Updated: May 26, 2019
Whenever the eunuch is invoked, it’s almost always in the sense that he is a distortion or perversion of nature that only a people as dastardly as the Byzantines would devise, let alone create.
In a way, then, the eunuch is all Byzantium’s pejoratives on steroids; the civilisation in nuce: he is the inchoate poisoner, miller of gossip and conspiracies, a mockery of virtu – and worse: flounces about committing all these crimes while looking like a drag queen.
What’s less referenced is the fact Byzantium was no unabashed admirer of the third sex. Roman law, with its emphasis on protecting the paterfamilias and the family, forbade castration – a fact re-enshrined in later law by Justinian who, in a very modern turn, justified it with survival statistics – and there was always an undercurrent of tension, best articulated by the Souda, which argued (in a passage on Rufinus) that they:
“Lost their psyche along with their balls”
As well as Chrysaorios, who (according to Kedrenos) told a nobleman to:
“Kill any eunuchs you possess. And if you possess none, buy them and kill them.”
Indeed, the only way the state could repurpose it as a positive act was to convert it into a punishment suitable for the crime of bestiality (Ecloga 17.39).
Unlike the West, however, this tension was offset by a treatment of them as perfectly formed for the task of mediation. Not only between the sexes, but between emperor and court, court and foreign courts, and even – horror of horrors: armies and armies, as Narses “Hammer of the Goths”; the man who took down the great figures of Germanic masculinity: Totila at Taginae (AD 552) and Teia at Mons Lactarius a year later demonstrated.
While Narses always gets a good reference in texts on eunuchs. He wasn’t the only military big man. Leo, the Deacon records how Peter, the Stratopedarches took on a Russian Goliath, defeating him in single combat, before the latter’s army fled Thrace in the tenth century. Theodore Krateros also unseated one the Near East’s greatest horseman, an Arab, in the hippodrome.
High positions (such as the parakoimomenos and protovestiarios) were reserved for these mediators par excellence (the Palace of Lausus is a good example of the riches that resulted from their successes). Some were even made patriarchs. Not least because Byzantine ideology liked to ape theology’s contours, so, if the angels that surrounded God at His court were genderless, so too should the emperor’s courtiers. This created a demand for eunuchs that tended to be fulfilled in Georgia and Armenia abroad, and Paphlagonia at home.
No matter what the demand, however, the procedure was always a painful one. Best outlined by Paul of Aegina, it involved incision or compression, the latter performed on baby or toddler who was taken to a hot bath and left to soak before the testicles were crushed like plums between thumb and finger.
Not that the newly-born mediator was immediately beyond reproach. Athanasius of Alexandria, for instance, insisted that eunuchs made poor bed-wardens thanks to the fact they could “still please women with their hands,” and John Chrysostom was negative about them, too. Yet a later church authority, Theophylaktos of Ohrid, wrote one of the most eloquent texts (In Defence of Eunuchs) in the 10th century, displaying how the issue split even the main authorities in the Church. Perhaps much of this ambivalence stemmed from the fact Bible, which includes passages such as Isa 56 (“Let not the eunuch sat ‘I am but a dry tree”), seemed more than a little enigmatic on the issue.
This ambivalence was eschewed by the West, which tended to gloss over New Testament passages where Jesus implied castration was one manner of securing easier access to the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 19:12). An omission made even more glaring by the fact Origen famously castrated himself (ostensibly on account of wanting to discuss theology with women without reproach) – a funny turn of events given Origen’s reputation for allegorical rather than literal exegesis.
No matter how fun it is pairing orientalist curiosities with Byzantium, it’s important to remember that Byzantium hadn’t re-invented the wheel by employing eunuchs at court. They can be found in Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Chinese texts performing similar roles, and even in ancient Rome the poet Martial railed against women who had sex with them. What each of these societies had recognised was that genderlessness meant heirlessness, which ensured they possessed the perfect qualities of a servant rather than an agent in their own right.
Indeed, an under-reported topic is the ideological position of eunuchs in the Islamic mind.
Similar but not identical to Byzantine thinking, Muslims tended to think of them as not just mediating boundaries but transcending them. If the “ektomiai” (out-cuts) of Byzantium were above human interests in a highly figurative way, the eunuchs lack of a temporal future in Islam ensured they were placed outside time and temporality, and could therefore understand the things that were denied to men.
 Most eunuchs were castrated before puberty, which meant their physical qualities were obviously different to those whose genitals were intact. General give-aways included voices that remained high-pitched, faces that lacked facial hair, limbs that were longer than usual (as the ends of the bones did not close), and a more feminine figure (narrow shoulders paired with wide hips).