Europe’s Third Gender: Byzantine Court Eunuchs – Showcase, feat. Dead Ideas

Did you know that Europe had its own third gender tradition, which arose, flourished, and then disappeared over the span of a few centuries? In the Byzantine Empire, this third gender was called a eunuch. They began as exotic imports from abroad, but quickly became a local tradition both feared and respected, reviled and adored, devilish and angelic.

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Partial Transcript (Intro and Outro Only)

There are only two genders, male and female, right?

Well, no, not today. But traditionally, I mean, right? At least in the West, right?

Well, actually no, not entirely.

Third gender traditions, neither male nor female but a third category, are fairly common across the world, known among Asian, African, Pacific, and American Indian cultures. In fact, the West is really the odd one out, knowing only two genders until quite recently. But did you know that even Europe had its own such tradition, which arose, flourished, and then disappeared over the span of a few centuries?

It occurred in the Roman Empire, especially in the Eastern half, which survived much longer and came to be known to historians as the Byzantine Empire. There, it came to be recognized that there was more than just male and female, but a third alternative. For them, this gender was called a eunuch.

Now, third gender traditions are often quite unique in their local manifestations, and this one is no different, being centered on assigned-sex males who were, for whatever reason, incapable of reproduction. Contrary to popular belief, you didn’t have to be castrated to be considered a eunuch in Byzantine eyes. Castration was the most common way to become one, but you could also have been born naturally sterile, for example.

These non-reproductive persons came to be understood as neither male nor female, but a third gender category. They began as exotic imports from abroad, but quickly became a local tradition both feared and respected, reviled and adored, devilish and angelic. It’s a complicated and fascinating story almost entirely forgotten in European history.

What was it like for eunuchs in the Byzantine Empire? How did this third gender tradition arise, and how did it disappear? That’s what we’re talking about in today’s showcase episode.

I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.

[music]

Hiya folks. Today we’ve got a showcase episode coming at you from my other show, Dead Ideas. We did have a whole five-part series on Byzantine Court Eunuchs, so what you hear today perks your interest, you can check out the rest of the series on Dead Ideas.

Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on the next episode of our current series Sex on the Great Plains. It wasn’t quite ready this month (hence the showcase episode to fill in today), but we should be back to the Lakota next month. That episode will also feature a third gender tradition, the Lakota winkte, which is of course very different from the Byzantine eunuch, but I thought it might be interesting to have the one next to the other as we consider third genders in different cultures.

Also, I do have a big announcement, and that is that next month’s episode will be the final episode of the show. I know, I’ve said that before, but now the time has finally come. It’ll make 70 episodes of The History of Sex, which is way, way more than I ever expected to complete, so that feels good. And my creative energies are restless. I’m ready for something new. Not sure what that new thing will be yet, probably not a podcast, but who knows? It’s always an adventure, and I’m looking forward to whatever’s next on the horizon.

So, with that bittersweet announcement out of the way, let’s get to the show. Today, we’re talking about the Byzantine third gender tradition of the eunuch. What did it mean to be a eunuch, what was it like for them, and how did they arise, soar meteorically to fill some of the highest positions in the empire, and then disappear almost entirely from European history? Let’s find out.

[Dead Ideas episode]

Well, that’s all we’ve got for you today, folks. If you want to hear more about Byzantine court eunuchs, check out the rest of the series on Dead Ideas.

If you’ve enjoyed this show and want to express your support, you can do so by subscribing, rating, and reviewing on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Or you can pledge on Patreon where $5 a month gets you a portrait drawn in the time period and culture of your choosing.

The portraits will continue even though the show is ending, by the way. And all patrons get access to the full backlog of episodes ad-free for both my shows (Dead Ideas and The History of Sex). So, if you are thinking of becoming a patron, you will gain those perks. If you are a current patron, you are welcome to discontinue (no hard feelings, I appreciate that you’ve been with me as long as you have!), or you can choose to continue, enjoy the backlog ad-free, and earn a new portrait each 12 months that you stay on. It’s also possible to do a custom pledge, toss me a year’s worth of $5 pledges all at one time, then discontinue, and I’ll honor that with a portrait as well. Whatever works best for you is cool with me.

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Alright folks, I’ll see you next time. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.

Image Credits

Byzantine Chi Ro flag from Wikimedia.

Audio Credits

Podcast theme music mixed from “Gregorian Chant”, “Mystery Sax”, and “There It Is” by Kevin MacLeod.

Ancient Roman Music – Synaulia I” from Aemilius Paulus

Episode originally aired as “Byzantine Court Eunuchs I: Third Gender of Byzantium” on Dead Ideas.

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