Sunday, November 9, 2014

The character of Zeno of Tmutorokan in 'Memoirs of a Byzantine Eunuch' (with spoilers)

Christopher Harris’s work of historical fiction, Memoirs of a Byzantine Eunuch, is told from the viewpoint of the fictional eunuch Zeno, originally the son of Roman citizens living in Tmutorokan, northeast of Constantinople across the Black Sea, near the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria. Captured and castrated, he becomes a slave in Constantinople, and has the dubious honor of keeping close company with Emperor Michael III and the church patriarch. The novel provides rare insight into what it may have felt like to be a eunuch slave at this time.


In the year 837 C.E., as a seven-year-old boy, Zeno is captured by "Rus giants" – that is, Vikings. He is thrown in a sack over the back of a Rus man named Inger. As the Rus are sacrificing other unfortunate people, Zeno fears he'll be eaten, but instead he is made drunk on wine, his scrotum is tied off with a cord, he is castrated with a dagger and his testicles are thrown on the fire.

Eventually, the Norse-speaking Rus stop in a tavern on the Golden Horn, north of Constantinople, where they need Zeno to translate the Byzantine Greek language for them. He happens to hide under the skirt of the widow who ran the tavern. She protects him and orders out the Rus.

Inger stays behind at the tavern with his eunuch slave child and formally converts to Christianity to marry the widow. As Inger is often in a drunken slumber, the widow teaches Zeno to please her in bed. Zeno also helps to rear their daughter Eudocia.

When Zeno is fifteen, a scholar visiting the tavern is intrigued by his knowledge of the Rus. He brings Zeno to another scholar, Photius – a lifelong celibate who wears itchy underwear to bed – who sniffs that eunuchs are "nasty, hybrid, androgynous creatures, neither one thing nor the other. They violate logical categories, and break the laws of generation. A eunuch is an affront to nature, and to its Creator."

The pair nevertheless buy Zeno for ten gold pieces and attempt to make him a scholar, too. Zeno already knows how to read and write, and has the intellectual capacity but not the drive for book-learning, preferring to seek knowledge out in the world.

His luck begins to change in 847 when Bardas, the brother of the regent Theodora, visits the scholars. Bardas is upset that a eunuch, Ignatius, has just been made patriarch. Eunuchs, he observes, "always support their own kind." Photius avers, "I think removing their balls must remove their consciences."

Because he is feuding with eunuchs, Bardas acknowledges curiosity about whether they are more like men or women, and he uses Zeno as a test case. Zeno is brought to a man who hooks him up to improvised machines meant to measure tumescence while he watches prostitutes perform for days on end. The researcher finally declares that Zeno is definitely incapable of arousal yet has a male soul. Zeno recalls thinking, exhausted: "So I had a soul, and was male. That was something."

Zeno believes he has demonstrated that eunuchs are neither men nor women. His sense of otherness is compounded by his detachment from the social identity that other eunuchs seem to share as a collective. "I am not one of those gross swollen eunuchs, like Cyril, or one of the dried-up, wizened ones like Ignatius," he ruminates.

Of the painted eunuchs who cavort before the emperor, he says, "Those debased creatures had lost more than their balls. They had lost their self-respect." While Photius continues to stereotype eunuchs as "bitter at heart" and Bardas insists they are "a waste of money," Zeno proves to himself, at least, that they are wrong. Perhaps many eunuchs are like that, but Zeno knows he is different.

In his more melancholy moments, Zeno says things like: "Perhaps all eunuchs are the same. We lose our autonomy when we lose our balls. And that is not to be wondered at. Some ancient philosophers have defined life in a way that excludes eunuchs." He means this in the sense that some definitions of life included the ability to reproduce. One eunuch "had hinted as much when he compared eunuchs to bees. We work for others, not ourselves, with no hope of passing on any advantage we win."

Zeno also seems to resent his employment with Christian scholars who are fascinated by heresies. "Heresies are all the same to me," he yawns in private. He thinks religion, like food, can be used to excess. Secretly he believes that polytheism is the more likely explanation of "life's uncertainties and reverses."

In 854, Bardas sought to toughen up his sister's son, the fifteen-year-old Emperor Michael III. Zeno recommends the tavern where he grew up, chiefly so he can see his long-lost Eudocia whom he always thought of as a sister, a girl who "had not cared that I was a slave and a eunuch, had not even understood that I was inferior."

She is now fifteen and Zeno is surprised to find himself attracted to her, especially given that the researcher had "proved me sexless." The young emperor Michael also takes a fancy to Eudocia and Zeno has no choice but to facilitate their trysts. With Bardas's consent, Eudocia is set up in the palace where she lives in luxury but is confined to her quarters and must await Michael's pleasure.

Michael marries a different woman and discovers he prefers sex with men, particularly with the athlete Basil. He forces Basil to marry Eudocia so that he may more easily continue his affairs with both of them. Eudocia bears a son. (Although it is never clear who the father is, this child is the future Emperor Leo.) Michael eventually abandons Basil and takes a new primary male lover.

Meanwhile, Bardas kills the eunuch Theoctistus and deposes the skinny, tottering, lizardlike patriarch Ignatius, thought by all the characters to be ignorant, replacing him with Photius. This means that Zeno is now the servant of the leader of the Church.

Bardas subsequently has a nightmare of being harangued by saintly eunuchs in court robes – "Do you think I'd dream about naked eunuchs?" he asks indignantly – ringed with golden halos and carrying Christian ritual items. Although he calls them "horrible" and "unnatural," one of them is identified as Saint Peter by a dream interpreter.

The dream portends bad news, and indeed Bardas is soon slain by Basil who parades his genitals on a spear. "In death, Bardas became what he most despised, a eunuch," Zeno acknowledges, further reflecting that "I had no reason to think he liked me any more than the others of my kind."

As Zeno remains one of the closest associates of the Emperor Michael, he must suffer through the emperor's worsening debauchery. One of Michael's favorite party games is to stage mockeries of heretical Paulician Christian masses with sexual and scatological elements.

At the apex of the madness, Zeno unwittingly accompanies the emperor as he breaks into a church, orders his lover to axe-murder the elderly caretaker, and then uses the church's relic – the penis of Christ – in a sex game, for which Zeno is ordered to deliver an invocation. When Zeno seems surprised at the relic's existence, Michael sneers, "Did you imagine that He was a eunuch, like you?"

Zeno's dinners with other eunuchs are not much more pleasant, as the eunuch Cyril (whose body Zeno compares to "a heap of wet, slithering tripe") hosts an after-dinner orgy at which Zeno feels raped. Later, when Cyril tries to enlist Zeno to defend the palace eunuchs, he protests, "I am not one of your kind." Cyril's response is to threaten Zeno with being confined to a dungeon with circus freaks and people who have had their tongues cut out.

In Zeno's version of history, he plays an important role in the imperial succession. Basil slays Michael and takes the throne; he exiles Photius to a monastery for a time, but eventually reinstalls him as the patriarch. Zeno poisons Emperor Basil's son, and soon after, Basil himself is slain, clearing the way for Eudocia's son to be crowned as Leo VI.

Author Christopher Harris writes in his "Historical Note" that "the leading figures in this Golden Age were Bardas and Photius." The emperors in the story were also based on the real Byzantine emperors. The eunuch characters, meanwhile, are clearly the result of research into the way that castrated men were actually spoken about in antiquity.

Originally posted Nov. 2, 2011 to Helium Network.

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