Famous and Powerful Eunuchs of the Ancient World
A eunuch is a castrated man who was usually forced to undergo such a procedure without consent. This was done so that the person might perform a specific social role such as harem servant, guardian of women, courtier, religious specialist, royal guard, soldier, or government advisor. The Sumerian city of Lagash from around the 21st century BC provides the earliest records for intentional castration. By having access to the ruler within a royal court, a eunuch would have the ruler’s ear and, as a humble and trusted servant, he would impart de facto power. However, considering their lowered social status, they could also be easily killed and replaced.
Chief Eunuch of Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II at the Imperial Palace, 1912. (Public Domain)
Judar Pasha, Commander of the Sultan’s Army
Throughout time, a series of eunuchs have risen to fame. Judar Pasha was born in 16th century Spain. He was taken by Muslim slavers as a baby. As it was fashionable for eunuchs at the time, he was castrated and sold into the service of the Moroccan Sultan. In the sultan’s service, Judar became Pasha and he was put in the command of the sultan’s army. Christian children could serve Muslim rulers, an example of this being the Janissary Corps of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, Songhai was the largest empire in Africa, so Judar led the Moroccan invasion of this empire. He achieved his goal and he captured the capital of the empire. The fighting and the long journey in the desert had taken its toll on the Moroccan troops. Trying to get them to return home and in order to get back his empire, the Songhai emperor offered a tribute which the sultan refused. As he had been inclined to accept, Judar was replaced as commander. Later on, he was executed after a power struggle with the new sultan.
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The Kızlar Ağası, head of the black eunuchs of the Ottoman Imperial Harem. (Public Domain)
Pothinus and his plot to murder Caesar
In the first century BC, the eunuch Pothinus was one of the most powerful people in Egypt. He is blamed for turning Ptolemy XIII against his sister and wife, Cleopatra. When Caesar came to Egypt, Pothinus mocked him, but when the eunuch was involved in a plot to murder Caesar, Caesar acted. As a result, Pothinus was executed and Cleopatra was made ruler of Egypt.
Cleopatra and Caesar, 1866 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Public Domain)
Sporus, the Playboy of Emperor Nero
Sabina was Emperor Nero’s wife. When she was pregnant with his baby, the emperor kicked her in the stomach until she died. Wanting his wife back, Nero found a young boy named Sporus who seemed to resemble the deceased wife. He had the boy castrated, married him and began to call him Sabina. At the wedding ceremony, Sporus had been dressed as an empress. After Nero was murdered, Sporus began a relationship with the commander of the guards. However, the commander of the guards was also murdered and Sporus then had a relationship with Otho who was emperor for three months. After Otho was murdered as well, the next emperor, Vitellius, wanted to parade the young eunuch for the amusement of the masses. Sporus refused and he committed suicide.
Statue of Poppaea in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia (Greece) (Public Domain)
Narses, the eunuch and 70-year-old general
Narses was a eunuch who served at the court of Justinian the Great and who rose to the position of Chamberlain. When the Nika riots broke out, he was sent to bribe the masses into submission. After having helped Justinian in this way, Narses was advanced to power in the army. Justinian dreamt of re-conquering Rome, so when he lost trust in his general Belisarius, he gave the mission to the eunuch. Without any previous military experience, Narses won a series of amazing victories and he managed to complete the conquest. When he started his career as a general, he was over seventy years old.
Man traditionally identified as Narses. (Public Domain)
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Eunuchs of the Chinese Royal Court
The Chinese imperial system relied on a large number of eunuchs. A good example of such a eunuch is Cai Lun, one of the grand eunuchs of Emperor He. At that time, Chinese bureaucracy required a lot of paperwork which was done on highly expensive silk and on pieces of bamboo. Cai Lun was the one who realized the advantages of paper. As a result, he created a system for the widespread production of paper. He popularized paper so much that he found fame and fortune. However, when the emperor died, the new emperor wanted to free himself from the old influential eunuchs. Cai Lun killed himself before he could be taken prisoner.
An 18th-century Qing dynasty print depicting Cai Lun (Public Domain)
Other famous eunuchs include Origen who castrated himself in order to be accepted into the kingdom of Heaven, Peter Abelard who is known for his famous relationship with Heloise in the middle ages, Admiral Zheng He who led great fleets of exploration around Asia and Africa and Sumbul Aga who was the head of the sultan’s harem during the reign of Suleiman and a good friend to Hurrem Sultan.
Top image: A group of eunuchs. Mural from the tomb of the prince Zhanghuai, 706 AD. (public domain)
By Valda Roric
Valda Roric – “Wonders of History and Mythology”
Valda Roric – “From History to Mystery”
Piotr O. Scholz and Shelley Frisch – “Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History”
George Junne – “The Black Eunuchs of the Ottoman Empire: Networks of Power in the Court of the Sultan”