Thursday, November 05, 2009 11/5/09 - eunuchs

In today's encore excerpt - eunuchs, those
castrated servants who performed a wide variety of
functions for kings in ancient and more recent times.
The special value of eunuchs (literally bed-keepers) to
kings and other high-ranking officials was that they
could be better trusted since they had no desire for the
wives and other women of the court, did not have the
distractions of family life, and were thought to have
less ambition. Here we see eunuchs in the capital of
Constantinople circa the fifth century CE:

"Eunuchs gave the palace at Constantinople a special
atmosphere. They were men who had been sexually
damaged by disease, accident, or deliberate
mutilation. Mutilation, as horrible as it sounds, was
not always or only conscious cruelty, inasmuch as
eunuchry was a path to power and safety for the
marginal or the vulnerable. One source speaks of the
Abasgi outside Roman territory at the eastern end of
the Black Sea (modern Abkhazia retains the name),
whose king sold boys for castration and killed their
parents. If the fatality rate on these castrations was
about ninety-five percent, few cared, and the survivors
might feel themselves lucky in many ways.

"So normal a part of the landscape did the eunuchs
seem, and so easily was their involuntary sexual
isolation compared with religiously approved
abstinence, that in later times when exegetes read of
the service of the prophet Daniel at Nebuchadnezzar's
court, they naturally assumed - meaning it as a
respectful interpretation - that he must have been a
eunuch too. On a higher level, the angels and their
sexlessness gave sexless males below a kind of
respectability. The general Narses, who replaced
Belisarius and finally brought grim peace to Italy for
[the emperor] Justinian, was a eunuch. By the eighth
century, a eunuch could even rise to the patriarchal
throne in Constantinople.

"At the pinnacle of the household was the grand
chamberlain, always a eunuch and thus supposedly
without family interest to corrupt his service,
responsible for every aspect of management and
control. He supervised the silentiaries (court officials)
with their golden wands, who offered discreet
guidance and control to ensure that all would be
orderly and impressive, and whose influence could
thus incidentally mean a great deal. On retirement
they were normally admitted to the senate."

James J. O'Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman
Empire, Harper Collins, Copyright 2008 by James
J. O'Donnell, pp. 200-201.


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