Uncovering Manly Eunuchs in the Byzantine Empire

Could a eunuch be considered “manly” in the early Byzantine Empire? This is the question Michael Stewart has set out to answer in the fourth article for Volume 2 titled “The Andreios Eunuch-Commander Narses: Sign of a Decoupling of Martial Virtues and Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire?”

In this guest post, Michael sheds some light on where this article came from and why he chose to publish it in Ceræ.

‘Narses’, from the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The genesis for this article sparked from a moment of crisis. In September of 2012, I received the results back from the examiners of my University of Queensland Doctoral dissertation, ‘The Soldier’s Life: Martial Virtues and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire’. Put simply, in this work, I argued that martial virtues and images of the soldier’s life represented an essential aspect of early Byzantine masculine ideology.

One of my key chapters explored how the seminal early Byzantine historian Procopius utilised the Greek concept of andreia (translated rather loosely in English as manliness and/or courage) in his books on the Emperor Justinian’s mid-sixth century reconquests of Italy. I felt at home with the writings of Procopius. Indeed, my work on the historian had begun in 2000 with my 2003 San Diego State University Master’s thesis, ‘Between Two Worlds: Men’s Heroic Conduct in the Writings of Procopius’. So I received a jolt to my confidence when it was this chapter that had largely prevented me from passing without changes. While my examiners largely enjoyed the chapter, which eventually would be published as ‘Contests of Andreia in Procopius’ Gothic Wars’, Parekbolai 4 (2014): 21-54, they observed correctly that I had glaringly omitted discussing the Byzantine general Narses’ status as a eunuch-general. Indeed, one examiner concluded that the fact that a eunuch could command Byzantine armies undermined somewhat my larger conclusion that Procopius and other Byzantines believed that the field of battle represented a masculine realm.

Disheartened at first, I went back to Procopius to chart out and explore his depictions of Narses. At this stage, I discovered that Procopius’ views on Narses were more complex than most scholarship and I had generally believed. Intrigued, I began comparing Procopius’ account with other literary sources, Byzantine and Western. What was surprising to me, was how little most of these ancient writers had to say about Narses’ eunuch-status. Indeed, even anti-Byzantine Western accounts tended to praise Narses’ martial qualities and overall virtues.

Content that the case of Narses did not undermine my larger conclusions, I inserted a short section on Procopius’ views about the eunuch-commander into my response. Happily these changes were accepted, and my dissertation was approved in early January 2013. I still, however, had a nagging feeling that if I wanted to move my work forward I needed to delve deeper into the ways these innovative eunuch-soldiers were perceived in the Byzantine and non-Byzantine world. So I continued to research and write, and—somewhat hesitantly, decided to post a nascent version of this piece on my academia.edu website: https://uq.academia.edu/MichaelStewart. The reaction was immediate. Two top-scholars on Procopius and Byzantine eunuchs encouraged me with helpful insights on how the piece could be improved.

These positive and negative criticisms allowed me to continue honing the paper. This development was aided further by an invitation to give a paper at the 2014 conference for the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, ‘Breaking Down Barriers: Eunuchs in Italy, 400-625, a talk that touched on some of the themes in this current article. Satisfied that the paper might be worthy of publication, I stumbled upon Cerae’s call for papers dealing with the theme ‘Transitions, Fractures, and Fragments’. The growing prevalence of eunuchs leading Byzantine armies from the sixth century certainly represented a key transition from the classical to the early medieval Byzantine world. A firm believer in open access, and seeking to publish a piece in a journal from my adopted homeland of Australia, Cerae seemed the proper choice.

Once again, in order to answer the pithy critiques of the journals two anonymous examiners, some more hurdles needed to be overcome. Yet, like the process I learned as a youth growing up in the state of Vermont of making 1 gallon of maple syrup by boiling 40 gallons of arduously collected sap, the result was worth the long process. In conclusion, then, the current piece must be seen as a truly collaborative piece. My thanks to everyone who made it possible, and keep those comments coming, because, as I have learned, that is surely the best way onward for any scholar.

You can read Michael’s full article, “The Andreios Eunuch-Commander Narses: Sign of a Decoupling of Martial Virtues and Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire?”, by clicking here.

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