5 Things You Did Not Know About Byzantine Eunuchs

Byzantium was full of wonder and unusual events. Although there are no more eunuchs today, back in Byzantine times, eunuchs were valued members of society. The palace, in particular, prized them for their unique nature and employed them to look after and guard the imperial household. What follows are some interesting details that reveal a little more about the lives of eunuchs in Byzantium.

The Nature of Eunuchs

The Byzantines viewed eunuchs with a mixture of feelings. On the one hand, eunuchs had an instability that made them unpredictable. On the other hand, eunuchs were also loyal, discerning and industrious which made them highly valued. It was because of their nature that eunuchs held important posts and managed palace affairs. But their strange manner and esoteric knowledge of palace routines, caused people to believe that some eunuchs possessed arcane talents.

Eunuch as Gifts

Liutprand, Bishop of Cremona, visited the Byzantine Empire on a diplomatic mission in 949. But before he arrived, he realized that he did not have acceptable gifts to present. Luckily, he recalled the advice of his father and stepfather. Both men had been to Byzantium on as diplomatic envoys before. They told him that eunuchs made good gifts since the emperor valued them highly. Thus, Liutprand purchased some eunuchs with a few other gifts and received a warm welcome at Constantinople.

Eunuchs and Monasteries

It was common for eunuchs to become monks. But some monasteries feared eunuchs so greatly that they banned them from entering. The reason for this was the fear that eunuchs might arouse desire in the other monks. Rather than allow temptation to cause the monks to stray, some monasteries chose to ban eunuchs.

The De Facto Eunuch Ruler

A eunuch could not take the throne for himself because he could not produce an heir. But, there was nothing to stop him from becoming the de facto ruler of the empire. One such eunuch was Basil Lekapenos, the bastard son of the Emperor Romanos I. During his career, he served four emperors and wielded great power. During the first decade of the Emperor Basil II’s reign, the eunuch Basil effectively ruled the empire on behalf of his young charge. He was so rich and powerful that he could afford to become a patron of the arts.

The Eunuch Patriarch who was the Son of the Emperor

The Emperor Romanos I castrated his son Theophylact and made him Patriarch of Constantinople on 2 February 933. This gave him control over the Church. As Patriarch, Theophylact bowed to his father’s wishes. He ensured that the Church remained united so that his father could focus his energies on the rest of the empire. Everyone knew that the Patriarch loved his huge stable of horses more than his flock. He would gladly forgo the Divine Liturgy to watch his favourite mare give birth. Ironically, the Patriarch died after a nasty fall from his horse in 956.

References

Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. England: Penguin Books, 2008.

Rautman, Marcus. Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire (The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series). Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006.

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