A Greek god portrayed in one of Pompeii's best-known frescoes has quite the prominent feature—for better and for worse, apparently. The painting of fertility god Priapus, which survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, depicts a man whose phallus extends nearly to his knees and the fruit basket sitting beside him. But this symbol of procreative energy and male power also contains evidence of a medical condition that can curb fertility and hinder sexual relations, medical doctor Francesco Maria Galassi tells Discovery. "The disproportionate virile member is distinctively characterized by a patent phimosis, more specifically a shut phimosis," he says. In other words, Priapus' member seems to have a foreskin that couldn't fully retract: "It is a condition that causes pain, infection, and problems during sexual intercourse," Galassi adds, per the Local.
So why would such a condition be shown in a fertility god? Galassi, who describes his theory in Urology, says the first-century painter may have wanted to report "a high prevalence of that anatomic defect in Pompeii." That could also explain why so many anatomical votive artifacts (showing a penis with closed foreskin at the top) were used in Pompeii between the second and fourth centuries BC to seek removal of that very condition, according to an expert who writes about votive offerings. This isn't the first time Priapus has attracted medical interest, either: One doctor pointed out back in 2007 that Priapus was reportedly impotent, so what looks like an erection in the fresco may really be evidence of Proteus syndrome, or local gigantism of the penis, Forbes reports. (See how Julius Caesar may have had mini-strokes that changed his personality.)