What do Greek statues tell us about the male sexual organs?
In the days before the internet and when pornography was a top shelf affair, one way that was open to appreciate the human form in all its glory was to pore over dusty volumes of Greek and Roman statuary. The fact you were mugging up on classical civilization gave your prurient interest a patina of respectability. But to an adolescent with an enquiring mind the exercise could raise more questions than it answered, particularly why are the penises that have survived the ravages of time so small and why do the statues exhibit remarkable scrotal asymmetry? Fortunately, help was at hand.
Starting with the penis, the Ancient Greeks weren’t as obsessed with size as we seem to be these days. Where statues exist with large penises, they are usually of grotesque characters such as satyrs or the god Priapus who was cursed by Hera with a permanent erection, impotence and ugliness and ejected from Olympus. Large penises were associated with qualities such as foolishness, lust and ugliness, not the sort of attributes you want to endow your gods and heroes with. A small penis, on the other hand, was a sign of rationality and that your appendage was in proportion with the rest of your body. It was the epitome of the perfect male form.
The comedian, Aristophanes, as often was the case, was the man to go for confirmation of this view. He wrote in the Clouds, “if you do these things, I tell you, and bend your efforts to them, you will always have a shining breast, a bright skin, big shoulders, a minute tongue, a big rump and a small prick”. It was not the size, it seemed, it was what you did with it that counted. In a survey of penis size conducted in 2012 of the representatives of 116 countries the Koreans (North and South) had the smallest penises (at 3.8 inches) whereas the largest were those from the Republic of Congo (at 7.06). The British member came in at number 79 at 5.5 inches.
I remember when I went to be measured for my first bespoke suit being flummoxed by the Mr Humphries of the town enquiring how I dressed and realising that “underpants, shirt then trousers” was not the answer he was looking for. In 1960 K S F Chang revealed that in right-handed men the right testis tended to be higher than the left whereas in left-handed men the left testis was the higher of the two.
Like any man with an enquiring mind, he wondered whether this was anything to do with weight, in other words in right-handed men was the left testis the heavier? An empirical approach was adopted and the testes of cadavers were measured for weight and volume. The results were surprising. In right-handed men, the right testis which was the higher testicle was the heavier and of greater weight than the left. So even though it hung higher it was the heavier of the two. For those who were wondering, the respective weights are 9.95 grams and 9.36 and volumes 9.69cc and 9.10.
As far back as 1764 the aptly named J J Winckelmann noted testicular asymmetry in Greek and Roman statues, reporting “the left testicle is always the larger, as it is in nature”. In a well-balanced survey reported in Nature in 1976 Chris McManus observed the scrotal asymmetry of 107 sculptures of antique origin or Renaissance copies and found that in the largest group the right testicle was placed higher but the left is larger and in the second largest group the left is the higher, but the right the larger. The artists had made the same error as Winckelmann, assuming, probably, that the lower hanging testis must be the heavier.
So now we know!