This painting from the ancient city of Pompeii suggests that he would have suffered from phimosis Wikimedia Commons

An ancient painting from Pompeii of the Greek God of fertility Priapus suggests that all might not be well in the downstairs department for the deity. Researchers have claimed that in one of the most famous frescoes of Priapus, painted in the first century AD, he is depicted as suffering from a disease known as phimosis.

Priapus is always shown with an oversized, ever-erect penis. But this famous painting, which was preserved in the ancient village due to the ash cloud that sprouted from Mount Vesuvius, says that he may have not taken as much pride in his penis as would be expected, due to the embarrassing ailment.

Phimosis is a condition where the foreskin is unable to be pulled back over the glands of the penis. This can be caused by infection or an injury that causes scar tissue, subsequently making the foreskin tighter. In the days before modern medicine, this problem could only be rectified by surgery.

A study, published in scientific journal Urology, highlighted the apparent problem with Priapus. Francesco Maria Galassi, co-author of the study and an MD, told Discovery News: "The disproportionate virile member is distinctively characterized by a patent phimosis, more specifically a shut phimosis. This condition presents different grades of severity, and in this specific case appears to be of the highest grade, in which there is no skin retractability on the glans."

However, mystery remains as to why the painter would depict the God of fertility with a condition to his member. Galassi continued: "It is not unlikely the painter might have desired to report objective evidence of a high prevalence of that anatomic defect in Pompeii, at a time mixing it with fertility attributes traditionally ascribed to Priapus."

Jessica Hughes, lecturer in classical studies at UK's Open University, also told Discovery News: "Anatomical votive offerings made in Italy between the fourth to second centuries BC do often show the penis with the foreskin closed around the top, as in the later Priapus painting from Pompeii.

"It's more challenging for us to understand why the artist would have chosen to represent a biological condition that may have been seen to threaten fertility and health. Perhaps we need to see this painting as a comment on the power of the divine body, which didn't suffer from the same biological limitations as the mortal body."