In ancient Greece, nudity was commonplace, even required in a number of situations. Athletes competing in games did so without clothing almost by definition--after all, the root word for gymnasium, gymnos, means "naked"--but while nudity was accepted, exposure of the glans penis was not. Latin for "acorn" owing to its shape, the glans is the head of the penis and is normally covered by the foreskin. To prevent indecency, an athlete who had a naturally short foreskin or who had been circumcised wore the kynodesme. Literally meaning "dog leash", the kynodesme was simply a thin leather strap used to tie up the foreskin and keep the glans covered.
Besides the immediate goal of preserving decency while competing in athletic events, the kynodesme may have served another purpose. Examination of artwork and surviving texts shows that not only worn in situations where the glans may be publically exposed, but in private as well. In Selected Atticisms, the second century grammarian Phrynichus Arabius defined kynodesme simply as meaning "the thing with which Attic people with exposed glans bind their penis". It has recently been argued by Dr. Frederick Hodges and others that kynodesme may have been intended not only to temporarily conceal the glans penis, but as a means of permanently lengthening the wearer's foreskin.
Foreskin restoration was certainly not unknown in ancient times. One of the earliest written records of it can be found in The First Book of Maccabees. It is an account of Judea in the second century BCE, after it was conquered by Alexander the Great and the efforts the Greek rulers that followed him made to Hellenize the population--efforts which a number of Jews embraced, "[making] themselves uncircumcised" to become more like the Greeks.
How the Judeans made themselves uncircumcised is not mentioned. Written by Aulus Cornelius Celsus some time between 14 and 37 CE, On Medicine contains the first written description of surgical circumcision reversal. Celsus was not himself a doctor, so it is possible that On Medicine (which was once part of a much larger encyclopedia) is a translation of an earlier Greek text. The earliest surviving mention of non-surgical foreskin restoration is from Gynaecology, written in the early second century CE by Soranus of Ephesus, a practicing Greek physician. In speaking of what role a child's nurse should play, he wrote:
"If the infant is male and it looks as though it has no foreskin, she should gently draw the tip of the foreskin forward or even hold it together with a strand of wool to fasten it. For if gradually stretched and continuously drawn forward it easily stretches and assumes its normal length, covers the glans and becomes accustomed to keep the natural good shape."
This suggests that the Greeks were aware of tissue expansion and it lends credence to the theory that perhaps they discovered that, through long-term use of the kynodesme, the wearer's foreskin grew longer, or even that this was the intended purpose of the kynodesme from the very beginning. Certainly by the time Galen of Pergamum was active, tissue expansion was well understood. In his work On the Therapeutic Method, written in the late second century, Galen described a technique that, with only minor changes, is still the basis of tape-based non-surgical foreskin restoration today:
"I have often obtained the desired result through simple tension: I roll around the circumference of the penis a strip of strong and soft papyrus, after having coated the skin with glue. ... One places under the skin of the posthe, on the interior fold, a rounded object of suitable dimension, that one can easily remove when the strip of papyrus is adhered. ... I want to be careful to provide the patient with a way to urinate easily when the paper rolled around his penis is completely solidified..."
Posthe describes the lower part of the foreskin which surrounds the glans, as opposed to the akroposthion, the upper part that extends beyond the glans. Circumcisions in antiquity were generally less severe than in modern times and much of the lower foreskin was left intact. Galen, however, goes on to prescribe a restoration technique for those with very little remaining posthe:
"Some of those who use thapsia [an irritating herb, the use of which was intended to inflame tissue and make is more susceptible to stretching] to return the posthe over the glans construct the round object in question in the form of a little lead spout. They stretch the skin of the posthe over the exterior of this spout and secure it with a soft leather cord."
A device similar to Galen's "little lead spout" was also used during the later Roman occupation of Judea. The Romans called it the Judaeus Pondum, which may be translated as either the "Jewish Weight" or the "Jewish Burden". None are known to still exist and contemporary descriptions of them are rather vague. We know the body of the device was a heavy copper tube that perhaps was attached to the remaining foreskin with a leather thong, or it may simply have been fitted tightly enough that, when the penis was inserted into the tube, the tube was unable to slide off. In any case, the weight of the tube acted as a source of tension to stimulate tissue expansion and the growth of new foreskin tissue.
These ancient methods all show the two essential components of non-surgical foreskin restoration: applied tension--manual or aided by the elasticity of wool for Soranus, or by using weights for Galen's method and the Judaeus Pondum--over an extended period of time; and as surely as non-surgical foreskin restoration works today, it did in their time as well. Foreskin restoration was evidently common enough for those who underwent it to have a name, epispastikós ("stretched one") in Greece and recutitio ("re-skinned") in Rome.
Bigelow, Jim. "Uncircumcising: Undoing the Effects of an Ancient Practice in a Modern World." Mothering, Summer, 1994: 56-61.
Borries, Ioannes de, ed. Phrynichi Sophistae Praeparatio Sophistica. Leipzig. Teubner, 1911: 85.
Hodges, Frederick M. "The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome." The Bulletin Of The History Of Medicine 75 (2001): 375-405.
1 First Book of Maccabees 14: 15.
Schultheiss D., Truss M.C., Stief C.G., and Jonas U. "Uncircumcision: A Historical Review of Preputial Restoration." Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. 101 (1998): 1990-1998.
Soranus of Ephesus. Gynaecology. Trans. Owsei Temkin. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1956: 107.