The role of the eunuch in the Achaemenid Persian court (c. 550-330) has long been highlighted, such that it is a mainstay of the stereotypical portrayal of the effeminate Orient. This mainstay finds its predecessors in the eunuch of Assyrian and Babylonian times – the ša rēši (literally “of the head,” an attendant or official) – or so it has seemed. The traditional translation “eunuch” for this Akkadian term ša rēši has been questioned for some time. That term continued in use in Babylonian documents of the Achaemenid period, where its translation and interpretation also remain at issue. Combined with evident confusion in classical sources in the application (and understanding) of the terms “eunuch,” the entire question of eunuchs in Near Eastern palace staff must be revisited: How may they be identified? What was their status? And what role(s) did they actually play? (See Jursa 2011 and Pirngruber 2011 for recent discussions, with references.)
In the specific case of Ctesias’ Persica, such concerns lead to a series of overlapping questions that are of focus here: Did the multitude of eunuchs seemingly present at the Persian court hold the level of influence implied by Ctesias (or by his transmitters)? Were these various high officials misidentified as such? In conjunction with, and as an extension of, these questions, the presentation explores Ctesias’ eunuchs in their literary context. They simultaneously represent extremes (e.g., unwavering loyalty or base treachery) just as they occupy liminal space (e.g., between male and female, life and death). Examination of Ctesais’ eunuchs confirms their manifestation as literary topoi but in sometimes unexpected ways.
Jursa, M. (2011), “<<Höflinge>> (ša rēši, ša rēš šarru, ustarbaru) in babylonischen Quellen der ersten Jahrtausends,” in Ktesias’ Welt/Ctesias’ World, ed. J. Wiesehöfer, R. Rollinger, and G. Lanfranchi (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag), pp. 159-174
Pirngruber, R. (2011), “Eunuchen am Königshof. Ktesias und die altorientalische Evidenz,” in Ktesias’ Welt/Ctesias’ World, ed. J. Wiesehöfer, R. Rollinger, and G. Lanfranchi(Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag), pp. 279-312