Ambiguity and Fear: Eunuchs in Roman Literature

Rhiannon M. Rowlands

Independent Scholar        

Roman literature frequently vilifies eunuchs.  Eunuchs are often described as ugly, immoral and corrupt.  This attitude is visible from Terence's play Eunuchus, produced in the middle of the second century B. C. E., to Claudian's late antique invective against the eunuch consul, Eutropius.  Shaun Tougher notes that the occurrence of eunuchs in the Eastern court in the latter days of the Roman Empire was a concern to historians such as Ammianus Marcellinus and the authors of the Historia Augusta.  These authors clearly saw eunuchs as a threatening and sinister presence, but the question arises why were

Roman authors so hostile to eunuchs?

Roman authors depict eunuchs who were castrated before puberty as ambiguous in sex and gender.  Eunuchs are seen as neither male, nor female, but as some sort of third sex, one created by man against the will of nature.  Because of the unnatural ambiguity of eunuchs, preternatural powers are ascribed to them, and eunuchs are frequently accused of being sources of ill omen.  Eunuchs are also commonly associated with women in positions of power, further tying together the concepts of gender transgression and threatening unnaturalness.

This paper explores the Roman perception of eunuchs with an emphasis on the sexual and

gender ambiguity of eunuchs.  Using anthropologist Mary Douglas's theories of ritual pollution (Douglas, 1966) as a framework, I hope to examine a possible reason for the many accounts of the sinister nature ascribed to eunuchs, particularly in the realm of politics.  Douglas postulates that societies tend to malign those things that are ambiguous or anomalous and ascribe dangerous and uncontrolled powers to such things.  Therefore, Roman historians portray eunuchs in positions of power as both the cause and the symptom of a corrupt government.  This paper endeavors to show that distrust of eunuchs has roots in early Latin literature and in a pervasive human fear of that which is ambiguous.


Douglas, Mary.   1966.  Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.  London:  Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Garrison, Daniel H., ed.  1991.  Horace: Epodes and Odes.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Platnauer, Maurice, ed.  1922.  Claudian.  Vol. 1.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University


Rolfe, John C., Ed.  1935.  Ammianus Marcellinus.  Vol. 1 and 2.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tougher, Shaun.  1999.  "Ammianus and the Eunuchs." In The Roman World and Its Historian: Interpreting Ammianus Marcellinus.  edd. Jan Willem Drijvers and David Hunt.  London: Routledge.  64-73.


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