The Image of Priapus
: Ambiguity and Masculinity in Roman Visual Culture

  • Katherine Dunleavy

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


From the first century BCE the image of Priapus increased in popularity in Roman visual culture. Although rarely depicted in public art, Priapus’ representation was ubiquitous in domestic and personal contexts. However, this imagery has largely been overlooked because of its decorative and highly sexual nature.

This study re-evaluates these disregarded images and explores the popularity of images of Priapus, with particular reference to the masculine culture of Roman urban settings. Previous work has tended to catalogue but here Priapus’ image is approached thematically in relation to rural fertility cult, apotropaic laughter, domestic luxury and mythical landscapes. Specifically, this study looks at the relationship between images of Priapus and discourses about tradition, indulgence, foreignness and performance. As a man-made deity, Priapus occupies a unique position in the visual language of mythology which allows him to blur the boundaries between the human world and distant, imagined landscapes. He is, therefore, an expression of the Roman tendency towards artificiality in art, architecture and day to day life.

This study will show that by contextualising images of Priapus in the dominant culture of the time the images can provide insight into the social tensions and anxieties of the patrons, and viewers, of these artworks. This thesis will demonstrate that representations of Priapus reflect key elements in the construction of Roman male identity, including the balance between Roman tradition and Hellenistic influence, and between aggressive masculinity and sophisticated effeminacy.
Date of Award19 Mar 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorNicoletta Momigliano (Supervisor) & Shelley J Hales (Supervisor)

Cite this