The grotesquely large phallus belongs to the fertility god Priapus, a tragic figure in Roman mythology.
Avatar photo Elaine Velie
The image of fertility god Priapus weighing his penis is located
near the entrance to the house (© Silvia Vacca; all images courtesy of the
Archaeological Park of Pompeii)
Visitors to Pompeii can finally see one of ancient Rome’s most unsettling images — a fresco of the fertility god Priapus weighing his hefty penis on a scale balanced by a large bag of coins.
After 20 years of nearly
uninterrupted closure to the public, the Archaeological Park of Pompeii
announced the reopening of La Casa dei Vettii on January 10.
Aulus Vettius Conviva and Aulus Vettius Restitutus — the home’s
owners — were likely two formerly enslaved brothers who rose through the ranks
of ancient Roman society to become wealthy businessmen in Pompeii’s wine
In Greek and Roman mythology, Priapus was the son of Aphrodite and
Dionysis (though accounts vary). According to the legend, Hera cursed him with
impotence in the womb because his mother was deemed more beautiful than her.
Priapus was born with a grotesquely enormous penis he couldn’t use. He was
permanently erect but helplessly impotent.
Other depictions of scenes from Greek and Roman mythology are
strewn across La Casa dei Vettii, and they were likely used to show the
homeowners’ status as cultured members of society. The image of Priapus in
particular, which is located in the home’s entryway, was meant to broadcast the
two freedmen’s wealth, according to the park.
“It’s all about saying, ‘We’ve made it and so we are part of this
elite,’” Pompeii’s director Gabriel Zuchtriegel told the Associated Press.
More straightforward erotic images exist in a room thought to have
been used for prostitution. The space was accessible through an iron door, and
an inscription on the wall referenced a “Greek woman of pleasant manners” who
was paid two copper coins. Other sections of the grand home include women’s and
enslaved people’s quarters.
La Casa dei Vettii has been closed to visitors since 2002, although
the atrium and entrance hall were briefly reopened in 2016. The current
restoration project began that same year. In a statement, the park described
the undertaking as “one of the most complex archaeological heritage restoration
projects of the last few decades.”
The Pompeii home was excavated in the late 1800s, and over the
course of the following century, wax was painted over the frescoes in an
attempt to preserve them. Removing the wax without damaging the underlying
imagery proved difficult, but the home needed more structural repairs, too. A
new roof was added, and among other massive projects, the team restored the
water channels in the home’s 18-column peristyle, and replanted ancient flora
back into the garden.
Although La Casa dei Vettii includes its fair share of risqué imagery, erotic art was exceedingly common in Pompeii. Last spring, the archaeological park mounted an exhibition showcasing the city’s vast collection of erotic art, and in other parts of the ancient Roman empire, archaeologists have uncovered graffiti and other works depicting penises.
In June, a large example of ancient Roman graffiti was uncovered in
England. It showed an image of a penis and read, “Secundinus, the shitter.” In August, archaeologists discovered an “unusually large” Roman-era stone
phallus in southern Spain.