You are on page 1of 3


* & $)' (,% ' # &$! ' $ )#) '

#( ,- #( # "% &
Emmanouil Magiorkinis, Marianna Karamanou, Aristidis Diamantis, George Androutsos
Department of History of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Athens University, Greece

ABSTRACT had him castrated so that he could easily become a governor, am-
The purpose of this article is to present the status and functions of bassador, prime minister, stratge (general), admiral, patriarch, or
eunuchs in Byzantium. Ancient Byzantine texts, as well as, con- occupy some other honourable function. Only the position of
temporary reviews and articles were thoroughly studied. We were Basileus (King), a title that was used widely by Byzantine emperors,
able to address various subjects regarding the eunuchs in the was closed to eunuchs, since Jesus Christ was not an angel, and the
Byzantine Empire such as their role and their symbolic meaning as eunuchs were thought to represent the angels on this earth.
well as the various types of eunuchs. Extended references were Byzantium eunuchs were top-ranking members of society, a rep-
found regarding the castration techniques, as well as medical ob- utation which differed greatly in Rome where eunuchs, despite
servations regarding the modifications in males after castration, their influence and wealth, were always considered inferior to the
and the attitude of the Christian church toward the barbaric prac- poorest of free-born beggars. According to the rules of etiquette
tice. Overall, eunuchs played crucial roles during the course of of the time, all honourable ladies had to be chaperoned by eu-
Byzantine History, although the Church did not approve the prac- nuchs when going to the hippodrome or for excursions into the
tice of castration, due to their close contact with the Royal Court. city. Even their confessors had to be eunuchs. The Orthodox
Church, contrary to the Roman church, accepted that eunuchs
Keywords take their vows and become priests. In general, Byzantine eunuchs
Byzantium, eunuchs, castration. were cruel, fond of intrigue, ambitious, and debauched. Many eu-
nuchs drifted toward criminal tendencies that made them into
IntroDuctIon monsters, but some held unusually virtuous traits. The Byzantine
Eunuchs were men which were intentionally castrated at an early taste for eunuchs was a source of mockery from their enemies, and
age. The main purpose of the castration was to make the man accounts by contemporaries always described them as tormented
suitable to perform a specific social function. For that purpose, eu- and disloyal. On reading such accounts, some historians see a form
nuchs were usually employed in the Middle East and China as of jealousy combined with their disdain.3
guards or servants in harems or other women's quarters and as
chamberlains to kings. The eunuchs' confidential position fre- the role and symbolic meaning
quently enabled them to exercise an important influence over their of the eunuch in Byzantium
royal masters. The long history of Byzantium teems with events In Byzantium, the eunuchs represented the holy powers, from the
and happenings involving eunuchs who - acting either openly or Christian point of view, and as therefore held a social standing well
clandestinely behind the scenes - had an important impact on the above that of eunuchs in eastern countries. Eunuchs represented
destiny of the Byzantine Empire. angels on earth, important characters at a symbolic Gods court.
Their role was to lead, present, transform and transmit. They would
the status and roles of eunuchs lead any visitors requesting an audience to the throne, present the
in the Byzantine state sacred ensigns of the crown to the Emperor, transform the pro-
In Byzantium, eunuchs not only fulfilled all the functions of the fane warrior destined to reign as basileus into the image of Christ,
state, but a large number of important positions could legally be and finally transmit the orders and messages from the top of the
held by eunuchs alone.1 The highest ranking aristocrats, sometimes social ladder downward. It was the eunuchs responsibility to ac-
even the sons of emperors, became eunuchs to avoid important company the basileus to the Blachernes bath, where he bathed in
functions being entrusted to foreigners.2 In Byzantium, when order to be reborn every eight days and to sing the basileus' praises
someone wanted to ensure a successful career for their son, they with the clear castrate voices in the churches of the city. These ac-
tions contained magical symbolism whose aim was to influence
$&& '%$# # )( $& &$ ''$& $& # &$)('$'
% &$) '(& ( ( #' & the rhythm of the body and transform it into a divine image.4
! # + " ! !,$# $( # ( &
Pretexts taken to justify castration Samonas gained favour from Emperor Leon VI (886-912 A.D.)
Originally, castration was performed on prisoners of war in order to after exposing an assassination plot against him in which he had
reduce their muscular strength and prevent them from having chil- pretended to take part. He escaped the country taking his riches
dren. Eventually the practice extended to common law prisoners with him and lived as an exile for 15 years (896-911 A.D.). After
for the same reasons. Total castration was common place among being arrested he was subjected to no more than a few months
the Turks and the Chinese during that time.5 Originally, Byzantium disgrace (904 A.D) and subsequently became even more power-
strongly opposed castration and even punished whoever per- ful than ever. He nevertheless ended up in a monastery accused of
formed castration with the death penalty under the rule of Em- publishing a defamatory text against the emperor and was re-
peror Constantine the Great (270-337). placed at court by another eunuch.7
Contrary to popular myth, eunuchs were not guardians of the Joseph Bringas was a eunuch with a brilliant career under the
harem; this role was much later assigned to them in the Muslim reign of Constantine VII (905-959 A.D.). Originally a slave, he be-
world. Even Cleopatra liked to surround herself with eunuchs, longed to the same family as one of the emperors enemies and
whose name comes from the Greek word. Later on, eunuchs un- after noticing his worth, the emperor had him castrated, a mark
dertook other roles, such as the role of servants for the imperial of honour at the time. Bringas was then able to gain access to the
palaces since they were easier to domesticate and were more docile highest ranking positions of the state including prime minister,
in executing unpleasant tasks. chancellor, and head of the Senate.8
The vow of absolute chastity, required by certain religions, Jean, a eunuch and monk, served the Byzantine emperor Ro-
brought about various instances of castration, as well as the pres- manos III Argyros (1028-1034 A.D.). On Jeans request, the em-
ence, in some churches, of male singers with high soprano or con- peror also engaged Jeans brother, Michel, a man of outstanding
tralto voices at a time when women were not allowed to sing. The beauty. Empress Zoe fell in love with Michel, and Jean helped
medical profession was even responsible in some cases for the cas- him assassinate the emperor. The Machiavellian eunuch then en-
tration of both testicles, whereas there was a strong belief that the couraged Zoe (regent for her son) to marry Michel. After the
practice was useful in treating leprosy. marriage, Jean held the true power in the empire. He was the
soul of the government and a source of terror for one and all,
the attitude of the church toward castration particularly when he was drunk. Under his reign, torture,
The Christian church condemned castration from the beginning death sentences, and exiles were daily fare. The empress finally
and excommunicated anyone who took the decision to mutilate revolted against him.9
themselves in order to preserve their chastity. The Eastern Church
did not exclude the rare cases of those who had been castrated by Different types of eunuchs
force or who were eunuchs at birth. These rules were more or Contrary to popular belief, history has known several different types
less respected until the 12th century when the issue of choir- of eunuch. Some may be surprised to hear adjectives such as
singing arose. The church wanted soft, angelic, feminine sounding brave, daring, and tireless used to describe eunuchs. In-
voices, but women were not allowed to sing. To overcome the lack variably these accounts, written by normal men, are followed
of sopranos, castrates were accepted as religious singers by the by the condescending phrase although a eunuch. One might
Byzantine Church, and later by the Roman Church. Shortly before wonder whether such brave and tireless eunuchs were truly cas-
the fall of Constantinople by the Francs, the Byzantine Empire first trated as we understand the term today in modern surgery, mem-
publicly used eunuch singers in church, as reported by Theodore bri ablatione.10 Many historians have suggested that they were
Balsamon in his comments on Nomocanon, in the 12th century. more likely to be ridgels (ridglings), or half-castrates, still in posses-
The castrates came from poor families excited by the promising fu- sion of a sex drive. When one considers the key role played by the
ture described to them. Eunuchs appeared in the choir of the Sis- caste of eunuchs in all walks of life, one might suspect that these
tine Chapel and became commonplace during the 17th century men had been subjected to an operation similar to those con-
despite being banned by Pope Clement XIV. ducted by Eugene Steinach, a famous Viennese physiologist who
suggested vasectomy as a method for castration during the World
Some famous eunuchs War II, rather than a full castration. Although we cannot prove
Narss (478-568 A.D.), a native of Persia, enjoyed great fame dur- this hypothesis, it could explain many things such as why such a
ing the reign of Justinian 1st (527-565 A.D.), thanks to the large number of non-degenerated eunuchs, with their genital qual-
favours of Empress Theodora, Justinians wife. He was a great ities preserved right through to old age, was reported throughout
warrior, excelling during the war against the Ostrogoths (552 the history of the Eastern empire. The most radical method, total
A.D.) and driving the Franks and the Alamans from Italy. Serving emasculation, consisted of the removal of both testicles and the
as a patrice for the Italian government, Narss reorganized its ad- penis. A less radical method, suppression of testicular function,
ministration but fell out of favour under Justin II (565-578 A.D.) could be obtained either by the removal or the barbaric crushing
and died destitute.6 of both testicles. The crushing procedure was described by Hip-
Staurakios, served as a prime minister for the empress Irene, pocrates in Genitura. in which men were subjected the unfortunate
wife of Leon IV (775-790 A.D.). Bestowed with great honours after thlibiae (from the Greek: I crush, I smash). Another category
his victories over the Slavs, he was constantly the object of plots of eunuchs were the spadones (from the Greek: to fracture)
organised by one of his fellow eunuchs, Aetios. who had suffered an almost total testicular atrophy after a trau-
matic shock or an infection of the testicles, torsion of the spermatic nuses, highly developed sella turcica of the sphenoid bone, under-
cord, or sectioning of the spermatic vessels. The spadones pre- developed hyoid bone, wide pelvis, and early adiposity. At an ad-
served their penis, and sexual contact could provide mutual satis- vanced age, many eunuchs developed a large belly, stocky legs,
faction, although sterile. Female members of aristocracy in Rome and occasional oedematous feet. In eunuchs castrated later in life,
were rather fond of spadones for their pleasure, as they carried no the procedure did not modify their stature. It caused abnormal de-
risk of undesired consequences. In such cases, there was a form of velopment of the breasts and projection of the buttocks.16 Just like
ejaculation, but not of semen but rather a prostatic liquid mixed their fellows who were castrated earlier, these eunuchs tended to
with secretions from the other glands. Female inhabitants of Byzan- age very quickly. They suffered premature wrinkles and very quickly
tium similarly used the spadones, a habit which explains the fre- started to look like old women. Their appearance, however, did
quency of alliances and cooperation between eunuchs and not prevent them from being admitted to the army and the ad-
empresses in plotting against the emperors, and the success of eu- ministrative services in Byzantium.
nuchs in high society. The last category of eunuchs were the
thlasiae (from the Greek: contusion) who suffered from atro- concluSIonS
phy of the testicles.11 Eunuchs during the Byzantium had a high social status, since most
of them occupied crucial positions close to the Emperor and the
castration-induced modifications to the body imperial court. Although castration was not approved officially by
Regardless of the age at which castration took place, the procedure the Orthodox Church males were castrated under various pre-
brought about major modifications to the body. Those who were texts. A wide variety of methods used for castration were em-
castrated before puberty were noted for their height because of ployed, whereas the symptoms and the physiologic changes were
the elongation of their limbs. Such eunuchs also featured varied well described.
secondary sexual characteristics such as a small penis, pale and
smooth scrotum, and little or no body hair.12 When castration took
place after puberty, eunuchs hair would become fine and thin,
their skin smooth and feminine, and their body hair would disap- references
pear.13 Eunuchs were said to be physically weak and suffered a lack 1. Diehl cH. une rpublique patricienne. Venise, Byzance : grandeur et dcadence.
Paris: Baillire editions, 1908: pp 7-42.
of physical and intellectual activity. They had the reputation of
2. Zambaco P. les eunuques d'aujourd'hui et ceux de jadis. Paris: Masson, 1911:pp.
being mild, good with children and animals, loyal to their master 228-235.
but not very brave. Some remained slim while others had a ten- 3. Guiland r. les eunuques dans lempire byzantin. tudes byzantines 1943:1:196.
dency to get fat. They aged prematurely but never suffered from 4. Guiland r. Fonctions et dignits des eunuques. tudes byzantines 1944:2:185.
5. Matignon JJ. Eunuques du Palais imprial de Pkin. Arch Clinde Bordeaux.
gout and never became bald.14 As noted above, an ablation of the 1896;5:194-199.
testes caused the body to grow considerably, mainly seen in the 6. Bury JB. A history of the later roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene (395-800).
elongation of the lower and upper limbs. The average height of a london: livingstone, 1889:pp. 15-16
7. Janin l. un arabe ministre Byzance: Samonas. Eo. 1935:38:308-310.
castrate was much taller than other individuals from the same eth-
8. ostrogorsky G. Histoire de ltat byzantin. Paris: Payot, 1996:p. 278.
nic group. But, castration stopped the development of the skull in 9. Guerdan r. Vie, grandeurs et misres de Byzance. Paris:Plon, 1954: pp. 147-171.
the three main dimensions, and eunuchs castrated before puberty 10. Androutsos G, Geroulanos S. les divers types deunuques de ltat byzantin :
all had skull diameters smaller than normal individuals from the leur rle et leur sens symbolique. Sexologies 2003:12:39-45.
11. Godard E. observations mdicales et scientifiques. gypte et Palestine. Paris:
same ethnic group, leading to an underlying reduction in the size
Baillire, 1867: pp.11-17.
of the brain. Castration before puberty considerably increased the 12. Pitard E. la castration chez lhomme et ses modifications morphologiques.
width of the face and its total height above the average. Some re- Paris: Masson, 1934:pp. 323-327.
gions of the face did not seem to obey the general rules of growth 13. Androutsos G. leunuchisme Byzance. Progrs en Urologie 2001:11:757-760.
14. Androutsos G, Marketos SP. la castration travers les ges. Andrologie
as shown by anthropometry with eunuchs showing in some cases
an increase, and in others a reduction in size.15 In addition to these 15. Pirche J. linfluence de la castration sur le dveloppement du squelette. lyon:
growth disorders, other physical alterations took place: absence of Stock, 1902: p.6
voice-break, exceptionally smooth skin, early wrinkles, total ab- 16. El Guindy M. les eunuques. tude anatomo-physiologique et sociale. thse,
Facult de Mdecine et de Pharmacie de lyon, 1910.
sence of male body hair, chubby appearance, marked frontal si-