In our sermon on Sunday, Prof. Sellnow remarked on the fact that the Ethiopian official in Acts 8 was a eunuch. For those who wished for a little more background from the ancient world on the subject, here’s one historian’s comments on the role of eunuch in the ancient world. One wonders if so many would seek government service today if eunuch-hood were still a requirement of the job.


In today’s encore excerpt –
eunuchs: those castrated servants who performed a wide variety of functions for
kings in ancient and more recent times. The special value of eunuchs (literally
bed-keepers) to kings and other high-ranking officials was that they could be
better trusted since they had no desire for the wives and other women of the
court, did not have the distractions of family life, and were thought to have
less ambition. Here we see eunuchs in the capital of Constantinople circa the
fifth century CE:

“Eunuchs gave the palace at Constantinople a special
atmosphere. They were men who had been sexually damaged by disease, accident or
deliberate mutilation. Mutilation, as horrible as it sounds, was not always or
only conscious cruelty inasmuch as eunuchry was a path to power and safety for
the marginal or the vulnerable. One source speaks of the Abasgi outside Roman
territory at the eastern end of the Black Sea (modern Abkhazia retains the
name), whose king sold boys for castration and killed their parents. If the
fatality rate on these castrations was about ninety-five percent, few cared and
the survivors might feel themselves lucky in many ways.

“So normal a part
of the landscape did the eunuchs seem, and so easily was their involuntary
sexual isolation compared with religiously approved abstinence, that in later
times when exegetes read of the service of the prophet Daniel at
Nebuchadnezzar’s court, they naturally assumed – meaning it as a respectful
interpretation – that he must have been a eunuch too. On a higher level, the
angels and their sexlessness gave sexless males below a kind of respectability.
The general Narses, who replaced Belisarius and finally brought grim peace to
Italy for [the emperor] Justinian, was a eunuch. By the eighth century a eunuch
could even rise to the patriarchal throne in Constantinople.

“At the
pinnacle of the household was the grand chamberlain, always a eunuch and thus
supposedly without family interest to corrupt his service, responsible for every
aspect of management and control. He supervised the silentiaries (court
officials) with their golden wands, who offered discreet guidance and control to
ensure that all would be orderly and impressive, and whose influence could thus
incidentally mean a great deal. On retirement they were normally admitted to the

Author: James J. O’Donnell
Title: The Ruin of the
Roman Empire

Publisher: Harper Collins
Date: 2008