Wednesday 1 June 2011

Eunuchs as bureaucrats


I have previously posted on the concept that intellectuals in traditional (pre-modern) societies are de facto 'eunuchs' -

- but the experience of the Byzantine Empire also suggests that actual eunuchs (castrated men) probably make excellent intellectuals.


The first point to clarify is that the Byzantine Empire was a huge success. As Sir Steven Runciman stated: "No other constitution in all the history of the Christian era has endured for so long."


So, how did they do it?

The primary factor underpinning all else, was the high level of religious (specifically Christian) devoutness. Aside from the salvific 'benefits' (!) this provided Byzantium with extraordinary social cohesion, confidence and resilience.


But one of the secondary factors in the endurance of the Eastern Roman Empire was probably an efficient and effective Imperial bureaucracy, and this was staffed by eunuchs.

Eunuchs were barred from being Emperor (although could and did rise to the top of all other prestigious hierarchies; including the Patriarch of Constantinople and the premier military General) but provided a layer of personnel between the Emperor and his subjects.


Eunuchs were prized for their loyalty (which was presumably biologically caused) but the 'price of admission' to this powerful elite ("Hello Sir. Come about the clerical job? Please check-in your testicles at the door.") may go some way to explaining how it was that the Byzantine bureaucracy did not go the way of all other privileged administrations, with unstoppable over-expansion of personnel leading to terminal inefficiency.



Dedicated Reader said...

Have you by chance read any accounts of the eunuch class in Imperial China? Beyond bureaucracy, during the Ming dynasty tens of thousands alone were employed just for palace upkeep.Very fascinating topic

Alex said...

Origen, biblical scholar and philosopher, thought so highly of the spiritual benefits that eunuchs accrue that he castrated himself.

Bruce Charlton said...

DR - sorry, I don't know anything about China.

Alex - it's funny, or ironic, how we are shocked by eunuchs (I certainly am) yet the modern ruling elite have in effect voluntarily turned themselves into eunuchs - partly feminized, docile, infertile.