Ancient History & Civilisation

Section IV

Love Hurts. But Changing Gender Really Smarts


Eunuchs & Castrati:
Sensitive men, the hard way

By and large, Greek and Roman males scoffed at men who exhibited feminine qualities such as—ugh—sensitivity. Greek philosophers, Aristotle among them, affirmed that physically and mentally, females were a defective sort of male. Thus to be a man meant macho, and lots of it.

The thought of being born a female was distressing enough to male minds—equally dire was the idea of male castration. Nevertheless, eunuchs, some of them castrated forcibly and others, wince, by choice, were much in evidence in ancient societies, beginning with the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, and other cultures and becoming fairly commonplace among the Greeks and Romans.

Although we sometimes use the words eunuch and castrato interchangeably, they were not. Roman law, for example, made a clear distinction between eunuchs, defined as men who were impotent due to accident or birth circumstances, and/or indifferent to the female gender by nature; and castrati, who were unable to procreate because of genital mutilation.

The castration procedure, whether carried out before puberty or after, was grisly. It was also fatal to a shocking percentage of victims. Archaeologists excavating in Roman Britain sites found one of the tools used: a heavy, serrated bronze implement that clamped around the scrotum and removed the offending parts from their owner. Simpler tools, such as razors, shards of pottery, or pieces of obsidian, were also utilized in this agonizing operation. Some victims lost the whole package, while others, calledspadones, were divested only of their testicles.

What motivated this bloody business? One was the perennial sex slave market for handsome sweet-voiced young boys with smooth hairless skin. (Fifteen centuries later, this would again create ajob market for castrati singers in Renaissance Italy.) Another driving force: to provide gelded workers for intimate settings, such as the harems and women’s quarters of rulers in regions of Persia, Egypt, and the Middle East.

A third reason was the illogical but firm folk belief that castrati and eunuchs made the most loyal and discreet employees. Because these men could produce no heirs, it was thought they were less apt to usurp power or throne-grab. Government bureaucracies around the ancient world had great need of such workers in middle management, and a mountain of evidence exists about the careers of thousands. In addition, a significant percentage became top advisers for a roll-call of Roman emperors, from Claudius and Nero to Gordians I and II.

During later imperial centuries, the growing demand for eunuch slaves impelled Emperor Hadrian to try to curb the market by passing laws; he failed, as did later emperors Nerva and Diocletian.

A fourth motive existed for male castration: the goal of religious chastity, which Egyptian priests had long exemplified. Around 204 B.C., the religious cult of the goddess Cybele came into being. Its persistent popularity spread from Asia Minor to Rome, where the deity was renamed Magna Mater. The cult literally created its membership of male disciples who, to show their devotion, castrated themselves in public. (You can read more about them and other ecstatic mystery religions elsewhere in this book.)


The goddess Cybele of Asia Minor demanded a lot from her male devotees. Worship wasn’t enough; she also required the DIY donation of their private parts.

Other sects around the Greco-Roman world had followers who emasculated themselves; in the second and third centuries A.D., the fast-growing Christian movement tried but also failed to keep its adherents from such extreme demonstrations of chastity.

The most notorious do-it-yourselfer? Theologian, teacher, and writer Origen of Alexandria. One account says that he was motivated to wield the knife upon reading the passage of Matthew 19:12 that says, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Another reason: once castrated, he could teach female disciples without temptation. His castration around A.D. 200 led to a bizarre squabble among bishops as to whether such Christian activists could remain in the church. By 325, however, the Nicaean church council met to prohibit the practice of castrating oneself, so clearly Origen had imitators.

The abusive practice of making eunuchs and castrati out of men and boys flourished to an even greater extent after the Roman Empire lost traction to the Byzantines. During the thousand-year run of the Byzantine Empire, headquartered in Constantinople, eunuchs and castrati became even more visible as power players—and even more often, as tragic pawns in the sexual slave trade.

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