|Varys the eunuch from Game of Thrones.|
The Greeks often considered the use of eunuchs to be a characteristic of the Persian court. Afterall, Xenophon went to great pains when explaining the use of eunuchs as bodyguards, to note that he was presenting Cyrus' views and not his own (Xen. Cyr. 7.5.59-65). Surely the Greek audience would have remembered the threat (which was perhaps carried through) by the Persians during the Ionian revolt to turn young Greek boys into eunuchs if the Ionian Greeks did not stay loyal. Much has been written on the gender dynamics and perception of eunuchs in ancient society--particularly the fabulous The Manly Eunuch by Mathew Kuefler--and so, today I am more interested in looking at the archaeological evidence for eunuchs and castration.
So how, then, does one become a eunuch? There was always the accidental case. Hippocrates notes a boy who became a eunuch "from hunting and running" (Ep. 7.122). One could even be "eunuch-like" if born with genitals that were mutilated. A more intentional way of getting castrated was with a blade. There was the familiar mythological tale of Uranus' castration with an iron scythe (or flint) by his son, Cronus. Cronus was then commonly depicted with a scythe in his hand; a symbol of his victory over his father. In Rome, the priests of Cybele called galli (probably due to the fact that within
|"The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn" by Giorgio Vasari (16th c.).|
|Funerary relief of an archigallus |
(head gallus) from Lavinium.
Now at the Capitoline
Museum in Rome.
Just as today, animals were castrated in antiquity. Columella's De re rustica notes the use of cleft fennel to remove the testicles of calves. It has been alleged that this means that the testicles and spermatic cords were put between two pieces of wood that then inhibited the blood flow. Alternately, horses had a different type of castration involving tying ligatures around the scrotum and the use of a knife. Tools were used by farriers to aid in castration, some of which survive in the archaeological record. You will notice that there is a hole in the tool pictured below, from Roman Chichester, that allows the penis to be put through so as not to be accidentally snipped.
|Farrier tools from Sussex. The top one was|
for horse hoof trimming, the lower
was for castration.
|Bronze clamps found in the Thames and displayed at|
the British Museum in London.
P.S. Thanks to Jim O'Hara for pointing the Catullus passage out to me!