In 122 CE, the emperor Hadrian started construction on a defensive fortification to protect the Roman province of Britannia from the “barbarians” who lay to the north. By 207 CE Hadrian’s wall was in need of extensive repairs, and the soldiers shuttled stone to the site from a nearby quarry. Inevitably, they got bored and etched their names, details of their life and even selfies into the rock face. When archaeologists from Newcastle University excavated the quarry, they discovered that at least one soldier had something of an artistic flair and had etched phallic graffiti into the walls of the site. Some things about the human condition—war, love, and a desire to immortalize one’s penis using the art of the “dick pic”—are universal.
The Written Rock of Gelt, as the graffiti is known, also contains all kinds of other inscriptions: a portrait of what is likely to be a commanding officer and references to names of those present. One inscription refers to “the consulship of Aper and Maximus” and enables archaeologists to identify the precise year during which the graffiti was written and the renovation project was undertaken. Another inscription identifies its author as working in the “Second Legion Augusta … under Agricola.” Tucked amongst these historical nuggets is the Rock of Gelt phallus. As artwork goes, however, it’s not alone: Newcastle archaeologists Rob Collins stated that he has found 57 other depictions of male genitalia scratched on Hadrian’s Wall (which, to be clear, is 73 miles long).
The interest in drawing penises is not just a feature of Roman military life. Outside of Roman Britain people were equally as invested in phallic imagery. As Kristina Killgrove has written, Pompeii is famously covered in erotic artwork: excavations have revealed a fresco of the minor deity Priapus (with comically oversized penis) at the House of the Vetti; a flying penis amulet; and statue of Pan engaged in sexual congress with a goat (to be fair to Pan, he is half goat himself). Doorways all over Pompeii were decorated with tintinabula, erotic wind chimes made of bronze phalluses hung with bells. There’s so much phallic imagery and artwork in Pompeii that the eighteenth-century historian Richard Payne Knight argued that there was a kind of ‘Cult of the Penis’ there. As it turns out, the wind chimes are not specific to Pompeii; they have been found elsewhere in the Roman empire. The Romans really delighted in painting, sculpting, and casting male genitalia.
To be fair to the Romans, they are hardly alone. Phalluses don’t just adorn bathroom stalls and plague the inbox of online dating app users. A fourteenth-century manuscript of the Roman de la Rose contains an image of nuns harvesting phalluses from a tree. Phallus trees are fairly common in medieval wood carvings and frescos, potentially as a source of humor.
Roman fixation with the phallus isn’t just a form of an ancient adolescent humor; it serves some practical purposes as well. Collins explained that the phallus was used as a symbol to “ward off misfortune and bad things in general” and as a symbol of male power and potency was associated with domination, good luck, and war. The penis was sometimes attached to warfare in particular. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote that the phallus was a symbol of the god Fascinus and would be attached to the car of a general to “protect him against the effects of envy.” It wasn’t only soldiers who needed Fascinus’s protection; Pliny adds that the infants were watched over by the phallus as well, a fact that can explain why phallic amulets have been found in the graves of infants in Roman era Yorkshire. In general, phallic imagery, whether it was on amulets, frescoes, mosaics, or jewelry served to ward off evil.
For the possessor, the phallus was a potent symbol and associated with power and dominance in Roman society. But their open obsession with the penis did not mean that the Romans looked favourably on every sexual act or every large penis. The satirist Martial relays that a man named Papylus, who was known as a fellator, had breath so bad that when he opened up a jar of expensive perfume to smell it the perfume turned to garum, a rotten fish sauce used in cooking. The idea that people who performed oral sex had “foul breath” was a common form of slander in the Roman period. Even the most distinguished orators would accuse their opponents of having bad breath and, thus, poor morals. As for poor Papylus, he was apparently doubly cursed, being blessed with a large nose and a large penis. Martial writes “Papylus, your nose and your dong are both so long that when your dong grows, your nose knows. ” Being well endowed, it seems, was not always a blessing.
The archaeologists involved with the Rock of Gelt are concerned that that erosion will damage the wall of graffiti they uncovered. As a result they plan to scan the site and create a three-dimension digital model of the entire face of the wall. In this way these inscriptions, which give us a valuable glimpse into daily life and the construction work at Hadrian’s wall, will be preserved in perpetuity. And along with them, one 1800-year old image of a penis.