BMCR 2004.02.12

The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium

, The perfect servant : eunuchs and the social construction of gender in Byzantium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xiv, 295 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780226720166 $40.00.

“The history of the Byzantine eunuch has yet to be written,” Evelyne Patlagean pointed out regretfully nearly two decades ago in A History of Private Life (Vol. ἰ, before venturing that Byzantine society perceived eunuchs as “a third sex, in which nature had been abolished and only culture remained. A variety of consequences flowed from this abolition of nature.”1 Unfortunately, Patlagean left it at that, relying on the reader to speculate about just what exactly those consequences might be. Katherine Ringrose’s scholarly, insightful, and methodical book goes a long way toward making good both deficiencies. In The Perfect Servant, Ringrose scours the literary sources to offer a history of the Byzantine eunuch that will surely remain the standard work on the subject for some time to come, and one that explores in detail how this fascinating phenomenon ramified within Byzantine culture.

Patlagean was writing of Byzantium in the tenth and eleventh centuries, “the period of the eunuch’s greatest importance,” before the political role of the eunuchate was reduced under the Komnenos and Paleologos dynasties of the later empire. While the institution was inherited from Rome, eunuchs rose to special prominence in both the imperial court and the church starting around the seventh century. Thus Ringrose, a Byzantine historian who lectures at the University of California at San Diego, focuses her attention on the period from the eighth through the eleventh centuries, which coincides roughly with Byzantium’s gradual emergence from its “dark age” and long, slow recovery under the Macedonian dynasty. Within this timeframe (though with reference to earlier and later periods) she follows the eunuch’s migrations into and away from various kinds of marginality, arguing persuasively that by the tenth century Byzantine society had “normalized” the castrated male as an ideal mediator (the “perfect servant” of the title) between otherwise disjoined realms. The book’s greatest strengths lie in Ringrose’s sensitive articulation of the complex, fluid, and often ambiguous interplay among these realms, and especially in the way she traces their changing disposition over the centuries. The two most important arenas of eunuchs’ influence sort themselves out around tensions between the sacred and the profane, with regard to which the eunuch was perceived as both neutral and privileged: imperial ritual (with its sacred space around the emperor) and Christian spirituality (with its emphasis on the sacredness of sexual renunciation).

A well organized introduction crisply lays out context, definitions, and sources (none of which, interestingly, were themselves eunuchs, who thus remain voiceless). I should note that Ringrose here disagrees with the notion that eunuchs were seen as a “third sex” in Byzantine society. Indeed, she argues that, while the ancient world may have seen them that way, making little distinction between sex and gender, Byzantium perceived eunuchs as a “third gender” that was male in sex, but male with a difference. The issue hinges on whether the criterion is physiology or behavior, and Ringrose finds that, while pagan authorities (e.g. Aristotle, Galen) had stressed the former in describing eunuchs, the rising Christian outlook emphasized the latter. For the Christian Byzantines, she suggests, procreation was the defining gender characteristic, not genitalia (as in the ancient world) or sexual object choice (as today, at least for some gender theorists). Hence, by Late Antiquity writers often classed as eunuchs not just those men who had been surgically or otherwise altered, but also, for example, celibate monks and even nuns. The Byzantines would appear to have been remarkably flexible in their concepts of gender, going well beyond the “bipolar” model prevalent in the ancient and modern worlds. Eventually, they developed a specialized vocabulary to cover various types of eunuchs (there were more than you might think), but reproductivity remained the basic standard for full maleness.

In the otherwise enlightening introduction, I found the section headed “Historical Context” to be perhaps a bit too crisp. Fuller background to the Byzantine period would have been helpful, for example on the place of eunuchs in ancient Greece and Rome, and especially on how the phenomenon arose in or entered the Greco-Roman world. After noting that eunuchs appear in ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Chinese texts and that they also featured in the Persian empire, Ringrose merely states,”The practice of having eunuchs was continued by Hellenistic and Roman rulers, by the Byzantines, and by the Muslims” (8). That leaves me thirsty. The paragraph-long article on eunuchs in the current Encyclopedia Britannica offers more detail on eunuchs and Roman rulers, for example, which isn’t as it should be. While Ringrose explicitly rejects the old-fashioned and no doubt ethnocentric label of “Oriental” to describe the origins and spread of eunuchism, she gives the reader little to put in its place. The resulting sense of historical limbo tends to leave references to ancient sources like Aristotle and Galen hanging in the wind and represents my only major reservation about the book, especially since it wouldn’t have taken much to fill out the picture a bit for the curious reader.

The book’s main body is divided in two parts. Part I (“Gender as Social Construct”) examines general attitudes, its four chapters analyzing in turn the roles of language, medical theory, acculturation, and “legendary narratives” in the Byzantine construction of gender. The first chapter’s main focus is on the inadequacy of Greek, especially the classical Greek emulated by most Byzantine writers, when it came to describing eunuchs. “In effect,” Ringrose observes, “Byzantine society was constructed to accommodate a third gender category yet could not effectively discuss individuals that belonged to this category” (34). She identifies a number of specific patterns in how Byzantine writers wrote about eunuchs. Most revealing, perhaps, is the attribution of negative feminine traits (softness, weakness, etc.) to eunuchs by writers who wished to describe them unfavorably, without any corresponding use of positive feminine traits (such as nurturing or protecting the young, though eunuchs commonly performed such roles) to describe them favorably. When Byzantine writers did describe eunuchs favorably, they used positive traits often associated with servants (cleverness, competence, flexibility, etc.) rather than traits seen as specifically masculine. Also of interest is the prevalence of “a rather extensive language of negation,” that defines eunuchs “in terms of what they are not” rather than what they are (38). Ringrose here provides an instructive and diverting roster of words beginning with an alpha-privative that were commonly used for eunuchs. She also inquires briefly but suggestively into parallels between this apophatic pattern and the better known apophatic nature of Byzantine theology, which helps set up her later discussion of the role of eunuchs in Byzantine religious life (see below).

The next chapter, on the medical side of things, first stresses that the Byzantines inherited from the ancient authorities the belief that behavior we would see as learned was instead physiologically or biologically determined. Having issued this valuable warning, Ringrose explores Byzantine attitudes to masculine vs. feminine in diverse subjects such as physical abilities, emotions, character traits, and even food, before moving on to discuss castration itself, along with a host of its perceived and actual physiological consequences. Chapter 3, on acculturation, follows logically from this discussion, offering a lucid exposition of the sorts of behaviors that Byzantine society expected of its eunuchs: they include typical facial expressions as well as particular ways of talking, walking, and gesturing. Ringrose also charts the normalization of eunuchs over time, which she summarizes on the broadest scale as follows:

By the tenth century, many Byzantine eunuchs came from the educated, propertied, freeborn classes within the empire and had been castrated within its boundaries. Unlike their predecessors, these later eunuchs often retained ties to their families and used their positions at court or in the church to promote the status of their relatives. Eunuchs had for centuries been assigned social roles as teachers, doctors, guardians of women and children, personal servants, entertainers, and singers. Now we find that these roles have been expanded. By the 900s several important court offices were reserved for eunuchs, and an important part of their gender construct was centered on their perceived loyalty, trustworthiness, intellectual abilities, unique spiritual capacities, and their ability to transcend social and spiritual boundaries. (85)

In general, eunuchs eventually found greater potential for the direct exercise of power in the church than at court, and they begin appearing from time to time as patriarchs starting in the eighth century.

As further evidence of the eunuch’s progressive rehabilitation, the final chapter in Part I, subtitled “Regendering Legendary Narratives,” features an outstanding discussion of changing Byzantine interpretations of the Biblical prophet Daniel. Ringrose shows how an earlier writer like St. John Chrysostom (fourth century) took a negative view of eunuchs that, according to Ringrose, led him rather laboriously to evade the possibility that this important religious hero may have been one, despite the fact that even by then the Old Testament’s depiction of Daniel in the court at Babylon accorded closely with the function of eunuchs in the Byzantine court. In contrast, later commentators such as Symeon Metaphrastes (tenth century) and Theophylaktos of Ohrid (eleventh century), whose eloquent Defense of Eunuchs is one of Ringrose’s most important sources, had no qualms about openly assuming Daniel to have been a court eunuch.

Part II, “Becoming Protagonists,” focuses on specific classes of eunuchs and on particular individuals (some historical, some fictional). It begins with a chapter on eunuchs and the church that expands very satisfactorily on the earlier discussions of this crucial topic. In placing ever greater emphasis on celibacy, the early church also faced the problem of fitting eunuchs into its perceptions of sanctity. As Ringrose sees it, the central question was as follows: “could a castrated man achieve true holiness, since the measure of holiness was determined by each man’s ability to control his sexual desires? In other words, did eunuchs ‘cheat’ because they were not required to ‘struggle’ to achieve the celibacy that was central to sanctity?” (113-14). Two widely discussed Biblical passages, both favorable to eunuchs, were Isaiah 56 (“let not the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree'”) and Matthew 19:12 (“there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”). While eunuchs had many detractors among the church fathers (St. Basil among them, in addition to St. John Chrysostom), Ringrose cites a 1992 article by Pascal Boulhol and Isabelle Cochelin that finds a quite positive overall treatment of eunuchs in Late Antique hagiography, including 18 eunuchs in a sample of 541 male saints.2 Ringrose herself detects a similarly positive tone in hagiographical depictions of eunuchs extending into the Byzantine period, in contrast with the often less favorable portraits found in the secular sources. Ringrose then traces the rise of eunuchs to positions of power in the Byzantine eccelesiastical structure, starting with the patriarchs Germanos (715-30), Niketas (766-80), Methodios (843-47), and Ignatios (847-58 and 867-78). Ignatios, the son of the emperor Michael I Rangabe and a key figure in the history of the patriarchate, was castrated to prevent his accession to the throne after his father’s deposition. (Only intact men could be emperor, which supplied a common political motive for castrating or otherwise mutilating a potential claimant.) Finally, closer looks at a major source, Theophylaktos of Ohrid, and a major historical example, the eleventh-century eunuch St. Symeon the Sanctified, underscore the ambivalence with which eunuchs continued to be regarded even as they assumed a place at the center of church life.

The next chapter, entitled “Transgressing Gender Boundaries,” treats eunuchs in positions of secular authority and offers an impressive demonstration of Ringrose’s ability to untangle and articulate her subject’s unusual complexities. Carefully sifting the exceptional from the expected, Ringrose weighs her central construct of the eunuch as “perfect servant” in asking to what extent eunuchs acted as power figures in their own right, as opposed to mere extensions of the authority of others. The most obvious challenge in this regard is the trope of the eunuch commander, which she handles dexterously. Along the way she catalogues a broad range of well-known and lesser-known eunuchs, from Eutropios in the fourth century to Eustathios in the late eleventh and early twelfth, with thumbnail assessments of key players such as Narses (Justinian’s general in the Gothic Wars and elsewhere), Peter the Patrikios (whose martial prowess is depicted in Byzantine sources as frightening a Russian army into flight), and Basil Lekapenos (the castrated son of Romanos I Lekapenos who helped bring Constantine VII Porphyrogennitos and Basil II to power).

Moving from transgression to transcendence, Ringrose follows her account of eunuchs in secular power with a thought-provoking investigation into the startlingly close parallels between eunuchs and angels in the Byzantine imagination. This is my favorite chapter in the book, and I’m hesitant to say much about it here lest the reader of this review be inclined to let my account of it suffice. Cyril Mango has suggested that in the Byzantine conception the heavenly court found a worldly reflection in the imperial court, and has also drawn attention to descriptions of angels as eunuchs.3 Thus a major aspect of the correspondence between angels and eunuchs lies in their parallel roles as messengers and mediators, or servants, to use Ringrose’s construct. Ringrose, who cites Mango’s work, expands on these parallels significantly. While strongly recommending the book as a whole, I’d have to peg this chapter as essential reading for Byzantinists, and particularly for those interested in iconography, hagiography (Ringrose’s use of hagiographical sources stands out here), and literary tropes in general. Particularly striking is the way artistic and literary depictions of angels shaped and were shaped by the representation and even the real-life self-presentation of eunuchs, for example in the brilliant garments and shining, beardless faces commonly sported by both.

With these parallels fresh in mind, the reader proceeds to what historians will likely find to be the heart of the book: a full and very well researched chapter fleshing out the official roles of palace eunuchs, the angels’ worldly counterparts. Extending to Byzantium Shaun Marmon’s analysis of eunuchs’ roles in Islamic civilization, Ringrose follows Marmon in suggesting that eunuchs’ perceived ability to transcend and mediate boundaries ultimately grew out of the belief that they “existed outside of time and space as we understand these concepts and that, because eunuchs were castrated, they could operate in realms that were denied to whole men.”4 In going on to trace the precise outlines of these realms, and in cataloguing and describing the many offices reserved for eunuchs, Ringrose makes ample but judicious use of the two major sources for Byzantine imperial ritual and offices, the De ceremoniis of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos and the Kletorologion of Philotheos, along with a variety of lesser sources. Among a number of valuable insights, Ringrose distinguishes between the ways in which official power was seen as flowing on the one hand to palace eunuchs, the virtually exclusive mediators of space around the emperor, and on the other to the bearded men who filled other imperial offices: eunuch officials were held to receive their offices directly from God, not from the emperor, whereas bearded men received power from the emperor.

The last chapter reverts to the larger subject of change over time in Byzantine perceptions, offering several close-ups to illustrate Ringrose’s normalization thesis. For example, the powerful twelfth century courtier John the Orphanotrophos shamelessly used his position to advance his own relatives, thereby subverting the older stock perception of eunuchs as severed from all family connections. In a separate conclusion, Ringrose gives a closer reading of a major source, the Defense of Eunuchs by Theophylaktos of Ohrid, using it as a springboard for parting observations on “past and present perceptions of gender.” In finishing the book, I was left with only a few questions of perhaps too speculative a nature. In addition to the contextual vacuum I mentioned earlier, for example, it seems odd that nowhere does Ringrose suggest a connection between the rise of eunuchs and the concurrent spread of beards among Byzantine men, and even perhaps the similar fashion for beards among Muslim men.5 Yet in the end such quibbles do little to detract from the luster of this highly competent and polished book.


1. Evelyne Patlagean, “Byzantium in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries,” in Paul Veyne (ed.), A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1987), 597.

2. Pascal Boulhol and Isabelle Cochelin, “La rehabilitation de l’eunuque dans l’hagiography antique (II e -VI e siècles),” in Memoriam Sanctorum Venerantes: Miscellanea in onore de Monsignor Victor Saxer (Vatican, 1992), esp. pp. 66-69. These sources contain references to many other eunuchs, often servants or courtiers. (Ringrose’s note.)

3. Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (New York: Scribners, 1980) 151-58.

4. Ringrose, 164. Ringrose cites Shaun Marmon, Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990).

5. See, for example, s.v. “beard” in the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium.