(A twelfth-century depiction of a Byzantine eunuch soldier attacking Arab soldiers)
As Will Ferrell’s character from Zoolander Jacobim Mugatu might say, “Eunuchs are so hot right now!” Eunuchs from Deanery’s Targaryen’s “unsullied” to the manipulative court eunuch, Varys, play a central role in George Martin’s Game of Thrones. Martin has skilfully lifted some tropes and ancient beliefs from ancient Rome and Byzantium surrounding castrates: the unsullied are loyal soldiers because their castration quite literally cuts them off from normal society, they also are good fighters because their supposed lack of sex drive and lack of need for family keeps them focused on the victory to be won. They also cannot usurp the throne from their leader; their very survival depends on their leader’s well-being. This view differs somewhat from some ancient sources that often depicted eunuchs as having an insatiable sexual appetite for both males and females. Though admittedly the early third-century Christian intellectual Origen supposedly took Jesus’ suggestion (Matthew 19:12) that Christians should “make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” literally by castrating himself.
Martin’s other important eunuch Varys is everything a court eunuch from the pages of ancient Byzantine literature should be: clever, sinister, driven and indeed, an “”evil” genius who largely because of his superior intellect easily manipulates those of either gender for a purpose that may be his own, but might be for a larger reason as well. Whether Varys represents one of Kathryn Ringrose’s Perfect Servants found serving Byzantine emperors, though hinted at, remains to be revealed
Soldier-eunuchs are a defining and remarkable feature of Byzantine civilization. One of my on-going projects at the moment is looking at these military eunuchs throughout the Byzantine period. There is a divide among historians who see eunuchs as representing a liminal third “gender” others who see multiple identities and those who suggest that their role as soldiers and within the Church prove that despite the ancient tropes they were seen as men at all times.
At the moment I am starting research on a paper I will be giving at a conference at the end of the year. What follows is an abstract.
Breaking Down Barriers: Eunuchs in Italy, 400-630
Eunuchs are one of the most recognizable and remarkable features of Byzantium. Certainly Byzantine civilisation is marked by the essential role that eunuchs played at all levels of court society. Though their primary function throughout the Byzantine era continued to be service within the imperial palace, eunuchs led Byzantine armies and served important roles within the Church as well. While these essential positions were largely accepted in the Eastern half of the Empire, one finds generally a more hostile view in Western sources composed at the opening of the fifth century. Yet, though seen as an innovation of the “East”, these same sources also provide us with examples of eunuchs playing an increasingly important role within Italian society as well.
This paper examines some of these eunuchs from the opening the fifth century to the victories of the most famous Byzantine eunuch, the commander of the Eastern Emperor Justinian’s reconquest, Narses, in the middle of the sixth century. It suggests that the important functions that eunuchs had held in the fifth-century Western Empire had led to a lessoning of hostility towards castrates. This growing congruence between Eastern and Western attitudes towards eunuchs from the fifth century helps to explain some of the positive attitudes concerning Narses found in Western sources.