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The Eunuch

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history and significance of eunuchs, castrated men who played important roles in many civilisations.

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history and significance of eunuchs, castrated men who were a common feature of many civilisations for at least three thousand years. Eunuchs were typically employed as servants in royal households in the ancient Middle East, China and classical antiquity. In some civilisations they were used as administrators or senior military commanders, sometimes achieving high office. The tradition lingered until surprisingly recently, with castrated singers remaining a feature of Vatican choirs until the nineteenth century, while the last Chinese eunuch of the imperial court died in 1996.


Karen Radner
Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History at University College London

Shaun Tougher
Reader in Ancient History at Cardiff University

Michael Hoeckelmann
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at King's College London

Producer: Thomas Morris.

Available now

43 minutes

Last on

Thu 26 Feb 2015 21:30

Links and Further Reading

Reading list: 

Mary M. Anderson, Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China (Prometheus Books, 1990)

David Ayalon, Eunuchs, Caliphs and Sultans: A Study in Power Relationships (Magnes Press, 1999)

Patrick Barbier, The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon (Souvenir Press Ltd, 2010)

Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage (eds), Handbook of Medieval Sexuality (Routledge, 2000), especially chapter by M.S. Kuefler, ‘Castration and Eunuchism in the Middle Ages’

Laura Engelstein, Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale (Cornell University Press, 2003)

Zia Jaffrey, The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India (W&N, 1997)

Shaun Marmon, Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society (Oxford University Press, 1993)

Taisuke Mitamura (trans. by Charles A. Pomeroy), Chinese Eunuchs: The Structure of Intimate Politics (Tuttle Publishing, 1970)

Serena Nanda, Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India (Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc, 1998)

Kathryn M. Ringrose, The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium (University of Chicago Press, 2003)

Lynn E. Roller, In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (University of California Press, 1999)

Piotr O. Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History (Markus Wiener Publishers, 2014)

Shaun Tougher (ed.), Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond (Classical Press of Wales, 2002)

Shaun Tougher, The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society (Routledge, 2008)

Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, The Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty (State University of New York Press, 1995)

Caroline Vout, Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Useful websites:

Eunuchs – Wikipedia

Born Eunuchs Library



Role Contributor
Presenter Melvyn Bragg
Interviewed Guest Karen Radner
Interviewed Guest Shaun Tougher
Interviewed Guest Michael Hoeckelmann
Producer Thomas Morris


  • Thu 26 Feb 2015 09:00
  • Thu 26 Feb 2015 21:30

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