The quest for youth and beauty is as old as time, and the ancient Greeks had a few things to say on the matter. In the Clouds, Aristophanes has the young Pheidippides visit the school of Socrates in search of an education that will enable him to maintain his extravagant lifestyle. As he enters the school, he encounters two associates of Socrates, Superior and Inferior Argument, who debate with each other over which of them can offer the best education. Superior Argument claims that Pheidippides should spend his time in the gymnasium, running races beneath the olive trees and the white poplars. If he follows his recommendations, he will always have “a rippling chest, radiant skin, broad shoulders, a wee tongue, a grand bottom, and a petite posthē”.
It is fairly easy to understand the attraction of most of these physical characteristics. But a diminutive posthē is a bit more baffling, for in this context the word posthē refers to the penis. Ancient Greek art is full of attractive and heroic men endowed with male members we would not really consider “impressive”. Why would the Greeks depict their gods and heroes with small manhoods and why would an associate of Socrates (imaginative though he may be) argue in favor of a tiny penis?
The beauty of the foreskin
A word of caution is necessary at this point. The Greeks did not necessarily value a small penis per se; it was rather the prepuce (i.e. the foreskin) that was of particular importance to them and there was a dedicated vocabulary to describe all the important structures of the male organ. The part of the skin that covers the glans of the penis was called the posthē, while the tapered extremity of the foreskin that extends beyond the glans was known as the akroposthion. The prepuce was considered among the most beautiful parts of the male anatomy, as evidenced by the words of the Greek physician Galen (ca. 129 – 210 CE), who noted that “nature, out of her abundance, ornaments all the members, especially in man…the ears show obvious ornamentation, and so, I suppose, does the skin called the prepuce at the end of the penis and the flesh of the buttocks”.
The sexually attractive ancient Greek male had a well-formed and long prepuce. Ancient writers often refer to it and highlight its function as a visual stimulant. Dion was a “lusty, low-scrotumed, cuntish, and mastic-chewing young” who masturbated and groped whenever he saw someone with a long prepuce (or so Lucian informs us in his satire Lexiphanes). Mnesilochus, an ordinary Athenian, did not hesitate to press his face against a garment worn by the youthful and handsome poet Agathon and express his pleasure at the “pleasant smell of prepuce” (according to the Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes). “Large foreskinned one” [posthōn] was a term of endearment for young boys.
The morality of skin
The evidence from ancient Greek art is overwhelming; the Greeks valued the longer over the shorter foreskin and the smaller over the larger penis. Divine and heroic males are depicted with prepuces that comprise up to three-quarters the entire length of the penis. Even when the latter is erect, the foreskin remains unretracted and tapers off gracefully. Moderation and modesty required that the glans of the penis should remain hidden under an abundant cocoon of skin; an externalized glans was considered shameless and dishonorable, synonymous with lewdness and wantonness.
Even worse, an exposed glans could serve as an association with barbarity and slavery. A sixth-century Corinthian terracotta plaque depicts four slaves working in a quarry; one of them wields a pickax, but what truly captures our attention is the impressive male organ that swings between his legs. The glans is painted black and there is no foreskin; two white lines indicate the scars from the circumcision that clearly defines this individual as non-Greek (or at least like someone who does not live up to the Greek ideal of male beauty).
The exposure of the glans was, therefore, a serious no-no in ancient Greek society. The desire for a well-formed prepuce was so strong that the Greeks developed a tool to ensure a generously proportioned foreskin. The kynodēsmē (dog leash) was a thin leather thong would around the akroposthion and tied around the waist. Its purpose was to pull the penis upwards and apply continuous (and long-term) traction to secure the elongation of the foreskin.
According to the grammarian Phrynichus Arabius, the Athenians were notorious users of the kynodēsmē and would often call their penis kyon(dog). Participants at symposia would employ the kynodēsmē to maintain their modesty and decency even when inebriated. Athletes would use it to prevent their glans from protruding while training naked. The vase painter and potter Euphronius (ca. 535 – after 470 CE) created a magnificent calyx-krater with palestra scenes; among the youths depicted is a young athlete in the process of employing a kyn to pull the prepuce taut.
Even in erotic scenes, the foreskin remains neatly tapered and unretracted; there are only a handful of cases when a young and attractive male youth will be shown with an exposed glans. Such imagery was reserved for slaves, barbarians, lecherous old men and satyrs. The proper penis of a moral, virtuous, and attractive Greek male required an abundant supply of foreskin.