Return to Born Eunuchs Library

ARNOLD HUG [d. 1895]

"EUNUCHS", in Pauly's Realencyclopaedie der Classichen Alterthumswissenschaft [PW], Stuttgart, 1903-1978.


The usual designation of those who were made unable to procreate by mutilation, Aramaic: saris, is eunuochos (harem guard) among the Greeks, by which term their major function among the Orientals was expressed. In addition to this milder, often ambivalent term (see below) one also finds the less decent ektomias (Herodotus VI 9; Cassius Dio LXXXVI 14.5), spadon (Plutarch, Demetrius 25), and apokopoi (Strabo XIII 630). The Roman writers of the imperial period use the disdainful spado as often as eunuchus, and sarcastically also semivir (Pliny XI 263; Claudian, In Eutropium I 171, II 22), which otherwise the poets used for the galli and other emasculated priests (Ovid, Metamorphosis IV 386; Statius, Achill. II 363; Martial IX 20.8; Apuleius, Metamorphosis VIII 28, de mund. 17). Those, too, who were impotent by nature or due to an accident were called eunouchoi (Lucian, Eunuchus 6; Strabo XIII 4) and spadones (Digest L 16.128). They are distinguished in Roman law from the castrati (Institutions I 11.9; Digest XXIII 3.39 § 1) and from the thlibiae (Strabo XIII 4) and thlasiae (Digest L 16.128), who were set equal under law to the castrati (Digest XLVIII 8.5).

The mutilation of male persons was indigenous to the Orient from the most ancient times, as the tragic fruit of slavery, polygamy, and mistrustful despotism. According to Ammianus Marcellinus XIV 6.17 and Claudian, In Eutropium I 339ff., Semiramis is supposed to have introduced the eunuchs, or else the Parthians (Claudian, ibid.). In any case, they were present early in Assyria, as the oldest monuments demonstrate, where they are characterized by beardless faces (Vigoroux, Dictionnaire de la Bible I, Fig. 312, 314, 321, 326ff.). At the Lydian court, according to Herodotus III 48f., Periander doomed 800 noble boys of Corcyra to the damned fate of eunuchs. The practice of "eunuchizing women" for immoral purposes (Athen. XII 515d = FHG I 39) is first attributed to the king Adramys (see PW volume I, p. 403). Hesych. Miles. FHG IV 171.47 mentions something similar of Gyges. Eunuchs are attested for Egypt by the Vulgate Bible, Genesis 40:1, 37:36, 39:1. Among the Israelites, to whom castration was forbidden by the Mosaic law (Vulgate Deuteronomy 23:1; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews IV 8.40) there were eunuchs at the court during the entire period of kingly rule (Vulgate 1 Samuel 8:15 and often; Jeremiah 34:9, 38:7, 41:16). They played an important role at the Persian court (Vulgate Esther 1:10,15, 6:2, 7:9) as guards of the harem (ibid. 2:3,14, 4:4f.), as doorkeepers of the palace (ibid. 2:21), as chamberlains, who mediated the interaction of subjects with the king (Herodotus III 77; compare I 114, 120, III 84, 118), and as adjutants, skeptouchoi (Xenophon, Cyropaedia VII 3.17, VIII 1.38, 3.15; An. I 6.11). Some held high positions of trust (Herodotus VIII 104), and prestigious offices in the provinces. Under weak rulers, they exercised a fateful influence on politics, for example Bagoas (see PW volume II, p. 2771 No. 1), whose name became virtually synonymous with eunuchs (Ovid, Amores II 2.1; Pliny XIII 41; Lucian, Eunuchus 5; Heliodorus, Aethiopica VIII 12.25). The Aramaic word saris appears on monuments as a mere title, for example from the Persian period in Egypt (Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums III § 23), and moreover in the Old Testament already, where the Septuagint uses dunastes in Jeremiah 34:19. Likewise, Potiphar was probably only an official since he was married (Vulgate Genesis 37:36, 39:1 -- there were married eunuchs, however, see below) -- perhaps also the Ethiopian mentioned in Vulgate Acts of the Apostles VIII 27ff. Babylon supplied 500 boys a year to the Persian court as eunuchs (Herodotus III 92), from which the use of eunuchs is supposed to have come to Persia (Hellanik. fragment 169). Greeks too were transported to the east as eunuchs, as the story of Hermotimus shows (Herodotus VIII 104ff.; see PW volume VIII, p. 904 No. 1). This fate especially fell to prisoners of war of mature age (Herodotus VI 32) or children in conquered areas (ibid.) or kidnapped children, as occurred in a late period in Armenia (Claudian, In Eutropium I 47ff.; Ammianus Marcellinus XVI 7.5). Special attention was paid to beauty (Herodotus VI 32, VIII 105). The reasons which led Cyrus to surround himself with eunuchs are listed in Xenophon, Cyropaedia VII 5.58ff. The main reason was to secure for himself the loyalty and obedience of this rejected class of human beings, who would be solely reliant on their master. The confidence of the Persians in the loyalty of eunuchs is mentioned already by Herodotus VIII 105. Other oriental rulers also surrounded themselves with eunuchs, for example Antiochus the Great (Livy XXXV 15.4), Mithridates (Ammianus Marcellinus XVI 7.8), Cleopatra (Seneca, Epistolae IV 7; Horace, Carm. I 37.9, Epod. IX 13ff.), with whom Mardion and Potheinos governed (Plutarch, Antony 60; Cassius Dio L 5). It fit the suspicious nature of Herod I that he favored eunuchs, who oversaw the food and drink and repose of the king, and also took care of governmental matters (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XVI 8.1). The favorite of Mariamne was also a eunuch (ibid. XV 7.4). Until a late date, eunuchs in the Persian and Armenian realm held high positions, for example Cylaces who held the satrapy of Armenia (Ammianus Marcellinus XXVII 12.5; see PW volume II p. 1290, No. 69).

In Greece, eunuchs were probably rare as slaves. Although no law prohibited castration, the general view was that it was undignified (Herodotus VIII 105f.).The cynical glamorization of Persian eunuchism in Xenophon, Cyropaedia VII 5.58ff. is an exception. However, there were Greeks, like Paionios of Chios, who earned a lot of money through the gruesome trade of supplying beautiful boys to the east (Herodotus, op. cit.). Not until the increased traffic with the Orient and the growth of luxury did the need arise for eunuchs, as Terence, Eunuchus 168 shows, relying on the work of the same name by Menander. Alexander the Great himself is supposed to have had immoral intercourse with the favorite eunuch of Darius (Quintus Curtius Rufus VI 53, X 1.25; see PW volume II, p. 2772 No. 2). Eunuchs arrived in Rome at the end of the Republican period. The Romans detested them greatly (Horace, Carm. I 37.9f, Epod. IX 13; Livy XXXV 15.4; Seneca, Ben. V 16.6, Epistolae LXVI 53; Juvenal XIV 91; Suetonius, Tiberius 7; Tacitus, Histories II 71; Historiae Augustae XVIII 23.5ff.) Curtius III 3.23 emphasizes the differing views of the Orientals and Romans. Nonetheless, they quickly took over as of the start of the imperial period. Maecenas was accompanied in public by two eunuchs, which caused consternation (Seneca, Epistolae CXIV 6). Eunuchs are represented in numbers among the retinues of Claudius, Nero, Vitellius (Tacitus, Histories III 40), Titus (Suetonius, Titus 7), and distinguished personalities like Seian (Pliny VII 129) and Fabius Valens, the general of Vitellius (Tacitus, Histories III 40). The frequent mentions in Martial II 60.3, VI 2.67, III 82.15, VIII 44.15, X 91, show their strong presence in Rome. Domitian, Nerva, and Hadrian were forced to prohibit castration as a grave offense (see volume III, p. 1772), as a result of moral excesses (see below) and in view of the greed of the slave dealers (Martial IX 6.4, Anthologia latina I 1.109 Riese, Digest IX 2.27 § 28, XLVIII 3 § 4) who were bringing many eunuchs to market at the enormous prices they fetched (Pliny VII 129; Suetonius, Domitian 7).

In the imperial period, eunuchs were used as bedroom attendants (Claudian, In Eutropium I 98, 419; Ammianus Marcellinus XVIII 4.4), to oversee women at home and when they went out, by which they could earn money if they did not take their duties too seriously (Ovid, Amores II 2.39f.), and to serve them (Historiae Augustae XVIII 23.4,7), especially in bathing and dressing (ibid. 23.5; Claudian, In Eutropium I 106ff.). They carried parasols and fans for the women (Terence, Eunuchus 595; Claudian I 109, 463; see PW volume VI, p. 1960). Plautianus, the prefect of the guard of Septimius, gave his daughter Plautilla eunuchs as teachers in music and other arts and sciences (Cassius Dio LXXVI 14.4ff.). Out of cruelty, he had not only children but even married men mutilated. The eunuchs were also used to serve men (Petronius 27), at table (Martial III 82.15), at the baths (Seneca, Epistolae XLVI 53), and in their adolescent years as pages (Anthologia latina I 1.298 Riese). As late as the fourth century, a host of eunuchs was a necessary part of the household of a wealthy family (Ammianus Marcellinus XIV 6.17). They were preferred, given the cohabitation of so many male and female slaves with their male and female masters. With the decay of morals, they were often used by men (Juvenal X 306; Pliny VII 129; Lucian, Amores 21; Claudian, In Eutropium I 61) and women for sexual depravity, especially by the latter, who were thus able to cover up their lusts in secrecy (Juvenal VI 366ff.; Martial VI 2, 5, 67.1; Seneca, Fragments 51; Jerome, In Jovin. I 1.47; Anthologia latina I 1.108 Riese). Young people even let themselves be mutilated in order to have unfettered access to distinguished ladies (Juvenal VI 366ff.). The surgeon Heliodorus even made himself a living from castrating such youths (Juvenal, op. cit.; see volume VIII, p. 41). Even emperors devoted themselves to unnatural intercourse with eunuchs, for example Nero with Sporus, whom he had emasculated and then married (Suetonius, Nero 28), Titus (Suetonius, Titus 7; Cassius Dio XLVII 2, 3), Domitian with his cupbearer Earinos (see PW volume VI, p. 2597 No. 81). Cassius Dio, op. cit., therefore interprets Domitian's prohibition of castration only as an insult to Titus. At the imperial court, in general, as at the Oriental courts before, eunuchs gained fateful influence due to their position as chamber servants, which brought them into continual contact with the ruler, and due to their flattering nature (Ammianus Marcellinus XVIII 4.4). For example, Claudius was in the hands of Posides (Suetonius, Claudius 28; see PW volume III, p. 2797 No. 25, p. 2819 No. 55) and Halotus (see PW volume VII, p. 2283), to whom he granted the highest honors. Nero placed the eunuch Pelago at the head of a contingent of soldiers to murder Rubellius Plautus (Tacitus, Annales XIV 59). A Spanish eunuch Sempronius Rufus, who had already been banished by Septimius for poison-making and sorcery, pursued his foul work under Caracalla, to the consternation of the Senate and the people (Cassius Dio LXXVII 17.2). Elagabalus was totally in the hands of his eunuchs, who rose to administrative positions under him (Historiae Augustae XVIII 23.5f., 34.3). They also acted at will under Gordian III and bestowed officers' positions (ibid. XX 23.7, 24.3, 25.2; see PW volume I, p. 2625 No. 30). A backlash against the eunuchs occurred under Alexander Severus, who despised them, banned them from his presence and his offices, reduced their number, and severely punished them for offenses (Historiae Augustae XVIII 23.4, 34.3, 66.3). Aurelian also restricted the number of eunuchs, whose prices had risen immeasurably, by choosing the Senate census as a standard (Historiae Augustae XXVI 49.8; see PW volume V, p. 1413 No. 24). Eunuchs were subject, moreover, like other oriental luxury articles, to an import duty (Digest XXXIX 4.16 § 7).

The influence of eunuchs became fateful when Diocletian officially introduced them to the court, in imitation of oriental rulers, and raised them to high honors. Thus in the subsequent period, the praepositus sacri cubiculi ["prefect of the sacred bedroom"] was usually a eunuch (Friedländer, Sittengeschichte I8 85; Böcking, Not. Dign. 322ff.). There were also Christians among the eunuchs of Diocletian (Lactantius, de mort. persec. 14), several of whom suffered a martyr's death (Eusebius, Church History VIII 6.2). The tomb inscription of a Christian eunuch is found in Rossi, Inscr. Christ. I 1.1121. The eunuchs were pushed back again somewhat by Constantine (Code of Justinian IV 42.1,2), but under his successors they rose to become all-powerful ministers. Julian found swarms of table servants and eunuchs in the imperial household (Libanius, I 565 Riese edition). The most notorious Byzantine eunuchs were: Eusebius (see PW volume VI, p. 1367 No. 5; PW volume II, p. 1370 No. 20), of whom Ammianus Marcellinus wrote bitterly (XVIII 4.3) that Constantius II had a lot of influence on him. Eutropius (see PW volume VI, p. 1520 No. 6). Amantius (PW volume I, p. 1725 No. 2), court eunuch of the empress Eudoxia, and Amantius the praepositus sacri cubiculi under Anastasius and Justinus (ibid. No. 4). Chrysaphios (PW volume III, p. 2485). Under Jovinian, the court eunuch Euzonius is mentioned (PW volume VI, p. 1540). Besides the office of head chamberlain, eunuchs were also entrusted with that of a comes s. vestis, the person in charge of the imperial wardrobe, who was subordinated to the praepositus sacri cubiculi after 412 (Code of Theodosius IX 18; see PW volume IV, p. 681 No. 83), and that of a comes castrensis, the imperial billeting officer (see PW volume III, p. 1775f.). Violent eunuchs like Eutropius even laid claim to the consulate, which horrifies Claudian I 8, 296f. If we consider their tyranny, which they exercised over the weak princes and the ruined empire (see about the above-cited article PW volume II, p. 1139 No. 10ff., 1141 No. 10ff, 1143 63ff.), violently removed important men, acquired immeasurable wealth by the sale of government offices to unworthy persons and the protection which they offered to unjust governors and officials, then we can understand the hatred and contempt exhibited by Ammianus Marcellinus XVI 7.14 and Claudian, In Eutropium I 233, 332ff. and elsewhere. The eunuchs also meddled in ecclesiastical matters and to some degree favored the Arians (Socrat. II 2; Sozomen III 18; Theodoret, Church History II 13), or Eutyches, for example Chrysaphios (PW volume III, p. 2485), or the Manichaeans, for example the Amantius mentioned in PW volume I, p. 17, 25 No. 4, therefore the fathers of the church like Athanasius (Apology against the Arians 33, 57, 89), Chrysostomus (Homily 84 on Matthew), and Gregory of Nazianzos (Oration XLIII 47) became their opponents. The Amantius mentioned in PW volume I, p. 1725 No. 3 was a friend of the patriarch Chrysostomus.

Occasion for contempt and mockery of the eunuchs was provided in any case by their physical deformity and diminishment of character which the mutilation had as a consequence. The body took on a fat, vulgar appearance, as the ancient monuments depict the eunuchs (Vigoroux, Dictionnaire de la Bible II Fig. 622 = M*moires de la mission arch*ologique au Caire V Table II). Eunuchs withered quickly, passing from boys to worn-out old men (Lucian, Amores 21; Claudian, In Eutropium I 469; Ammianus Marcellinus XIV 6.17), were full of ugly wrinkles (Horace, Epod. IX 13; Claudian I 110, II 67; Terence, Eunuchus 231, 357, 687), were weasel-colored (Terence, ibid. 687) or pallid (Ammianus Marcellinus, op. cit.), beardless (Cassius Dio LXXVI 14.5 pogonias, opposite of ektomias; Juvenal VI 366; Aristotle, History of Animals IX 50). The "eunuchine face" appears to have been proverbial (Jerome, Epistolae XXII 27). In addition, they were frail (Juvenal I 22), incapable of hard labor (Martial III 58.30, V 41.1; Claudian, In Eutropium 332ff.), unwarlike (Juvenal VI 366ff.), did not go bald (Aristotle, History of Animals IX 50, V 3e), kept, if they were mutilated before puberty, the boyish voice (ibid. IX 50) by which they had such an ingratiating effect on princes according to Ammianus Marcellinus XVIII 4.4. There was something feminine about them in general (Aristotle, Generation of Animals IV 1d, I 3d; Seneca, Epistolae LXVI 53; Anthologia latina I 1.108,109 Riese), for which reason they made themselves up like women (Anthologia latina I 1.298). The character of the mutilee also became soft and tended to wickedness and all kinds of vices (Historiae Augustae XVIII 34.3, 66.3, XX 24.3ff.). They were lascivious (Terence, Eunuchus 665; Horace, Carm. I 37.9; Juvenal VI 376ff.; Claudian, In Eutropium I 109), since the castration did not extinguish the passion (Jerome, Epistolae CVII 11; compare Vulgate Wisdom of Sirach 20:1, 30:21). Even the emasculated Phrygian priests had the worst kind of reputation in this regard (Martial III 91). They must be credited for a certain loyalty to their masters (Herodotus VIII 105; Xenophon VII 5.58ff.; Martial VIII 44.15), as in general the diminished character made them suitable for servitude (Claudian, In Eutropium I 332ff.). In their zeal, they became willing instruments to their lords for acts of murder and other crimes (Livy XXXV 154; Tacitus, Annales XIV 39). Once in power, they carried them out in their own interest without scruple, as demonstrated by the examples of Bagoas, Eusebius, Eutropius, Amantius, Chrysaphios (see the article cited above),and they often repaid the trust of the princes with betrayal and murder, for example, Bagoas and Halotus (Tacitus, Annales XII 66). The fact that they were scorned and ostracized by other people, and consciousness of the injustice suffered in the mutilation, which made them unhappy throughout their life, aroused cruelty and vengefulness in them (Claudian, In Eutropium 187; Ammianus Marcellinus XVI 7.8). Herodotus VIII 106 relates a drastic example of how the eunuch Hermotimus took gruesome revenge on the one who had mutilated him. Their greed (Claudian I 190, Ammianus Marcellinus, op. cit.) and corruptibility were also notorious, through which they gained enormous riches. Cicero, De Oratione 232 already mentions the wealth of the Syrian and Egyptian eunuchs who settled in Rome. Many of them exhibited a prodigal splendor, for example Posides (Juvenal XIV 91; Pliny XXXI 5) and Thessalicus (Pliny XII 12), who transplanted the plane tree from Crete to his Roman villas. Out of fear of revenge, others withdrew with their collected riches to quiet secluded spots, in order to enjoy their spoils there in tranquility (Ammianus Marcellinus XVI 7.7). As cubicularii at the court, the eunuchs sought to close the emperor off from the entire world, like the Persian king, so that he would not learn the truth and they could rule as they liked (Historiae Augustae XVIII 66.3, XX 24.3). Toward the ruler they were all crawling obsequiousness, toward others full of pretension (Ammianus Marcellinus XVI 7.8). Mentioned as honorable exceptions of noble and righteous eunuchhood are Eutherius (Ammianus Marcellinus XVI 7.4; see PW volume VI, p. 15000 No. 1), Menephilos, the eunuch of Mithridates (Ammianus Marcellinus XVI 7.9), and the philosopher Hermias, the friend of Aristotle (Lucian, Eunuchus 9; see PW volume VIII, p. 831). Otherwise, eunuch domination at all courts of the Orient, as well as Rome and Byzantium, has meant the decline of dynasties and realms.

Eunuchism is one of the darkest phenomena in human civilization. The high price of eunuchs enticed men to kidnapping and gruesome violation, especially of slaves. According to Justinian's New Constitution 142, the majority of the innocent victims died in the barbaric operation insofar as it was intended to exclude every possibility of sexual intercourse. But scarcely a voice of abhorrence is raised in antiquity against this inhuman custom -- Martial VI 2.2ff., IX 6.4, 8.5f. is not to be taken seriously -- which consigned so many children and youth to a tragic fate. In Lucian, Amores 21, mutilation for the purpose of unnatural depravity is condemned. Otherwise, the hatred and contempt of Greco-Roman writers are directed more against the victims of this barbarity. It is true, Roman law after Domitian marked castration as a crime and subjected it to the most severe penalties (see PW volume III, p. 1772), and poets like Martial (II 60.3f., VI 2) and Statius (Silvae IV 3.14f.) praise the emperor for that reason, but since eunuchs could still be purchased from abroad (Code of Justinian IV 42.2) and the emperors were lax in the application of the law (Ammianus Marcellinus XVIII 4.5), and even put forth a poor example themselves, the rest of society oriented itself in imitation of the court. For this reason, Jerome, Epistolae CXXX 13, Commentary on Matthew III 19, treats the abuse as self-evident and only counsels one to look more on the good habits of the slaves and eunuchs, rather than on their beauty, although Christianity abhorred mutilation and excluded self-castrators from entering the clergy (Council of Nicea I Canon 1). Even the Council of Vaison in 442 (Canon 9) still complains that foundlings are being mutilated to be eunuchs and actors. Daremberg-Saglio I 2.259. Lenormand, Histoire ancienne de l'Orient V 41 (1887). Surbled, La morale dans ses rapports avec le médecine et l'hygiene, Paris 1892 I 204ff. Grupp, Kulturgeschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit II 292 and often (1902). Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, German translation by Sporschil 1837.