Phallus maximus? This 2,000-year-old wooden artifact could be an ancient Roman dildo

A carved wooden phallus that's narrower and rounded at one end with an indent reminiscent of a penis head.
This artifact, originally thought to be a darning tool, was found in 1992 at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in England. (The Vindolanda Trust)
Archaeologists are debating what ancient Romans might have been doing with 16 centimetres of hard wood shaped like a phallus and rounded at the tip.

The 2,000-year-old object, discovered in 1992 at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland, England, was initially classified as a tool for darning.

But archaeologist Rob Collins — an expert in phallic objects — suspects it may have been a tool for something else entirely.

“It’s a curious object, and we can’t be absolutely certain, but my co-author and I have three suggestions,” Collins, a senior lecturer at the U.K.’s Newcastle University, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

“We think it could be part of a larger object, like a statue or a figurine or maybe from a building. The second possible function is that it is a pestle from a mortar and pestle set to grind up food or medicines or cosmetics. And the third possible object is that it’s a sexual object, a sex implement.”

So — a dildo?

“A dildo, yeah,” Collins said.

Collins and his colleague, Rob Sands of the University College Dublin, explored their theories about the object in a discussion paper published in the journal Antiquity.

The ‘magical properties’ of penises

Kelly Olson, a professor of classics at Ontario’s Western University who specializes in Roman culture and sexuality, says she’s never seen an ancient Greek or Roman dildo, but their existence is evident in their art and literature.

She recalled a comedy from Hellenistic Greece that features two women discussing one of their new sex toys, crafted for her by a shoemaker.

“This one they discuss is leather and it’s scarlet and it’s soft, yet stiff. And the women are just, like, in awe,” Olson said. “We don’t have any literary mention of wooden phalluses as sex toys, but, you know, I think it’s absolutely possible.”

A woman pictured from behind snapping photos of dildos in a glass display case. A much larger phallus hangs on the wall next to her.
A woman takes picture of ancient dildos displayed at an exhibition about spirituality and eroticism in Indian art. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

Even if it’s not a dildo, Collins is pretty sure it’s a penis. Penis-shaped objects, he said, were believed to evoke “a magical property,” like protection or good luck.

“If it’s part of a statue, then it’s being used for that symbolic purpose. If it’s part of a pestle, you know, for grinding up food, it’s using that shape of a phallus to protect the food that you’re cooking or preparing,” he said.

“But if it’s a dildo, it’s just what it is. It’s got a function which is mimicking or imitating nature in that sense. So it’s a substitute rather than a magical object in its own right.”

Smooth from repeated use

Olson says any of those theories are possible, as “the Romans and Greeks did put phalli on everyday objects.”

Still, she’s intrigued by the more salacious possibilities — especially the paper’s assertion that the object’s shape and pattern of wear may lend itself to “actions such as clitoral stimulation.”

“Female sexuality tends to get rather short shrift [from] our male ancient authors,” Olson said. “And so to have a piece of archaeological evidence like this, which sort of shines a spotlight on female sexuality, I think it’s just marvellous.”

A phallic wooden carving, rounded and narrower on one end, next to a 10-centimetre drawing of a ruler.
The object is 16 cm long, and is worn from use on its rounded, narrow edge. (The Vindolanda Trust)

Hallie Lieberman, a sex historian and author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, is convinced the object is, indeed, a dildo.

“It looks like a phallus,” she said. “Now, to be fair, everything looks like a phallus to me. But based on other phalluses from the time, and based on the paper, it seems clear that that’s what it was used for.”

After all, it’s about the right shape and size, narrowed and rounded at one end, and — according to the paper — smooth on its upper shaft from “repeated use.”

The paper notes that the transfer of sebum — an oily substance produced by skin glands — “may lead to the polishing of surfaces.”

Sex toys throughout the ages

In her work, Lieberman has seen dildos spanning centuries, continents and cultures, and dating as far back as 30,000 years. They’ve been made from leather, stone, bone, ivory, glass and, yes, even wood.

But there’s one thing they all have in common, she says.

“There’s always this, like, hesitation to describe our devices as sex toys, which is so fascinating to me,” she said. “We have the same debates over them. Like, were these used penetratively or were they symbolic things?”

She says people have posited all kinds of explanations, including that they were spear sharpeners.

“There’s no reason we need to sharpen spears on penises. We don’t do that today,” she said. “I mean, I’ve never gone to someone’s house and they’re like, ‘Here’s my knife sharpener. It looks like a dick.'”

A long, white dildo in an ornate red case with a glass window. It has a removable cap with a handle at its base.
According to Matthew Fine Art Auction, this Victorian-era sex toy was carved out of ivory in the 18th century and sent from China, where its owner was fighting in the 1899 Boxer Rebellion, to his wife in Ireland. (Matthews Auction Room )

While it’s likely that people of all genders have used dildos throughout history, she says our hesitancy to call them what they are all comes back to the same thing.

“The fears come from … the idea that women were getting sexual pleasure somewhere other than a man,” Lieberman said.

Sexual pleasure — or sexual violence?

While the dildo theory appears, on the surface, to be the most fun explanation for the wooden object, Collins admits it may have had a more sinister purpose.

“While it’s great that today we kind of look at dildos and think, ‘Actually, it’s a toy; it’s for pleasure,’ Roman society was very deeply hierarchical,” he said. “There was nobility. There [were] slaves and servants.”

It’s possible, therefore, that it was an implement of sexual violence, rather than sexual pleasure, he said.

“I certainly hope that’s not the case. But we have to be honest about the reality of the ancient world and that it wasn’t always a fair or fun place,” Collins said.

Olson, the classics professor, says she has never heard of a dildo being used in this specific way.

But she says there is a large aspect of ancient Roman culture that “views the penis as an instrument of aggression.” And enslaved people were expected to be subservient in all ways, including sexually.

“So, yeah, I think it’s a definite possibility,” she said.

Whatever it is, and however it was used, Collins hopes all the attention it’s garnering will inspire other archaeologists to re-examine their findings or approach new discoveries with a more open mind.

“This object is important if it helps to raise further conversations and help us ask questions, or think about: What were people getting up to in the past?” he said.