Where have all the eunuchs gone?
The mystery of Western thought is how a term that originally meant the manliness of a man came to mean the chastity of a woman.

-- Leo Strauss

In an interesting review of Mathew Kuelfer's "The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity," Hagith Sivan touches on some issues which I doubt will ever be settled but which nonetheless fascinate me as an admitted traitor to both sides of the Culture War. I have long believed that certain aspects of the Culture War derive from an unresolved struggle over human sexuality during the late Roman Empire (early posts here, here, and here), and it has long baffled me that so many contemporary American moralists blame the Fall of Rome on sexual freedom, when in reality the Fall was accompanied by unprecedented restrictions on sexual freedom, and the birth of a new sort of "chaste" Christian maleness. Not surprisingly, this leads activists (always quick to point blaming fingers) to engage in post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. I think the Rome's fall was far too complex to blame on newly emerging religious views of sexuality. IMO, the growth of bureaucracy, high taxes, and most importantly, the deterioration of the military were far more important factors. Common sense suggests to me that regardless of what is going on in a culture, if there is not a strong military presence to defend it, sooner or later outside opportunists will realize that things are ripe for the plucking.

Here's reviewer Hagith Sivan and the chapter on waning masculinity, the farming out of military service to barbarians, the staffing by eunuchs, and the concomitant decline in the Roman military:

Chapter two ("Men receive a wound and submit to a defeat: masculinity, militarism, and political authority") examines the waning ancient masculine ideals in men's public lives as reflected in aversion to serving in the late Roman militia, either military or civilian. The basic assumption here is that the coming of the barbarians as military recruits and of "servile outsiders" (eunuchs?) to staff the bureaucracy must have affected individuals as well as the "very idea of what it meant to be a man among the elite classes of Roman society" (p. 37). According to MK the very essence of manliness had been the image of a soldier, as imperial panegyrics indeed reiterate ad nauseam. But he also knows that "there is little evidence for overwhelming numbers of Romans in the armies of the later empire" (p. 39). The exclusion of senators from military life had been a policy of the emperors since the third, if not the second century. For MK senatorial absence from the militia is to be linked to their own waning enthusiasm. No distinction is made between senatorial readiness, if not downright enthusiasm, to vie for administrative honors (below), and their apparent small representation in the army.
While much has been made of the fact that Christians tended to avoid military service, the reviewer doesn't think this was as significant a factor as the author believes:
MK appears to believe that Christians in general opposed serving in the army. There are indeed cases that suggest such antipathy but there are also numerous instances of Christians who were more than happy to pursue promotion through the military (the families of Valentinian I and Theodosius I are merely two of many). Because "men of the later Roman land-owning classes were more likely to be the victims of military aggression rather than its perpetrators" (p. 40) such powerlessness entailed a decline of manliness intertwined with denial of military crises (p. 41), desertions from the army (p. 43) and widespread employment of barbarians as defenders of all that was Roman.
Denial of military crises? Employment of barbarians?

This sounds much too familiar! Ye gods!

(I'm still allowed to have a little fun, right?)

The review touches on some of my favorite themes, including the redefinition of virtue -- from original Roman martial male virtues into the new Christian chaste female ones (with obvious implications for the replacement of from virtues to values) and reminds us of various, long-forgotten paradoxes (some of which may have implications for modern times) including the moralization of anatomy and disease and what I'm sure some would call the dissemination of "eunuch culture" via early Christianity:

Chapter three ("A purity he does not show himself: Masculinity, the later Roman household, and men's sexuality") discusses "the decline of the masculine ideals in men's private lives, in changes to family life and sexuality" (p. 6). It begins with a look at the decline of patria potestas, already a phenomenon of the Republic and the early empire, and places its final demise in late antiquity with "the deterioration of Rome's military greatness", demographic decline, new laws regarding betrothal arrangements ("reverse dowry") and a general change of women's rights of possession and of inheritance. MK uses the evidence of the Theodosian code to explore this specific erosion of paternal authority over children and over wives before turning to investigate the relationship between the "elite Roman male" and his body. Here he sees a clear connection between "sociopolitical changes and changes to sexuality". Because "sexual prowess was central to masculine identity in classical Rome", the "changes to male sexuality in late antiquity assimilated men's sexuality to women's" and "eroded the separation between men's and women's roles and identities" (p.78). Sexual abstinence becomes manliness, linked with "an unmanly fear of sex" that "pervaded later Roman culture" (p. 79) due, perhaps, to the threat of diseases. The idea that "sex was deadly" (p. 80) is interesting if perhaps overstated. MK connects the avoidance of sex with a new morality that set up husbands as (chaste) marital models to their wives, with laws that prescribed harsher penalties for adultery and for sexual offences (including visits to prostitutes), and with the scarcity of slaves or rather with decreased availability and legal restrictions regarding the use of slaves for sexual purposes.

To complete his survey of the sexual horizons of sexual chastity and impudicitia MK turns to pederasty and to legal restrictions on males that display rhetorical disgust with male sexual passivity. He observes a "reformulation of male pudicitia" which necessitated the "abandonment of any sexual relationships between males" (p. 95). Instead, these men were called upon to exercise greater self control over their bodies, being judged, paradoxically, on the basis of the criteria that had traditionally molded stereotypes of women. Concluding once more with eunuchs K. examines how they functioned in individual households as live reminders of the problematization of male sexuality, namely their control of women and over themselves. Once more Claudian's In Eutropium provides a rich illustration of the range of eunuchs' activities, if hardly a document that "must be interpreted in the context of the loss of men's authority over their wives and the sexual morality restricting men's sexual freedoms" (p. 99).

I think it should be stressed that seeing too many parallels to American culture in this would be a huge mistake, as the ancients were so different in so many ways. For starters, we don't really have eunuchs. While there might be cultural eunuchs (and while I often suspect that the growth of bureaucracy represents institutionalized eunuchs), it has to be remembered that the neutering that is going on is on a philosophical and moral level. Men remain men and women remain women. Eunuchoid bureaucrats might write the rules and might want us all to live in a safe and padded world in which we can call 911 when danger threatens, but when the chips are down, instinct rules, and people will behave as did the passengers on Flight 93. Despite the criticism of the passivity of Virginia Tech students in the face of an armed attacker, I don't think the same situation would be repeated now that people know what to expect. John Lennon's "Imagine" sounds nice in a song, but when armed invaders threaten to kill, the old "conservative is a liberal who's just been mugged" tends to kick in. (Which is why so many pacifists changed their thinking after 911.) The flying Imams are another example; the bureaucratic eunuchs would have us sit there and be terrorized not only by provocateurs like that, but by "rules" which encourage them to sue anyone who dares to oppose them.

Anyway, there's a lot more to the book, and to the review:

Thus far the first part of the book. The second and longer part ("Changing ideals") encompasses five chapters (4: "I am a soldier of Christ. Christian masculinity and militarism"; 5: "We priests have our own nobility: Christian masculinity and public authority"; 6: "My seed is hundred times more fertile. Christian masculinity, sex and marriage"; 7: "The manliness of faith: Sexual differences and gender ambiguity in Latin Christian ideology"; 8: "Eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven: Castration and Christian manliness".).

Not unnaturally Martin of Tours provides a lively illustration of a new ideology of militarism and pacifism through the internalization of the battles that a 'man' must conduct throughout life. The analysis purports to show that "the manly self-image of Christian men did not depend on the success of the armies of the Roman empire but on the victories of an interior struggle" (p. 124). This is precisely what Gibbon deplored. Another aspect of a new Christian masculinity is explored through the terminology of marriage. Because God was the ultimate source of authority, a Christian man could speak about himself as a submissive woman, but only when relating to the divine (p. 142).

"It was this feminine identity in their private lives that permitted Christian men to assume a manly stance in the exercise of public authority" (p. 142). Here MK correctly discerns a jarring note or a flat contradiction between the rhetoric of Christian humility, especially with regards to "episcopal lowliness" (p. 156) and the elevated social status of many bishops in late antiquity. This is, of course, a rhetoric of false humility, a political weapon that is still widely exercised.

This distinctly echoes Strauss's "mystery of Western thought."

I'm not a Christian theologian, nor am I an expert on eunuchs, so I can't state with confidence that I completely agree with the author's contentions that Christianity represented a sort of triumph of eunuch culture. The danger with this stuff (and frankly, I was a little hesitant to write the post), is that people get emotional when they see "their" religion being attacked. First of all, let me say that I don't believe in attacking anyone's religion. But despite my concerns about the early Christianity of the late Roman period, is it really fair for anyone to compare it to modern Christianity and claim it as "theirs"? When was the last time a modern pastor quoted Jesus on eunuchs, for example? So, please bear in mind that I think this is useful not as a religious analogy, but as a cultural analogy. We don't have early Christians taking over as they did in Rome, nor do we have a eunuch staff running the military. However, I think there may be parallels between Christians and socialists in the ecological niche sense (Christian theology is often interpreted as having a soft spot for socialism, which IMO has caused a great deal of trouble), and I think we could be experiencing tyranny at the hands of the modern equivalent of eunuchs (people who abhor masculinity and femininity and who, while they may talk the talk about sexuality, are in reality a bunch of unattractive, "spineless, ball-less wimps" if I may borrow the phrase.....)

In what must have been the ultimate paradox for the Romans, the antithesis of manhood now became manhood. And sex became a sin:

Chapter 6 deals with Christian perceptions of adultery including the ambiguity which seems to permeate the castigation of the traditional double standard that Christian moralists attempted to counter, in vain it seems. MK suggests that "Christian leaders encouraged the code of male sexual restraint not only as a sign of Christian conviction but also as a sign of manliness" (p. 170). Sex became sin, a moral legacy with which we are still battling. From this there was but one logical step to the elevation of celibacy at the expense of marriage, as Jerome did with vigor and vehemence. Spiritual marriage came to the fore with few personal examples and much greater verbosity. Concomitantly, MK observes the encouragement given to male friendship, if not to intimacy among males. Here the ancient ideal of amicitia may have been infused with a new life through the assiduous cultivation of many Christian writers. But a thinker like Jerome also provides an interesting example of the ambiguities of this new type of 'friendship' which by its very nature excluded women yet could also embrace women as intellectual equals. Combining issues of gender relations MK strives to demonstrate how leaders of the church could extend their authority beyond the immediate family by a clever appropriation of patriarchy (p. 204). The point is well taken.

The last chapter focuses on eunuchs and on the meaning of being a Christian in heart, mind and body. Since the teaching of Jesus allocated a place of honor to eunuchs, Christian theologians had to come to terms with an understandable reluctance to inflict self-mutilation on the devotee and their own touted desire to follow Christ wholeheartedly. The result was a construction of a manly eunuch, a lifestyle of manly perfection achieved through a deliberate divorce from other males (and females) and from conventional virility. This ideal was taken to its ultimate performative level in monasticism, a brotherhood of the most 'manly' of 'men'.

Again, the lessons is not religious, but cultural.

Cutting off balls has consequences.

posted by Eric on 06.15.07 at 09:53 AM



Have you read Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages. I haven't finished it, but in the early going it seems the move away from a income based tax system to land based was a key to the catastrophic failure of Rome.

Mark Olson   ·  June 15, 2007 11:32 AM

I haven't read "Framing the Early Middle Ages," but that is an interesting theory. There's no workaround for property taxes, of course and the government eunuchs bureaucrats can keep raising them forever!

Eric Scheie   ·  June 15, 2007 3:31 PM

You might be interested in the book The Janissary Tree, a detective novel set in the late Ottoman period. The investigator is a eunuch.

The book's not bad. It brings in a lot of interesting history of Istanbul and the politics of the time, including impressions of foreign diplomats from Poland, the US, Imperial Russia, and Imperial Britain.

John Burgess   ·  June 15, 2007 10:03 PM

I think rather that the Christian "restrictiveness" of sexuality was rather a reaction to the hopelessness of Roman life at the time -- Christianity didn't appear at the beginning of the Roman republic, after all, but during the time it had become an empire, which was nothing but a symptom of Roman culture's decline. In any case, Christian sexual morality tended to favor women and children at least a tiny bit more than pagan Rome did.

By the way, socialism came a long time after Christianity, and is in fact nothing but Christianity without all that boring God stuff, so saying "Christianity had a soft spot" (ie, was attracted to/influenced by) socialism sounds kind of odd.

Andrea Harris   ·  June 15, 2007 10:29 PM

Aside from the socio-political explanations for Christian sexual discipline and restraint, there is an essential vertical dimension.

Augustine among others borrowed and amended the Platonist ideas that there is a greatest good (God) and there is a hierarchy of excellent natures. Augustine worried that sex (among other things) was so pleasurable as to distort the ordering of people's loves and distract them from loving God. Additionally, the Gospel narratives portrayed Jesus as the perfect man who never marries but devotes his life to the kingdom of God and even teaches that there is no marriage in heaven. St. Paul teaches that it is permissible for a man to marry but the more perfect way is not to divide his attention between God and a woman.

Without this detail, the review (and perhaps the book) just caricatures the Christian authors it summarizes. Sex never became a sin regardless of what Jerome may have thought.

Consider: In classical Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant theologies, sex is not an intrinsically disordered act anymore than eating is although gluttony is a sin. Orthodox priests may marry before they are consecrated deacons, and the Pope could dispense Catholic diocesan priests from their celibacy tomorrow as they unlike friars and monks have taken no vow of celibacy. A married Anglican priest who was received into the Roman Catholic church as a priest may still perform eucharist although he had sex with his wife many times that week. Marriage is a sacrament in the church--it is a physical sign of Christ's real presence. In Catholicism, a sacramental marriage requires the intention to have sex and bear children, and if spouses refuse to have sex that renders the marriage invalid.

However well the thesis of the book or reviewer works in late antiquity, we do not remember the Council of Trent (1545-63) as ushering in a new pacifism. However, it was at that council that it became law (albeit dispensable) for all Catholic priests to be celibate (in order to assimilate diocesan priests to the more perfect path of friars and monks, to cure medieval abuses, to distinguish their 'brand' from that of Protestant upstarts who made pastoral marriage the norm). Catholics did not lay down arms against Protestants.

Ajay C.   ·  June 18, 2007 7:18 PM

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