Types of Eunuchs in the Roman Empire

Despite legislation that tried to prevent castration, eunuchs in the Roman Empire became increasingly popular and powerful. They came to be associated with the imperial bedchamber and privy to the innermost workings of the Empire. Walter Stevenson says the word eunuch comes from the Greek for "bed-guard" eunen echein.

There were distinctions among these non-men or half-men, as some considered them. Some had more rights than others. Here is a look through the confusing types with comments from some of the scholars who have studied them.

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Emperor Justinian and Bishop Maximianus, after a mosaic in Ravenna
ZU_09 / Getty Images

Spado (plural: spadones) is the generic term for a variety of sub-types of asexual men.

Walter Stevenson argues that the term spado does not seem to have included those who were castrated.

"Spado is the generic name under which those who are spadones by birth as well as thlibiae, thlasiae and whatever other type of spado exists, are contained.'" These spadones are contrasted with castrati...."

It is also one of the categories used in the Roman inheritance laws. Spadones could pass on an inheritance. Some spadones were born that way -- without strong sexual characteristics. Others suffered some type of testicular disfigurement the nature of which earned them the labels thlibiae and thladiae.

Charles Leslie Murison says that Ulpian (a third century A.D. jurist) (Digest 50.16.128) uses spadones for the "sexually and generatively incapable." He says that the term could apply to eunuchs by castration.

Mathew Kuefler says that the terms used by the Romans for the various types of eunuchs were borrowed from the Greek. He argues that spado comes from a Greek verb meaning "to tear" and referred to eunuchs sex organs were removed. (In the 10 century a specific term was developed in Constantinople to describe those with the entire genitalia severed: curzinasus, according to Kathryn M. Ringrose.)

Kuefler says Ulpian distinguishes those who had been mutilated from those who were spadones by nature; that is, either born without the full sex organs or those whose sex organs failed to develop at puberty.

Ringrose says Athanasios uses the terms "spadones" and "eunuchs" interchangeably, but that usually the term spado referred to those who were natural eunuchs. These natural eunuchs were such because of ill-formed genitalia or lack of sexual desire, "presumably for physiological reasons.

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Thlibiae were those eunuchs whose testicles were bruised or pressed. Mathew Kuefler says the word comes from the Greek verb thlibein "to press hard." The process was to tie the scrotum tightly in order to sever the vas deferens without amputation. The genitals would appear normal or close to. This was a far less dangerous operation than cutting.

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Thladiae (from a Greek verb thlan 'to crush') refers to that category of eunuch whose testicles were crushed. Mathew Kuefler says that like the preceding, this was a much safer method than cutting. This method was also more effective and immediate than the scrotum tying.

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Although not all scholars appear to agree, Walter Stevenson argues that the castrati were a totally different category from the above (all types of spadones). Whether the castrati underwent a partial or full removal of their sex organs, they were not in the category of men who could pass on an inheritance.

Charles Leslie Murison says that during the early part of the Roman Empire, the Principate, this castration was done to pre-pubescent boys for the purpose of producing catamites.

Family and Familia in Roman Law and Life, by Jane F. Gardner, says that Justinian denied the right to adopt to castrati.

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Falcati, Thomii, and Inguinarii.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (edited by Alexander P Kazhdan), the 12th century librarian at the monastery at Montecassino, Peter the Deacon studied Roman history especially around the time of Emperor Justinian, who was one of the main codifiers of Roman law and who used Ulpian as an important source. Peter divided Byzantine eunuchs into four types, spadones, falcati, thomii, and inguinarii. Of these four, only the spadones appear in other lists.

Some Recent Scholarship Related to Roman Eunuchs:

  • Articles:
    "Cassius Dio on Nervan Legislation (68.2.4): Nieces and Eunuchs," by Charles Leslie Murison; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 53, H. 3 (2004), pp. 343-355. Murison starts by summarizing the ancient sources on Nerva and quotes the odd piece of Nervan legislation opposing Emperor Claudius-style marriage to certain nieces (Agrippina, in Claudius' case) and castration. He cites Dio's "clumsy coinage of a verb Murison translates 'eunuchization'" and then states that there were differences between types of eunuchs, with spado a broader term covering more than eunuchs. He speculates on the completely emasculating castration methods of other areas of the ancient world and the Roman tendency to castrate pre-pubescently and otherwise surveys the Roman history of eunuchs.
  • "Measures of Difference: The Fourth Century Transformation of the Roman Imperial Court," by Rowland Smith; American Journal of Philology Volume 132, Number 1, Spring 2011, pp. 125-151. Eunuchs come up in a passage comparing the court of Diocletian with that of Augustus. Diocletian's living quarters were under the guard of eunuchs who had become not only more common of late, but also a symbol of despotism. Later references to the term cover the promotion of eunuchs to the position of chamberlains—civil household officials with the trappings of the military. Another reference is to the comparison by Ammianus Marcellinus of eunuchs with snakes and informers poisoning the minds of the monarchs.
  • "The Rise of Eunuchs in Greco-Roman Antiquity," by Walter Stevenson; Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Apr., 1995), pp. 495-511. Stevenson argues that eunuchs increased in importance from the second to fourth centuries A.D. Before proceeding to his arguments, he comments on the relationship between those who study ancient sexuality and a modern pro-homosexual agenda. He hopes that the study of the ancient eunuch, not having much of a modern equivalent, will not be lumbered with the same type of baggage. He starts with definitions, which he says are not around today (1995). He relies on material from Paully-Wisowa for material on the definitions left by the Roman jurists and 20th century classical philologist Ernst Maass, "Eunuchos und verwandtes," Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie 74 (1925): 432-76 for linguistic evidence.
  • "Vespasian and the Slave Trade," by A.B. Bosworth; The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 52, No. 1 (2002), pp. 350-357. Vespasian was troubled by financial worries well before he became emperor. Having returned from a term governing Africa without adequate means, he turned to trade to supplement his income. The trade is thought to be in mules, but there is a reference in the literature to a word suggesting enslaved people. This passage causes trouble for scholars. Bosworth has a solution. He suggests Vespasian dealt in the very lucrative trade of enslaved people; specifically, those who could be thought of as mules. These were the eunuchs, who could lose their scrota at different points in their lives, leading to different sexual abilities. Domitian, Vespasian's younger son, outlawed castration, but the practice continued. Nerva and Hadrian continued to issue orders against the practice. Bosworth considers how closely involved members of the senatorial class might have been with the trade especially of castrated enslaved men.
  • Books:
    Family and Familia in Roman Law and Life, by Jane F. Gardner; Oxford University Press: 2004.
  • The Manly Eunuch Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity The Manly Eunuch, by Mathew Kuefler; University of Chicago Press: 2001.
  • The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium, by Kathryn M. Ringrose; University of Chicago Press: 2007.
  • When Men Were Men: Masculinity, Power and Identity in Classical Antiquity, edited by Lin Foxhall and John Salmon; Routledge: 1999.
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Gill, N.S. "Types of Eunuchs in the Roman Empire." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/eunuchs-in-the-roman-empire-121003. Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Types of Eunuchs in the Roman Empire. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/eunuchs-in-the-roman-empire-121003 Gill, N.S. "Types of Eunuchs in the Roman Empire." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/eunuchs-in-the-roman-empire-121003 (accessed June 4, 2023).