One of the most interesting parts of last night’s Game of Thrones episode was the conversation between the hot-blooded Prince of Dorne Oberyn and the calculating eunuch spymaster Varys. These men represent a sexual ying and yang. Oberyn is a bi-sexual animal romping his way to revenge. Varys castrated as a youth is sexless. When Oberyn asks him if he preferred boys before his castration, Varys answers that he had always preferred neither gender proclaiming that “The absence of desire leaves one free to pursue other things,” Varys then looks at the Iron Throne.
Readers of the books know that Varys here is foreshadowing coming events.
Back to the unspoiled section!
As I commented in an earlier blog Martin plucks his notions of eunuchs from Late Roman and Byzantine history. Indeed, notice that M’s eunuchs are all Easterners. Since making eunuchs was illegal in the Roman Empire most eunuchs from this period like the famous sixth-century Narses were non-Roman Easterners. During the Byzantine period, however, castration served as a means of incapacitating one’s rivals as well. It is intersting as well that during the Goth’s Theoderic’s rule over Italy in the sixth-century we see Gothic eunuchs serving within his court.
However, as I also mentioned in the earlier blog the notion that castration cuts-off one’s sex drive is not true in all cases. Men like Varys castrated after they reached puberty to borrow the words of Mathew Kuefler (Manly Eunuch, 34) “retained their secondary sex characteristics and probably also their sexual desires.” So you can have bearded eunuchs. As the sixth-century Byzantine chronicler John Malalas (363) tells us it also explains why you can have handsome eunuchs.
It also helps us understand why a common idea found in anti-eunuch rhetoric is the idea that they had an insatiable appetite for men and women….though they of course they had to be inventive…So Varys would have had to have been castrated before reaching puberty to lack facial and bodily hair as well as to have a lack of sex drive. Though he is indeed correct that many Christians believed that once humans entered heaven they became a genderless being. This helps to explain why in much Byzantine art angels are displayed as looking like eunuchs.
In androcentric cultures like Rome and early Byzantium the seeming gender ambiguity of eunuchs could be troubling.[i] As Kathryn Ringrose explains, “The appearance and behaviour of eunuchs represented the antithesis of appropriate male behaviour. The eunuch was scorned as shameful, neither man nor woman, a monstrosity, an outsider, and pitifully womanlike.”[ii] We find this sentiment is expressed in the observation by the fourth-century panegyrist Claudius Mamertinus that eunuchs were “exiles from the society of the human race, belonging to neither one sex nor the other as a result of some congenital abnormality or physical injury.”[iii] The very ease by which a man could quite literally be cut off from the “source” of his sexual identity troubled many Late Roman writers. At the opening of the fifth century the poet Claudian quipped that the knife makes “males womanish.”[iv] It seemed a very simple process indeed for a man to become a non-man. As Peter Brown remarks, “The physical appearance and the reputed character of eunuchs acted as constant reminders that the male body was a fearsomely plastic thing.”[v]
The notion that eunuchs represented either a third sex or third gender must not be taken too far, I would agree with the noted Byzantinist Warren Treadgold’s assertion that most of the time they were seen as simply men. This helps to explain why, unlike women, they were able to serve within the Church and military. Indeed, castration may not have kept some eunuchs from aspiring to become emperors themselves. Narses, after his victories over the Goths and Franks in Italy, became the defacto ruler of a revived Western Roman Empire for twelve years.
The exarchs of Rome whom served as political and military leaders in Italy in the seventh and eighth centuries were often eunuchs. One may suggest that these men were appointed because they would not usurp control from their Eastern leader. This, however, did not keep one eunuch-exarch if the sources are believed from attempting to name himself as Western Emperor.
During a low-point in the Byzantine Empire’s climatic battle against the Persians, the emperor Heraclius had sent in 615 or 616 the patrician and cubicularis the eunuchEleutherios to revenge the murder of the former exarch of Ravenna. The new exarch went to Naples and killed the usurper John. After a defeat at the hands of the Lombards, he signed a treaty with the Lombard King Agilulf.
In 619, the western Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis) tells us that Eleutherios attempted to have himself named as Western Emperor, but was killed as he moved to take Rome.
Whether this account is to be believed is not too relevant to our discussion. On the other hand it is what our source does not say is surprising. Written about a decade after these events the biographer plainly sees it as possible that a eunuch could be named as emperor. Though hostile to Byzantine political aims….no gendered invective is used. Eleutherios is just depicted as an individual playing upon the eastern Emperor’s difficulties in the East against the Persians to carve his own way to the purple.
So is it possible that Martin could have Varys strive to take the throne of Westeros himself? Depends how deeply he has read his Byzantine history. So far his portrayal of eunuchs seems based on only a limited hostile ancient rhetoric. The possibilities found in the less hostile ancient sources are enticing.
[i] For the centrality of the masculine in Rome and Byzantium, see (Williams, 1999); (Kuefler, 2001); (McDonnell, 2006); (Conway, 2008); (Stewart, 2012).
[ii] (Ringrose, 2003: 12). On how the increased prevalence of eunuchs in both halves of the Empire during the fourth and fifth centuries provided writers with a means to comment on a perceived crisis of masculinity, see (Kuefler, 2001: 31-36).
[iii] Claudius Mamertinus, Speech of Thanks to Julian 19.4.
[iv] Claudian, In Eutropium 1.48.
[v] (Brown, 1988: 10).