Post-classical history


His face was that of a rose, the skin of his body white as snow, he was well-shaped, fair-haired, possessing an unusual softness and smelling of musk from afar.

Life of St Andrew the Fool, probably tenth century

The use of eunuchs to guard and serve grand rulers goes back to ancient Egypt and China. In common with the great medieval empire of Japan and the Muslim Caliphate, Byzantium also employed eunuchs, whose high-pitched, unbroken voices, childishly soft skin, hairless bodies and elongated limbs added to the exotic elements of court life. These castrated men – a third sex, neither male nor female – who could not produce their own families, were trusted to attend to the Byzantine emperor and empress, to protect the women of the ruling dynasty and to run court ceremonial. In Muslim countries, they frequently guarded the sacred shrines of Islam. And in imperial China, right up to the twentieth century, poor men continued to offer themselves for castration in order to obtain a court position. The phenomenon of court eunuchs has a global history and Byzantine practice was not unusual among hierarchical, imperial governments.

Byzantine eunuchs were, however, exceptionally well integrated into society at large. In addition to exercising control over the activities of the imperial court, they attained prominent positions in the Church, the administration, the army and in the houses of great families throughout the empire. Western crusaders arriving in Byzantium were amazed, and sometimes horrified, at the ubiquity of eunuchs. During King Louis VII’s visit to Constantinople in 1147, Manuel I sent a choir to celebrate the feast of St Denis with the Franks:

These clergy made a favourable impression because of their sweet chanting; for the mingling of the voices, the heavier with the light, the eunuch’s, namely, with the manly voice… softened the hearts of the Franks. Also, they gave the onlookers pleasure by their graceful bearing and gentle clapping of hands and genuflexions.

Since the writer, Odo of Deuil, is generally hostile to Byzantium, his appreciation of the sound of eunuch castrati performing with male singers is surprising.

Eunuchs had specific roles in ancient Persia and Rome, which were reinforced when Diocletian adopted Persian attributes, such as a crown, globe, throne and golden robes, to symbolize imperial domination. In Byzantium, the restriction of intimate duties connected with the imperial family to castrated men was based on an assumption of their loyalty to the ruling dynasty, although this was not always borne out by the ambitious schemes of leading eunuch courtiers. Those who had been castrated before puberty were known as ‘beardless men’ those castrated as grown men of course retained the physical signs of masculinity. Byzantine eunuchs often accumulated considerable wealth, became generous patrons of the arts and enhanced the imperial court. All too often they also shared the whims and cruelties of uncastrated men and women.

Despite the assumption of their softness, eunuchs were appointed to lead armies. The general Narses (an Armenian), who completed the conquest of Italy in the reign of Justinian, finds a parallel in the Chinese admiral Zheng, who is said to have discovered America ninety years before Christopher Columbus, or the medieval Japanese naval commander who certainly sailed as far as the East Indies. References to eunuch military commanders occur throughout Byzantine history, though with less frequency in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Some clearly were slaves who had been castrated before they entered Byzantine service, for instance Peter Phokas, who took his master’s surname and excelled in personal combat with the Russians. He headed the imperial guard under Nikephoros II (963–9) and was appointed commander on the eastern front in the 960s. In the late tenth century, Basil II appointed a patrician eunuch named Nikolaos to lead the successful attack on Aleppo in 995.

Following the definitions of eunuchs given by St Matthew (19:12):

there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,

some Christians tried to curb their sexual urges by self-castration. But the First Oecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 issued a firm canon against self-castration: Christians who wished to adopt a religious career were ordered to resist the temptations of the flesh and control their lust by ascetic discipline. The Byzantine Church, however, accepted castrated men into the ranks of the clergy and as monks. Eunuchs became patriarchs of Constantinople and saints, indicating that castrated males were not denied the highest post in the ecclesiastical hierarchy or the possibility of attaining great holiness. Eunuch priests and monks often found an important role in female religious communities, where they performed the consecration of the Eucharist on Sundays. Indeed, some foundation charters stipulated that all clergy who had any role within nunneries must be eunuchs. Conversely, some male monasteries denied eunuchs access because they posed a sexual temptation to monks (see below).

Castration had always been considered a humiliating procedure, repugnant to free Roman citizens. So eunuchs were created among non-Roman peoples, usually those captured and enslaved in warfare. This was reinforced in the sixth century when the Code of Justinian made the operation illegal within the empire. Foreign prisoners of war were often castrated at the borders and then brought to Byzantium to supply the demand for ‘safe’ servants. Procopius notes that the region of Abasgia (Abkhasia, in the Caucasus) was a source of eunuchs, such as the courtier Euphratas who served as a diplomat; later, ‘Scythian’, Arab and Balkan prisoners were castrated and sold in the slave market to wealthy Byzantines. Eunuch servants were found in most large households, where they served the mistress, educated the children and acted as intermediaries. Saints Irene of Chrysobalanton and Euphrosyne the Younger also used their eunuch servants to communicate with their relatives and the imperial court.

The expansion of Islam, however, greatly increased the demand for slaves and eunuchs to work in the caliphate and new sources had to be found to meet it. Stray references to slave markets in Rome and Venice indicate a thriving trade in the West, while a growing number of eunuchs from Paphlagonia on the Black Sea coast of central Asia Minor reflect a novel development within Byzantium that flouted the law. Niketas the Paphlagonian, who served at the court of Empress Irene in the eighth century, was one of the first in a long line of young men from the area who were castrated by their own families. Unlike previous non-Roman eunuchs, these locally produced eunuchs were free and Greek-speaking; their families sought employment for them in the Great Palace or in the Byzantine Church.

In the tenth century, Liutprand, Bishop of Cremona, explained how the western trade worked. The operation to create ‘eunuchs who have had both their testicles and their penis removed… is performed by traders at Verdun, who take the boys into Spain and make a huge profit’. Despite physical difficulties, those that survived often lived to an old age and were recognized by their longer than usual limbs. The market at Verdun in northern France had developed to provide slave labour in Islamic countries, such as the Umayyad Caliphate of Spain, where eunuchs were greatly appreciated. Despite repeated papal decrees against the trade, Christian merchants refused to give up the lucrative business of enslaving, castrating and selling young men, who were often Christian. Women were also in demand in the harems of Islamic courts. The exciting adventures of individuals captured by pirates and sold into captivity is a familiar theme of medieval epic and romance, both eastern and western.

In 949 when Berengar, king of North Italy, sent Liutprand on his first diplomatic mission to Constantinople, he failed to provide suitable gifts. So Liutprand, whose father and stepfather had previously served as ambassadors to Byzantium, remembered their advice and purchased some eunuchs. When the new ambassador was admitted to the imperial presence,

I therefore presented him [Constantine VII] with nine excellent cuirasses… two silver gilt cauldrons… and what was more precious to the emperor than anything else, four carzimasia; that being the Greek name for young eunuchs.

Liutprand’s positive reception and the pleasures of his stay in Constantinople may or may not have been related to the gift of eunuchs, but clearly he thought he had made a good choice.

An additional reason for the employment of eunuchs is related to their sexual activity, which may have been limited but was obviously valued. The Life of St Andrew the Fool not only describes the beautiful appearance of a eunuch slave, but also documents how he was obliged to ‘perform the sick practice of the sodomites’ in his master’s bedchamber, for which the saint threatened him with hell fire. When a friend pointed out that the chamberlain had to oblige his master or he would be beaten and severely punished, Andrew responded that if slaves resisted this abominable passion ‘they would be blessed and thrice blessed, for thanks to the torments you mention they will be reckoned with the martyrs’. Eunuchs clearly had a sexual drive although they were regularly accused of taking the passive (i.e. female) role in homosexual activity and thus encouraging sodomy. The story of ‘Bagoas’, a young boy at the Imperial Orphanage of Constantinople in the eleventh century, appears to confirm this accusation: in the manner of Dorian Gray, he chose self-castration in order to preserve his good looks and retain the devotion of his older friends.

In their musical capacity, eunuchs held an unrivalled role: they formed the choirs of castrati. Together with young boys, they performed in the major churches of Constantinople and at the imperial court. It seems likely that the Orphanage may have become another source of eunuchs, who thuspreserved their ability to sing inthe castrato style, which was so highly appreciated. These choirs may have served as the model for the castrati who performed for bishops of Rome at the Vatican. The introduction of the new style of singing is connected with Pope Vitalian (657–72), who also installed Byzantine-style diakoniai, devoted to philanthropic activities, such as the care and accommodation of pilgrims. Both institutions were modelled on Byzantine practice. In the case of eunuch singers, Rome established an enduring tradition which was only abandoned, reluctantly, in the early twentieth century.

One further method of creating eunuchs must be mentioned: when castration was imposed as a punishment, for instance to prevent males from ever fathering heirs. This was often the case with young sons of a disgraced emperor (Maurice 582–602, Michael I Rangabe 811–13, Leo V 813–20), or of rebels (Germanos, son of a rebel against Constantine IV). The mutilation effectively excluded such a man from the imperial office, as emperors were expected to produce heirs. It was the most extreme form of bodily mutilation introduced into the legal system by Leo III in his Ekloga (740), which punished theft by the loss of a hand and lying by the cutting of the tongue. Blinding similarly became a common method of disqualifying a rival who tried to seize the throne, or an emperor who failed to govern adequately (Philippikos in 713, Constantine VI 797, Romanos IV 1072, Isaac II 1195 or John IV Laskaris 1261). Although such physical mutilations now seem barbarous, the Byzantines reasonably enough saw castration or blinding as a lesser penalty than death.

The prominence of eunuchs in Byzantium, however, was guaranteed by the development within the imperial court of a series of key positions reserved to them. Many of these offices involved contact with the emperor and empress within their private quarters; others were devoted to the maintenance of court etiquette and ceremonial. For such sensitive positions, eunuchs were considered not merely desirable but essential. And once this tradition became ingrained, the roster of posts reserved to ‘beardless men’ required a regular supply of eunuchs to be trained for them. The families of Paphlagonia who castrated a son knew of this need and tried to take advantage of the potential benefits of a palace career.

In the Treatise drawn up by Philotheos at the end of the ninth century, which records the seating order for official dinners, eight official positions reserved for eunuchs are appointed by law, and nine additional ones are bestowed by the emperor by word of mouth. Each post has its own costume, with particular shoes and attributes of office. The first group includes the rank of praipositos, led by the most brilliant, klarissimos, who acts as the emperor’s chamberlain and mouthpiece, directing the court ceremonies as major-domo. Whenever an important ceremonial event was to be held, the praipositos summoned all the officials who would participate and gave them instructions about their costumes, attributes and positions the night before. Then during what might be a day-long event, he set each stage in motion by instructing the next part of the ceremony to begin, ordering participants to move to new places with the words: ‘If you please…’ This post was always held by one of the chief eunuchs who would have participated in such ceremonies many times over the years, and who trained the younger ones to remember what they had to do, and how the whole event should proceed. Before the ceremonies were written down in the record commissioned by Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (see chapter 16), this information was transmitted by oral traditions – an instance of Byzantine articulacy.

The second group of eunuchs was led by the parakoimomenos, who slept across the door of the emperor’s bedchamber, the protovestiarios, who looked after his wardrobe, and those in charge of the emperor and the empress’s dining rooms, and their wine cellars. They include four officials responsible for order in the Great Palace and in two distinct parts of it known as the palaces of Magnaura and Daphne. Among their chief responsibilities was escorting the emperor whenever he left his quarters, and protecting him from the sight of bearded men (and everyone else) when he changed his costume, his shoes or put on his crown. Since imperial ceremonies often involved many changes of clothing in places outside the Great Palace, for instance when the emperor processed to the shrine of the Virgin at Pege beyond the walls, the eunuchs would form a circle, protecting and hiding him as he was crowned and robed. Their presence close to the imperial couple and responsibility for personal effects gave them positions of trust, which those outside the court were always anxious to exploit. Like doctors who attended the emperor, the chief eunuchs had direct access to his private quarters and could come and go without question. Their ability to prevent others from talking to the emperor, or even seeing the emperor at a distance, gave them great power.

The history of Byzantium is dotted with examples of what some historians condemn as over-powerful eunuch courtiers, who attempted to dominate their rulers. From Chrysaphios in the fifth century, Euphratas under Justinian and Theodora, to Staurakios and Aetios, rivals for Empress Irene’s affections, Samonas in the ninth, Basil Lekapenos in the tenth, and John the orphanotrophos (in charge of the large Imperial Orphanage in Constantinople) in the eleventh, the list is extensive. Basil Lekapenos, an illegitimate son of Romanos I, known as ‘Nothos’ (‘the Bastard’), made a particularly successful career. After being castrated as a child to destroy any imperial ambitions he might have developed, he was appointed parakoimomenos by Constantine VII. He held on to great power through the rule of Nikephoros II and John I, and practically governed the empire during the first decade of Basil II’s reign (976–85). With his great wealth, he commissioned magnificent art objects such as the Limburg reliquary. He also wrote a treatise on naval battles and had it copied in a splendid manuscript of military Taktika.

In this respect, Basil Lekapenos was typical of several high-ranking eunuchs who became art patrons, diplomats, generals, administrators, teachers, writers, theologians and churchmen (plate 10). In many cases these officials were detached from their court duties to undertake particular missions, diplomatic or military, such as Andreas, who negotiated with the Arabs in the seventh century, or Theoktistos, who commanded the navy in the ninth century. In Byzantium, as in the caliphate, eunuchs regularly found employment as military generals and diplomats. Their high status is confirmed in the Book on the Interpretation of Dreams, written by a Christian Greek author, Achmet, who drew on Byzantine and Arabic sources as well as on his own dreams. In common with many authors, he equates beautiful eunuchs with angels. Both of course were considered sexless beings, since angels have no sex and eunuchs were supposed to have lost theirs. Even if this was not correct – as we have seen and as numerous accusations of eunuchs having sexual relations make clear – it reflects the important roles filled by eunuchs in Christian and Muslim societies, especially those of messenger, private secretary and intermediary.

As well as these high-ranking eunuch officials, others made careers far away from the Great Palace and imperial patronage. They appear incidentally in hagiographical sources, and sometimes feature on a list of wedding gifts, as in the story of Digenes Akrites, the frontier hero. When Basil finally married the girl (she is never named), her eldest uncle presented them with ten boys:

Sexless and handsome with lovely long hair,
Clothed in a Persian dress of silken cloth
With fine and golden sleeves about their necks.

This was an expensive wedding present, which could be set beside the thoroughbred horses equipped with beautiful saddles and bridles, the hunting dogs and gilded icons which are also mentioned. When the wealthy widow Danelis made the journey from the Peloponnese to Constantinople, she was carried on a litter by her eunuch servants, and among the many rich gifts she presented to Emperor Basil I were, it is claimed, one hundred eunuchs.

Two new laws (Novels) of Leo VI, published at about the turn of the tenth century, addressed the situation of eunuchs within the empire. The first prohibited the marriage of eunuchs with women, on the grounds that the purpose of marriage was procreation, and the second allowed eunuchs to adopt children, who could become their heirs. In this way, court eunuchs who rose to the highest positions and accumulated wealth could transmit it to their adopted sons. Leo VI reflected a more humane view of eunuchs, which coincided with the gradual relaxation of the laws against castration on imperial territory. In the case of St Metrios, whose castrated son Constantine made a successful career at the imperial court, his operation was justified by an angelic vision which foretold his future.

Eunuchs often became monks. One Kosmas, a eunuch monk from Paphlagonia (again), was on a journey to Italy when he stopped to rest near the tomb of Holy Luke in Steiris (plate 31). There he had a vision directing him to stay at the tomb, to protect it and make it more beautiful. Yet some monasteries were unwilling to accept eunuchs or young boys into their communities, presumably because they feared sexual disruption. On Mount Athos, they were gradually excluded as a danger to the other monks. TheTragos(Rule), signed by John I Tzimiskes, states:

I order you not to receive young and beardless men and eunuchs who come to the Mountain to be tonsured… And if any abbot or kelliotes [hermit] disregards my injunctions and introduces into his domain or his cell a eunuch or a boy… we believe it is best to expel him from the Mountain.

The deeply embedded presence of eunuchs at the Byzantine court, their acceptance in society at large and their established legal status gave them a more prominent role than in other medieval societies. In contrast, eunuchs provoked horror in the medieval West, where only ‘whole’ men could serve as bishops. Some underlying prejudice persisted, nonetheless, even in Byzantium, as Theophylaktos of Ohrid’s Defence of Eunuchs makes clear. This eleventh-century dialogue between a monk and a eunuch, written by a learned bishop, presents a general hostility to eunuchs in terms of their moral weakness, greed, licentiousness, ambition, effeminacy and wickedness in performing indecent songs, behaving theatrically like actors and drinking too much. In response, the eunuch defends his social group, distinguishing Byzantine eunuchs, who often serve as bishops and monks, from foreign ones. He praises the castration of young boys as a way of preserving their chastity, and points out how many eunuchs remain chaste and inspire others by their behaviour. Obviously some lead less moral lives, but the same is true of whole men. He urges his opponent to judge the eunuch by his spiritual achievement rather than his appearance.

Theophylaktos’ treatise was dedicated to his brother, Demetrios, a eunuch, and not intended for widespread circulation. But in his preface, composed in iambic verse, he declared that he hoped to answer the charges generally made against eunuchs. The treatise is transmitted with his other orations and letters in the main manuscript collections and must have been widely read. According to Kathryn Ringrose, Byzantine authors faced a ‘rhetorical dilemma’ in discussing eunuchs: castrated men ought not to be powerful, were not expected to lead armies successfully, yet had to perform every service demanded of them by their rulers. Any brilliance they displayed on the battlefield had to be explained as an anomaly, due to the exceptional tactical skill of the individual, because eunuchs were considered incapable of military prowess. This contradictory situation reflects the way that Byzantine society constructed the gender of eunuchs as a third category, different from both male and female.

Although the court roles for eunuchs declined in the late Byzantine period, perhaps as the empire’s military concerns became more pressing, they continued to play important roles and represent another line of continuity, which extended well beyond the fall of Constantinople in 1453. With the advent of the sultan’s harem within the expanded Topkapi Palace, they were employed on a larger scale to guard the numerous wives and slaves of the Muslim ruler. With this new responsibility, they became very powerful once again as the Black (African) and White (European) eunuchs of many Ottoman scandals.

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