Imago Genitalium: Sex and Gender in Ancient Mediterranean Art

Thomas R. Blanton IV

Associated Fellow, Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies, University of Erfurt

How does one name a project that is dedicated to the study of “genital art” in antiquity, without sounding flippant, on the one hand, or overly abstract, on the other? After devoting considerable reflection to this question, and some six months after the present website and blog were initially launched in July 2020, the project team ( has agreed that the larger project of which the blog represents one component will be designated Imago Genitalium: Sex and Gender in Ancient Mediterranean Art. We believe that this name is evocative but not cheeky, scientific but not overly formal. While the range, complexity, and variety of material of interest to the project exceeds what can be represented in a title, nevertheless it points meaningfully to the project’s main topics of interest. In this blog post, we consider the first two terms, Imago Genitalium, and what they signify for the project.

The Latin phrase imago genitalium may be translated simply “image of the genitals,” and indeed, the vagina and vulva, phallus and testicles, and the nourishing breast constitute the basis of the academic research conducted under the project’s auspices. In highlighting this material from Mediterranean antiquity, the project seeks to reverse a trend that has its roots in Victorian England, a trend, that is, to expunge artistic depictions of human genitalia from accounts of Greco-Roman history and culture (Johns 1982; Nussbaum 2010). Under the influence of Victorian Era morality, sexuality was subjected to “a new order of puritan control and repression”; correspondingly restrictive laws were introduced with the passing of the Obscene Publications Act in the United Kingdom in 1857, which banned the sale or distribution of “obscene books, papers, writings, prints, pictures, drawings, or other representations,” with no attempt made to outline criteria for determining which publications actually fell under the category of “obscenity” (Marsh, n.d.; Roberts 1985; Statutes Project, n.d.).

Under the influence of the Obscene Publications Act, in 1865 the British Museum segregated its “indecent” material, a hodge-podge of artefacts from different regions and time periods, in a separate, locked area, designated the Museum Secretum (Johns 1985: 12–35). Similar restrictions were enforced outside the United Kingdom; in 1821 material from Pompeii, including images of satyrs and nymphs, Priapus, and Pan—pictured in flagrante delicto with a goat—that were deemed “obscene” or “pornographic,” were locked away in the Secret Cabinet, a special section of the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy, the entrance to which was actually bricked up in 1849 (Grant & Mulas 1997; Moormann 2003). During the 1800s, excavators in Pompeii regularly removed from view images of phalli, omnipresent on walls and in street pavements, while frescoes depicting figures like Priapus were enclosed in locked metal cabinets, which tour guides would display only to adult males, sometimes for a fee (cp. Clarke 2003). These policies have resulted in expurgated and distorted conceptions Greco-Roman cultures, among the public and historians of classical antiquity alike. Although the work of scholars such as Catherine Johns (1985), Kenneth J. Dover (1977), and John R. Clarke (2001, 2007) has helped to rectify this imbalance, much remains to be done. The Imago Genitalium project promotes the work of historical and cultural recovery and provides a platform to disseminate the results of current research.

Beyond the reference to the “image of genitals,” however, the Latin title bears additional significations. The term imago denotes not only a “representation” or “likeness,” as for example in a picture or statue, but also a “resemblance” or “appearance,” understood to be a poor imitation of the original and highlighting the difference between representation and reality. Some of the material of interest to the project, most notably votive offerings, typically represents human anatomy with reasonable if not perfect accuracy (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Votive phallus and testicles.

(Credit: Clay-baked male genitalia. Roman votive offering. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International [CC BY 4.0], Last accessed 6 January 2021.)

In other cases, representation departs significantly from anatomical reality. This is readily apparent, for example, when the phallus is portrayed by Greeks or Romans to mark foreigners such as Ethiopians, Egyptians, and Judeans as ethnically “other,” enlarged phalli connoting barbarism and lack of sexual restraint (Clarke 2001: 120–36; Blanton 2019). Similarly, in a class of images evoking a comedic sense of disproportionality, a relief in Pompeii shows Priapus or perhaps Mercury sporting a phallus as long as the god is tall (fig. 2; Blanton forthcoming).

Fig. 2. Ithyphallic figure (Priapus or Mercury?) at entrance of Modestus Bakery, Pompeii.

(Credit: Dunn & Dunn 2019, “VII.1.36, Pompeii: Detail of ithyphallic plaque” (cropped). Photo by Buzz Ferebee. © Jackie and Bob Dunn. Reprinted by permission.

Moreover, some statues of Artemis of Ephesus display multiple bulbous structures on the torso (fig. 3). These structures, which constitute ornaments attached to the goddess’s clothing and not parts of her anatomy, have been seen to represent bull’s testicles, evoking rituals of emasculation associated with Artemis’s high priests in Ephesus and with the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele (so Rivault forthcoming); or perhaps the ovoid forms connote a more open-ended, “unisexual” potential like that attributed to some plants in antiquity (see Jaeggi-Richoz forthcoming). In the third and fourth centuries CE, the ornaments were reinterpreted as breasts by the Christian writers Jerome and Minucius Felix (LiDonnici 1992; Morris 2001).

Fig. 3. Artemis of Ephesus wearing egg-shaped ornaments.

(Credit: “Artemis of Ephesus (Vatican Museum) Feb 2012.” Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Jo Lorib. Image available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Returning to the Latin phrase, the term imago may connote “an image or likeness of a thing formed in the mind, a concept, thought, idea” (Crane, n.d.). The images of Priapus/Mercury and Artemis already point in that direction, as the phallus of Priapus connotes protection against the evil eye, fertility, and economic prosperity, the latter indicated by what appears to be a bag of coins held upside down in the male figure’s left hand. The egg-like structures on the torso of the statue of Artemis connote both nurturance and protection (so LiDonnici 1992) or fertility more generally.

Lastly, the genitive plural genitalium may be understood to refer not only to the male or female sex organs, their fluids, and, by association, the nurturing breast, but also to ideas connected to them. These ideas include not only reproduction, but also fertility more broadly construed, extending to the success of business enterprises and thus, monetary gain, as famously depicted in a fresco of Priapus from Pompeii in which the god balances his enlarged member against a bag filled with coins (fig. 4; Clarke 2007: 184–89).

Fig. 4. Priapus weighs his phallus against a bag of coin.

(Credit: “Pompeya erótica6.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. Image in the public domain.)

The image of the breast and nipple connotes lactation and by association, sustenance, nurturance, and life (Jaeggi-Richoz, n.d.). At the risk of going too far afield from the ancient Mediterranean, we mention the so-called sheela na gigs of medieval Europe, whose exposed vulva and vagina may have served apotropaic functions, warding off demons and hostile spirits; or perhaps connoted birth, death, and rebirth (fig. 5; Power 2012; Rhoades 2020). More firmly rooted in the Mediterranean are narratives in which Baubo shaves and exposes her vulva, eliciting the goddess Demeter’s laughter (Arnobius, Against the Nations 5.25; cp. Homeric Hymn to Demeter 2.200–204), and figurines taken to represent Baubo (

Fig. 5. Twelfth-century sheela na gig from Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England.

(Credit: “The (in)famous Kilpeck Sheela Na Gig.” Photo by John Harding. Wikimedia Commons. Image available under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

In all these examples, ludicrously distorted, anatomically incorrect images of human genitalia are associated with a range of abstract concepts ranging from birth and generation to mercantile success, protection from hostile forces, whether of human or supernatural origin, and nurture and sustenance.

Given the richness and variety of the ancient cultural associations of this material, it would be unfair to categorize it overly broadly as “obscene,” much less “pornographic.” This is not to deny that images of sex and sexual activity were produced in antiquity, as the statue of Pan in flagrante already indicates. We fail to take account of this material in scholarly reconstructions of ancient Mediterranean societies at the cost of excising culturally significant representations connoting central and enduring concerns, among them life and death, birth and regeneration, constructions of sex and gender, and ethnic affiliation. To fail to integrate this material into our reconstructions of the past amounts to nothing less than an abdication of scientific historiography, which must take account of all available categories of data, including the evocative and omnipresent images of interest to the Imago Genitalium project.


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Thomas Blanton

Thomas R. Blanton IV holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of A Spiritual Economy: Gift Exchange in the Letters of Paul of Tarsus (Yale University Press, 2017), coeditor (with David B. Hollander and John T. Fitzgerald) of The Extramercantile Economies of Greek and Roman Cities: New Perspectives on the Economic History of Classical Antiquity (Routledge, 2019), and cochair of the Early Christianity and the Ancient Economy program unit at the Society of Biblical Literature. He is currently writing a monograph entitled The Circumcision of Abraham: Modeling Ritual from Genesis to the Letters of Paul for the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library.

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