What Can Eunuchs Teach Us About Power?
Would you castrate someone to further your career? Throughout much of human history, that answer was yes. I’m Peter McGuire, and this is my Unlikely Explanation.
This month, I researched how human bodies, male, female, and other, are understood by power and how queer bodies (or gender-diverse bodies) challenge traditional conceptions of power. Thanks to the pioneering work of feminists and gender theorists of the ’70s, we can now talk about sex and gender as two different things. Sex refers to the biological differences between males and females, while gender refers to the social status and cultural aspects of being a man or woman. I’m talking about things like clothing and proper behavior and even the way language is used. A particularly stark example of how gender can be used in politics comes from a gender that was common in empires throughout Eurasia for millennia and has recently gone extinct. The practice of castration for court service ended in 1912 with the fall of the Qing dynasty. On December 17, 1996, Sun Yaoting—the last person castrated for political service—died, and with him died the living memory of eunuchs as a class. Trying to understand this group of people, now lost to the world, can give us surprising insights into how we construe gender today. But first, let’s get a handle on how gender and procreation relate to power by looking at a few examples of politically powerful bodies.
It should come as a surprise to no one when I say that women’s bodies are construed differently in politics from men’s. A recent example of this came in 2016 with the presidential debates. While Donald Trump strutted and pouted around the stage, sometimes appearing to loom behind Hilary Clinton, she stayed put and spoke calmly, professionally. Her lifetime in politics has taught her how she is and isn’t allowed to express herself because of her gender. [Audio Clip] Just comparing the makeup worn by Trump as opposed to Clinton on the debate stage tells you something about what’s expected of a woman’s appearance.
I’m interested in how the choices we make about presenting our gender affect our role in public life. One way to learn about official conceptions of gender is to look at art. Political leaders use depictions of their bodies to project power. When depicting a body in art, choices must be made regarding what aspects of that body are emphasized, choices informed by ideas of gender, and the proper way to present gender. Depictions of leaders can show us how gender is understood in a given society and how that leader interacts with gender.
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Today, the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States, tends to be photographed in a black or navy blue suit; a white, collared shirt; and a sometimes-colorful tie. This rather drab look constitutes our current conception of what a powerful man looks like. However, if we cast our eyes back just three centuries, we see a very different conception of the most powerful man in the world. You might be familiar with court paintings of Louis XIV. We see Louis the Great, the Sun King, the face of
European power, with long, flowing curls and a frilly cravat, showing off his long legs in their white tights, complete with pink shoes with heels. Everything from his lacy breeches to his jewel-encrusted sword to his huge wig exude elegance, opulence, and virility. Louis showed us what it really means to be a man.
It is no accident that where his slender legs meet his lacy breeches, we see an enormous sword. The paintings actively invite us to think about his penis and how it will project his power into the future in the form of his dynasty. Virility is crucial for maintaining power, longer-term, in hereditary systems.
But despite the pervasive male domination of virtually all societies in all times, not all rulers are men and not all power comes from projections of masculinity. An especially fascinating example is the androgynous bodies of Akhenaten and Nefertiti in the 13th century BCE. Egyptians represented their rulers according to standard formulas that changed little over the three millennia of dynastic rule. Elements such as the crown and beard were applied even to the few female rulers, as we see in depictions of Hatshepsut. We see a sudden break in this tradition when the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV tried to re-center the Egyptian religion on his favored deity, Aten. This break with millennia of polytheistic worship and the powerful priesthood behooved the pharaoh to relocate his court and reimagine Egypt, including his place within it.
Akhenaten’s statues show him with a long, impassive face; long, spindly arms with little muscle definition; a paunchy belly; and breasts. It really is a startling visual break. This also happens to be the art that Ancient Aliens theorists point to. And I’ll admit, it looks radically different. Why would he break with millennia of tradition to create this, frankly, weird vision of his body?
In the Egyptian worldview, the pharaoh represented the connection point where man meets god and the pharaoh was a semi-deity himself. Pharaohs chose specific imagery to connect themselves with one or several patron deities. Amenhotep’s chosen deity was Aten, the disk of the sun, and he took the radical step of refocusing all worship in Egypt towards Aten, going so far as to renaming himself “the tool of Aten”: Akhenaten.
Aten was a good choice for a proto-monotheistic religion because the god exists only as an abstract. Unlike other gods who were traditionally represented with a mixture of human and animal traits, Aten, the sun disk, specifically had no tangible form or gender. Akhenaten’s favored god represented the oneness of everything. Images of Akhenaten as androgynous might signal that, like his gender-neutral god, he encompasses all people, both male and female, in his connection with the godhead.
When he is portrayed with his wife, Nefertiti, as he often is, they hold the symbols of the mother and father creation gods underneath the sun disk. The message appears to be that the pharaoh and his wife are manifesting the god in man by giving birth to a new Egyptian nation. Interestingly, Akhenaten is often depicted with his family, which is uncommon. Pharaohs aren’t usually depicted relaxing in private settings. Nefertiti often appears in art as being as large as her husband, indicating that she is equal in importance to him (as opposed to his sons who, even as adults, appear much smaller than him). It may even be that Nefertiti ruled Egypt as a sole pharaoh for several years before her son, Tutankhamun, came of age. This visual connection of Akhenaten with imperfect human bodies and family directly refutes the austere depictions of pharaohs as demigods that come before and after.
Akhenaten seems to have manipulated his body in art to shift power in a new direction and consciously break tradition. This was a political choice made by a male monarch attempting to drastically alter the ruling order. More commonly, androgyny in depictions of rulers happens when a female ruler is trying to fit in with the established patriarchal ruling order. England, despite affording women fewer rights than countries on the European continent, allowed the throne to pass more readily to women. Six women have ruled England since the Norman invasion and each needed to defend her power against the exclusively male aristocracy. Two of these monarchs, Elizabeth I and Victoria, represented themselves as women in opposite ways, making them great case studies in depictions of female rule.
Elizabeth rose to a deeply divided throne. Her father, Henry VIII, had initiated a half-hearted religious reformation aimed more at legalizing his divorces and dispossessing monasteries than any theological change. Her brother and sister preceded her to the throne and had only fanned the flames of unrest. Not dissimilar to Akhenaten, Elizabeth presented a vision of national unity through her representations of her body.
Due to the personal nature of medieval rule, jurists and writers often referred to countries as bodies with the monarch as the head, the so-called “body politic”. As European countries grew more complex, more complex systems of administration became necessary. It was useful for administrators to draw authority from the monarch by describing their actions as extensions of the monarch’s own will, imagining themselves as extensions of the monarch’s own body. This is a useful metaphor for fitting the personal, autocratic rule by a single sovereign to the complex needs of an empire, but it has drawbacks for monarchs whose bodies are not compatible with their society’s values. Specifically for Elizabeth, she was a female head on a male body. Right from the beginning, in her coronation speech, Elizabeth alludes to her two bodies: her personal body and the cooperative body of state.
“And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all ... to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel.”
Elizabeth explicitly invites men to participate in her government while firmly establishing their place in her hierarchy as her servants.
Elizabeth courted men throughout her reign and frequently assured parliament that she would marry and produce an heir. In fact, in addresses to parliament, she blamed their indecision in choosing a preferred suitor for her failure to marry. She dangled the possibility of marriage before suitors both in the English aristocracy and from foreign powers as an active part of her diplomacy. But by claiming this power of autonomy by declining marriage, she also denied herself a legitimate heir. Ensuring a smooth succession of the English throne fell entirely to her industrious courtiers.
Elizabeth appears in art as a goddess or a virgin. As she aged, particularly after she passed menopause, Elizabeth’s portraits became increasingly stylized and focused on her divine purity. She courted comparisons with the biblical Saint Elizabeth, who supposedly gave birth to John the Baptist well past the age of 60, so she could maintain the possibility of a marriage and legitimate heir. Her perpetual virginity became so much a part of her iconography that when the first English explorers named their portion North America after her, they called it Virginia. To secure her rule as a woman leading a nation of men, Elizabeth had to turn her back on the hereditary system of power. To defend that decision, she needed to politicize her virginity, in essence, symbolically castrating herself.
Three centuries later, Queen Victoria drew power from opposite iconography. She also presented herself as morally pure, but her purity included nine living children and focused on the imagery of motherhood. This striking difference was, in part, a response to changing ideas about women. A new emphasis had arisen in Anglo culture on women and men existing in separate spheres of life, the man’s focus being the public world and the woman’s being the private world of the household. This had to do with the new emphasis on professionalism: applying rational and scientific methods to all aspects of life. Part of this supposed rationalization of society included separating men’s work from women’s work. For example, in the first half of the 19th century, women were pushed out of primary health care and exclusively into nursing because nursing focuses on aspects of medicine that were considered more domestic, the caring parts. The public world was declared to be men’s and the private world declared to be women’s.
An influential manual from 1861 describes the wife and homemaker as the “General of the Household” and envisions her applying science and systems to things like cooking and laundry and shopping. This semi-scientific approach to domestic work ultimately came to be called “home economics”, and classes on home economics were still directed almost exclusively at women when I went to high school in the 2000s.
Victoria flew in the face of this division of society by being a woman in the top job in the government, at least nominally. A woman sat at the top of the hierarchy of public life. However, the monarchy of Victoria’s day was very different from Elizabeth’s. Over the previous century, much of the monarchy’s power had been wrested away by the parliament and now the government’s power was seen to derive from the interests of society rather than a divine and personal bequeathment on a single person. As such, Victoria did not need to represent her nation all alone. Her marriage to her German cousin three years into her reign made Victoria and Albert the cherished ideal of love for their society. Contrary to some modern myths, Victorians saw passionate love—emotional, spiritual, and physical—as the main prerequisite for marriage. The creation of a private sphere for women to inhabit also created the possibility of having morally correct sex for love, not just to make children. Which is not to say that creating children stopped being the privileged form of sex. Victoria and Albert had nine children over the next 17 years. Having many children helped Victoria dispel negative associations between her and previous queens: the heirless Elizabeth and Anne, who suffered seventeen miscarriages. Apparently, pregnancy was very difficult for Victoria both physically and psychologically, and, during her pregnancies, she was forced by necessity to give Prince Consort Albert more power than she felt comfortable sharing. Her adherence to the ideal of the fertile wife limited her political power in a very real way.
This period of Victoria’s life and image came to a sudden end when Prince Albert died at the unusually young age of 42. After a period of mourning and isolation, Victoria reemerged to the public as a mother and widow. In 1876, parliament added to her titles Empress of India, finally creating an emperor for their enormous empire. Victoria’s image as an Empress was magnanimous and aloof. In colonies of the British Empire, she and her imperial power were treated as an impartial judge, almost as a third party that ensured fairness between British administration and the often-unwilling subjects of their empire. This was a fortunate fiction that came from the monarchy’s loss of power to parliament. She became the face of the “harsh-but-fair” ethic of the British Empire, a conception of patriarchy that intended to uplift and civilize the non-European world much as a parent raises a child. Ironically, the figurehead of this patriarchy was an idealized matriarch.
Portraits from earlier in Victoria’s lifetime often show her in soft environments from angles that emphasize her more attractive and youthful features. As a widow and mother, Victoria looks at us head-on, with her hair covered, wearing a stern expression. Her many layers of dresses give her body a bell shape. Depictions of Victoria reflect the shift in image from youthful lover to disapproving mother, showing us the two accepted ways of seeing women in the Victorian mind: the fecund love object and the domestic general.
It’s worth mentioning the personal cost of these constructions of gender in power. If Elizabeth I had a sexual life—and it’s likely she did—then her power was constantly under threat by blackmailers threatening her cult of virginity. Victoria, for her part, appears to have been deeply enamored with her husband but less so with her children. For example, she wrote in her diary: “Abstractedly, I have no tender for them till they have become a little human; an ugly baby is a very nasty object—and the prettiest is frightful when undressed.” She appears to have suffered frequent bouts of depression related to the anxieties and physiological changes of motherhood.
Political systems focused on the procreation of its rulers create a deeply unstable system where territories split and merge randomly, loyalties change without notice, and there is little or no process for weeding out incapable rulers. In the 18th century alone, global wars broke out over succession crises in England, Spain, Poland, France, Austria, and Bavaria. Much of the conflict in Europe over the last half millennium has been attempts by hereditary rulers or societies to get the other to align to their values, particularly with regard to religion.
The transition from a hereditary ruling order to our current system was by no means an easy one. By the time Victoria died in 1901, political power in Europe had largely passed from the hands of monarchs to systems that drew their power from the public will (while remaining nominal monarchies). Family ties could no longer form the connective tissue of the European power system. This became painfully obvious when Victoria’s grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II went to war with another of Victoria’s grandsons, George V, and his first cousin, Czar Nicholas II. Through his mother, George V was also related to the monarchs of Denmark, Spain, and Norway. Unfortunately, shared royal blood could no longer prevent bloodshed.
Now that we’ve looked at how procreation and gender are represented in political art, from the lace-covered fertility of Louis XIV and Victoria to the androgyny of Akhenaten and Elizabeth I, we have a grounding in how gender and the appearance of the body affect how power can be used. Each of these examples shows us symbolic manipulations of gender to control power. Of these examples, only Victoria experienced a significant alteration to her actual body in pursuit of the gender ideal. Next, I want to look at how ancient, medieval, and early modern societies used the connections between physical sex and assigned gender to create a new class in society, defined by their gender, specifically for the purpose subjugating its members.
An Invented Sex
A fascinating development of the past 100 years in human gender is that a gender that held particularly prominent roles in societies around the world since the dawn of civilization has suddenly disappeared. This gender of people had privileged access to a range of important positions within government administration. They were typically selected for the role at a young age and educated specifically for administration, making them some of the most educated and capable members of a government, counterbalancing the uneven quality of hereditary aristocrats. In a few notable cases, they even formed shadow governments that ruled with the hereditary emperor as their puppet.
Eunuchs were generally made rather than born. Before I go on, let me be clear that there are plenty of references to people who are “born eunuchs.” Then as now, people are born with bodies that do not fit the current definition of male or female. Today, we use the term intersex. This might sound like a biological definition, but it’s important to remember that sex has cultural elements too. For example, today, we seem to consider large penises to be more manly than small ones, whereas most of our forebearers in western civilization saw small penises as manly and civilized over large penises, which were bestial and embarrassing. Somewhere around 1.7% of people don’t fit within the strict definitions of male or female as we construe them today. In history, a portion of these people lived as eunuchs.
What is a eunuch? Usually, they were males who—sometimes after but generally before puberty—had their testicles removed. In Eastern Asia, the penis was usually removed too. This was usually done unwillingly. Which is not to say that any child could consent to something like this, what I mean is that the most common route to becoming a eunuch was through kidnap and enslavement.
Often, slavery was seen as something the empire inflicted on enemies they had conquered and part of complex hierarchies of ethnicities based on how fully that group had integrated into the empire. Citizens of these empires were fine with emasculating slaves, but the idea of emasculating their own countrymen caused great anxiety. This has to do with how they construed free vs. unfree. A free man had all the rights and privileges of the empire, and not having your genitals cut off appears to have been one of those privileges. Except as an especially cruel act of war, imperial armies rarely castrated prisoners of war, who were the main source of slaves. Instead, castrated slaves were usually captured by independent slavers operating in battleground areas on the edges of the empire. This wasn’t just empires enslaving people on the margins though, often, slaves were caught and traded by slavers who shared their slaves’ religion or ethnicity. Many Roman slaves came from the Middle East and Africa, caught by Persians and, later, Muslims. Throughout the Middle Ages, Popes made threats against Christian slavers who caught, castrated, and sold other Christians to Muslims, particularly in southern France, where European Christendom met Muslim Spain. Then as now, refugees make easy targets for exploitation.
Chinese eunuchs were much more likely to come from within the boundaries of empire and from within the dominant ethnic class of the time. The Chinese tradition of courtly eunuchs started sometime around 1,000 BCE, and they were seen as loyal supporters of the emperor against the power of aristocracy. The traditional explanation (east and west) was that because eunuchs could not have sons, they could not threaten the ruling dynasty with a dynasty of their own. In fact, a eunuch could adopt a son, like Roman emperors and eunuchs usually did. A eunuch could have brothers and cousins to carry on his dynasty. Eunuchs could work together for their class interests and take effective control of a government. So, in reality, nothing about castrating a man prevented him from using power as selfishly as any procreating person. Eunuchs were, instead, kept out of power by their stigmatization as a class.
The castration only bears significance if power is imagined to be a hereditary and personal right. In reality, power is not exclusively personal or hereditary even in absolute feudalistic monarchies. Eunuchs upset power structures again and again in history by seizing effective control for themselves. In the third century BCE, we have Bagoas and his clique of eunuchs playing kingmaker in the Persian Empire. Several Chinese and Roman Emperors were toppled in aristocratic rebellions against the power of court eunuchs. In the 14th century, Zheng He assisted with the overthrow of a previous Ming emperor and became the figurehead of the powerful eunuch imperial establishment. His enormous treasure ships traversed the southern seas in one of the last outward expansions of Chinese imperialism.
Let me establish the when and where. There were eunuchs throughout the ancient world in the Mediterranean, Middle East, Persia, and China. Basically, anywhere you see complex empires, you see eunuchs. In the Roman world, eunuchs became a regular part of government around the same time as emperors wrested power from the Republic, in the first few centuries CE. By the time Constantine founded New Rome—later Constantinople—in 330 CE, eunuchs were a major part of imperial power. Eunuchs continued to play a major role in the Roman and—later—Ottoman Empires as well as China until the late 19th century.
I’m going to focus especially on the Roman world because it serves as an interesting midpoint between our Western European conceptions of gender and the older imperial values of the Middle East, ideas that the West termed “oriental”. In this episode, when I refer to Romans, I’m mostly talking about the later Roman or Byzantine Empire that continued into the late Middle Ages. They saw themselves as Romans and thought in Greco-Roman ways, so I’m calling them Romans. The later Roman Empire adopted Greek as its primary language and Christianity as its religion and came to identify more with Alexander the Great’s ideas of empire more than the ancient roman ideas of republic that we tend to think about when we hear the word “Roman.” Nevertheless, this empire was continuous with the Roman Empire and lasted until 1453, or in other words, much longer than the Roman Republic did. For the time period I’m talking about, the Empire controlled modern Greece, and sometimes Bulgaria, Turkey, and Georgia. These lands were conquered by Turks from the Russian Steppe over the course of several centuries and eventually became The Ottoman Empire. It controlled the areas just mentioned, plus Egypt and the entirety of the Middle East west of Persia. Their culture was largely informed by the Muslim ideas of the Middle East, but Rome continued to loom large in the Turkish mind. They called the area now known as Turkey “The Sultanate of Rum”, made New Rome—Constantinople—their capitol, and converted many of the great churches of the former Roman Empire into mosques instead of destroying them. They inherited their attitudes toward eunuchs from both the Roman and Muslim worlds.
We get the term “eunuch” from Greek. Fifth century etymologies attribute the word to the bedchamber, as in, eunuchs may have begun as servants who attended to their master’s dressing and hygiene. It’s likely that eunuchs—by nature of being castrated—were considered more trustworthy with matters of the bedchamber and could be trusted to be discreet. We see in many times and cultures that nearness to the intimate parts of a monarch’s life equates to access to power. Offices like Lord of the Bedchamber became important and purely ceremonial positions in later European monarchies. Other etymologies connect the term eunuch to being either “good of mind” or “mindless”. Particularly in the Eastern Christian Church, eunuchs were described as angels because angels were imagined to look like man but be sexless. The heavenliness of eunuch bodies and voices is frequently remarked on as well as their strangely long limbs. Early Christians compared castration to a born-again virginity. In particular, the church father Origen was said to have castrated himself to gain symbolic virginity. The idea was that the removal of sexual desire caused a eunuch to be purer of mind, less driven by their own desires and, consequently, more capable as a servant. Eunuchs, therefore, were made to serve: their sex made them preferable servants.
Despite this association between eunuchs and sexual purity, they were sexualized by both men and women. We hear in the 10th century Life of St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ that slave eunuchs engaged in sex with their masters. St. Andrew derides a eunuch who gives him dates, saying, “You deceiver, go into your master's bed-chamber and perform with him the sick practice of the sodomites, that he may give you other dates too…. What should be done with you, impure that you are, because you frequent the corners and do what should not be done, things which neither dogs nor swine, nor reptiles nor serpents do…? See that you do not go further, lest the Godhead treat you as you deserve, here burning you whole with flashes of lightning, there with the hell of fire.”
The eunuch’s master and friend tries to explain that eunuchs are sexually exploited, saying, “I know that too, you servant of God, but this young man is a slave, and when he is forced by his master what can he do?”
But Saint Andrew has none of it and replies, "Yes, I know, I am not ignorant of that. However, a slave should serve the man who bought him with regard to his physical needs, not with regard to the works of the devil, specifically not when it comes to this cursed and disgusting abnormality in which not even animals engage."
That’s some pretty bleak victim-blaming there.
Women were also known to sexualize eunuchs so that they might have the “flowers of marriage—not the fruits.” Despite Roman assumptions about castration removing all sexual desire, eunuchs could and did engage in sex. Roman eunuchs typically had their testicles removed but not the penis, and some were castrated after puberty—they were called “bearded eunuchs.” So, the possibility exists that some eunuchs engaged in all manner of sex acts.
The contradictory attitudes toward eunuchs did not end at their sexualities. The eunuch’s access to power was also deeply contradictory.
Eunuchs could reach high positions in government in the Roman world, even as generals and church leaders. In the 6th century CE, the eunuch commander Narses completed the Roman Empire’s short-lived reconquest of Italy and became the last Roman general to celebrate a triumph in the city of Rome. In the 7th century, Germanicus I became the first eunuch patriarch of the Eastern Christian Church. By the 10th century, eunuchs had become a staple of Roman life as courtiers and personal servants in households throughout the empire. In the later Roman Empire, eunuchs had gone mainstream.
Once eunuchs begin to gain power as a class, you see members of the dominant ethnicity and class start to castrate their sons to get them into court service. Creating a eunuch of your son gives your family another opportunity to climb the social hierarchy. As eunuchs gain power, the social benefits of castration start to outweigh the social stigma and existential horror of castrating a son in a world where power comes from procreation. Romans in particular stigmatized castrating Roman citizens and Christians in general, and as a result, later Roman history is filled with invented childhood testicular horror stories. A common fiction was the swaddling accident. No other culture I’ve read about has lost so many testicles to apparent swaddling accidents. Official fictions like these tend to appear when social pressures conflict with legal codes or traditional values.
However, due, in part, to assertions of eunuch power, eunuchs had a bad reputation. Eunuchs could be used as a counterbalance against hereditary aristocracy by emperors because eunuchs were thought to have loyalty only to their masters. Eunuchs could, therefore, be used as an imperial weapon against entrenched power by replacing generals or governors with imperial loyalists. Eunuchs could be used to enforce unpopular decrees. This made them deeply unpopular members of Roman society and such a target of hate that an Emperor could save his throne in a popular uprising by mutilating and exiling the eunuch administrators who had become unpopular carrying out imperial decrees.
To imagine the negative stereotypes of eunuchs, we are fortunate enough to have a recent example. If you watched Game of Thrones, the character of Varys exemplifies the Roman view of eunuchs. They were supposed to be sneaky, duplicitous, dishonorable, and unreliable. They work in the shadows to undermine courtiers with whispers instead of confronting enemies outright. In the show, Varys even tells us as he switches loyalties that his loyalty is to the realm rather than any prospective king or queen.
Many of the texts about eunuchs in particular are apologetics. A 12th century work, In Defense of Eunuchs, has a character who accuses eunuchs of “liberty, ambition, jealousy, love of pettiness, pretense, meanness, and undue sensitivity” and that they “behave like young lions who roar and terrify other animals.” The eunuch gives a very milquetoast defense, claiming that not all eunuchs are bad and that, in general, eunuchs commit less evil than intact men. If eunuch singers sing strange melodies that excite base passions in men, surely it is the fault of the man who wrote the piece, not the eunuchs. He claims that some eunuchs are unchaste, but none of them have sexually transmitted disease, which proves that the “continent ones are chaste by will.” But most perceptively, he points out that to employ eunuchs while forbidding castration and despising their existence was a hypocritical position. This document was apparently written by an archbishop as a gift to his brother, who was a eunuch. If only we all had brothers so generous.
Mutilating the Body Politic
Not coincidentally, a new political tactic gained acceptance during the height of eunuch power: that of political mutilation. This is something I find fascinating about the Roman world because it feels so foreign to our experience. I’ve mentioned two paths to becoming a eunuch, being pressed into slavery or being castrated by your family. Another major way that Romans became eunuchs was losing a power struggle at court or being related to someone who did. It’s strange, but imagine in the U.S. today if the impeachment trial had ended with Trump castrating Adam Schiff and Mitt Romney and all of their sons. Thankfully, we are unlikely to see the tyranny of those sorts of reprisals in America, but also, castration wouldn’t make as much sense in our society. In today’s republics, only rarely is a politician’s political heir their actual child.
But when we look back at history, mutilation is a big part of punishment. I have heard that Hammurabi’s “eye-for-an-eye” punishment was a humanitarian reform, as in, take only an eye for an eye rather than execute him. Mutilation was seen as a humanitarian alternative to death, especially in places and times where confinement to prison was not common. Mutilation was mainly practiced on criminals and rebels and the court of the Roman emperor never lacked rebels.
I’ve been referring to Rome as a hereditary empire and the Rome fans out there might be getting annoyed. In truth, there was no hereditary requirement for succession to the Roman throne. That said—particularly as we enter the middle ages—emperors assume that the throne will go to the first son who is born after he takes office. Interestingly, not the eldest son, but the first born during an Emperor’s reign. The Roman throne was violently unstable, and the empire prospered most during the rare periods of extended dynastic rule. Emperors generally crowned their heir co-emperor as they got older to ensure a peaceful succession. This tactic failed constantly. Weak emperors were frequently overthrown and replaced by popular generals or trusted advisors. Power was so concentrated on the imperial court in Constantinople that an emperor could leave on a military campaign and find himself replaced by a court favorite when he returned. Anyone who lost one of these struggles was broadly considered a rebel and was subject to mutilation as punishment.
Political mutilation had a specific meaning for the Romans. In a similar way to how the pope was venerated in the west, the Roman emperor was seen as God’s viceroy. This system, called caesaropapism, meant that the Emperor was often active in religious matters and the Patriarch of Constantinople, the head of the eastern Christian church, took an active role in politics. It also meant that the ideal emperor should look like an idealized man. Christian teaching was that man was made in God’s image; therefore, for the Emperor to be a reflection of God as man, he needed to have a perfect body. It should go without saying that emperors did not look like idealized men. Many reigned to old age, some had injuries, some weren’t even men, and Justinian II famously didn’t have a nose because he’d lost it when he was deposed from the throne the first time. So castration wasn’t the only way to physically disqualify someone from the throne, but it was a strong insult directed at a person’s family and possible dynasty. Removing the eyes, tongue, ears, hand, or foot were common punishments but the particularly Roman one was slitting or cutting off the nose. We are told of Justinian II, “when he was restored to power, every time he wiped away a droplet of snot with his hand, he ordered that one of those who had opposed him should be slaughtered.”
Exile to the celibacy of a church position was also commonly used and was not mutually exclusive with castration. Mutilations of this kind were considered a more Christian alternative to the sin of killing and more palatable to the aristocracy than an outright death penalty. Mutilation served as a ritualistic way of removing a person’s access to power. Often, members of failed coups were blinded brutally, such that they died from untreated wounds while festering in captivity in the next few days. This was, again, considered a more palatable way of getting rid of rebels without killing them outright.
Now I’d like to tell the story of Empress Irene, because it brings together all the ideas discussed so far: women in power, political mutilation, the instability of the throne, the power of eunuchs, and it foreshadows the next section, which is about western attitudes toward the genders of the east.
Historians aren’t sure why Irene was married to Leo IV. She came from Athens, near the western end of the empire, and as such, she was not an iconoclast. This was in the 8th century and the Roman Empire was going through one of its many religious crises. This was one of the biggest. Some Christians, particularly toward the eastern end of the empire, believed that any depictions of saints or prophets constituted idolatry, which is specifically condemned in Old Testament writings. As part of the caesaropapism I mentioned earlier, the Roman Emperor had an accepted role in arbitrating church disputes and the last emperor had sided with the iconoclasts. He ordered the destruction of art and sculpture that was considered holy and expelled priests and monks who objected. Irene, typical of attitudes in Europe, believed that icons did not constitute blasphemy and convinced her husband when he became Emperor to follow a moderate policy on icons. It seemed like conciliation was in sight when Leo IV finally succumbed to the illness he’d been fighting for several years, probably tuberculosis.
Irene moved quickly and had her nine-year-old son crowned as Constantine VI and herself confirmed as his regent. To ensure that none of Leo’s brothers could contest her rule, she had them enter the church as celibate monks. She appointed her favorite eunuch, Staurakios, as her prime minister and shifted the power at court from the iconoclast-dominated military to the loyal eunuchs and handmaidens. For a time, she had success in holding the throne despite the defections of prominent generals to Muslim rulers and with them, the loss of eastern edges of the empire. She hosted the second council of Nicea and ensured that iconoclasty was declared a heresy, further dividing the empire and her base of support.
When Constantine VI came of age at 17, she further alienated the court by having herself declared the senior co-emperor so that she would be named first in all official addresses and could exercise final power over her son’s decisions. This proved too much for the iconoclasts of the empire and, one military coup later, Irene, Staurakios, and most of the court eunuchs were exiled.
Much to the iconoclasts’ disappointment, their trust in Constantine proved unfounded, and not only did he not act on the religious controversy, he returned his mother and her eunuchs from exile after just a year. The plotters tried again and brought one of Constantine’s uncles back from exile to claim the throne, but this time the plot failed. Irene and Constantine had the uncle in question blinded, and, just for good measure, cut out the other four uncles’ tongues.
That crisis over, Constantine decided to alienate the rest of his religious support by divorcing his wife, remarrying, and, 14 months later, having a son. The church refused to recognize the divorce, deemed the heir to be a bastard, and Constantine VI found himself truly friendless. At this point, Irene made her move. Her son was kidnapped off the streets of Constantinople by her soldiers and brought to the palace where, in the same room where he’d been born 27 years earlier, his eyes were put out. Apparently, this was a blinding of the brutal variety because soon afterward, he was dead.
Irene now stood as the first woman to ever rule the Roman Empire without any male co-emperor. She and the court eunuchs had triumphed, but at great cost. Irene was in her 40s, lacking a husband or heir, and her authority depended on a small clique of squabbling eunuchs. No sooner had Staurakios consolidated power at court than he met his greatest challenge. Irene had begun to favor another, younger eunuch named Aetios. Both of these eunuchs were from prominent families and they began to jockey for position by installing relatives in powerful offices. When Irene inevitably died heirless, each eunuch hoped to seize power for his family. When Staurakios began bribing military officials, Aetios went to Irene and had him isolated from the military. This seems to have pushed Staurakios over the edge. Despite becoming increasingly ill, he apparently declared himself emperor and tried to seize the throne but found very little support. His revolt was crushed, and he died soon after.
Then came the final blow to Irene’s power. On Christmas day of 800, a barbarian Frankish warlord was crowned emperor in Rome. Since the Arab conquest of Egypt and the Middle East, the Christian church had had two heads: the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople. Leo III was a weak pope and not well liked by the people of Rome and he’d turned to Charles, king of the Franks, for support. Charles was the most successful military expeditioner in Europe since the fall of Rome. He’d consolidated power in France, built upon his father’s conquests in Italy to crown himself King of the Lombards, subdued and converted the pagan kingdom of Saxony in northern Germany, and then conquered his way across Germany all the way to Austria. This outrageous success earned him the sobriquet “Charles the Great” or “Charlemagne.”
Charles came to Rome to support the Pope and, two days after announcing in a trial that Leo III was innocent of any accused wrongdoing, he knelt to pray on Christmas Day. The Pope, apparently without warning, crowned Charles, and when he rose, he was proclaimed the Emperor of the Romans. It’s unclear if Charles knew that this was going to happen. He never styled himself as Emperor of the Romans, but rulers of Germany used the title until 1806, when Napoleon ended it (and modeled himself as a new kind of Roman Emperor). The Pope, in one brilliant act, had not only asserted himself over the Patriarch in Constantinople as the leader of Christianity, he had given himself the right to crown the Emperor of Rome. For more or less the rest of European history, the Pope exerted political power throughout Europe using the threat of denying a king legitimacy. By clearly associating the Pope with the land interests of Europe, the Christian church took another step toward its final rupture. Two hundred years later, it would split into the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
The Roman Empire had now apparently been returned to Western Europe. The Pope’s justification was that there was no Roman Emperor.
This news was met with incredulity in Constantinople, especially by the Roman Empress. Europeans were well aware of Irene’s existence but didn’t consider her a valid emperor by virtue of her sex. For an entity calling itself the great Roman Empire to be ruled by a woman and her eunuchs made it no empire at all to the Europeans. Romans, on the other hand, were not particularly happy to be ruled by a woman (especially one who had blinded her son) but did not question the idea that she, as a woman, could rule.
This insult became a genuine political problem when, shortly afterward, a proposal of marriage arrived. Irene, surprisingly, seemed open to the idea of marrying an illiterate Frankish barbarian who could only sign documents using a stencil. Given her extreme political weakness and the tantalizing possibility of reuniting the eastern and western roman empires, Charlemagne seemed like a powerful ally. But the possibility of debasing the great Roman empire with a Germanic emperor was too great an insult for the Roman court to bear, and Irene was finally deposed and exiled. She was sent to Lesbos, where she spun wool to support herself for a year until she died at age 50 or 51.
This dramatic incident in history is one of my favorites partly because I’ve heard it from the Western perspective, and it appears pretty different when it’s told from the Roman perspective. This institution that we call the Holy Roman Empire that ruled Germany for the next millennium was born of a disagreement over gender.
We can see already in 800 how the differences in western and eastern conceptions of gender caused one of the most surprising upheavals of power in European history. This difference in understanding of sex and gender between the west and east has a major impact on history and the world of today due to the success that Europe had in imposing values on the rest of the world. In the next section, I want to talk about eunuchs and the politics of bodies after the Roman Empire fell in 1453 and European colonization began in 1492. We’ll try to answer the question of where the eunuchs went. Next time on Unlikely Explanations.
Byzantium: The Early Centuries, John Julius Norwich (yes I actually revisited this awful book)