Ancient History & Civilisation

Eunuch Profiles:
Household names without heirs

Philaeterus became a eunuch in boyhood, the result of an accident. That did not stop him from becoming a shrewd and able officer who served in the armies of Antigonus and Lysimachus, two of the successor generals snarling over the conquests up for grabs after the death of Alexander the Great. In the succession wars, he was eventually promoted to commander of his hometown, the fortified city of Pergamum in Asia Minor (near Izmir in present-day Turkey). He took advantage of his plum assignment to switch sides—and declare his independence from the rest of the quarreling generals.

He ruled Pergamum for nearly forty years. Since it was a wealthy city, it had a fat treasury—and with these civic funds, Philaeterus made his hometown even more beautiful than it had been. He was also a generous benefactor to neighboring cities. Because he had no heirs, he adopted his nephew, Eumenes, to found the Attalid dynasty. After his death in 263 B.C., his successors continued to honor him on the city’s handsome coins.

Halotus, whose name is inextricably linked with Roman emperors Claudius and Nero, was a political survivor. In his post as the official food foretaster to the imperial family, the youthful eunuch guarded the health and welfare of Claudius until that disastrous October of A.D. 54, when his employer turned up dead of poisoning. The conspiracy must have included Halotus. That said, the major player was definitely Agrippina, Claudius’s niece and fourth wife, who’d likely become restive over her chronically ailing husband’s inexplicably long lifespan.

Once Agrippina’s evil cherub Nero reached his teens and got his official manhood toga, Emperor Claudius’s goose was cooked. Common sense would dictate that the goose of Halotus would be done for as well, since every conspiracy needs a fall guy.

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Eunuch Philaeterus of Pergamum, an unsung success story, was a terrific general and city administrator who founded a dynasty despite his lack of progeny.

Apparently not in this instance: wily Halotus bounced back, even retaining his cushy foretaster job throughout the fourteen-year reign of Emperor Nero. As a further triumph, Halotus survived Nero’s downfall! He went on to become the gastronomic confidant of short-lived Emperor Galba in A.D. 69, called “the year of the revolving emperors.”

Bagoas, although not of the Persian nobility, became an excellent administrator and the number-two eunuch of Persia during the regimes of Artaxerxes III and IV. Thanks to his twin talents as poisoner and assassin, Bagoas did away with two generations of Persian despots, thus allowing the military forces of Philip II of Macedon (and later his son, Alexander the Great) to conquer the Persians and bring an end to the Achaemenid empire. According to some sources (and Mary Renault’s superb novel The Persian Boy),Bagoas may have had a petit dalliance with Alexander the Great during his time in Babylon.

This eunuch’s dazzling career finally came to a screeching halt when Persian king Darius III caught wind of Bagoas’s murderous plans for him— and Darius forced him to drink a fatal cup himself.

In late imperial times, Eutropius came to the fore. Although eunuchs and castrati won favor with rulers because of their loyalty and lack of ambition, Eutropius didn’t fit the mold. A mid-level official in the busy Byzantine bureaucracy, he came to the attention of Arcadius, the current emperor, by fielding the most attractive marriage candidate, Eudoxia by name. On the strength of that feat, he became the emperor’s top adviser.

Eutropius had other useful skills. In A.D. 398, he was able to pull off a military triumph by thwarting the invasion of the Huns. The following year he was appointed consul—an achievement of such magnitude that the Roman senate, along with other patricians, went ballistic, demanding his removal. They probably admired his corporate ladder-climbing skills, but a eunuch consul? No way. Eudoxia, that ungrateful empress, gave him the thumbs-down. That was followed by a really bad omen: a major earthquake rocked Constantinople. Sent into exile on Cyprus, Eutropius was later beheaded on a specious charge.

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