“The Foreigners Value Eunuchs More Than Perfect Men”: Gender Alterity and Its Political, Social, and Religious Implications in Achaemenid Court Culture

Recorded: April 14, 2023
Event: Achaemenid Workshop 1
Citation: Howley, Charlotte. “The Foreigners Value Eunuchs More Than Perfect Men”: Gender Alterity and Its Political, Social, and Religious Implications in Achaemenid Court Culture." Pourdavoud Center: Achaemenid Workshop 1 (April 14, 2023).

by Charlotte Howley (University of California, Los Angeles)

Eunuchs, (Greek εὐνοῦχοι) are a central feature in Classical depictions of the Achaemenid court. They control access to the royal family and guard royal children in Herodotos (3.77; 130; 8.104) both make and plot to unseat kings in Ktesias (Persika F15.50, 54); lead armies and poison kings at will in Diodoros (16.47.3-4; 49.4; 50.1-6; 8; 16.50.8; 17.5.3-6); and have relations with kings in Aelian (Varia Historia 12.1) and Curtius (6.5.22–23; 6.6.8; 10.1.25; 27; 37). However, detailed discussions of these seemingly-ubiquitous figures in modern scholarship have been limited. The different terms postulated as referring to them in various source traditions (ša rēši šarri, vaçabara, ustarbaru, lipte kuktira, sārīs) do not always seem to match up, and the identification of any of them with the modern conception of eunuchs as male castrates is difficult to prove. Moreover, associations between eunuchs and orientalist conceptions of the “Harem” have led most debates to revolve around their existence, rather than the political, social, or religious roles. However, I contend that comparison between the Classical and Near Eastern sources, and especially Ilan Peled’s work on “third gender” categories in the ancient Near East, indicates that Achaemenid εὐνοῦχοι operated as a kind of “ultimate other” within the court. Their inter-sexed bodies informed a liminal gender identity, allowing them to serve the King of Kings in a variety of roles, whilst in no way threatening his hegemonically-masculine power, and in fact serving to reinforce the strict gender separation and hierarchy which characterized the Achaemenid court.

About the Speaker

Charlotte Howley is a first year PhD student in the Iranian Studies program at UCLA. She completed her BA in Literae Humaniores at the University of Oxford, where she first gained an interest in Achaemenid Persia, writing an Optional Thesis on the Elephantine papyri, and learning both Old Persian and Imperial Aramaic over Zoom alongside her studies. She then completed an MSt in Oriental Studies, also at Oxford, co- supervised by Professors Peter Thonemann and Yuhan Vevaina, where she continued with Aramaic and learned both Young and Old Avestan. Her interests center on gender, sexuality, and religion at the Achaemenid court, links between Mesopotamian and Achaemenid religious and courtly traditions, and the religious and social roles of eunuchs in Achaemenid courtly culture. She is eager to develop her knowledge of the broader pre-Islamic Iranian world at UCLA and improve her knowledge of Middle Iranian languages, along with her understanding of Mesopotamia and the ancient Near East.