We tend to assume that the struggle for civil rights is a modern invention and that, before the Enlightenment, the world was ruled by despotic kings and emperors. And yet, democracy as we know it was invented by the ancient Greeks. The idea that a state could be run by (some of) the people was a founding principle of the Roman Republic, and was not forgotten when Rome decided that it needed emperors. Romans could, and did, advocate for their civil rights. Even, it appears, the most marginalised among them: figures like Flavius Earinus.
Born in Greece, Earinius was apparently so comely as a boy that he was castrated and sent to Rome to be the cupbearer of the Emperor Domitian. 1 The exact nature of their relationship is not clear, though a sexual element would have been by no means unusual. The Romans, like the Greeks, thought little of using boys for sex. Unlike the Greeks, they tended not to see pederasty as a mentoring relationship, an essential part of the growing boy’s education, but rather as a matter of sexual dominance. A Roman who had a favourite boy might not want him to grow into a man, and a simple way to stop him doing that was to have him castrated.
Despite this unequal power relationship, the Emperor Domitian became very fond of his young slave and granted the boy his freedom while he was still a teenager. What Earinus did next is extraordinary. He made a public show of cutting his hair. His friend the Emperor ordered the court poets, Martial and Statius, to write verse commemorating this act.
In Rome cutting your hair was a coming of age ritual for boys. By making this public statement Earinus was saying very clearly, “I am a man!”, despite having been made a eunuch.
This statement of identity was important as the Empire contained many eunuchs of different types whose gender and social status were seen in different ways. Some were foreigners captured in war and castrated before being sold as slaves in the hope of guaranteeing their docility. Some may have been entertainers, similar to castrati opera singers. We have evidence from Ptolemaic Egypt of ‘kinaidos’ (a Greek word meaning ‘one who wiggles his hips’) being employed as musicians. 2 And then there were the Galli, devotees of the goddess Cybele who underwent ritual castration and lived as women for the rest of their lives, much as hijra do in India today.
But, even more interestingly. It seems that Earinius may have been something of an early civil rights activist because, between his arrival in Rome and being granted his freedom, Domitian made the castration of children illegal.
The Emperor’s reasons for doing this are unclear. The usual theory is that the prudish Domitian was trying to establish himself as a more moral ruler than his unpopular elder brother, Titus, and his greedy father, Vespasian. 3 But given his willingness to grant boons to Earinus, it is by no means inconceivable that the Emperor was persuaded to his course of action by eloquent pleas from the young slave.
Having achieved his manhood, Earinus slips from the pages of history, but the legal fight against child castration continued. The Emperor Nerva expanded the legislation by making it illegal to knowingly sell a boy to a slave trader who practised castration. Later Hadrian banned all castration, even if the subject was willing.
Why this happened was a mystery to me until I happened to talk to the anti-FGM campaigner, Nimco Ali. She explained to me how families would get around laws against Female Genital Mutilation by hiring other people to perform the operation, or by claiming that their daughter had submitted willingly to being cut. As such, additional legislation was necessary to close the loopholes. It seems to me that something similar was happening in Rome. Child eunuchs were valuable goods, and traders would use every trick available to get around the laws.
You may be wondering what happened to the Galli. Had Hadrian banned young Romans who wished to live as women from having surgery? It seems not. A letter from Justin Martyr, an early Christian, to Hadrian’s successor, Antonius Pius, reveals that you could buy a castration licence. 4 The wily Hadrian had not, after all, completely banned castration, but rather was taxing it. Ordinary people might fight for rights, but governments throughout history have never been averse to making money from them.
Cheryl Morgan is a writer, publisher and broadcaster. She is co-chair of OutStories Bristol, an LGBT local history organisation. She has delivered papers on many aspects of trans history and trans characters in literature, and is a regular speaker at LGBT History Month events. You can find Cheryl on Twitter @CherylMorgan.
This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.
Header image: Bust of a Roman emperor, thought to be Emperor Domitian [Via Wikicommons].
- In mythology Zeus (or Jupiter as Romans called him) seduced many women, but also a pretty boy called Ganymede whom he whisked off to Olympus to be his cup bearer. Any ambitious Roman, seeking to be like the King of the Gods in all ways, would want a cupbearer too. ↩
- The Latin form is Cinaedus. See T, Sapsford, ‘The Wages of Effeminacy? Kinaidoi in Greek Documentary Sources from Egypt’, EuGeStA, 5 (2015), pp. 103-23. ↩
- Vespasian was a fascinating man. He had a successful military career, including the conquest of south-west Britain, and had brought order to Rome after the chaos of Nero’s reign and the subsequent Year of the Four Emperors. But he was always short of money, and was said to be very tight-fisted.
One story told of Vespasian was that he became a mule trader. This sounds unlikely. It is hardly a fitting career, and in any case not the sort of trade that an emperor would have any advantage following. However, careful reading of Latin texts suggests that the “mules” he sold were not equine, but human. Eunuch slaves were a luxury good, and just the sort of thing an emperor might profitably sell. ↩
- Walter Stevenson, ‘The Rise of Eunuchs in Greco-Roman Antiquity’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 5.4 (Apr., 1995), pp. 495-511. ↩