BMCR 2003.10.12

Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond

, Eunuchs in antiquity and beyond. London: Classical Press of Wales and Duckworth, 2002. 280 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715631292. $49.50.

Foreplay: Not Everything You Need to Know about Eunuchs

“… The triumph of his [Constantius’] arms served only to establish the reign of the eunuchs over the Roman world. Those unhappy beings, the ancient production of oriental jealousy and despotism, were introduced into Greece and Rome by the contagion of Asiatic luxury. Their progress was rapid; and the eunuchs, who, in the time of Augustus, had been abhorred, as the monstrous retinue of an Egyptian queen, were gradually admitted into the families of matrons, of senators, and of the emperors themselves. Restrained by the severe edicts of Domitian and Nerva, cherished by the pride of Diocletian, reduced to an humble station by the prudence of Constantine, they multiplied in the palace of his degenerate sons, and insensibly acquired the knowledge, and at length the direction, of the secret councils of Constantius. The aversion and contempt which mankind has so uniformly entertained for that imperfect species appears to have degraded their character, and to have rendered them almost as incapable as they were supposed to be of conceiving any generous sentiment or of performing any worthy action.” To which is appended the note: “Xenophon has stated the specious reasons which engaged Cyrus to entrust his person to the guard of eunuchs… if we examine the general history of Persia, India, and China, we shall find that the power of the eunuchs has uniformly marked the decline and fall of every dynasty.” Decline and Fall Chapter xix.

Edward Gibbon of the eighteenth century oddly does not appear in this volume’s index, and his arguments and prejudices, such as they are, are not directly addressed or refuted. The essays include less quotation and reflection on cultural attitudes, changing and constant, towards genital mutilation than I expected. In addition, eunuchs are analyzed as a class, or a list of names, with very little attention to individuals’ histories — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, etc.

This collection of thirteen essays ranges backward and forward in time from classical antiquity, an admirable scope that makes this reviewer even less qualified to evaluate many essays than he otherwise would be. It’s not easy to think about castration by self or others, but it’s Tougher who organized a conference at Cardiff in July 1999 to engage the history of eunuchs and the present state of eunuchology, to consider the realities and perceptions of eunuchs’ lives in Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Eastern cultures and the literary discourse reviling (eunuchophobia, as Sideris puts it) and defending their physical alterations and political influence (Byzantine eunuchophilia). Each essay has its own endnotes and bibliography immediately following, a system handy for reference as well as offprints. Intriguing as sexual matters were to the ancient world, some embarrassment curtailed extensive treatment of this delicate topic. Indeed, while Greeks and Romans (and Hebrews and Christians) practiced surgical (and nastier) removal of the testicles (orchidectomy) and (sometimes) the penis (penectomy), for various sacred and secular ends, emasculation was associated with the East, the Achaemenid court, and hypermasculine disrespect for the effeminated or mutilated human body. It semiotically flagged “Orientalism.”

Distaste or discomfort, feigned or real, hindered ancient and early modern detailed accounts of genital “operations” inflicted for torture, punishment, profit, or for personal advancement in corporate government. Medical, psychological, and other consequences received little “press,” like excretory rituals even now in our enlightened age, when the dams of discourse have been lowered and the floodgates of recent scholarship have released a deluge of ink. Keith Hopkins set the curve in ancient history (other than in religious studies). His essay “Eunuchs in politics in the later Roman Empire” ( PCPhS 189 [1963] 62-80; revised in Conquerors and Slaves 1978) examines the power, privileges, and scapegoat functions of late antique palace eunuchs. Oddly, Glen Bowersock et al.’s recent Late Antiquity, A Guide to the Postclassical World (1999) lacks any entry for eunuchs in the “Dictionary” or the Index. Lest you rush to your OCD, third edition, now a brief article on “Eunuchs, secular” complements the older entry for “Eunuchs, religious.” Genital mutilation, as it is practiced today as well as in the past, remains one of the last frontiers of squeamishness in our sexually liberated academic world, still but a small enclave of gender studies. Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales are producing useful volumes on gender in antiquity, such as: Deacy and Pierce’s Rape in Antiquity, Ogden’s Polygamy, Prostitutes and Death, Llewellyn-Jones’ Women’s Dress in the Ancient Greek World and Aphrodite’s Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece (forthcoming). Two other recent British collections of “Men’s Studies,” a subject still in its infancy and worthy of note, are the “Leicester-Nottingham Studies in Ancient Society” edited by Lin Foxhall et al., Thinking Men: Masculinity and its Self-Representation in the Classical Tradition (1998) and When Men Were Men: Maculinity, Power and Identity in Classical Antiquity (1998).

The Classicist Jasper Griffin in an essay entitled “The Unkindest Cut” (a quotation originally describing a Roman gang assassination) in the New York Review of Books (1 November 2000) surveyed three recent publications about eunuchism: L. Engelstein, Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom, A Russian Folktale, P. O. Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati, and, from a self-identified eunuch (insofar as vasectomy suffices), Gary Taylor, Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood. One quickly notes that humor and double entendre are nervously and relentlessly injected into considerations of this subject. Sometimes, as in this book’s frequent apotropaic use of the word “fertile,” one wonders what anxieties grip authors. Some studies are more scholarly than sensational; some are illustrated. Scholz’s hardcover edition sports a 1559 illustration that will shrivel any man’s scrotum. The dramatic and horrifying act of castration is rather rare in art, although the Western tradition is not shy about illustrating tortures endured by martyrs of the Christian faith or tortures inflicted in its triumphant progress, e.g., in the auto-da-fés for “heretics” employed by the Spanish inquisitors. William III of Sicily was castrated by his enemies, as Boccaccio reports. E. Lucie-Smith, Sexuality in Western Art, (1991, p. 36), illustrates the butchery and offers a chapter with a Freudian spin on the absence or displacement of castration in art, entitled “Here comes a chopper.” Strong stomachs may visit websites such as or A search on produced about 61,300 hits. A characteristic growing more common for thematic collections of essays (and their dissemination as offprints) is the aforementioned bibliography relevant to the individual article. This convenience for editor and reader understandably leads to much repetition. This 269 page book contains more than forty pages with nothing but bibliography; Keith Hopkins’ “seminal” eunuchological article thus appears in many bibliographies.

Gelding is probably older than the agricultural revolution, and the useful effects of castration on the animal kingdom (submissivenesss, less alpha-male competition) can be analogized by any middling imagination. Castration of the dead — sacrificial animals or enemies in war (a pharaonic topic of commemoration for Merneptah, who claimed more than 6360 such Libyan trophies) — suggests a belief in transference of sexual potency and/or a sadistic sign of superiority “to encourage the others.” Such motives were certainly operative in the case in castration inflicted on living prisoners of war and subjected rebels.

Herodotus has scattered eunuchs throughout his History, usually associated with reprobate Eastern practices, but his longest continuous eunuch narrative concerns Panionius, the significantly named Chian castrator for the “Eastern” market at Ephesus and Sardis, a business of unspecified dimensions. Hermotimus, one young victim of his, rose to power to become chief eunuch at the Persian court. His elite status eventually offered Hermotimus an opportunity to trap his emasculator and gain unparalleled tisis or retribution. He forced Panionius to castrate his four sons. Then he forced them to do the same to their father. At this point, Simon Hornblower has recently and impressively argued (“Panionios of Chios and Hermotimos of Pedasa,” in Herodotus and his World, Essays in memory of G. Forrest), one must distinguish between the loss of testicles and the oneupsmanship of perhaps removal of the entire genital system, penis as well as testicles. The argument is partly based on ektomein, not mere apotomein, the vox propria of “mere” castration. Xenophon famously defines, and Gibbon derisively quotes from, the virtues of eunuch servants in the Cyropaedia. Juvenal vents his usual doomsday sentiments on Roman women’s infatuation with eunuchs in twelve famous satiric verses (6.366-78). Claudian wrote an entertaining although cruel invective Against Eutropius; see the recent study by Jacqueline Long, How, When, and Why to Slander a Eunuch (1996).

Matthew 19:12, a hermetic sentence of Jesus concerning three classes of eunuchs, perhaps better for many had it never been uttered, encounters bafflement if not merriment. Disagreement about whether to take the talk of “eunuchs for the Kingdom of God” literally or metaphorically has led some males to cut themselves and others to have their boy children cut off from the temptations and dangers of sex and lawful marriage.

Testimony and Analysis:
The Responsible Handling of Inscrutable Prejudices and Obscure Facts

Bullough provides an overview of the excisory process: in addition to mercifully chopping off, testicles are strangled off (turn black and drop off), crushed, or bitten off and sometimes eaten (have you tasted “Rocky Mountain Oysters”?). The separated organs in ancient China were pickled and kept safe by the eunuch as a carte d’identité, a proof of excise. Ultimately Chinese organs were buried with the deceased, as opposed to the Hindu practice of burying them under a living tree. Motives include religious (Bullough gives the wrong reference for Matthew), political, and economic advancement as well as medical correction of diseased organs, masturbators, and sex criminals. The eugenics movement (Dalton coined the word only in 1885) favored removal of male and female reproductive organs from the mentally and physically defective (e.g., ambiguous genitalia, which afflicts a real percentage of human newborns).

Nazi enthusiasm for this barnyard practice led to its discrediting. Castration, however, is reported as still on the legal books as a penalty in some American states. Chemical castration, application of female hormones to males, has emerged as a “civilized” alternative, although it may be no more progress than the once ballyhooed “electric chair” for capital punishment. Castrati in Christian choirs emerged, at least in part, as a result of St. Paul’s strictures against and subsequent restriction of women’s opening their mouths in churches (1 Cor. 14: 34-6). For range of pitch, eunuchs were the Roman Catholics’ alternative to women singers. Roman Catholicism banned self-castration but not the employment of the testicularly challenged, provided they had become victims by others’ hands.

[Diverting trivial fact: An allegedly Spanish oath, unknown to my Hispanist colleagues, but what I remember best from Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, aside from phrases like “I obscenity thy mother,” runs “By the twenty-three balls of the twelve apostles.” This cojones objurgation implies the failure of the second testicle of the apostle to the Gentiles to descend (monorchidism) and thus “explains” his consequent well ventilated misogyny.]

Llewellyn-Jones examines the role of eunuchs in the more than two hundred years of Achaemenid Persia, especially their relationship to the royal women and their powerful if covert roles in the monarchy. Not only Xenophon, Ktesias, and Dinon but the Biblical romance in the Book of Esther provides data on the Verboten space of the women’s separate apartments. In Greek authors and Hebrew the eunuch is part of the “feminization of Asia” (a useful phrase in Edith Hall’s 1989 Inventing the Barbarian). The real and fantastical notions of the harem, the mysterious East’s taboo “cramped if beautiful” locus of male sexual indulgence, muddies what is already problematically arcane and obscure. Feminization, the harem, the eunuch, and the despotic autocracy present an ugly face. The wanton caprice and ferocious cruelty of powerful male and female Persian autocrats are a convenient but nonetheless true target for puritanical or self-gratulatory “Western” writers. The women have no “right” to participate in state affairs but find ways to meddle anyway, as the horrifying stories of Pheretime (Hdt. 4.162) and Amestris, Xerxes’ wife (9.112), make clear. Women are absolutely absent from the numerous reliefs at Persepolis and nearly so in Assyrian reliefs (n. 39 mentions a rare exception: Ashurbanipal picnicking with his queen). The invisibility of royal Eastern women made them all the more exciting to imagine, as in the Greek novels, Chariton’s, for instance, or Achilles Tatius’. The eunuch, neither male nor female, was the unnatural go-between between the public world of politics (male) and the private world of royal sexual favorites and monarch-manipulating females. Eunuchs helped wives and mothers torture and murder their enemies, and not a few suffered horrible ends themselves — Herodotean tisis or not. Plutarch Artax. 17 can serve as representative of the genre of retaliation.

Bardel examines Aeschylus’ somewhat inexplicit report of what Clytemnestra did with Agamemnon’s unresisting corpse. The maschalismos for her goes beyond “armpitting” and other bony limb-chopping to include castration in a package that involves “justice, revenge, gender and sexuality.” Clytemnestra pushes the envelope of the lex talionis in Bardel’s persuasive discussion of an eye for an eye from Deuteronomy and Assyrian grim legalism to other kinds of “vindictive symmetry.” Warrior spoils include not only the victors’ acquiring the useful spears of the vanquished but also their essential right hands and their more symbolic penises, ravished from the living or the dead, or the living who soon became dead. Ramesses III boasts of vast compilations of such trophies (still being gathered in the ‘forties’ “good war” in the Pacific and in Viet Nam according to American fiction and facts). Hacking off body parts is partly functional, partly just fun already in the canonical Iliad (e.g., 11.146-7, 24.409). Apotemno is “le mot juste,” regardless of genital involvement. Disfigurement, fragmentation, detachment of the most articulated body parts, is long since part of the House of Atreus’ tale, recalling, from nearer the top, the feast of Thyestes. In the Odyssey, both the mutilation-threats to the beggars Iros and Aithon, and the execution of them on the servant Melanthios, convey revenge and disrespect — no aidos for the aidoia. So, mutilation of extremities is not limited at any time in Greek literature to the Other, to the non-Greeks, what Edith Hall called “the vocabulary of barbarism.” It is not certain that maschalismos required castration, but neither does any evidence contradict precisely such lopping or suggest it would be inappropriate for such gruesome post-mortem crippling. The castration of Ouranos is not irrelevant: that father-injuring act was the gory source of the Erinyes, and to them Clytemnestra, in “sacrificial travesty,” offers Agamemnon’s detached akroteriasmata. Severed hands, feet, and genitals, tied under the armpits, emphasize the impression of the enemy’s “symbolic ineffectuality.” This article, while not about eunuchs per se, that is living castrated men with a known deficiency, most impressively adds to the catalogue of inversions and offenses that Clytemnestra can claim.

Lightfoot discusses the self-inflicted eunuchism associated with the priests of the Syrian goddess, often but not always called “galli.” Lucian, a principal if hard to control source, in his typically sardonic essay — horror or farce? — on this cult, finds these sexual deviants ideally exotic. Each on his special day “runs through the street with the severed objects and receives female clothing from the owners of whatever house he throws them into.” In what ways were Atargatis and Cybele connected? How does Attis fit in with their cults. Lightfoot has recently published a new edition of de Dea Syria (Oxford 2003). Apuleius’ portrayal is even more negative — indeed all our sources are ill disposed, and the modern reader is not differently inclined. Galli may be, whatever the devotees thought and did, a convenient label for a target-set of Greek and Roman “orientalising prejudices.” One wonders what did these mutilees think they were doing and how did sacred eunuchism advance their spirituality?

Hales examines galli and Attis in Roman art. Cybele was aniconic and her castrated servants were foreign and repulsive. Yet Cybele “lived on the Palatine next door to the emperor and her image stood on the spina in the Circus Maximus.” Hales finds students of ancient art “sluggish” in considering non-classical elements in Roman life and art (89). Hellenistic art was interested in the bizarre. The art of the Romans emphasizes differences in race and gender. Literary presentations disparage the flashy priests, not for merely pretending to be cross-dressing eunuchs but for their treating the goddess as a convenient profit-center (e.g., Juv. 6.511-21; Mart. 5.41). Yet the mutilation is rarely exposed in art. The moment before the knife was wielded is more dramatic and more digestible. The eunuch as such, unlike (say) Assyrian sha-reshi (chief, unbearded ones; cf. sha-ziqni or “bearded ones”), was never given a respectable place even in the expanded Roman thought-world. Indeed, beards as well as “balls” signified maleness and philosopherhood in antique circles; so the eunuch, such as Origen, would have appeared woman-like or boy-like in prepubertal, unbearded innocence. The gallus, however, was, for longstanding religious reasons, a recognized part of Roman cults. Therefore, in physical representations, (and, the reviewer suggests, because the subject or his own family often paid for these public monuments,) the gallus was not as fully ostracized in art as in the elite literary record .

Abusch examines Philo’s complex exegesis of the Joseph narrative in Genesis as pointing the way to new forms of cultural accommodation. Male circumcision was already a form of genital mutilation. The eunuch was a “fertile cultural signifier.” Emasculation excluded one from the sanctified Jewish community while circumcision included. Eunuchs trangress divinely ordained gender categories (Deut. 23:1; Levit. 21:18-24), so they may also lack capacity for philosophical debate. Potiphar may have been an eunuch — the Hebrew word is ambiguous and may mean “administrative officer,” whereas the Septuagint Greek is not. Joseph is comely (Gen. 39:6), the only man in the Bible so described (n. 31), and may have been purchased for catamite purposes. Philo finds negative and positive aspects of Joseph’s activities in his Genesis narrative. While emasculation was a bar to participation in the Jewish community, Philo finds an alternative positive meaning in this bodily deformity. The eunuch may even signify the transcendence of the physical and sexual self — neither male nor female, and for that reason better. Thus eunuchism may be a trope in Philo for spiritual perfection (111). Joseph “represents an important interpretative locus for Philo’s seminal [sic] articulation” of a desire to transform the gendered self.

Stevenson explores the status of eunuchs in early Christianity, a central issue for this wide-ranging book’s topics. Christians practiced castration while officially condemning it. Even Origen, arguably the most famous eunuch in Christian theology or history, strongly condemned this drastic solution to male sexual desire. Stevenson argues against those who believe that “eunuch” in Matthew means no more than “celibate,” for which the word agamos is good and common Greek. Tertullian is wilder in his terms, and so, “Christ is the great spado, elsewhere God himself is the anti-spado.” Aside from serious talk, just how common was actual castration among early Christians? Unsurprisingly, no good statistics are available or were ever collected. Justin Martyr in praise of Christians tells Antoninus Pius of a Christian who requested a legal privilege for medical castration (Domitian having prohibited the act). Encratites either figuratively or literally (Julius Cassian) endorsed surgical removal of useless or bothersome appendages. Encratites (Valentinus here) believed that Christ was so continent ( enkrates) that he did not digest the food that he ate. Basilides the Alexandrian endorsed self-castration. The Valesian monastic order apparently required castration for membership — but was excommunicated for their members’ “insanity.” So, Alexandrian orthodoxy (e.g., Clement, Origen) rejected castration (following Philo), but a long tradition, from Hebrew Isaiah (56:3) and the later Book of Wisdom (3:13), and from the Christian Gospels and hardly secret, endorsed it at least metaphorically and sometimes literally. Stevenson sees total taboo yielding to grudging acceptance then changing to a reversed exalted status. He insightfully notes that Christian hermeneuts wanted to find not development but rather a way to deny any discrepancy in Scripture and the precertified commentators that they could not ignore. Those like Origen, who could and did erase the human sex from the Song of Songs, would have no trouble allegorizing and figuralizing Jesus’ puzzling statement in Matthew. Stevenson feelingly objects to the Revised English Bible’s obscuring of the meaning of eunuch with the translation “some are incapable of marriage.” Degenitured Origen embodies the conflict between the spiritual and the literal understanding of the Gospel truth — his teaching on castration was seminal [sic].

Tougher inquires into the ethnic origins of court eunuchs. Were they as often “outsiders” (e.g., Armenian or Persian) as the commentator Donatus on Terence’s Eunuch and Keith Hopkins claimed? They seem so in ancient Assyria, Achaemenid Persia, later Rome, medieval Islam and the Ottoman empire, and China (where homegrown production was also common), but Byzantium seems to have “enjoyed” significant internal production, e.g., Constantine the Paphlagonian, whose father wanted to advance his son’s career. Tougher argues that the perceived advantages of loyalty arising from the Byzantine eunuch’s social isolation may have disappeared, and the ethnic outsiders too could develop their own agendas at the court of Constantinople. Gibbon once noted: “Claudian, after enumerating the various prodigies of monstrous birds, speaking animals, showers of blood or stones, double suns, & c., adds, with some exaggeration, — Omnia cesserunt eunucho consule monstra.” Decline and Fall Chapter xxxii.

Sideris peruses positive representations of eunuchs in Byzantine art and literature. Eutherius the chamberlain was praised by Ammianus (16.7, 20.8-9), but Eusebius the chamberlain and Eutropius were criticized. Many Christian bishops inveighed against the practice, but Theophylact, archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria (early twelfth century), wrote In Defense of Eunuchs. Patriarchs and bishops were eunuchs. Imperial eunuchs resembled angels in their functions as royal messengers and introducers of dignitaries to the sovereign. The beardless and grey-haired Eunuch Leo had a pious brother Constantine, founder of a monastery and protospatharios, both commemorated in a tenth century Bible for spiritual and physical beauty.

Mullett’s essay analyzes Theophylact’s vigorous, eunuchophiliac treatise. The dialogue framing the arguments in defense of eunuchism ends with the interlocutor’s asking the rhetorician-apologist, himself a eunuch, to stop before he chooses to become a eunuch himself. It amplifies our knowledge of the eunuch Symeon the Sanctified, the only permitted eunuch on Mt. Athos, who also founded a Thessalonian monastery of eunuchs. For some monks, boys and eunuchs were as much a fleshly temptation as women and female animals. Mullett argues that the logos concerns gender-bending and Christian masculinity less than the different routes to agneia and katharotes, holiness and purity. The eunuchs had to argue that they were not cheating in their “fight against the demons of porneia.” Mullett employs more unexplained theological terms than the others in this volume.

Gaul divides his essay into three parts, questioning whether the role of eunuchs in the late Byzantine empire was as limited as recent scholarship suggests. Less distinguished rank does not equate with despisal of eunuchism as such, he maintains. Michael VIII (1259-82) was the last emperor to entrust an army to a eunuch, Andronikos Eonopolites. In Constantine Manasses’ Byzantine romance Aristandros and Kallithea, a viper dies after biting a eunuch, getting more potent venom than it gave. Since antiquity, the eunuchs of the Romance had been Persian and villainous. An appendix of “late” eunuchs both known by name in court and state and nameless or fictional is attached.

Tsai turns to comparative and copious material when he surveys the power of eunuchs in imperial China going back to the Shang dynasty (1765-1223 BC). Castration was an alternative to the death penalty. Eunuchs were constantly criticized but constantly employed. “The Tang court [618-906 AD] generally maintained over 4600 ranked eunuchs who owned 60% of the property and land in the capital city.” Facts like this or that “when China was under Mongol rule (1279-1368) eunuchs were rarely active in the political or military arena” are hard for a Classical historian to find a use for. This is not Tsai’s fault, but it sometimes contributes to a feeling that comparative materials of themselves do not advance the scholarly agenda. It is fascinating to read that “at the end of the fifteenth century, there were approximately 10,000 eunuchs in the Forbidden City and in various Ming princely establishments,” but what does one make of the fact, beyond the amusing observation of Lenin that quantity has a certain quality all of its own (229)? Likewise we now know that the Ming eunuch Admiral Zheng He led seven maritime expeditions between 1405 and 1433 to some thirty states in south-east Asia and even unto Somaliland in Africa. Eunuchs served the Chinese throne into the twentieth century.

Witt rounds out the volume with “the other castrati.” He discusses musical aesthetics, the connection of eunuchism with singing, dancing, drums, chirruping, and ululation across many cultures. Singing parts for high male voices are collected: the Phrygian “showstopper” climax of Euripides’ Orestes, Catullus 63, Juvenal 6, some epigrams in the Palatine Anthology, and other recondite texts. He concludes that the voice of the eunuch was considerably more prominent and more influential than we have yet realized — a motif of the collection.

Evaluating The Collection of Conference Papers

The editor’s introduction eschewed the opportunity for an overview of eunuch history in pre-modern times. This opportunity, if taken, might have glued together the disparate conference papers. They address material from the twentieth century BCE to the twentieth century CE, from Beijing westward around to Sacramento. The problem of “conference papers into book” has innumerable precedents, but here the consequences are exacerbated for a cross-cultural subject poorly documented in the “best” cases. The writer of the first essay, a survey of castration practices and purposes, is a renowned sexologist but not a historian of antiquity or the Byzantine period. His essay, helpful in itself and concise, did not provide the direction or the research agenda for the papers that follow. The diversity of topics is not paralleled, fortunately, in my opinion, in diversity of theoretical methods. Positivist historians, interested in genders, pick over the exiguous sources and try to extract facts from the nastier judgments of earlier generations. When visual evidence exists, it is usually mentioned (e.g., Llewellyn-Jones, Hales, not Lightfoot or Sideris) — although inadequately illustrated (only one Hollywood still for the early Near Eastern material). Where literary texts are the focus (e.g., Bardel, Abusch) close readings mine the evidence. The result is a collection of handsome fragments, and my review necessarily (I believe) reflects that disconnectedness. The reviewer’s disappointments derive from the failure to make sufficient sense of this puzzling, radical genital cutting, whether we think in terms of human history, cross-cultural studies, or gender studies. In the book’s defense, one might respond that the problematic and scrappy nature of the evidence for eunuchs permits neither any other approach nor the synthesis that I have sought for in vain.

An index is provided. Tougher tells us that “the growth of eunuch studies shows no sign of abating,” that interest in eunuch history is burgeoning. As with any specialized sub-sub-field, the outsider sometimes misses the significance what the experts are already excited about. I read this volume because I am a teacher of a Humanities course on “love and sexuality.” The reader of these essays, aside from Bullough’s introductory, will benefit from some familiarity with their context, be it Biblical, Byzantine, or Chinese history.