Ancient History & Civilisation

From a verb to a deformity

Back in the B.C. era, the Greek medical community smugly “discovered” that a certain nubby little organ possessed by women was the feminine equivalent of the penis, or so they thought. They called it clitoris, from the Greek word meaning “to shut.” Their other name for it was nymphi, meaning “bride” or “lovely young woman.” (In our time, the plural nymphae still refers to the labia minora, although the term is usually employed only by physicians.)

Since long-ago masculine ideas about sex and satisfaction could be boiled down to the simple equation: “males—active; females—passive,” a feminine organ that looked and acted a bit like a would-be phallus, in miniature, was repugnant to the average Greek male, who wanted no part of feminine sexual aggression.

This was especially true when it came to size. Any clitoris bigger than petite was thought to be excess baggage. What better course of action than to get rid of it in cosmetic surgery fashion? Is this starting to sound like the epidemic of female circumcision and genital mutilation in today’s world? It should.

Grotesque as it sounds, medical advice in the first century B.C. and the first few A.D. centuries, even from the likes of leading practitioner Soranos, author of Gynaikeia, and his colleagues, was: cut it off. Here is a verbatim quote from a primary source entitled “Concerning an immensely great clitoris.” (This isn’t praise, trust me.) “An uncouth size is present in certain clitorises and brings women into disorder by the deformity of the private parts. As most people say, these same women, affected by the lust (or erection) typical of men, take on a similar desire, and they approach sexual intercourse (with men) only under duress. If it comes to that [i.e., an operation], the women is to be placed lying on her back and with thighs closed, lest the viscera of the feminine cavity become distended. Then the excess part is to be held in place with a small forceps and cut back with a scalpel in proportion to its unnatural size.”

The writer cautions against whacking too much of it off, since “it produces an excessively harmful effect on the patient by the copious discharge of the cutting back.” As in bleeding to death, I suspect.

Paulus of Aegina, a later Greek writer, agrees but also claims that such women are eager for sex. As he puts it, “An immensely great clitoris occurs in some women; the presenting problem is shameful impropriety. According to what some people report, some even have erections similar to men on account of the [bodily] part and are eager for sexual intercourse.”


As Rome’s political schemer Fulvia found out, it wasn’t easy being a hell-raiser. She gained such a reputation for belligerence that soldiers wrote naughty words about her clitoris on their slingstones.

The Romans felt equally daunted by an aggressive, too-large clitoris, called landica in Latin. On the stones and lead projectiles they made for warfare, soldiers and slingers often wrote obscenities and vile messages aimed at the enemy. Archaeologists have found at least one lead projectile on which is scrawled Fulviae landicam peto, “I’m aimed at the clitoris of Fulvia.”

Fulvia was a real person, a detested political spitfire who jumped in and led an army into civil war because her husband at the time, Mark Antony, was busy committing bigamy with Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Hey, perhaps Fulvia had her own lead projectiles with obscene suggestions about Cleopatra on them. You’ll read more about Mark, Cleo, and fascinating Fulvia elsewhere in this book.

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