Eunuchs were a vital part of Byzantium. Many empires like Egypt, China, Japan and the Muslim Caliphates employed eunuchs. But none of them integrated eunuchs as thoroughly into society as the Byzantines. In Byzantium, eunuchs served in the imperial court, in rich households, in the army and in the clergy. They were everywhere you looked. Eunuchs with the proper skills and talents could hold any job they pleased. Read on to learn about the vital roles of eunuchs in Byzantine society.
Eunuchs and Byzantine society
The Orthodox worldview was strict and hierarchical. It had clearly defined roles for all members of Byzantine society. Men and women, emperor and subjects, patriarch and laity all had expectations to fulfil. The rigid nature of the system needed a special class of people to act as intermediaries. The answer lay in the use of eunuchs.
A eunuch was neither male nor female. They were in effect a third sex. As such, conventional gender roles did not apply to them. This allowed eunuchs to serve in a variety of positions in the Byzantine world. Eunuchs could be teachers, doctors, actors, singers and even prostitutes.
Eunuchs and Rich Households
As slaves or servants in rich households, eunuchs might end up waiting on their mistresses. The master of the house felt safe in leaving his wife in the hands of eunuchs because they could not defile her in any way. Eunuchs therefore became responsible for the safety of their mistresses and attended to their demands. Learned eunuchs could also become tutors to children in rich households. They might oversee the education and upbringing of their young masters and mistresses. Finally, eunuchs could also serve as intermediaries for their masters.
Eunuchs and the Imperial Court
In the imperial court, eunuchs had many chances to advance in station. As eunuchs could not father children, they could not take the throne for themselves. Thus, the court created many key posts for eunuchs due to their perceived loyalty to the imperial household. Firstly, the imperial household relied on eunuchs to look after them. This involved personal security, counsel, daily needs, education of royal children and acting as intermediaries. Secondly, eunuchs took care of the ceremonials and etiquette that were vital to the court. Lastly, experienced eunuchs trained new arrivals in the ways of the court to ensure the smooth transition of duties in the future.
Eunuchs who were trusted with such responsibilities could wield great power and influence. Naturally, this power tempted many people and families. The more enterprising ones would castrate their younger son in the hopes that he would have a successful career in the palace. It was easy for a high-ranking eunuch to amass a fortune. Many of these rich eunuchs used their vast wealth to become patrons of the arts.
Eunuchs and the Army
Eunuchs also served in the army or as imperial guards. There was no discrimination in this area and eunuchs excelled on the battlefield as well as any normal male. Narses was one of the most famous eunuchs to hold military command. In fact, many emperors felt safe in giving command of the army to eunuchs because they could not seize the throne for themselves. Many emperors believed that this fact made the eunuchs more trustworthy and loyal to them.
Eunuchs and the Church
The early Church forbade castration and eunuchs from joining the clergy. They expected men to control their urges and lusts if they wanted to pursue a career in the Church. But the Byzantine Church welcomed eunuchs into the clergy. They also allowed eunuchs to become monks. So open was the Byzantine Church to eunuchs that they even allowed them to become the patriarch of Constantinople. This was the highest position in the clergy. But that was not all. Eunuchs could also become saints, so noted for their great holiness.
Eunuchs and the Choir
A particular type of eunuch, known as castrati, played a prominent role in the choir. As castrati, young boys underwent castration before they reached puberty. This caused their voice to develop a unique vocal range. Due to a lack of testosterone, the castrati also grew differently from normal males. Their body frame, limbs and bones were softer and longer. With proper training, they gained great lungpower that made them singing sensations. The castrati often performed at the imperial court and major churches due to their great popularity.
Eunuchs and Sex
There were many men in Byzantine society who prized their eunuch slaves as sexual objects. Eunuchs who underwent castration before they reached puberty maintained their youthful boyish image that appealed to men. Despite their lack, eunuchs also had their own sexual urges as well. Sex for eunuchs involved sodomy, which the Church frowned upon. Many priests urged the eunuchs to resist sodomy to save their souls. But since the eunuchs were at the mercy of their masters, they could not resist without facing the consequences. Some monasteries also banned eunuchs. They feared that the beauty of the eunuchs would drive the other monks to distraction.
Reflections of the Vizier
Thus far, I have been mainly interested in Byzantine emperors and the wars of the empire. I always knew that Byzantium employed eunuchs. But I never knew how integrated they were in society. It is just fascinating to learn how dependent Byzantium was on eunuchs to keep it going. Having read about the vital roles that eunuchs played has given me a deeper appreciation of Byzantium.
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.