Hic requiescit in pace vir s[u]bl[imis] Seda ignucus et cubicularius regis Theoderici..”
The image above is taken from the Sarcophagus of Seda the Eunuch from Capella Arcivescovile (Archiepiscopal Chapel), Ravenna. Seda served as cubicularius (chamberlain) of the ruler of Italy Theodoric (493-526). Evidence suggests that there were other powerful eunuchs in Theoderic’s Italy (see Moorhead, Theoderic 75 n. 42). Such an image is surely an apt reminder that eunuchs continued to play an important role in sixth-century Italian society.
Many modern scholars, however, still see eunuchs as an Eastern phenomenon. Indeed, I spent a large part of my PhD defence explaining that Western and Eastern views of eunuchs in the fifth-century were largely congruous. Indeed, the two most commonly “anti-eunuch” Latin writers from the dawn of the fifth century writing in Italy—Ammianus and Claudian—hailed from the Greek-speaking Eastern half of the Empire. So too do we have plenty of Eastern writers from this period writing invective against eunuchs.
Though it is true that eunuchs had been an Eastern innovation they had played an important part in the Western Empire from the third century. As Andy Merrills reminds us (The Vandals, 108) as well, eunuchs seemed to have continued to play an important role in Vandalic North Africa in the fifth and sixth-centuries.
Although eunuchs’ primary role throughout the fifth and sixth centuries continued to be service within the palace, they also played important roles within the diplomatic corps, Church, and military. Belaying their “soft guy” image, they operated as assassins as well. Both the Western emperor Valentinian III and the Eastern Emperor Leo I, for example, had eliminated their respective generalissimos’, Aetius and Aspar with the help of their trusted eunuchs. One should not underestimate the danger or martial prowess involved in such attacks.
The Late Roman sources tell us about a number of Gothic-eunuchs (castration was illegal in the Roman Empire so as Easterners and non-Romans this should not surprise). For example, the Emperor Julian’s childhood tutor, Mardonius, to whom the emperor credited with both his early love of Greek classics as well as his development of a “proper” manly deportment—was described somewhat ironically by the apostate as both a eunuch and a barbarian, was most likely a Goth).
As many previous readers of this blog already know, I have long been interested in the ways that the mid-sixth century Eastern Roman historian Procopius presented that battle between Justinian’s armies and the Goths in Italy as a “contest” of manliness and martial virtues. Jonathan Arnold and Andy Merrills too have shown how important a factor masculine Romanitas was in the Goths’ and Vandals’ sense of ethnic identity. Readers of my work on Narses have always asked me why Procopius has the Gothic leadership say nothing about the Eastern Roman army being led by an unmanly eunuch. Moreover, the gender-obsessed Procopius does not make that much of a big deal over eunuchs like Narses serving in the military, a presumably masculine realm. Moreover, even when Procopius’ successor Agathias had two barbarians disparaged Narses as “a puny unmanly manikin from the bedchamber”, they were not Goths (whom as Arnold has shown were highly Romanised), but Alamanni warriors.
Procopius’ Goths seemingly had no problem constantly describing the Byzantine army as unmanly Greeks or barbarians, but unlike Claudian a century and a half earlier, even the harshest critiques like the Goth Vacis, in P’s telling, makes no mention of the Easterners use of eunuchs in their military (3 eunuchs that we know of commanded Justinian’s armies). Certainly such a trope would have represented a great literary contrast for Procopius who loved explaining that the fall of the Vandals had been brought on by their fondness for the softer sides of Romanitas. As far as I know the Italo-Roman writers like Ennodius and Cassiodorus when disparaging the Byzantines as unmanly Greeks, also make little mention of this trope either.
One easy answer could be that eunuchs were used and accepted by the Goths as well; so therefore not Eastern at all. The fact that Goths could serve as eunuchs in this period could be a factor as well. So too does it seem that Procopius largely accepted the role that eunuchs were playing in all aspects of Byzantine and perhaps Gothic civilisation. Indeed, as presented by Procopius and other contemporaries…. despite the rhetoric that saw eunuchs at times as a “third”gender ….they were primarily seen as male in sex and gender.