More Eunuchs breaking down barriers in Early Medieval Italy

I thought I would add the update of a paper that I gave last November for the Australian Byzantine Association. As I said at the time it went over very well, and I have been given the opportunity to try and publish it in the book based on selected papers from the conference. What follows is the draft that will then need to pass peer review in order to be accepted.

In other publishing news my review of Meaghan McEvoy’s Child Emperor rule will be out any day now in Networks and Neighbours and next month my review of Jon Arnold’s Theoderic and the imperial Restoration. I am still waiting to hear back on four other longer articles. In other news, I paid for my registration for IMC Leeds…bummer that the Aussie $ crashed….will be expensive, but exciting trip. I am the middle of researching and writing another piece based on my earlier blog about the role of “fear” in Procopius’ Vandalic War…this one has been taking a bit off time because I keep getting word back on other older projects that then need to be updated…so we will see how this goes…hopefully I will be able to post something here in the near future.

One last interesting fact. The photo of the eunuch Seda’s sarcophagus that appears in this article has an interesting back story. I found it on flikr and even though it was in open domain I asked the photographer for permission to use it for this potential publication. He agreed, and told me it was lucky to exist since the museum in Ravenna where he took it had earlier kicked him out for taking photos. This photo represented a final act of defiance, that I am , indeed, grateful for…so enjoy

Eunuchs are one of the most recognizable and remarkable features of Byzantine civilisation.   The Byzantine period is marked by the essential roles that castrates played at all levels of court society. Though their primary function throughout the Byzantine era remained service within the imperial palace, eunuchs served as diplomats, assassins, and political leaders, led armies and played essential roles within the Church as well. For many non-Byzantine peoples throughout the Middle Ages, eunuchs came to symbolise equally the allure and the otherness of Byzantium.

This paper has two primary objectives. Firstly, by concentrating attention on evidence from Italy, it will show more congruent attitudes towards eunuchs within the Eastern and the Western halves of the Roman Empire than some scholars allow. Secondly, I intend to demonstrate that a lessoning of hostility towards eunuchs from the fifth century, can help to explain both the rise of Byzantine military-eunuchs, and the respect for eunuchs found in much of the early-Medieval literature, Byzantine and non-Byzantine. .

Eunuchs in the fifth-century East and West

Let us begin by tracing briefly the prominent and diverse roles that eunuchs were playing at the opening of the fifth century. Modifying older views, recent scholarship has shown that eunuchs had become important within the entire Roman Empire from at least the third century, not the fourth as previously argued. Although castration in the early Byzantine period remained illegal within the boundaries of the Empire, at the dawn of the fifth century, Eunuchs were an everyday sight on the streets of Rome and Constantinople. To borrow the words of Shaun Tougher, “court eunuchs were an imperial phenomenon, not an oriental one.[1]

Yet the seeming gender ambiguity of eunuchs could be troubling.[2] One finds this sentiment expressed in a late fourth-century Eastern source describing eunuchs as “exiles from the society of the human race, belonging to neither one sex nor the other”.[3] 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’’.[4] 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”.[5]

The sentiments discussed above help to explain some of the hostility towards eunuchs found in the ancient literature. Such views have also led some modern scholars to postulate, that by the fifth century, eunuchs made up their own unique gender catagory. Modifying the older paradigm that claimed that eunuchs represented a ‘third sex’ in Byzantine culture , Kathryn Ringrose contends it is better to see eunuchs as making up a third gender, “male in sex, but with a difference”.[6] One scholar has gone so far as to posit that the indefinite gender status of eunuchs symbolised to some Late Roman men the frailties and “instabilities of the Late Roman gender system”.[7]Shaun Tougher is more hesitant to consider eunuchs as a third gender. He maintains, I believe correctly, that “there existed a multiplicity of concurrent gender identities for eunuchs: masculine, feminine, other (both positive and negative).[8]

A frequently gendered and negative view of eunuchs appears particularly prevalent at the close of the fourth century; a time when relations between the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire dramatically broke down. Claudian (ca. 370 – 404 AD), a native Greek-speaker from Alexandria based in Italy, crafted a famously hostile portrait of the Eastern eunuch-general and consul, Eutropius. The poet’s gendered invective In Eutropium (Against Eutropius) lambasted the Eastern Romans for allowing an ‘unmanly’ eunuch to take on the hyper-masculine duties of a military commander and consul. When describing the shame of having a eunuch leading Roman armies, the poet lamented, “Sister shall we ever have the power to cure the East of effeminacy. Will this corrupt age never stiffen up?”[9] To those in Constantinople who had ‘allowed’ a eunuch to fight, he scolded “To leave arms to men”.[10]

Of course, as a propagandist for Stilicho and the Western regime, Claudian naturally went a bit over the top in denigrating a rival from a then hostile Eastern court.[11] However, several Eastern sources criticised Eutropius with similar hostile rhetoric.[12] Easterners too could be critical of what they saw as Western Romans’ over-dependence on eunuchs.[13]

So too did Claudian’s contemporary, and fellow Eastern émigré to Rome, Ammianus Marcellinus, decry the large number of eunuchs in the city.[14] The former soldier Ammianus lamented that whereas their Roman forefathers had acted “as skilful directors of battles” leading their brave soldiers, many of the nobility of his day instead spent their time arranging banquets and assembling bands of eunuchs, whom the historian disparaged as “troops of mutilated men” (mutilorum hominum agmina). Having ‘abandoned’ their time-honoured political and military offices, these aristocrats could no longer be expected to lead real soldiers into battle, but merely command eunuchs.[15]

So we can see that belittling eunuchs was not purely a Western phenomenon. Neither was hostility towards eunuchs universal. Even the renowned persecutor of castrates, the fourth-century Emperor Julian (ruled 361-363), had admitted that he owed much of his manly deportment and love of classical literature to his eunuch childhood tutor—who was probably a Goth. Ammianus provided several examples of ‘good’ eunuchs. Though admittedly, they may not have been all that flattered by his backhanded compliment that, “Among the brambles roses spring up, and among the savage beasts some are tamed”. [16]

Unfortunately eunuchs have not left us their own views. Moreover, similar to ancient women, much of the hostile rhetoric hurled at eunuchs served as literary devices whereby the ancient authors could attack their main targets. For example, Claudian used Eutropius to attack the Eastern Court,[17] whereas Ammianus set his sights on certain members of the upper stratum of the Roman aristocracy and those eunuchs who had served in the regime of the historian’s bête noire—Constantius II (ruled 337-361).[18] Not coincidently ‘bad’ eunuchs are generally found in the reigns of ‘bad’ emperors or serving ‘wicked’ men or women.[19] Certainly one should be careful not to overstate the negative and gendered attitude toward eunuchs in this period—and much counter evidence could be provided to show a general level of acceptance for eunuchs. Nevertheless no other eunuch after Eutropius would be named consul, and as far as we know, it would not be until the reign of the Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565), in the sixth century, that another eunuch-general would lead a large Roman army.

The use of eunuchs, however, only accelerated in the fifth century. Eunuchs played essential, and at times, dominate roles in the fifth-century politics that reshaped the “twin Empires” in the East and West.[20] They planned internal and external affairs, brought about the rise and fall of great men and women. They also played a part in the Christological disputes that rocked the fifth-century Church. For these nuanced roles they could face both criticism and praise.[21]

One also finds eunuchs performing more martial duties. Unable to procreate, eunuchs had originally been utilised to perform duties within the intimate regions of the palace. This quite naturally had over time seen them being pressed into service as imperial guards. Emperors and their eunuchs often had a symbiotic relationship. By the fifth century, emperors had grown to depend upon their eunuchs for their protection. Eunuchs in positions of prominence were particularly vulnerable to execution during political crises or regime changes. Largely dependent upon the reigning emperor for their survival, eunuchs were naturally quite loyal and protective servants.[22] Eunuchs trusted role in the emperor’s entourage saw them perform the ultimate act of devotion, the elimination of the emperor’s enemies.[23]

Eunuchs took part in two of the fifth centuries’ most infamous political assassinations. The first occurred in 454 when the thirty-six year old Western Emperor Valentinian III (ruled 425-455) and his grand chamberlain Heraclius ambushed the seminal Western generalissimo Aëtius at a financial meeting in Ravenna. Catching the old general off guard, the emperor struck Aëtius with his sword, while simultaneously his eunuch attacked with a cleaver he had hidden under robes. A favourite place for eunuchs to hide their weapons if contemporary sources are to be believed. [24] Having slain the famous ‘conqueror’ of Attila, neither Valentinian nor Heraclius had much time to bask in their victory, and Aëtius’ supporters murdered the pair shortly afterwards. Valentinian’s assassination of a war hero and reliance on his eunuch advisor to perform the deed provoked an almost universally hostile response, and it is probably no coincidence that Sidonius Apollinaris writing in the years shortly after the infamous assassination described the emperor as a “mad eunuch” (semivir amens).[25]

In 470, the Eastern Emperor Leo I (ruled 457-474) utilised similar tactics when his armed eunuchs hijacked the long-serving Alan general and senior consul in Constantinople, Aspar and his sons, at a meeting of the Eastern senate. Unlike, his Western counterpart—though a close call—Leo and his eunuchs emerged unscathed, though the emperor earned from his critics the disparaging epithet “the butcher” for the killings.[26] Their role in the successful purge of Aspar, might explain why during the reign of Leo’s successor, Zeno, we find a eunuch leading a small military expedition against the emperor’s rivals.[27]

So too does one find eunuchs performing their familiar roles in some post-Roman kingdoms.   Like the Goths in Italy, Vandal rulers in North Africa from the beginning had sought to “cast their kingship in a very Roman light”. The use of eunuchs appears to have been part of this equation in Vandalic North Africa and in Ostrogothic Italy.[28] Indeed, mocking court-eunuchs in a classical and gendered literary style appears to have been a favourite pastime of the court poets who flourished in the Vandalic court[29]


The image above of the sarcophagus of one of the Gothic Rex, Theoderic’s (ruled 489/93-526), eunuch chamberlain, Seda, serves, however, as another reminder that eunuchs could be held in respect.[30] Moreover, Theoderic’s reliance on court eunuchs may add credence to Jonathan Arnold’s recent contention that Theoderic sought to present himself as a ‘new’ Western Roman emperor, and not just a barbarian rex.[31] By this period nothing said imperial Roman so much as a contingent of eunuchs. Hence, Theoderic’s and the Vandalic kings’ use of eunuchs may have served as one way to proclaim their imperial Romanitas. The presence of eunuchs in Ostrogothic Italy may also provide an explanation for why in the wide array of gendered invective hurled at the Eastern Romans by the Ostrogothic supporters during Justinian’s Gothic war, none of it, as far as we know, mentions the emperor’s reliance on eunuch commanders.[32] It is to the most famous of these eunuch generals, Narses that we now turn.


The andreios eunuch

Narses (c. 478-573) deserves respect.[33] Indeed, his major victories over the Goths in 552 and versus the Franks in 554, helped to secure Justinian’s retaking of Italy from the Goths.[34] So too did Narses serve for twelve years as prefect of Italy. Narses was a eunuch of Pers-Armenian descent, who had first served Justinian and Theodora as a cubicularius (chamberlain); ultimately, attaining the top post available to a court eunuch, the position of praepositus sacri cubicula (grand chamberlain). He was also a treasurer (a favourite position for Byzantine eunuchs) and later served as spatharius (bodyguard). He had even served as an assassin for the Empress Theodora.[35]

Narses was one of three eunuchs to command Byzantine armies during Justinian’s reign. The first, Solomon, served as magister militum and praetorian prefect of Africa.[36] Another eunuch, Scholasticus, commanded an army sent against the Slavs.[37] Though never as high as some suppose, the number of eunuch-generals expanded in subsequent centuries.[38]

Importantly, in contrast to the gendered vitriol that had accompanied Eutropius’ military command against the Huns at the close of the fourth century, Narses’ and these other eunuchs’ prominent military commands, as far as we know, provoked little or no hostile response.

One finds in the sixth-century histories of Procopius and Agathias, for instance, that Narses’ status as a castrate did little to hinder his military prowess.[39] Agathias, in fact, rejected this trope by depicting two warriors in a Frankish army assuming foolishly that they would best the Romans in battle because “a eunuch of the bedchamber” commanded their army. Guided magnificently by Narses, the Roman army annihilated the Franks.[40] Agathias attributed this and other Roman victories to Narses’ “excellent generalship”.[41]The lesson? Non-Romans who underestimated eunuchs and their role in the Roman military machine were in for a big surprise.

Furthermore, Procopius and Agathias undermine Ringrose’s contention “that neither’” historian “attributes Narses’ success to traditional courageous manliness”.[42] Examples from both demonstrate the opposite. Procopius, for instance, reported with little sense of irony that Narses’ supporters hoped that the eunuch would achieve fame through “deeds of wisdom and manliness” (ἔργα ξυνέσεώς τε καὶ ἀνδρείας).[43] Agathias too described Narses as “manly and heroic” (τὸ δὲ ἀνδρεῑον καὶ μεγαλουργὸν).[44] With his remark, “that true nobility of soul cannot fail to make its mark, no matter what obstacles are put in its path”, it seems clear that Agathias would have placed Narses on or near the top of his ladder of human excellence.[45]

Moreover, Roman and Byzantine generalship had never centred on ‘courage’ or ‘physicality’ alone. According to Agathias, “Brains and not brawn” represented the foremost quality for an effective general to possess. Procopius also criticised generals for ‘reckless’ fighting on the frontline.[46] Indeed, Byzantine military manuals suggested that generals should avoid such combat. The Strategikon (c. 600), for instance, advised that a general should find a safe place to observe his army, so as to better guide his men during the often shifting tides of battle.[47]Additionally, men with little or no military backgrounds could lead Byzantine armies. The Italian senator Liberius, denigrated by Procopius as an “old man without experience in deeds of war”, had for a time—albeit ineffectually—led Justinian’s Italian campaign.[48]

Procopius’ and Agathias’ showed their readers that it was the combination of Narses’ ‘brains’ with his soldiers’ ‘brawn’ that had led to the Byzantine’s final victories over the Goths. Indeed, one should not suppose that Narses did not put himself in danger during these battles. Despite the eunuch’s diminutive stature, Agathias described Narses on horseback leading his men into a skirmish against the Franks.[49] Narses’ age (he was over seventy during the events depicted in book 8 of Procopius’ Wars) more than the fact that he was a former court eunuch probably represented the primary reason that Narses did not play a larger role in combat. Procopius certainly depicted Solomon, leading cavalry charges and fighting on the frontlines with his men.[50]

Justinian’s reasoning for using eunuch-commanders was probably multi-faceted. His break with recent practice may have been a practical decision based on the reality that Solomon and Narses were the best qualified to lead. Solomon may have set the precedent. Narses’ loyalty, financial acumen, ability to attract the loyalty of his men and close relationship with the Empress Theodora also represent probable reasons.[51] So too had Narses performed coolly under pressure during the Nika revolt in 532 that saw the near overthrow of Justinian.[52] The combination of Narses’ deft performance during the revolt and his close relationship with Theodora provide the likely rational for the eunuch’s appointment to lead a Byzantine army into Alexandria in 535 to reinstate the Monophysite, Theodosius, as patriarch.[53] Fear of usurpation appears to have played a role as well. While Procopius only insinuated, Agathias made it clear that Justinian felt threatened by Belisarius’ growing popularity.[54] Such fear was not unfounded. The fifth and early sixth centuries had seen Roman and non-Roman soldiers playing increasingly important roles in both the making and the unmaking of Roman emperors.[55]

As God’s representative on earth, the emperor needed to maintain his corporeal perfection; any type of mutilation generally barred men from taking on the purple.[56] By appointing Narses, Justinian therefore removed the real threat that a charismatic—and corporeally intact— military man like Belisarius could present to him.[57]

Later Byzantine historians largely shared Procopius and Agathias’ respect for Narses.[58]  In the twelfth century, a successful eunuch-commander could be described as “a new Narses”.[59] Somewhat more surprisingly, non-Byzantine Western sources from the sixth to the eighth century have passed down generally respectful portraits of Narses as well. [60] For instance, writing in the Frankish kingdom of Burgundy in the early 580s, Marius of Avenches lauded Narses’ exploits in Italy:

“After Narses, former superintendent [of the sacred bedchamber] and patrician, had laid low so many usurpers—that is Baudila [Totila] and Tëias kings of the Goths; and Buccelin, a duke of the Franks; as well as Sindual the Herul—he was recalled from Italy in this year, by the above mentioned Augustus [Justin II] having commendably restored Milan and other towns the [Ostro] Goths had destroyed”.[61]

Significantly, for our purposes, even Western sources that subscribed to Narses’ anachronistic ‘betrayal’ of Italy to the Lombards first found in Isidore of Seville’s chronicle from 616, portray Narses’ reasoning for the ‘duplicity’ in a sympathetic light.[62]

Admittedly, Narses was just one eunuch and rather exceptional at that, so to close, let us turn to a final powerful eunuch from seventh century-Italy.

Italy at the opening of the Seventh Century

By the second decade of the seventh century, Byzantine rule in Italy was in deep trouble. The imperial government in Constantinople found itself in the midst of a final fight for survival with its long-time nemesis from the East, the Persian Empire. Lombards and native Italians, took advantage of the disarray, and around 615, the Byzantine exarch and a number of imperial officials were murdered in Ravenna. Though embroiled in the fight with Persia, in the spring of 616, the Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610-641) sent the Patrician and chamberlain Eleutherios to exact revenge and restore order. In this task the eunuch was largely successful. According to a near contemporary Italian source, “the patrician and chamberlain Eleutherios came to Ravenna and killed all those who had been implicated in the death of exarch John and the Judges of the State”.[63] After consulting the Pope in Rome, he then led his army to Naples, where, “he fought his way against the usurper and killed the upstart and many others with him”. His further attack against the Lombards, however, stalled, forcing Eleutherios to sign a treaty with the Lombard king. Though the details are murky, Eleutherios’ successes seemed to have gone to his head, and our Western sources tells us that in 619 he rebelled against Heraclius, and attempted to have himself name Western emperor.[64] His reign, if we can call it that, did not last long, on his way to Rome to rally support, he was killed by imperial troops and his head sent to Constantinople.

Even allowing for embellishment, it seems significant that our early medieval Western sources find it possible that a eunuch could aspire to such heights.[65] Perhaps such a view should not surprise, since these authors were probably familiar with other powerful eunuchs in Italy, some who were far from perfect servants and sought to carve for themselves a position in the political quagmire of early Medieval Italy. Eleutherios would certainly not be the last eunuch exarch to scheme against his superior in Constantinople.[66]

Eunuchs had come a long way since Eutropius had been stripped of his consulship and mocked for his holding of a military command. Eunuchs would continue to serve as exarchs in Italy until the exarchate fell in 751. In Byzantium, they continued until the thirteenth century to wield considerable power. I do not mean to claim that eunuchs after the fifth century were always treated in non-gendered ways. Eunuch-commanders who experienced defeat on the field of battle, faced gendered and, at times, eunuch-specific vitriol. For example, we find the eleventh-century Byzantine historian, John Skylitzes, recorded a Byzantine rebel commander’s snide remark that facing a non-eunuch general:

for the first time the fight would be against a true soldier, one who knew well how to conduct military operations with courage and skill; not, as formerly, against pitiful fellows, eunuchs, fostered in the chamber and raised in the shade.[67]

One suspects that Narses may have faced similar criticism if he had ever been defeated in battle.

Yet, as we have seen, eunuchs like Solomon, Narses, and Eleutherios had broken through some of the barriers of the prejudicial Roman attitudes towards eunuchs. Far from being just creations of pure political necessity, by the seventh century, eunuchs in early Medieval Italy had become a vital signifier of imperial status, and, at times, manly martial Romanitas.

One, indeed, need only to watch a few episodes of the recent television drama Game of Thrones, and it’s very Byzantine portrayal of the scheming court-eunuch Varys, to realise that eunuchs continue to translate, transport, and transmit Byzantine culture over five hundred and sixty years after Constantinople fell to the Turks.



Primary sources


Agathias. Agathiae Myrinaei Historiarum Libre Quinque, ed. R. Keydell (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1967), trans. J. D. Frendo (New York, 1975).

Agnellus of Ravenna, The Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna, trans. D.M. Deliyannis (Washington, DC 2004).


Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, trans. J.C. Rolfe, 3 vols. Cambridge, MA, 1936-39.

The Later Roman Empire, A.D. 354-378, trans. W. Hamilton (London, 1986).

Anthologia Latina, ed. Riese et al., 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1894-1926).

Auctarii Havniensis Extrema, ed. T. Mommsen, MGH: AA 9 Chronica Minora 1: 339 (Berlin, 1892).


Claudian, Claudian. trans. M. Platnauer, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA, 1922).

Claudius Mamertinus, Gratiarum action suo Juliano imperatori, ed. Lassandro (Turin, 1992), trans. S. Lieu (Liverpool, 1986).

Eunapius, frags. trans. R.C. Blockley. The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus (Liverpool, 1983).

Evagrius Scholasticus, The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus, trans. M. Whitby (Liverpool, 2000).


Gregory of Tours, Histories:  Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks, trans. L. Thorpe (London, 1974).

Isidore of Seville, Chronicon, trans. K. Wolf, (2004).

John of Antioch, frags. trans. C.A. Gordon, The age of Attila: fifth-century Byzantium and the Barbarians (Ann Arbor, 1961).

John Malalas, Chronicle, trans. E. Jeffreys, M. Jeffreys, and R. Scott (Sydney, 1986).

John Skylitzes, A Synopsis of Byzantine History 811-1057, trans. J. Wortley (Cambridge, 2010).

Julian, The Works of the Emperor Julian, trans. W.C. Wright, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA).

Liberatus, Breuarium causae Nestorrianorum et Eutychianorum, ed. E. Swartz in ACOec. 2/5 (Berlin, 1936), 98-141.


Liber Pontificalis, The Book of the Pontiffs The Ancient Biographies of the First Ninety Roman Bishops to AD 715, trans. R. Davis (Liverpool, 2000).

Life of Daniel the Stylite, trans. E. Dawes and N. Baynes, Three Byzantine Saints (Oxford, 1948).

Malchus, frags. trans. R.C. Blockley. The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus (Liverpool, 1983).

Marcellinus Comes, The Chronicle of Marcellinus Comes, trans. B. Croke (Sydney, 1995).

Marius of Avenches, Chronicle, trans. C. Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader (Toronto, 1999), 100-108.

Maurice, Strategikon, trans. G. T. Dennis. (Vienna, 1981).

Menander Protector. The History of Menander the Guardsman, trans. R. C. Blockley (Liverpool, 1985).

Olympiodorus of Thebes, frags. trans. R.C. Blockley. The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus (Liverpool, 1983).

Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, trans. W. Foulke (Philadelphia, 1974).

Priscus of Panium, frags. trans. R.C. Blockley. The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus (Liverpool, 1983).

Procopius, History of the Wars, trans. H. B. Dewing, 5 vols. (Cambridge, MA, 2000).


          Prokopios: The Wars of Justinian., trans. H. B. Dewing, revised by A. Kaldellis, with maps and genealogies by I. Mladjov (Indianapolis, 2014).

Secret History, trans. H. B. Dewing (Cambridge, MA, 1969).

Sidonius Apollinaris, Poems and Letters, trans. W.B. Anderson, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA, 1963).

Theophanes, Chronographia, trans. C. Mango and R. Scott (Cambridge, 1997).

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         Histoire Nouvelle, French trans. Francois Paschoud, 3 vols. (Paris, 1971-1989).

Secondary sources

Amory, P. (1997) People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 (Cambridge).

Alexander, B. (2002) How Wars are Won: The 13 Rules of War from Ancient Greece to the War on Terror (New York).

Arnold, J. (2014) Theoderic and the Roman Imperial Restoration (Cambridge).

Börm, H. (2013) ‘Justinians Truimph und Belisars Erniedrigung Überiegungen zum Verhältnis Zwischen Reich’, Chiron, 63-91.

[1]Tougher, 2008, 42.

[2] See, e.g., Hopkins, 1978; Kuefler, 2001; Ringrose, 2003; Tougher, 2004.

[3] Claudius Mamertinus, Gratiarum action suo Juliano imperatori 19.4: sed spadones quoque, quos quasi a consortio humani generis extorres ab utroque sexu aut naturae origio aut clades corporis separvit (trans. Lieu).

[4] Claudian, In Eutropium 1.48.

[5] Brown, 1988, 10.

[6] Ringrose, 2003, 2-23; Wells, 2004.

[7] Kuefler, 2001, 36.

[8] Tougher, 2004, 82. Warren Treadgold (2006) goes further. He rejects the idea that Byzantines ever seriously considered eunuchs as a third gender, suggesting that their roles in the Church and the military prove that they were seen as male in sex and gender.

[9] Claudian, In Eutropium 2 112-114: Nedum mollitiia, nedum, germana, mederi possumus Eoae? numquam corrupta rigescent saecula? (trans. Kuefler, 2001).

[10] Claudian, In Eutropium 1 281: arma relinque viris (trans. Platnauer).

[11] For this rivalry see, Cameron, 1970, 37-62.

[12] See, e.g. Eunapius frags. 64, 65. 1-7; Zosimus, New History 5.38-18; Marcellinus Comes, Chronicle 396.

[13]  For the abundance of ‘scheming’ eunuchs at the court of the Western Emperor Honorius (ruled 393-423), see Ammianus, Res gestae 31.11.1; Eunapius, frag. 47; Zosimus, New History 4.22.

[14] For the close association of the term mollitia ‘softness’ with ‘effeminacy’, see Williams, 2013, 240-63.

[15] Ammianus, Res gestae 14.6.17 (trans. Hamilton).

[16] Ammianus Res gestae 16.7.4-8.

[17]Long, 1996, 221-62.

[18] Tougher, 2004, 71.

[19] Tougher, 2008, 126.

[20] Millar, 2007, 3.

[21]For eunuchs in the fifth-century West, see above, n. 13, and Tougher, 2008, 42. For the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II’s (ruled 408-450) heavy reliance on court eunuchs, and in particular, the dominance of his spatharius Chrysaphius in internal and external politics and Christological controversies, see e.g., Priscus, frag. 3, 11, 13, 15.2; Vita of Daniel the Stylite, 31; Marcellinus Comes, Chronicle s.a. 450; John Malalas, Chronicle, 363, 368; Evagrius, HE 1.10, 2.2; Theophanes, Chronographia A M 5738, 5740, 5943.

[22] On this expendability, see Hopkins, 1978,176-96,

[23] As R.C. Blockley notes (1983, 393), since they were allowed to carry their weapons within the palace, head chamberlains made particularly good assassins.

[24] Priscus, frag 30.1.13-27.

[25] Sidonius, Carmina 7.359 (trans. Anderson).

[26] Malchus, frag. 1.3.

[27]John of Antioch, 211.1.

[28] For Vandalic literature’s fascination with North African eunuchs, see Merrills, Miles, 2010, 108; Kay, 2006, 121-24.

[29] Anthologia Latina, p. 242.

[30] “Here rests in peace the vir sublimis and eunuch, Seda, cubicularius of the king Theoderic. Buried here before the ides of March during the consulship of the vir clarissumus Basilius (541) in the fourth indiction (my trans).

[31] Arnold, 2014, 90. On Theoderic’s praepositus cubicula Triwila and another Gothic eunuch, Wiliarit, see Moorhead, 1994, 75.

[32] A full account of this gendered propaganda is found in, Kaegi, 1990, 79-81; Stewart, 2014, 21-54.

[33] Historians have long admired Narses, see e.g., Gibbon, 4.36; Bury, 1958, 267-80; Fauber, 1990, 135; Martyn, 2007, 46-56.

[34] Some modern military historians, for example, have rated Narses as a better general than his rival Belisarius. See e.g., Alexander, 2002, 49-52.

[35] Procopius revealed that in 541, the Empress Theodora had sent Narses to assassinate the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian Procopius, Wars 1.25.24-30.

[36] See e.g. Procopius, Wars 4.11.47-56.

[37] Procopius, Wars 7.40.5.

[38] For a select prosopography of eunuchs in Byzantine civilisation, see Tougher, 2008, 133-71.

[39]Procopius’ portrait of Narses, however, is more nuanced, and in places, less positive than scholars like Tougher or Ringrose have suggested. For Narses’ ‘negative’ qualities see, Wars 6.18.11, 6.18.28-29, 6.19.18., 8.23.17-20. For his ‘positive’ traits, see Wars 6.13.16, 8.26.5, 8.26.14, 8.31.22, 8.35.36.

[40] Agathias, Histories 1.6.8, 1.22.6.

[41] Agathias, Histories 2.9.1.

[42] Ringrose, 2003, 133.

[43] Procopius, Wars 6.18.7. I have changed the translator Dewing’s ‘courage’ for ἀνδρείας to ‘manliness’.

[44] Agathias, Histories 1.16.12 (my trans.).

[45] Agathias, Histories 1.16.2.

[46] E.g., Procopius, Wars 5.18.5.

[47]Strategikon 2.16.

[48] Procopius, Wars 7.39.7.

[49]Agathias, Histories 1.21.5. For Narses’ small, frail body, see Histories 1.16.2.

[50] Procopius, Wars 4.11.15, 4.19.17.

[51] Shaun Tougher points out this possibility in his paper on Narses that he kindly allowed me to see before publication.

[52] John Malalas, Chronicle 476.

[53] Liberatus, Breviarium 20.20.

[54]Procopius, Wars 6.30.1-5; Agathias, Histories 5.20.5.

[55] Justinian’s predecessors Marcian (ruled 450-457), Leo I (ruled 457-474), Zeno (ruled 474-5, 476-91), Basiliscus (ruled 475/6), Justin I (ruled 518-27) all began their careers as soldiers. The exception, Anastasios (ruled 491-518), served as a palace official before surprisingly being named emperor.

[56] Herrin, 2013, 268.

[57] Historians continue to debate just how viable a rival Belisarius was for Justinian, see Börm, 2013, 63-91.

[58] See e.g. John Malalas, Chronicle 484, 486; Evagrius, Ecclesiastical History 4.24; John of Ephesus, Ecclesiastical History 3.1.39.

[59] Tougher, 2008, 152.

[60] E.g., Gregory of Tours, Histories 4.9; Liber Pontificalis, Vita Vigilius ch. 8, Vita John ch. 2-3; Paul the Deacon. History of the Lombards 2.3, 2.5;

[61] Marius of Avenches, Chronicle a. 568 (trans. Murray).

[62]E.g., Isidore of Seville, Chronicon 116; Liber Pontificalis, Vita John ch. 3-4; Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards 2.5.

[63] Liber Pontificalis, Vita Deusdedit ch. 2.

[64] Liber Pontificalis, Vita Boniface ch. 2. The chronicle known as the Auctarii Havniensis Extrema (ch. 25), published around 625, provides the longest account on Eleutherios, explaining that the eunuch had been coaxed to head to Rome to be crowned.

[65] See also the late eighth-century Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards 4.34, and the early ninth-century, Agnellus, The Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna, ch. 106.

[66] Deliyannis, 2010, 180-82

[67]John Skylitzes, A Synopsis of Byzantine History 16.8.

3 thoughts on “More Eunuchs breaking down barriers in Early Medieval Italy

  1. crafty theatre

    Mike, I love your posts. I learn a lot from them. i hope you don’t mind my question which is probably very obvious but something I haven’t quite grasped. Are the eunuchs that colour the Byzantine/late Roman world you write about exceptions, or the rule. As in, did the majority of eunuchs serve a retainer/person friday/ p.a. style role to a powerful figure or were these personal assassins/right-hand military figures unique? What I’m trying to clarify is whether eunuchs existed as a class/strata of society – the downstairs staff, to make a Downton Abbey analogy? Whether the eunuchs who made historical accounts exemplified themselves in their service and therefore rose in position and power, beyond the expectations of their class?

  2. mikeaztec Post author

    No it is a very good question. These eunuchs were exceptional though it does seem we get an increasing number of powerful and military eunuchs form the sixth-century onward. There is a shift in views towards eunuchs as we move into the middle Byzantine period where we see numerous eunuchs now being created within the Empire. They become a prestige object. Military eunuchs that we know of peak in the eleventh century…not coincidently a time of numerous usurpations by rival generals. Castration continued to seen as a punishment so it does not seem that people wanted to be eunuchs, but castration did not bar these men from having careers in the military or the church…there was even a monastery just for eunuchs.
    We do not even know if eunuchs were seen as a homogenous group. Created eunuchs like Narses appear to be seen differently than accidental eunuchs like Solomon (who became a eunuch through an accident as a baby). Procopius notes the difference.
    Unfortunately most eunuchs remain invisible, so it is impossible to know the exact numbers. Though of course this invisibility is true of most non-eunuchs as well. Western sources tell us there were a good number. Shaun Tougher has given a select prosopography where one can try to trace their rise and fall.


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