In Our Time: The Eunuch

Modern Western culture is unusual in having no role for eunuchs in the machinery of bureaucracy – throughout history in a variety of different cultures castrated men have played an important part in governance (and in some cases in the arts). The In Our Time episode about eunuchs took a compare and contrast approach to three cultures in which eunuchs were particularly important. The three experts each had a different speciality: Karen Radner (University College London) talked about Assyria, Shaun Tougher (Cardiff University) discussed Rome and Michael Hoeckelmann (King’s College London) was an expert on China. The aim was to draw out the parallels between the three situations but it didn’t quite gel into a cohesive picture for me – particularly the Rome section as it always seemed to be different to the other two. So although all three threads were interwoven in the programme I’m separating out the Roman bit in this write up.

In Assyria and China the origins of using eunuchs in the bureaucracy came from the idea that they were safe to have around the royal women. They were trusted palace servants whose lack of family ties were an important part of that trustworthiness. In addition the future ruler was often brought up with & by his eunuchs, so the bond formed between them was particularly strong. In both these societies being a eunuch was seen as a way to get ahead if you were from a poor family.

Whilst a lack of family ties was part of the rationale for creating eunuch servants it seems that the level to which this was true varied over time in Assyrian and particularly Chinese culture. Eunuchs might seek favours for their birth families, using their closeness to the ruler to their family’s advantage. The position of eunuchs in Chinese culture was cyclical and later in each cycle eunuchs would start adopting children and posts might become “hereditary” – which rather defeats the original purpose of using eunuchs in these roles. This cycle was tied to the history of the dynasties of Chinese rulers: as a dynasty began to decline the eunuchs would gain more power. Then when a new dynasty conquered/overthrew the previous one they’d stamp their authority more firmly on their servants.

Radner, talking about the Assyrians, was keen to point out that as a farming society they would’ve been castrating their livestock and so knew the effects (on size & strength) before they started to do this to people. A noteworthy feature of eunuchs in Assyrian society was that they were also the ruler’s bodyguards as well as his bureaucrats. Not quite the effete image that we have of eunuchs (mostly based on Italian castrato singers, I think).

In Assyria the eunuch was created by cutting between testicles & penis – the minimum necessary operation. However in China the entire apparatus was removed, and kept in a jar to show the Emperor on demand. Chinese eunuchs were an interesting exception to the normal Confucian idea where family was more important than anything – and this is a part of why they were restricted to serving the Emperor. He was the only person important enough (as semi-divine Son of Heaven) to be able to over-ride the proper order of things. And there’s a paradox as well: eunuchs had status and power, yet castration was also used as a punishment. The two things co-existed but were entirely separate (you didn’t become a eunuch after punishment by castration).

In contrast to these two cultures, in Rome having eunuch servants was a status symbol. They are a part of the Roman obsession with Greek culture, and the Greeks had got the idea from Persia (via Alexander the Great’s conquest). So a eunuch servant was a luxury, and having one showed that you were sophisticated and rich. It wasn’t restricted to the ruler (or ruling class), even though later (in Byzantine times) the eunuchs became important in the bureaucratic machinery of the Empire. They also became prized for their singing voices – and in Europe this lasted into the 20th Century.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the programme felt a little disjointed – perhaps they needed to pick a different third culture (if there is one). Tho I can see why Rome would feel the obvious choice.