The Eunuch and the Emperor

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Was the eunuch Earinus the lover of Domitian, one of Rome’s ‘Bad Emperors’? Llewelyn Morgan pieces together the extraordinary relationship between them.

Roman poetry offers many pleasures, but one thing it does not often provide is insight into the lives and experiences of the socially marginalised. We hear a lot about members of the social and political elite, from whom came both the authors and most of the readers of literature in Rome. We also see a fair amount of abuse directed at figures who might threaten the control exerted by this elite, such as influential women or powerful ex-slaves. Sympathetic accounts of the lives and aspirations of such people are, however, thin on the ground.

No group in Greco-Roman society was more maligned than the one to which Earinus belonged. He was a eunuch. To a culture that associated sexual potency with social respectability, eunuchs were beneath contempt. Yet for a brief moment in AD 94 Earinus transcended his contemptible condition, or at least that is how it appears from examination of the historical record. The story of Earinus tells us something about an individual’s efforts to achieve dignity in a culture that despised him.

Earinus was a slave owned by Domitian, Roman emperor from AD 81 to 96. Our evidence for Earinus’ life comes almost entirely from the poetry of Statius and Martial, the leading lights of Rome’s literary culture during Domitian’s reign. Like Caligula, Nero or Caracalla, Domitian is one of the ‘bad emperors’. He was undoubtedly paranoid (‘Shortage of funds made him rapacious’, wrote his biographer Suetonius, ‘and fear made him savage’). Yet there is a case to be made that, while less tactful than other emperors, he understood the essential character of imperial rule and was a competent and assiduous administrator. The greater prominence of Domitian in the public eye and the more blatantly autocratic nature of his regime left its mark on contemporary literature: one reason for the comparative neglect of Statius and Martial in modern scholarship is their sycophantic treatment of the emperor. But there is more to both poets than flattery and, even when they do schmooze Domitian, there is considerable historical interest in how they go about it.

Fragments of a colossal statue of Domitian from Ephesus, first century AD, Photograph by Sophie HayFragments of a colossal statue of Domitian from Ephesus, first century AD, Photograph by Sophie HayOne aspect of this more autocratic tendency under Domitian has special relevance for Earinus. Domitian had appointed himself Perpetual Censor, the guardian of traditional Roman morality. Among his enactments as Censor, courtesans were forbidden from travelling in litters, a conveyance that conveyed status, and a senator was expelled from the Senate for being too keen on dancing. More disturbingly, when a Vestal Virgin committed adultery, Domitian had her buried alive. (Her lovers were beaten to death with rods in the Forum.) But this puritanical zeal also saw him ban child prostitution and child castration; with a characteristic eye for detail he also introduced price controls, thereby ensuring that slave dealers who still had eunuchs on their books would not benefit from a rise in price as the commodity became more scarce.

Six poems by the epigrammatist Martial, all from his ninth book, and one longer composition by Statius, from his occasional poems known as Silvae, describe an elaborate, international ceremony in AD 94. Earinus, at the time aged between 16 and 18 years old, cut his long hair short and sent the cuttings, enclosed in a gold box studded with precious stones and accompanied by a golden mirror, as an offering to Asklepios, god of medicine, at his shrine in Pergamon (Pergamon is now Bergama in western Turkey, but was then an important city in the wealthy Roman province of Asia).

Statius’ poem recounts Earinus’ life up until that moment in AD 94, in the highly stylised manner of court poetry. It is the poetic counterpart, consciously so, of the gold, bejewelled box that bore his hair to Pergamon. Extracting dependable biographical information about Earinus from it (and from Martial’s epigrams on the same topic) is a challenge, but what we can gather is that Earinus had been born at Pergamon and was either a slave from birth or had been sold into slavery (perhaps by impoverished parents) at a very early age. Trafficked to Rome, in conditions certainly grimmer than those Statius describes (a swan-drawn chariot driven by Venus herself …), Earinus entered the service of the emperor.

At some point, but most likely when still a very small child, Earinus had been castrated. A Byzantine medical treatise by Paul of Aegina describes the kind of procedure he underwent:

When still infants, children are placed in a basin of hot water. Then, when the parts are relaxed, the testicles are squeezed with the fingers while still in the basin until they disappear and, being dissolved, no longer feel solid to the touch.

Castration of male children, by this or by a surgical method, produced a commodity for which dealers could ask high prices: a slave considered more malleable and docile, representing no threat to an owner’s womenfolk and whose boyish good looks would be preserved beyond the natural age of puberty.

Eunuch slaves and ex-slaves of the emperor’s household would become a significant phenomenon in the later Roman Empire, in some cases wielding immense power. In Earinus’ day, however, the imperial eunuch was still a rarity. One interesting exception is Posides, an official of the Emperor Claudius half a century earlier, who was involved in some capacity in the conquest of Britain. Posides was notorious for his immense wealth and extravagant building projects. There is an attractive theory that he gave his name to Positano, jewel of the Amalfi Coast: a spectacular Roman villa underlies much of the modern town and may have been called Posidetanum, the villa of Posides.

***

The sources never let us forget that Posides was a eunuch. His condition both fascinated and appalled Romans. They also encountered eunuchs in the cult of Cybele, notable for the galli, eunuch acolytes of the goddess, who processed through Rome to the accompaniment of drums, cymbals and raucous music. Self-castration for the galli was a way of distancing themselves from ordinary life and drawing closer to the divine. (The Skoptzy, a Christian sect in 19th-century Russia, are another example of such a phenomenon.) Cybele’s festival was an important one in the Roman calendar, but the galli were never something the Romans could feel comfortable with.

Eunuchs were a decadent, eastern phenomenon, an alien and alarming presence to many in Rome. Representative of this attitude is the poet Claudian in his attack on Eutropius, a political rival of Claudian’s patron Stilicho, also a eunuch. Claudian runs through a litany of horrifying events – speaking animals, showers of stones, fountains turned to blood – but insists that all fall short of the ultimate prodigy Eutropius, a eunuch consul. The consul, chief magistrate of the traditional Roman state, represents Rome’s austere traditional values; a eunuch their polar opposite. Claudian was writing three centuries after Earinus and Posides, but his prejudices were entirely in tune with Roman tradition.

Boiled down to its essence, Greco-Roman sexual morality was about maintaining the integrity of the male body. Domitian, meanwhile, was Roman morality in human form, the censor perpetuus. Yet by the time we encounter him, Earinus had become one of Domitian’s closest retainers, seemingly held in great affection by the emperor. (Suetonius mentions ‘a small boy clad in scarlet with an abnormally small head’, to whom Domitian would chat during shows in the Colosseum; I have wondered whether this is a glimpse of Earinus.) His precise role in the palace was as Domitian’s minister, which in Latin means cupbearer: Earinus prepared and served the emperor’s wine. This brought him into intimate contact with the emperor, allowing Statius to inflate the privilege he enjoyed, having contact as he did with ‘the right hand [of the emperor] that the Getae seek to know, and Persians, Armenians and Indians to touch’. But a Greco-Roman cupbearer was unlike a wine butler in one critical respect. The slave that poured the wine was expected to serve the master in other ways as well: Seneca writes of the minister who, ‘dressed like a woman, wrestles with his age: he cannot escape his boyhood … and remains awake all night, dividing it between his master’s drunkenness and his master’s lust’.

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Martial and Statius imply that Earinus was Domitian’s lover as well as his wine server and dwell at length on his attractiveness. Martial spends three poems riffing on his name, its meaning being ‘springlike’, which the poet associates with delicacy, youth and beauty. Statius has Venus, goddess of love, first setting eyes upon him at Pergamon, ‘a boy radiant with the star of exceptional beauty’ and mistaking him for one of her own sons, a Cupid. Both poets also work hard to assimilate Earinus to Ganymede, Jupiter’s cupbearer and lover. It is also true that, throughout history, eunuchs have been the object of sexual exploitation and that was as true in antiquity as for castrati in 18th-century Europe. So it may seem obvious that Domitian and Earinus’ relationship was the same as that between Ganymede and Jupiter.

The Kidnapping of Ganymede by Peter Paul Rubens, 1611-12The Kidnapping of Ganymede by Peter Paul Rubens, 1611-12

For all that, there is no proof that relations between Earinus and Domitian were carnal in nature. The task facing these poets was to exalt the emperor’s cupbearer and one way to achieve this, in a highly artificial literary culture, was by amplifying stereotypical traits of beauty and sexual attractiveness. It is worth considering Earinus’ appearance in his later teens, when the physical consequences of his castration were no doubt becoming more obvious: the unnaturally high voice, the lack of facial hair and his youthful features. In Late Antiquity the rather otherworldly appearance that eunuchs developed would make angels and eunuchs interestingly interchangeable artistic categories; similar language was used of the castrato’s uncategorisable voice. Depicting Earinus as an ethereal beauty comparable to Ganymede may be a similar strategy. Above all, Earinus must be a fitting attendant for Domitian himself and the emperor’s own facial beauty was a regular theme of these poets: ‘You are sans pareil, boy’, says Statius’ Venus. ‘The only one more beautiful is he to whom you will be given.’

We can speculate all we like on Earinus’ wider experiences, but all we really know is what happened in AD 94. The primary significance of his offering to Asklepios is clear enough and confirmed by the poets. It is a coming of age ceremony. Martial uses the key word ephebus, meaning a boy at the point of puberty, but the cutting and dedication of long hair, which was associated with boyhood, as a mark of transition to manhood was a well-established ritual. The golden mirror that Earinus also sent to Pergamon carried a similar symbolic force. As Statius describes it, it appears to function like a photograph, an item that captures and perpetuates his youthful beauty but which now, like the boy’s long hair, is surrendered and dedicated to the god as he leaves his childhood behind him.

What is peculiar about all this is that, as a eunuch, Earinus could never ‘come of age’ in the standard fashion. As Statius writes, had Earinus never been castrated, ‘You would have sent more than one offering to Asklepios’ threshold’. As it is, Earinus can only send his hair to indicate his change in status; an uncastrated teenager would have dedicated both his hair and the first shavings of his beard. In other words, the ritual Earinus had secured for himself (and for what it is worth the poets do seem clear about his agency in persuading Domitian to allow it) is an approximation of a ritual appropriate only to an uncastrated man. Earinus is insisting on becoming an adult, notwithstanding the insurmountable obstacles, and is asserting his maturity in the most conventional way he can.

A Romano-British castration clamp

A Romano-British castration clamp

Growing up was not the only significant transition Earinus experienced in AD 94. From an introduction to Statius’ third book of Silvae and from an ancient title to his poem about Earinus we learn that he was also no longer a slave. He is introduced as Domitian’s libertus and named ‘Flavius Earinus’. In other words, he had been freed by the emperor and had adopted the coveted ‘three names’ of a free man, T. Flavius Earinus, adding elements of his former master’s name to his own. Manumission of favoured slaves was a common practice in Rome, but the late teens was an astonishingly early age to achieve it and a sign of the esteem in which Domitian held him. Earinus’ escape from slavery seems as relevant to his ritual as his age. Long hair was a mark of slaves as well as children and cutting it was symbolic of one’s achievement of freedom. Slavery and childhood were conditions easily assimilated in antiquity: male slaves, whatever their age, were addressed as pais or puer, ‘boy’, a reflection of their subordinate status; a freed slave, however, could proclaim himself homo inter homines, ‘a man as good as the next man’.

So when Earinus cut his hair short, it symbolised in two parallel ways his transformation in status: he is no longer a slave and he is no longer a boy. Statius is vague about the precise rationale of the dedication to Asklepios, but Martial talks of the offerings sent to Pergamon as rata uota, ‘vows fulfilled’. The implication seems to be that Earinus had promised these offerings to Asklepios, if he secured something he desired from the god. Surely what Earinus had requested of Asklepios was to be relieved of his role as cupbearer, which entailed at one and the same time an end to his childhood and his servile status.

After this flurry of activity, ceremonial and poetic, Earinus returns to obscurity. Domitian, no longer Earinus’ master after his manumission, but still his patron, was assassinated two years later in AD 96, so the silence may have many explanations. The only possible glimpse of his future life is an inscription that survives in Florence, originating in Rome, seemingly an epitaph erected by ‘T. Flavius Earinus’ for Luria, dead at 21; the text indicates a marital relation between the two. We cannot be certain that this is our Earinus, but if the inscription has been accurately rendered, there cannot have been many of that name wandering around the Eternal City.

Earinus may have left a trace of an entirely different kind behind him, or so at least scholars of Pergamon suspect. The evidence is a rapid expansion of the cult of Asklepios at Pergamon, datable from the turn of the first and second centuries AD; in other words, to precisely the time when the shrine had been the scene of Earinus’ act of dedication. During Domitian’s reign, significantly, the hereditary priests of the cult were given the honour of Roman citizenship and henceforth, like Earinus, bore Domitian’s family name of Flavius. Domestic events within the Imperial court could have a disproportionate impact in the Empire at large and it is safe to assume that the ceremony in AD 94 for the emperor’s favourite was magnificent. At Pergamon the theory is that the patronage bestowed upon the shrine of Asklepios by Earinus and, by extension, the emperor himself, was the spark that propelled the Asklepieion at Pergamon into its period of greatest celebrity.

***

In the decades after Earinus’ dedication, the cult centre, which had existed since the fourth century BC, was remodelled on a much grander scale, becoming nothing less than the premier health resort of the Roman Empire. The Asklepieion at Pergamon was a religious spa, like a combination of Lourdes and Harrogate. Alongside treatment spaces, there were temples and a library and a theatre for the distraction of patients who might spend extended periods of time at the shrine. ‘Asia flocks to Pergamon’, we hear, though ‘Asia’ here is the Roman province (now, roughly, western Turkey), not the continent. In a passage from the satirist Lucian, Asklepios is one of the young, upstart gods that the head of the gods, Zeus, complains have robbed him of the respect that humanity used to give him:

Since Apollo founded his oracle at Delphi and Asklepios his hospital in Pergamon and the temple of Bendis arose in Thrace and the temple of Anubis in Egypt and the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, these are the places where they all run and celebrate feast-days and bring hecatombs, and offer up ingots of gold, while I, they think, being past my prime, am sufficiently honoured if they sacrifice to me once every four whole years at Olympia.

In its heyday the Asklepieion must have been quite something to behold. Treatment began with ‘incubation’, sleep within the precincts of the shrine: Asklepios communicated the appropriate course of therapy through dreams. One of the many instructions received from the god by Aelius Aristeides, a long-term patient at Pergamon, was to smear himself in mud from the Sacred Well and run three times around the temples. With potentially hundreds of people at any one time undertaking therapy dictated in their sleep, among them the great and good of the province of Asia, the mind boggles. It was also a dream of Asklepios that brought to the shrine at Pergamon its most famous alumnus, Galen, the greatest physician of the ancient world. He had been following a conventional education of philosophy and politics until Asklepios visited his father in a dream and instructed him to send Galen to study medicine (the Asklepieion was a place of education, too: think Lourdes-Harrogate-Oxford). Galen’s influence on medical practice in antiquity and the Middle Ages stretched from western Europe to India. It is strange to imagine that Earinus’ ceremony may have been its source.

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But Asklepios is not just a fortuitous presence in Earinus’ story. He was born in Pergamon and Statius claims, somewhat implausibly, that he had had a connection to Asklepios from the beginning. But there is a logic over and above private loyalties in making these offerings to this of all gods. Asklepios was the healer god, ho Soter Asklepios in Greek, ‘Asklepios the Saviour’; his shrine was the place you went to be cured. Paul of Aegina, who provided us with the technicalities of castration earlier, did so only grudgingly. Castration is contrary to medical principle, he insists, since ‘the object of our craft is to restore parts of the body from an unnatural to a natural state’. Earinus’ condition, in ancient medical terms, was unnatural, but what his dedication to Asklepios symbolised is his escape from the two handicaps to which his castration had consigned him, immaturity and slavery. In social terms, Earinus has been cured, restored to a natural state, and I think his prayer to Asklepios, in fulfilment of which he vowed his hair and the boyish image captured by the mirror, has a simple explanation. Like all supplicants to the god of medicine, Earinus prayed to be made good.

By making his dedication as he does, T. Flavius Earinus indicates that his prayer to Asklepios has been granted. And while we read all of this through the filter of a deeply conservative set of values, in which uncompromised manhood represents the ideal state, one is impressed and moved by Earinus’ efforts to achieve what the ancient world considered respectability, having been dealt the grimmest of hands in a society that saw physical and social disability as moral failings.

We should not forget the emperor, whose permission was a prerequisite of everything that Earinus achieved. Some scholars of these poems have seen a contradiction between Domitian’s intolerance of the practice of castration and his affection for a eunuch, even suggesting that Martial and Statius may be hinting at Domitian’s hypocrisy: the moralist who slept with a eunuch. There is a precedent in antiquity for reading the story of Earinus as evidence that Domitian was a bad ’un, too. The historian Cassius Dio, writing a century or so later, makes the lurid claim that, although Domitian ‘entertained a passion for a eunuch named Earinus’, he outlawed castration across the Empire out of spite towards his dead elder brother Titus, who had a particular penchant for eunuchs. In actual fact, Dio probably had no better idea about Earinus than we have and was, like us, extrapolating as best he could from the writings of Statius and Martial.

The poets certainly do not downplay the tension: Martial precedes his epigrams on Earinus in Book Nine with poems celebrating Domitian’s anti-castration law and Statius explicitly refers to Domitian’s legislation, commenting that it came too late to save Earinus. Whether Domitian slept with Earinus or not, there seems to be no contradiction here at all. The flipside of banning castration is precisely the rehabilitation of a eunuch, his reinvention as a ‘proper’ man. Both are the hallmark of an emperor who styled himself the unrelenting champion of moral decency. Domitian’s censoriousness could lead him to acts of intolerance and despotism, but in the case of Earinus he did the decent thing.

Llewelyn Morgan is Tutorial Fellow in Classics at Brasenose College Oxford and University Lecturer in Classical Languages and Literature.

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