black bg.png.” Wikimedia Commons. Image in the public domain under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain license.)
Note how the comparatively small, thin phallus of the Greek Herakles, discretely covered by the akroposthion, is juxtaposed with the relatively thick phalli of Egyptian priests, whose circumcision has exposed the glans penis, chronically and, by Greek standards, indecently, in a fifth-century BCE Attic red-figure amphora. The vessel depicts a scene otherwise known from Isocrates (Busiris 31, 36–37) in which Herakles slaughters the Egyptian king Busiris and his priestly entourage. Rather than receiving the visitor Herakles with hospitality, following Greek custom, Busiris had attempted to offer him as a sacrifice to Egyptian deities. As Herakles manhandles the other figures present, the scene implies the superiority of Greek culture to that of the “barbaric” Egyptians, who lack both hospitality and proper penile decorum.
Figure 2. Herakles defeats the Egyptian king, Busiris, and his priests. (Source: “Herakles fighting Busiris; Attic red-figure pelike [wine-holding vessel].” Wikimedia Commons, photo by Marsyas, Dec. 22, 2005. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.)
The phallus whose glans was exposed, typically due to erection, was associated with readiness to engage in sexual acts. Note, for example, the erect penis of the young, beardless male in an Attic red-figure kylix of the sixth-century BCE. An older woman, perhaps a prostitute, grasps the right knee of the youth, instructing him to assume a sexual posture with his legs bent beneath him, weight borne on the balls of his feet, while in her right hand she grasps his phallus, glans exposed.
Fig. 3. Woman prepares youthful male for intercourse. (Source: “Attic Red-Figure Kylix,” side A, Phintias, c. 510 BCE, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.)
Not only the phallus whose glans was uncovered, but also the large phallus was associated with inordinate sexual desire in the Greek and Roman imaginations. For example, satyrs, half-human, half-animal beings perpetually on the lookout for sexual encounters, were frequently depicted with large, erect phalli. The image of a masturbating satyr from a sixth-century BCE krater illustrates the point:
Fig. 4. Masturbating satyr. (Source: “Crátera ática de columnas [M.A.N. 1999-99-65] 02.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Luis García, 11 September 2009. Image available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)
Connoting inordinate sexual desire, the presence of a large, circumcised phallus was utilized in Roman art to demarcate the ethnic “other” as distinct from what were presumed to be the smaller phalli of cultured, self-restrained Romans. For example, on the floor at the entrance leading to the caldarium of Pompeii’s House of the Menander is a first-century BCE mosaic image of, appropriately, a bath attendant, in this case an Ethiopian slave, depicted as an ethnic “other” with very dark skin, large phallus, and exposed glans.
Fig. 5. Ethiopian bath attendant; House of the Mendander, Pompeii. (Source: “Pompeii – House of Menander – Caldarium – Mosaic 1.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. Image in the public domain under the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain license.)
The first-century CE Roman poet Martial jokes about the large size attributed to the phalli of Jewish men, connoting sexual insatiability. Since the glans often became exposed during erection, the glandes of Judeans and other “barbaric” peoples, chronically exposed by circumcision, could by association be understood to indicate a chronic state of lust and perpetual readiness for sex. Martial plays on such stereotypes to get a laugh out of his audience—at the expense of the ethnically marked targets of his jests. For example, in Epigram 7.55, the poet contrasts his own phallus, which he coyly characterizes as “well-behaved and small” (proba et pusilla) with that of a Judean, whose member is presumed to have just the opposite characteristics.
The Jewish Stoic-Platonic philosopher Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BCE to ca. 50 CE) notes how Greeks and Romans, both of whom were present in Philo’s Alexandria alongside Judeans and Egyptians, responded to the practice of circumcision with scornful laughter. He opens his treatise On the Special Laws with the following statement: “And I will begin with that which is laughed at among many people. Now the practice which it laughed to scorn, namely the circumcision of the genital organs, is very zealously observed by many other nations, particularly by the Egyptians,” a group whom Philo describes as preeminently attached to philosophy (Spec. 1.1–3; trans. of Colson, LCL [modified]).
Philo defends the Judaic practice of circumcision in interesting ways. In an apparent response to the charge that circumcision indicated a state of chronic lust, he claims that the ritual practice serves as a metaphor for the “excision of the passions,” and that Jewish males engage in sexual activity only with their wives and only for the purpose of procreation, not in pursuit of pleasure (Migration of Abraham 89–93; Questions and Answers on Genesis 3.46–47, 63). Whereas Greeks and Romans typically associated the exposed glans penis with readiness to engage in sex, Philo holds the contrary view: the removal of the foreskin and consequent exposure of the glans indicates a corollary removal of passions, including but not limited to lust. In a reversal of the characteristically Greco-Roman perception, Philo associates circumcision with perpetual self-restraint and, by extension, with rationality, self-restraint’s prerequisite.
To his philosophically-minded reinterpretation of circumcision as representing the excision of passions, he adds a medico-environmental rationale to justify the ritual practice. Building on his knowledge that physicians often prescribed excision of the foreskin to treat phimosis, an “inflammatory … stricture of the preputial orifice” (Hodges 1999; cp. Aulus Cornelius Celsus, De Medicina 6.18; 7.25; 25.2), Philo notes that the condition most often occurs in hot climates, and reasons that circumcision was practiced in hot “southern” regions, including Ethiopia, Egypt, and Judea, essentially serving as a prophylactic treatment for those most prone to develop the pathological condition.
In conclusion: Greek and Roman art, although often overlooked by scholars working in the areas of early Judaism and early Christianity, is highly relevant to understanding Greco-Roman perceptions of the ethnic “other,” inasmuch as ethnicity was understood to be inscribed in the human genitalia, whether by way of the presence of the foreskin or its absence. Philo offers a good example of how one learned Jew sought to negotiate his own identity as an advocate of circumcision in spite of Greco-Roman derision of the practice, manifested as scornful laughter.
One final note: as a member of the Genitalia & Co. website’s project team, it is my hope that the site may facilitate boundary-crossing investigations (somewhat like Philo’s, two millennia ago) and encourage researchers in a variety of fields to take advantage of the rich and varied artistic material depicting human genitalia in Mediterranean antiquity, with all the implications that this material has for, inter alia, constructions of ethnicity that could be deployed by artisans and poets who sought to define themselves over against the imagined ethnic “other.”
N.B.: This blog post summarizes arguments made in greater detail in the author’s article “The Expressive Prepuce: Philo’s Defense of Judaic Circumcision in Greek and Roman Contexts,” Studia Philonica Annual 31 (2019): 127–62. You may access the full article here (DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvrs8z2c.9). If institutional access is not available, I will be happy to send you a PDF; you need only e-mail me with a request (email@example.com).
Dover, Kenneth J. 1977. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Colson, F. H., trans. 1984. Philo: The Special Laws. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Hodges, Frederick M. 1999. “Phimosis in Antiquity.” World Journal of Urology 17, no. 3: 133–36.