Becoming a Eunuch in Byzantium

Eunuchs were a distinct feature of Byzantium. Everywhere you looked, you would find eunuchs. They served in the Great Palace, the Church, the army, the government, wealthy households and even as professionals. During the early days of the Roman Empire, it was shameful to be a eunuch. But this view changed as the Roman Empire evolved into the Byzantine Empire. Eunuchs however, were not natural; they were after all castrated men. Where then did the eunuchs come from? How did a person become a eunuch? Why did the views towards eunuchs change in Byzantium? In this article, I shall look at the background of eunuchs.

The Creation of Eunuchs

The Romans viewed castration as a shameful thing. No free and self-respecting Roman citizen would dream of turning into a eunuch. As such, they forbade castration from taking place within the empire. Thus, in the early days of the Roman Empire, castration took place at the borders instead. Foreign captives or slaves would have their testicles and penises surgically removed before traders brought them into the empire to sell as eunuchs. In the 6th century, Procopius informs us that many eunuchs came from Abasgia in the Caucasus. But that was not the only region where eunuchs came from. There were also Arabs, Balkans and even Scythians eunuchs.

With the rise of Islam, slave markets began to spring up in Rome, Venice and Spain. But the demand for eunuchs was so great that these markets were not enough. As the world began to change, the Byzantine Greeks realized that a career as a eunuch had many benefits. To obtain the power and prestige that eunuchs had for their families, the Greeks castrated their younger sons to prepare them for careers as eunuchs. In the past, the Romans frowned on castration. But as the Byzantine Empire evolved, many Greek-speaking eunuchs came from the local province of Paphlagonia.

Two Types of Eunuchs

There were two types of eunuchs. The first type underwent the procedure before they reached puberty. Due to a lack of testosterone, these eunuchs had longer limbs and softer bones than a normal male. They also had a unique and flexible voice that led many to become respected singers in the choir. The second type underwent the procedure after puberty. These eunuchs would retain their defining male characteristics.

Eunuchs in the Early Roman Empire

Eunuchs were vital to the running of the empire. Despite the shameful view that the Romans had of eunuchs, they still needed their services. In fact, they needed a ready source of eunuchs to draw from. While a Roman would not dream of becoming a eunuch, it was permissible for a non-Roman to be a one. Even so, they could not just take any non-Roman and castrate him. There was however a ready source of non-Romans who could be eunuchs. They were the slaves or prisoners of war. As these people had little rights, the Romans had no qualms about having these men castrated to serve as eunuchs.

Even in the 6th century, the view towards eunuchs had not changed much. The Emperor Justinian forbade castration to take place within his domains. But this did not eliminate the need for eunuchs; it only caused the procedure to take place outside of the empire. After the operation, the traders continued to bring in the newly formed eunuchs to sell as slaves in the market.

Eunuchs in the Byzantine Empire

The rise of Islam however, caused the state of affairs to change. As the power of the new Caliphate grew, it led to a greater demand for eunuchs that outstripped the ready supply. New slave markets began to flourish in Rome and Venice as the Caliphate controlled the markets in the East. Even so, the demand was far too great. Byzantium had to look for new sources of eunuchs instead of the usual slaves and captives.

During this time, being a eunuch became less of a taboo for the Byzantines. The common people were well aware that eunuchs held many key positions in the empire that gave them great power. Powerful eunuchs could use their influence to better the lot of their families. Since there was a demand for eunuchs, the local Greeks were now willing to castrate their younger sons to meet this need. These Greek-speaking eunuchs would enter the Great Palace or the Church in the hopes of carving out a lucrative career. If they made it, they could advance the standing of their family as well.

Castration as Punishment

Not all eunuchs were slaves, captives or power-hungry locals. Failed usurpers, rebels or deposed emperors could also end up as eunuchs. The Byzantines expected their emperors to produce heirs to carry on their dynasty. Since castration made this impossible, reigning emperors could get rid of their rivals by castrating them and their sons. Doing so removed potential threats to the throne. Although castration may seem barbaric by the standards today, the Byzantines viewed it as more humane than death.

Reflections of the Vizier

It is interesting to see how the view of eunuchs evolved in Byzantium. What was once shameful to the Romans became acceptable to the Byzantines. Byzantium saw itself as the continuation of the Roman Empire. In fact, they referred to themselves as Romans. But in reality, they were distinct in many ways. The view of and the role that the eunuch played in Byzantium is one major difference.

Reference

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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