delanceyplace.com 11/10/11 - the role of eunuchs

In today's encore excerpt - eunuchs those castrated servants who performed a wide variety of functions for kings in ancient and even 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.)"

author: James J. O'Donnell
title: The Ruin of the Roman Empire: The Emperor Who Brought It Down, The Barbarians Who Could Have Saved It
publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
date: Copyright 2008 by James J. O'Donnell
pages: 200-201
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