Earinus, Emperor Domitian, and laws against castration

Jupiter as eagle abducts Ganymede

Earinus, a beautiful young boy, was sent from his native land of Pergamum to be a slave in the court of the Emperor Domitian in first-century Rome. Emperor Domitian enjoyed having sex with his slave-boy Earinus. Earinus was castrated so that his boyish attractiveness wouldn’t be changed by the onset of puberty.[1] The violence against the boy Earinus is a horror that nearly approaches that of crucifying an innocent adult man. Did the sexual abuse and castration of Earinus have any salvific value relative to historically pervasive castration culture?

History is replete with horrible violence against boys and men. Homer’s Iliad, the most influential work of ancient Greek literature other than the Christian New Testament, depicts epic slaughter of men in war, that is, socially institutionalized violence against men. In medieval Europe, despite the risks to women in childbirth, elite men’s life expectancy was about nine years less than the life expectancy for elite women. Today in the U.S., about four times more men than women suffer death through physical violence. Violence against men frequently targets men’s genitals, and men are about as likely to suffer sexual assault as women are. Social devaluation of masculinity is a seminal issue. Castration culture makes clear social contempt for males as a gender.

Violence against boys and men can be lessened. About a decade after Earinus was castrated, Emperor Domitian issued an edict against castrating boys. Both the Roman court poets Statius and Martial tell of Earinus being given to Domitian, Earinus’s castration, and Domitian’s edict against castration. But the way that both Statius and Martial contextualize Domitian’s edict against castration shows the social difficulty in recognizing castration culture as a grave moral wrong.

Fawningly praising Domitian, Statius offered no critical perspective on violence against boys and castration culture. Statius hailed Pergamum for delivering Earinus as a slave-boy to Domitian:

Pergamum, much more fortunate than pine-clad Ida,
though Ida allows herself to be pleased on a cloud of holy rape —
for surely she gave the high ones him {Ganymede} upon whom always
troubled Juno looks, recoiling from his hand, refusing the nectar.
But you have the gods’ favor by your beautiful nursling {Earinus}.
You sent to Italy a minister {Earinus} whom with kindly brow
Ausonian Jupiter {Domitian} and Roman Juno {Domitian’s wife} alike
view and both approve. Not without the will
of the gods is the lord of earth {Domitian} so well pleased.

{ Pergame, pinifera multum felicior Ida,
illa licet sacrae placeat sibi nube rapinae
(nempe dedit superis illum quem turbida semper
Iuno videt refugitque manum nectarque recusat),
at tu grata deis pulchroque insignis alumno
misisti Latio placida quem fronte ministrum
Iuppiter Ausonius pariter Romanaque Iuno
aspiciunt et uterque probant, nec tanta potenti
terrarum domino divum sine mente voluptas. } [1]

The god Jupiter forcefully abducted the beautiful boy prince Ganymede from Mt. Ida to be his cup-bearer and to have sex with him. Jupiter’s wife Juno was jealous of Jupiter’s affection for Ganymede. Domitian’s wife Domitia Longina evidently wasn’t jealous of Domitian’s slave-boy Earinus. Perhaps she was satisfied merely to live in the royal palace in a sexless marriage. According to Statius, the will of the gods is that Domitian, the lord of the earth, have the beautiful slave-boy Earinus.

Statius depicted the delivery of Earinus to Domitian and the castration of Earinus as acts of gods. The goddess Venus saw the boy Earinus playing before the altar of the god Aesculapius in Pergamum:

She sees that boy, a shining star of peerless beauty,
as he plays before the very god’s altar.
… “I
shall give this beauty the lord it deserves. Come now with me,
come, boy! I shall lead you through the stars in my winged chariot,
you a great gift to the leader. No common commands shall await you:
you should be a servant to honor in the Palace. Nothing, I myself
confess, nothing so sweet in all the world
have I seen or birthed. …
You, boy, are beyond them all; more beautiful is only he
to whom you shall be given.”

{ hic puerum egregiae praeclarum sidere formae
ipsius ante dei ludentem conspicit aras.
… ego isti
quem meruit formae dominum dabo. vade age mecum,
vade, puer. ducam volucri per sidera curru
donum immane duci, nec te plebeia manebunt
iura: Palatino famulus deberis honori. nil ego,
nil, fateor, toto tam dulce sub orbe
aut vidi aut genui. …
tu, puer, ante omnes; solus formosior ille
cui daberis. }

According to Statius, the Emperor Domitian as an adult was more beautiful than Earinus, castrated to prevent his beauty from fading through puberty. According to Statius, the physician-god Aesculapius himself gently castrated Earinus:

O you, under a lucky star
brought forth, the gods have favored you with much kindness.
Once, lest the first downy hair mar your shining cheeks
and darken the joy of your beautiful form,
your fatherland’s god himself abandoned lofty Pergamum to cross the sea.
Scarcely any could be entrusted to soften the boy,
but with silent skill the son of Phoebus {Aesculapius}
gently, with scarcely any shock of a wound, commanded
the body to pass beyond its sex. Yet anxious concerns
bite at Venus, fearing that the boy is feeling pains.
Not yet had the leader’s beautiful mildness begun
to keep males intact from birth; now to break a male’s sex
and change a person is forbidden. Nature rejoiced that only
those it created it sees. No longer under evil law
do servant-mothers fear the burden of birthing sons.

{ o sidere dextro
edite, multa tibi divum indulgentia favit.
olim etiam, ne prima genas lanugo nitentes
carperet et pulchrae fuscaret gaudia formae,
ipse deus patriae celsam trans aequora liquit
Pergamon. haud ulli puerum mollire potestas
credita, sed tacita iuvenis Phoebeius arte
leniter haud ullo concussum vulnere corpus
de sexu transire iubet. tamen anxia curis
mordetur puerique timet Cytherea dolores.
nondum pulchra ducis clementia coeperat ortu
intactos servare mares; nunc frangere sexum
atque hominem mutare nefas, gavisaque solos
quos genuit Natura videt, nec lege sinistra
ferre timent famulae natorum pondera matres. }

Even with the physician-god Aesculapius castrating Earinus, the love-goddess Venus fears that Earinus would suffer pains. Statius follows her sensible fear with praise for Domitian’s “beautiful mildness {pulchra clementia}” in forbidding the castration of male infants. Domitian’s mildness parallels Aesculapius’s gentleness in wielding the castrating instrument. Domitian with his beautiful mildness continues to have sex with his beautiful slave-boy Earinus. Such poetry, like today’s dominant claims about gender equality, induce vomiting in anyone with understanding.

Martial, another Roman court poet, only twice forcefully addressed castration culture, and in both instances he also flattered the Emperor Domitian. Martial wrote three epigrams playing technical poetic games with Earinus’s name. In three more epigrams, Martial celebrated Earinus dedicating to Aesculapius a lock of hair, a mirror, and a jeweled box. In one epigram, Martial dared to voice explicit male sexed protest:

As if it were too little an injustice to our sex
to have males prostituted for the people to defile,
the pimp also owned the cradle. Thus seized from mother’s breast,
the young boy wailed for his sordid pay.
Immature bodies were given unspeakable punishments.
Italy’s father {Domitian} did not support such horrors,
he who recently aided tender youths,
not allowing savage lust to make males sterile.
Boys, young men, and old men loved you
before, Caeser, and now infants too adore you.

{ Tamquam parva foret sexus iniuria nostri
foedandos populo prostituisse mares,
iam cunae lenonis erant, ut ab ubere raptus
sordida vagitu posceret aera puer.
immatura dabant infandas corpora poenas.
non tulit Ausonius talia monstra pater,
idem qui teneris nuper succurrit ephebis,
ne faceret steriles saeva libido viros.
dilexere prius pueri iuvenesque senesque,
at nunc infantes te quoque, Caesar, amant. } [3]

The hyperbole of the final couplet implicitly contrasts with Domitian’s continuing sexual love for castrated boys such as Earinus. In another epigram, Martial has the god Jupiter say to his boy-love Ganymede:

Our Caesar {Domitian} has a thousand ministers like you;
his vast palace can scarcely contain so many star-like boys.

{ Caesar habet noster similis tibi mille ministros
tantaque sidereos vix capit aula mares } [4]

In celebrating Domitian’s edict against castrating infant boys, Martial praised Domitian as “the world’s father, chaste prince {parens orbis, pudice princeps}.” Whatever merit Domitian had as the Roman Emperor, Domitian also had sex with many young boys, surely many of them like Earinus castrated to prolong Domitian’s pleasure with them.

Why did Domitian issue an edict against castrating infant boys? One speculation is that Domitian not only had sex with Earinus, but also loved and respected him. Earinus, from his place of royal favor and privilege, still recognized the horror done to him. Perhaps he understood that few other castrated infant boys could realistically hope for the royal favor and privilege that he had obtained. Earinus thus persuaded Domitian to ban castrating infant boys.[5] Rulers’ lovers, including slave girls, can have enormous influence on them. Yet this speculation requires Earinus to care generally about boys’ welfare. Right up to our day, very few women or men have shown compassionate concern for boys’ welfare. Unless Earinus loved as distinctively as Jesus Christ did, Earinus being castrated as a boy sex-slave probably didn’t save other infant boys from that horror.

Ugly self-interest more plausibly explains Domitian forbidding castration of infant boys. Writing in the second century, a Roman statesman and historian reported:

though he {Domitian} himself entertained a passion for a eunuch named Earinus, nevertheless, since {Roman Emperor} Titus also had shown a great fondness for eunuchs, in order to insult his memory, he forbade that any person in the Roman Empire should thereafter be castrated.

{ καίπερ καὶ αὐτὸς Ἐαρίνου τινὸς εὐνούχου ἐρῶν, ὅμως, ἐπειδὴ καὶ ὁ Τίτος ἰσχυρῶς περὶ τοὺς ἐκτομίας ἐσπουδάκει, ἀπηγόρευσεν ἐπὶ ἐκείνου ὕβρει μηδένα ἔτι ἐν τῇ τῶν Ῥωμαίων ἀρχῇ ἐκτέμνεσθαι. } [6]

The Roman Emperor Titus was Domitian’s brother. Perhaps hatred for his brother prompted Domitian to forbid castration. Roman emperors’ moral examples to their subjects probably also encouraged other elite Roman men to have boys castrated to serve them as sex slaves. Martial claimed that Roman cities favored Domitian’s edict against castration:

Cities offer thanks:
they have growing populations; to give birth is no longer wickedness.

{ gratias agunt urbes:
populos habebunt; parere iam scelus non est. } [7]

Martial suggests that giving birth to a male infant who would be castrated amounts to participating in wickedness. More abstractly, he suggests that having sexual intercourse of reproductive type in the context of castration culture is wickedness. Castrating males and encouraging sex of non-reproductive type tend to reduce cities’ populations. Obviously Martial is engaged in hyperbole. Yet societies historically have valued men instrumentally as workers and soldiers. Rulers’ interests in the welfare of their empires might well promote constraints on castration culture.

Domitian eventually freed his castrated slave-boy Earinus. No one knows why. Anyone awake surely recognizes that incredible lies and wickedness continue to exist among ordinary persons and elites. How can they be overcome? One can only strive to know the truth and try to act rightly. To exult that light has overcome the darkness, you must have faith.

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[1] For thorough study concerning Earinus’s life, Henriksén (1997).

[2] Statius, Silvae 3.4, “The Hair of Flavius Earinus {Capilli Flavi Earnini},” vv. 12-20, Latin text from Shackleton Bailey (2015), my English translation benefiting from that of id. Subsequent quotes from Statius are similarly sourced from Silvae 3.4.

Statius wrote Silvae 3.4 in 94 GC in response to Earinus’s request:

Earinus, our Germanicus’s free person, knows how many days I put off his request, when he asked me to dedicate in verse his hair, along with a jeweled box and mirror, that he was sending to Pergamene Asclepius.

{ Earinus praeterea, Germanici nostri libertus, scit quam diu desiderium eius moratus sim, cum petisset ut capillos suos, quos cum gemmata pyxide et speculo ad Pergamenum Asclepium mittebat, versibus dedicarem. }

Silvae 3, “Statius to his Pollius, Greeting {Statius Pollio suo salutem},” ll. 17-20. Statius most important work is his Achilleid, a work of men’s sexed protest. Achilleid and Silvae 3.4 are best read together. Russell (2014).

Perseus and the Latin Library have freely accessible Latin texts of Statius. Quinn (2002) provides English translations for Silvae 3.4 and relevant epigrams of Martial, along with a possessive note of symbolic capitalism. Mozley (1928) is a freely available source for all of Statius’s works, with English translation.

[3] Martial, Epigrams 9.7, Latin text from Shackleton Bailey (1993), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and the commentary of Henriksén (2012). Subsequent quotes from Martial are similarly sourced. Other evidence suggests that Domitian was a sexual hypocrite. Charles & Anagnostou-Laoutides (2010).

Martial’s three epigrams playing poetic games with Earinus’s name (which doesn’t fit Latin poetic meter) are 9.11, 9.12, and 9.13. For analysis of the metrical subtleties of 9.11, Morgan (2016). Martial’s three epigrams on the dedication of Earinus’s lock of hair are 9.16, 9.16, and 9.36.

Classical scholarship has shown little critical concern about castration culture. Horrendous injustices of castration culture seem merely to invoke academic preciousness:

The figure of Earinus compels us — and Martial — to acknowledge that there were eunuchs in Martial’s readership, and that they were subjects in their own right, even if ideologically overlooked ones, and that we can attempt to reconstruct perhaps not what Earinus himself thought or felt as reader of Book 9 of Martial’s epigrams, but at least what Martial as author may have imagined him to have thought or felt.

Larash (2013) p. 10. A recent classics dissertation trumpeted minor adaptations of academic gender platitudes: “How the Eunuch Works” and “eunuchs are good to think with.” Erlinger (2016), title and p. 246 (in conclusion). Stevenson (1995) formulates academic research questions about eunuchs’ success in rising to high official positions.

[4] Martial, Epigrams 9.36.9-10. For reference to Earinus as a star-like boy, Statius, Silvae 3.4.26. The subsequent short quote is 9.5.2-3 (the world’s father, chaste prince).

[5] The central idea of this speculation is from Morgan (2017). I’ve filled in details.

[6] Dio Cassius, Roman History {Ῥωμαϊκὴ Ἱστορία} 67.2.3, Greek text and English translation from Cary & Foster (1914) vol. 8. On Domitian’s edict in relation to Dio Cassius’s description of legislation (68.2.4: “no man shall be made a eunuch {εὐνουχίζεσθαί}”) of the subsequent emperor Nerva, Murison (2004) pp. 348-55.

[7] Martial, Epigrams 9.5.2-3. Martial’s concern about general public welfare is a traditional basis for moral and sumptuary laws. That appears to be the direction of argument in Lewis (nd).

[image] The rape of Ganymede. Painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Made in 1636. Preserved as accession # P001679 in the Museo del Prado (Madrid, Spain).


Cary, Earnest & Herbert B. Foster. 1914. Dio Cassius. Roman History. Loeb Classical Library 32. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Charles, Michael B., and Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides. 2010. “The Sexual Hypocrisy of Domitian: Suet., Dom. 8, 3.” L’Antiquité Classique. 79 (1): 173-187.

Erlinger, Christopher Michael. 2016. How the Eunuch Works: Eunuchs as a Narrative Device in Greek and Roman Literature. Ph.D. Thesis. Ohio State University.

Henriksén, Christer. 1997. “Earinus: An imperial eunuch in the light of the poems of Martial and Statius.” Mnemosyne. 50 (3): 281-294.

Henriksén, Christer. 2012. A Commentary on Martial, Epigrams, Book 9. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review by Bret Mulligan)

Larash, Patricia. 2013. “Reading for Earinus in Martial, Book 9.” Paper presented at APA Annual Meeting, Seattle, 6 January 2013. Online.

Lewis, Juan. nd. “‘Ne spadones fiant’: Domitian’s emasculation ban: effectiveness and purpose.” Draft under consideration at Classical Quarterly.

Morgan, Cheryl. 2017. “Earinus: A Roman Civil Rights Activist?History Matters: History brought alive by the University of Sheffield. Online.

Morgan, Llewelyn. 2016. “Sugar & spice & all things nice.Lugubelinus:the marginalia of an easily distracted Classicist. Online.

Mozley, John Henry. 1928. Statius: With an English translation. Vol. 1 (Silvae, Thebaid I-IV), Vol. 2 (Thebaid V-XII, Achilleid). London, N.Y.: William Heinemann, G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Murison, Charles Leslie. 2004. “Cassius Dio on Nervan Legislation (68.2.4): Nieces and Eunuchs.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte. 53 (3): 343-355.

Quinn, John T. 2002. “Earinus the Eunuch: Martial (from Book 9) and Statius (Silvae 3.4): translation and notes.” Diotíma. Online.

Russell, Craig M. 2014. “The Most Unkindest Cut: Gender, Genre, and Castration in Statius’ Achilleid and Silvae 3.4.” American Journal of Philology. 135 (1): 87-121.

Shackleton Bailey, D. R., ed. & trans. 1993. Martial. Epigrams, Volume II: Books 6-10. Loeb Classical Library 95. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shackleton Bailey, D. R., ed. & trans, rev. by Christopher A. Parrott. 2015. Statius. Silvae. Loeb Classical Library 206. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Stevenson, Walter. 1995. “The Rise of Eunuchs in Greco-Roman Antiquity.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. 5 (4): 495-511.