Ancient Athenian playwrights often made people laugh in ways we still do today, referencing genitals, sex, and obscenity, mocking and shaming regular people and politicians, and using exaggeration and unexpected events to surprise audiences. The playwright Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata, recently reinvented as LIZAstrata and running through October 2, 2021 at the Getty Villa, provides a good example.

Aristophanes wrote for performances at Athenian festivals in honor of Dionysos (god of wine and theater). Lysistrata was performed in 411 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, after twenty years of conflict between Athens and Sparta. The story centers on a sex strike by the women of both cities, instigated by Lysistrata, to force an end to the male aggression. The premise was impossible and funny for the male audience, making it easier for them to hear bitter truths. “Aristophanes usually makes his own political position clear, and in this play it’s the women, and especially the title character, who speak truth to power,” says Amy Richlin, professor of classics at UCLA, who advised on LIZAstrata.

Bronze statue of a man with a large belly wearing a toga, baring his teeth

This actor wears the big belly, wrinkled skin, exaggerated mask, and dangling phallus that amused ancient audiences for hundreds of years. Statue of a Standing Comic Actor, 200–100 B.C., Greek. Bronze, 4 13/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 96.AB.155

To a modern audience, the women taking charge and the obscene language are more expected than the visual humor of penises, both floppy and erect, which play an important role. These are traditionally called “phalluses” (and naked people, “nude”) in classical scholarship and ancient art history. (To be more correct, a Greek phallos becomes phalloi in plural, and Latin phallus becomes phalli. Phalluses is common in English.)

Clues about the costumes in Lysistrata emerge in the text itself and from looking at comic images that survive from slightly later decades in Athens and southern Italy, where Greeks settled, and even from centuries later in Roman times. Male actors playing both men and women wore exaggerated face masks and wrinkled body suits with big rounded bellies and rumps. Female characters had padded breasts and male characters generally flaunted a large fake phallus. (Read more in Costume in the Comedies of Aristophanes.)

The wine-mixing vessel below shows a parody of two men and a woman wearing costumes of this sort. (For more on what made people laugh about these figures, see this video.)

Black vase decorated with orange paintings of two men and a woman standing on a stage, the woman wearing a swirling shawl

Comic actors onstage perform a “phlyax” comedy, the men wearing floppy phalluses and the woman in the center acting out a parody of a beautiful woman with a swirling shawl. Apulian Red-Figure Bell Krater, 370–360 B.C., attributed to the Cotugno Painter. Terracotta, 13 3/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 96.AE.113

These costumes can seem obscene or body-shaming today, but they were not all that surprising then. Since Greek men exercised and participated in athletic competitions naked, they were used to seeing toned male bodies with no clothes. Athletes, heroes/warriors, and gods were often shown nude or partly nude in art, with idealized musculature and proportionally small penises that probably symbolized dignified self-control. Dressing actors in exaggerated and out-of-shape body-costumes was an excellent way to ridicule elite norms.

The phallus of the actor statuette below is exposed under his tunic and pot belly, oddly curling in what is probably a reference to kynodesme: tying up a penis with a string before nude exercise.

Terracotta statue of a man sitting on a short column, resting his chin on his hand in a thinking pose

The actor’s tunic covers his big belly but leaves his large phallus exposed. Terracotta Statuette of an Actor, late 5th–early 4th century B.C., Greek. Terracotta, 4 1/4 in. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Laughing at phalluses made sense, especially since laughter alone could turn aside ill fortune. Yet the phallus was not just a comic motif, but also a powerful symbol used to promote fertility, protect boundaries, and avert evil. One of Dionysos’s symbols was a phallus, and an oversized three-dimensional version was carried by a “phallus-bearer” in some of the god’s rituals. Genitals as signifiers of fertility have been common in many cultures, but here a phallus also reflected divine male protection of the community.

Dionysos’s mythological followers included satyrs, the lascivious hybrid men with horse ears and tails who frequently sported erections. They were characters in “satyr plays,” presented by playwrights to poke fun at grim myths after a trio of tragedies. Satyrs also often appear on vases used at symposia, communal male drinking parties.

Bottom inside view of a black cup with two handles on either side, with an image of a man with a tail holding a cup on the inside of the cup

A satyr with an erection holds a drinking cup of a shape different from the vessel he decorates. As the cup was slowly emptied, his image would have become increasingly visible. Attic Red-Figure Cup (detail), about 480 B.C., Makron. Terracotta, 3 1/4 × 10 3/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.AE.291

Another prominent phallus belonged to the Greek god Priapos, whose extremely large erection frequently protruded from his tunic, symbolizing his role in the fruitfulness of plants and animals. This Roman Priapus’s phallus helps support the bounties of nature with which he has filled his garment.

Bronze statue of a man holding a cloak filled with fruits

This Roman Priapus holds up his cloak filled with garden produce. Statuette of Priapus, 1st–2nd century A.D., Roman. Bronze, 4 13/16 × 1 15/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 73.AB.21

A protective function of phalluses is revealed in other ways besides assuring the fertility of the natural world. The image of Priapos repelled thieves and protected seafarers. Other protection was provided by “herms.” These are rectangular pillars with male genitals, often erect, with heads, usually of Hermes or Dionysos. They stood on public and private land and in gardens to ward off danger at entrances, crossing points, and boundaries. (Symbolic female genitals could also protect, but they were rarely seen. To learn more, read Ann Suter in Ancient Obscenities.)

Bronze statue of a tall pillar with a phallus in the middle and a bearded head on top

This herm has the head of Dionysos and the pillar bears genitals with an unerect phallus. Herm of Dionysos, 200–100 B.C., attributed to the workshop of Boëthos of Kalchedon. Bronze, calcitic stone, 40 3/4 × 9 1/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 79.AB.138

Although some images of phalluses had a funny side, the protective function of herms was no joke. In 415 B.C., the faces and genitals of herms throughout Athens were suddenly and mysteriously mutilated as the city was preparing a military expedition to Sicily. This was an impious act that would have offended the gods deeply and endangered not just the areas near the herms, but the city of Athens itself, and the entire expedition.

Jar with two handles on either side, featuring a painted image of a man placing a statue next to an altar and bull horns

A man sets up an ithyphallic (“with an erect phallus”) herm of a bearded Hermes by an altar near sacrificial bulls’ horns and a votive tablet. Red-figure pelike, 440–430 B.C., Greek. Ceramic, 6 11/16 in. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Aristophanes references the desecration in a humorous way four years later in Lysistrata. His chorus leader warns of “herm-choppers,” whereupon Athenian and Spartan ambassadors hurry to cover their erections with their cloaks. This would have been acted out onstage with big, erect phallus props attached to costume “underwear.”

The costume phalluses of Lysistrata, sanctioned by the god of theater, were handled with slapstick buffoonery that the audience would have found hilarious. In the same way, as Amy Richlin notes, the outrageously obscene language of comedy, with the shock and laughter it evoked, also served to honor Dionysos and protect the city.

Bronze amulet of a phallus with wings and feet, attached to short chain

Bronze amulet, 1st century A.D., Roman. Bronze. Naples Archaeological Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. © Marie-Lan Nguyen. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license (CC BY 2.5). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like the Greeks, the Romans appreciated the apotropaic (evil-averting) function of the phallus, and they took the symbolism of an erect penis, a fascinum, to new heights. This Roman tintinnabulum, a sort of mobile/windchime usually decorated with bells, is the evolved version of a Greek winged phallus. This one has a phallic tail and phallus legs with a phallus between them. Variations hung in many households, both protective and amusing, which brings us back to comedy and this ancient truth: Laughing at phalluses is good for society.