Eunuchs in the OT, Part 2
Castration in Ancient Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia

Key Passages: Est 1:10–12, 15; 2:3, 14–15, 21; 4:4–5; 6:2, 14; 7:9

By Bruce L. Gerig


General historical survey
Between 1500–1200 BC the Near East became an integrated international system stretching from western Iran to the Aegean Sea and from Anatolia (modern Turkey) southward to Egypt and Nubia.  Included were the great states of the Mycenaeans (in Greece and western Turkey), Hittites (Turkey), Mittanis (northwestern Mesopotamia), Assyrians (northeastern Mesopotamia), Kassites (Babylonia, or southern Mesopotamia), and Elamites (to the southeast), along with the Egyptians, Syrians and Israelites.  In an unusual way these states interacted but without any one of them dominating the others.
1  However, in the twelfth century there occurred such a degree of warfare, destruction and upheaval that this international system disappeared, although the exact changes that occurred during the period of 1100–900 are difficult to trace.  At the beginning of the first millennium, however, the Assyrians came increasingly into dominance,2 ushering in what is now called the Neo (New) Assyrian Empire (883–6093).  Ashurnasirpal II (883–859) marched southward, taking control of northern Babylonia, while holding the southern tribes in check.  His son, Shalmaneser III (858–824), then made the southern chiefs his vassals, and set out to expand the empire westward, taking Syria and Damascus by 841.4  It was then that Jehu (842–8145), the eleventh king of the northern kingdom of Israel,6 made an alliance with Shalmaneser, which the famous Black Obelisk (ca. 825 BC), which originally stood in Nineveh and now is exhibited in the British Museum, memorializes (see “Online photos of archaeological works: Black Obelisk,” at the end of this article).  Reliefs here show Jehu kneeling before the Assyrian king and bringing him gifts.7  Shamshi-Adad V (823–811) finally took Babylon in 813;8 and then later Tiglath-pilesar III (744–727) subdued the more southern tribes, declaring himself “king of Sumer and Akkad” as well as “king of Babylon.”9  However, when Ahaz (743–727), the twelfth king of the southern kingdom of Judah, appealed to Tiglath-pilesar for help against hostile neighbors, the Assyrian king overwhelmed the area of Syro-Palestine in three campaigns (734–732).  When the northern kingdom of Israel continued to be a troublesome vassal state, Shalmaneser V (726–722) came and laid siege to Samaria, its capital.10  Although the city held out for three years, the Assyrian king eventually took the city and led its leading citizens into exile, in 722 (2 Kings 17:1–6), although his successor, Sargon II (721–705), when Shalmaneser died suddenly, would claim credit for the victory in his court records.11  Then Sennacherib (704–681), the next Assyrian king, wanting to teach the southern kingdom of Judah a similar lesson, came and took the city of Lachish (thirty miles southwest of Jerusalem) in 701, taking its inhabitants into exile.  He also sent a delegation to Jerusalem to speak to Hezekiah (727–698), the thirteenth king of Judah, calling upon him to surrender the capital; but in answer to Hezekiah’s prayers, God miraculously intervened and the Assyrians (after many were killed one night by an angel) returned home (2 Kings 18:13–19:36).12  

By 640, Assyria at the height of its power controlled the ancient Near East from western Iran to Egypt, having eliminated all significant opposition.  Yet, thirty years later the great Assyrian empire was finished.  What happened exactly and how is not entirely clear, although Assyria lost control over Babylonia to the south; and in the political confusion that followed, a native dynasty arose under the former Assyrian official Nabopolassar (626–605).  The Babylonians, in alliance with the Medes (to the east), sacked the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612.  Then the Babylonians took control of the Assyrian territories in Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine, forming what is now called the Neo (New) Babylonian Empire (626–53913), while the Medes absorbed the northern lands.14  During Israel’s divided kingdom period (928–586), none of the twenty kings of the northern kingdom of Israel worshipped the true God; and of the twenty kings of the southern kingdom of Judah, some did but not many.15  So, it should not have come as a surprise that, following Assyria’s subjugation of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722, Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562) and his Babylonian army eventually came as God’s agent for punishment upon the southern kingdom of Judah, as well, making three major assaults on Jerusalem during 605–586.  On his first capture of the city in 605,16 Nebuchadnezzar made Jehoiakim (608–598) his puppet king over Judah (2 Kings 24:1a–b, Jer 25:1); and this is when Daniel, his friends, and other noble youths were carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon to serve in the king’s court (Dan 1:1–7).  The second attack occurred in 597, after Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylon, although when Jehoiakim died suddenly, his son Jehoiachin (597) was left to surrender Jerusalem into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand (2 Kings 24:1c–17).  The Babylonian king then took Jehoiachin into captivity, along with other leaders and princes, the cream of his army and the best of his craftsmen, and also some priests, including the young Ezekiel (Ezek 1:1–3).17  Then when Zedekiah (596–586), who was appointed to replace Jehioachin, also openly rebelled, Nebuchadnezzar’s third invasion brought a final, devastating siege, causing great famine and ending with the destruction of Jerusalem (586), the whole city set ablaze; and citizens who had not escaped to the hills were carried off to Babylon, except for the poor and unfit and the prophet Jeremiah, who were left behind (2 Kings 25:1–22, Jer 39:1–14). 

Then in the mid sixth century BC the Persians of southwestern Iran began to build an empire, conquering the Medes in 550, the Lydians in 547, and the Babylonians in 539.18  The resulting Achaemenid Persian Empire (559–330),19 designated by its royal family dynastic name, would eventually include the ancient Near East stretching from the Indus valley to northern Greece and from Central Asia to Egypt, and contain an even larger territory than had the earlier great empires.  It would last for over two hundred years before falling to Alexander the Great.20  Three Persian kings are of special importance in Biblical studies:  Cyrus (II) the Great (559530) issued a remarkable decree in 538 permitting Jews and other foreign, displaced persons who wished to return to their homelands to do so.  Israelite prophecies had foreseen this, Isaiah even calling Cyrus God’s “anointed” (Isa 44:24, 28; 45:16).21  Six decades later, Xerxes I (485465) selected the Jewish maiden Hadassah (renamed Esther, Est 2:7) to be his queen.  Xerxes is the Greek form of his Persian name Khshayarsha, which was carried over into Hebrew as ahashweros and then became “Ahasuerus” in English in the Book of Esther.22  The third important Persian king then is Artaxerxes I (464424), who succeeded Xerxes and who elevated Nehemiah, author of the book in the Bible which bears his name, to serve as his royal cupbearer (Neh 1). 

Jeremiah had prophesied that the Babylonian captivity would last seventy years (Jer 25:1112, 29:1011), and Cyrus’s amazing proclamation (Ezra 1:14) was probably shouted in the streets in principle towns throughout the Persian empire.  This decree was not issued when Cyrus first became king of Persia (559) nor the year when he ascended to the throne in Babylon (539), but during his first full year of reign in Babylon (538).  At that time, some fifty thousand Jews returned to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:6465).23  God told Zechariah that it would be “seventy years . . . until my house shall be [re]built” (Zech 1:12, 16, NIV), and this period may be calculated from the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 to the completion of its rebuilding in 520515 (Radmacher).24  William LaSor figures that the rebuilding of the Temple began in 537 (Ezra 3:8) but then, halted by adversaries, was resumed only in the second year of Darius I (520) to be finally completed in 516.25  The first group of Jews to return was led by Zerubbabel, who became the new governor of Judah, with Jeshua (Joshua) serving as high priest (Ezra 2:6465, 3:8).  Later Ezra the scribe led another group of returnees to Jerusalem, although chronology and dating in the books of EzraNehemiah are admittedly difficult.  Although such questions cannot be adequately dealt with here, the traditional view is that Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes I (Ezra 7:7), in 458, and that Nehemiah arrived in the king’s “twentieth year” (Neh 2:1), in 445 BC.26  Although Artaxerxes’ reign is generally dated as 464424, these periods are figured from his year of ascension to the Persian throne (465).  Also, the “twentieth year” mentioned in Neh 1:1 is probably only a general reference to Nehemiah’s going to Jerusalem; to be more exact, Nehemiah received the news about the city’s decrepit state in Kislev (NovemberDecember), the ninth month of 446, but he did not present his request to the king until Nisan (March–April), the first month of the new year, 445 BC.27

Eunuchs in the Neo-Assyrian Empire (883609)
The fourth century AD Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (14.6.17) attributed the origin of male castration to the legendary Assyrian queen Semiramis (or Sammuramat), who remained so influential during the reign of her son Adad-nirari III (810783) that official texts speak of them acting together,28 and she seems to have surrounded herself with eunuchs as servants and confidants, while also doing a brisk business in their sale.29  Yet, eunuchs go back much further in Mesopotamia.  Early visual images, dating from the fourth millennium BC, from Uruk30 and associated with Inanna (Ishtar), display three types of human figures: men, women, and what anthropologist Susan Pollock has called “genderless figures,” because they lack hair and genitals.31  A text dating from the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon (1792175032) says explicitly that the goddess of Uruk makes eunuchs, referring to Ishtar (her Assyrian and Babylonian name) or Inanna (her Sumerian name), the goddess of sexual love and fertility.  The Mesopotamian poem known as “Erra” (4.55) says more specifically, relating to the assinnu and kurgarru, that the goddess “changed them from men into women in order to show the people piety,” and the process here “may well have been castration” (Pope).33  While scholars debate whether the assinnu and kurgarru cult personnel who served Ishtar were homosexuals, transvestites, or hermaphrodites, being a eunuch at least would fit all of these categories (Taylor).34  The fact that the Code of Hammurabi refers to eunuchs and to castration as a form of punishment suggests that eunuchs were already by then a widespread phenomena and castration an ancient custom (Scholz).35  The earliest eunuchs known by name in Assyria are Usur-namkur-sharri and Libur-zanin-Ashshur, from the thirteenth century BC.  Interestingly, Karlheinz Deller believes that the practice of using eunuchs as court servants by the Assyrians probably derived from late Hittite culture (14001200), located in Asia Minor and extending down the Syrian coast,36 at which time eunuchs are abundantly mentioned in texts (Hawkins).37  In Hatti (the Hittite empire) the first task of the eunuch was to protect the king and his family and to report any information discovered on rebellious or other harmful actions that might be directed against the king.  Hittite eunuchs were also frequently sent out as envoys, although they did not serve as military leaders nor accompany the king to war, as later in Assyria.38  

In Assyria, eunuchs with such titles as rab sha reshi (“chief eunuch”), rab shaqe (“chief cupbearer”), or sukkallu (“second highest official in the empire”) held the highest recognized authority after the king; and they were often referred to as “the great ones.” 39  Originally valued as supervisory staff in the women’s quarters or harem (although the latter term derives from karām, a later Arabic word, meaning “unlawful”), these royal servants were soon aiding the king in many other roles, such as domestics, palace officials, statesmen, and generals40 (see “Online photos of archaeological works” displaying Assyrian eunuchs, at the end of this article).  Yet, during the reign of Shalmaneser III (858824) eunuchs became so powerful that nobles in the land rebelled against the crown; and this revolt was only fully suppressed by his successor, Shamshi-Adad V (823811).41  Later, during the reign of Sennacherib (704681), most of the king’s attendants who are shown on reliefs appear bearded, suggesting that he also may have felt that the eunuchs had become too powerful a group and so he relegated them to more menial tasks, instead of running his palace and administration.  Still, eunuchs had more than proved their usefulness; and so by the reign of Assurbanipal (668627), Sennacherib’s grandson, there were more eunuchs at court than ever.42  

Most information on eunuchs in the Neo-Assyrian Empire comes either from pictorial images (sculptured reliefs, painted frescoes, and inscribed seals) or textual references.43  The British Assyriologist Julian Reade writes that surviving Assyrian reliefs date primarily from the period of 900600, after Assyria became a great empire, and come from royal palaces built at Nimrud (by Ashurnasirpal II), at Khorsabad (by Sargon II), and then at Nineveh (by Sennacherib).44  Scenes from these palaces show royal courtiers who are both bearded and beardless, and Reade believes that the latter “should mostly be identified as eunuchs.”  Priests who shaved off all of their hair as a mark of their religious office can be easily identified separately by their tall, distinctive hats.45  In these scenes the bearded men and the eunuchs usually serve the king side by side (see Reade, Assyrian Sculpture, plates 41, 44, 61, 80), although sometimes only bearded men appear (plate 79) and at other times only eunuchs appear, especially where the king dines with the queen (plate 102).  Most kings probably felt it in their best interest to try to keep a balance of power in the empire between the landed aristocracy and the court eunuchs, although they also appreciated the fact that the latter generally served the king well as his “eyes and ears.”46  In Assyrian reliefs at the British Museum, royal eunuch servants are shown, e.g., carrying the king’s bow and arrows and spear (plates 41, 84 lower register), holding a sun parasol over this head (plates 44, 62, 98), waving a fly-wisk (or large fan) to keep away insects (plates 62, 69, 84, 102), and carrying his folded napkin (plates 62, 101).  Eunuchs accompany the king on his royal lion hunt, helping him kill lions from his chariot (plate 80) and from horseback (plate 84 middle register); and then they are shown holding the reins of the royal horses and helping move the dead lions to the palace (plates 89, 90).  Eunuchs are also depicted here as musicians, with lyres and harps (plates 84 lower register, 102), and as scribes and artists, writing down dictation, recording war booty, and drawing war scenes on clay tablets for later use by relief carvers back at the palace (plates 45, 61, and cf. page 34).  The fact that some eunuchs are shown both waving fly-wisks and carrying folded napkins (plate 73) suggests perhaps some flexibility with regards to the performance of various tasks.  However, one of the most important royal eunuch positions controlled access to the king;47 and eunuchs are shown in some scenes leading or directing visitors into the royal presence (plates 40, 95).48  Also, apart from the privileged court life, other eunuch captives may have been forced to perform hard labor, since beardless males are depicted in several scenes carrying saws, picks, and shovels in the transport of a colossal human-headed, winged bull from a quarry at Nineveh (plates 15, 52).  All of the beardless servants in reliefs appear to be adult (and look very much alike), except in a few isolated cases where, e.g., where one shorter male (by a foot) without a beard carries the king’s bow and arrows, probably a prepubescent youth (plate 87).         

So from the beginning of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, eunuchs came to dominate civil service.  Eunuchs were appointed as governors of major provinces, positions which some of them held continuously for as long as thirty years (Reade).49  At court, eunuchs served as the king’s personal attendants, cooks, bakers, cupbearers, confectioners (makers of sweets), drivers (rein-holders for the royal chariot), palace guards, and doorkeepers.  Other eunuchs were guardians of the royal tombs.  The royal bodyguard which accompanied the king on his travels and campaigns was made up primarily of eunuchs.  Many eunuchs served as army officers, the “chief eunuch” sometimes even replacing the king as supreme military commander on long and dangerous campaigns.  Eunuchs were also sent as foreign envoys, they directed the deportation of whole populations, and many served as scribes and clerks (Deller).50  Henry Saggs notes that although the kings also employed bearded men, e.g., as scholars, architects, and horse-trainers, they became more and more dependent upon eunuchs.  Only one official, the castrated superintendent of the palace, had permanent direct access to the Assyrian king.  Since the king was viewed as semi-divine, even the crown prince could not come into his presence unless the astrological signs were favorable.51  Middle Assyrian so-called ‘harem edicts’ from the reign of Tiglath-pilesar III (744727), known from copies from the fourteenth–eleventh centuries,52 show that harem service was strictly regulated and that even a eunuch could not enter the harem without permission.53  If a palace servant in the harem listened to women quarreling (or even singing), he could be severely beaten and have one of his ears cut off.  If a palace woman called out to a courtier while she was undressed and he glanced over at her, he was to be severely beaten; and in no circumstance was a courtier to come closer than seven paces to a royal woman in the harem.  Any illicit meeting meant death for both of them.  Yet, life in the harem could be tedious and tense for a brood of women shut up together; and the edicts describe them as fighting and cursing each other.54         

That the “chief of the eunuchs” (rab sha reshi) sometimes led the Assyrian army on campaigns is illustrated with Shamshi-Adad V (823811) who sent Mutarris-Ashur the “chief eunuch” on his second campaign because the latter was “clever and experienced in battle, and a sensible man.”55  George Contenau published a pay list for royal officials from the reign of Sargon II (721705), or later, which shows that, by the amount of money paid, the most important persons in the king’s service were the Commander-in-Chief (six minas of silver), Chief Minister (six minas of silver), Palace Chamberlain (five minas of silver), and Cupbearer-in-Chief (four minas of silver).  Below these officers on the pay scale came the Chief Judge, Junior Minister, Palace Inspector, and other royal officials.  Although it is impossible to say exactly how much a mina was worth then, it might not have been much, perhaps around a pound of silver, or a little over a week’s wages; of course, the pay period is not indicated here, and perhaps this was considered an extra gratuity given on top of all of the regular provisions which the royal servants enjoyed.  However, it is not surprising in a warlike state like Assyria that the commander-in-chief would be the most highly-valued officer, since military campaigns provided the main source of revenue.56  

Castration in Assyria was almost certainly done by crushing the testicles of boys shortly before they reached puberty, which while cruel was less risky and painful than completely cutting off the testicles.  The Assyrian word marruru (“to castrate”) is thought to relate to maraqu (“to crush”) and to marasu (“to squash”).57  Most of these boys were probably foreign captives or tribute presents that had been sent to the king (as would also be the case in Achaemenid Persia).58  However, Kirk Grayson also believes that a high proportion of eunuchs who became the highest officials in Assyria very probably came from Assyrian families, who would have one of their younger boys castrated so that he could enter royal service and thus benefit the family financially and in other ways.  Eunuchs were not necessarily looked upon as effeminate or weak, and some of them went on to become distinguished generals.59  

Eunuchs in the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626539)
Eventually the Babylonians wrested control of the Assyrian territories in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine (while the Medes took control over the lands to the north), and so was ushered in the Neo-Babylonian Empire.60  The Babylonian dynasty of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar II is often called “Chaldean” (note Dan 1:4, 2:2; Jer 32:28, 35:11, 51:7; Ezek 1:3), although evidence outside of the Bible for a Chaldean origin is still lacking.61  Being a much shorter period of time (87 years) than the Neo-Assyrian Empire (274 years) and for other reasons (e.g., a greater destruction of architectural remains and literary records in Babylon than in the Assyrian royal cities), there is little direct surviving evidence that sheds light on the use of eunuchs specifically during the Neo-Babylonian period.  However, the Babylonians and Assyrians spoke the same language (Akkadian, although in different dialects62) and a common culture passed between them.63  Also, since we know that eunuchs were used abundantly by Assyrian kings and likewise by later Persian kings (559–330), there is no reason to doubt that Neo-Babylonian rulers were any different in this respect.  Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones writes that the tradition of using eunuchs as highly-trained and important officers in royal service certainly was passed on from the Assyrians to the Babylonians and then to the Persians.64  Grayson notes, as well, that “one might expect this [the use of royal eunuch court servants] to be the case since, among other things, the harem was an important part of Babylonian culture.”65  Yet also the Bible relates how, when Nebuchadnezzar first captured Jerusalem in 605, Ashpenaz his rab-saris (REB: “chief eunuch”) had charge of selecting well-bred, handsome youths among the Israelite captives to be taken to Babylon to be made into court servants; and then he oversaw their care, renaming, supervision and training (Dan 1).  When Nebuchadnezzar returned again (587) and Jerusalem was totally destroyed the following year, the Babylonian king was again accompanied by his “Rab-saris,” or chief eunuch (Jer 39:3, 13, NRSV), although this individual’s personal name and specific duties are not given here.66  Of course, the use of eunuchs in royal service is well attested (documented) in the Persian Empire, still to come, where the Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BC) reported that prisoners of war, especially “boys of unusual beauty,” were often castrated and sold to the “barbarians” (Persians), who considered them more trustworthy than other males (Persian Wars 8.105).67  Yet, it was the view of the Greek historian Hellanicus of Lesbos (fifth century BC) that the Persians learned castration from the Babylonians.68 

Eunuchs in the Achaemenid Persian Empire (559330) and the Book of Esther      
An interest in the widespread use of eunuchs appears right at the beginning of the Achaemenid Empire, revealed in a long passage that the Greek historian Xenophon (c. 435c. 354) wrote about Cyrus (II) the Great (559530).  This is worth quoting in full, in a translation by Wayne Ambler (2001):  “(59) Recognizing that human beings are nowhere more easily overcome than when eating, drinking, washing, in bed, or asleep [kings being most vulnerable to harm in their private moments], he [Cyrus] considered who would be most trustworthy to have about him at these times.  He believed that there could never be a trustworthy human being who was more friendly to someone else than to the one in need of the guard.  (60) So he recognized that those who had children, or wives well suited to them, or boyfriends, were compelled by nature to love especially these.  Seeing that eunuchs [however] were deprived of these ties, he held that they would most value those who were especially able to enrich them; to help them, if they should be treated unjustly; and to bedeck them with honors.  He held that no one would be able to surpass him in doing good to eunuchs.  (61) Besides these points, since eunuchs are deemed disreputable by other human beings, they therefore need a master as a protector, for there is no man who would not think he deserved to have more than a eunuch in everything, unless something stronger should prevent it.  But if he is trustworthy to a master, there is nothing to prevent even a eunuch from having the first position.  (62) One might especially think that eunuchs would lose their strength, but this did not appear to him [Cyrus] to be so.  From other animals he took it as evidence that unruly horses when castrated cease biting and being unruly, but they become no less warlike; and bulls when castrated give up their big thoughts and disobedience, but they are not deprived of their strength and energy; and dogs, similarly, cease to abandon their masters when they are castrated, but they become no worse at guarding and for the hunt.  (63) And human beings become similarly more gentle when deprived of this desire, but they do not, however, become more neglectful of what is assigned to them, nor at all less skilled as riders, nor at all less skilled as spearmen, nor less ambitious.  (64) It showed quite clearly in wars and on the hunt that they safely retained the love of victory in their souls.  It is especially on the ruin of their masters that they have given evidence of their being faithful, for none have shown more faithful deeds amidst the misfortunes of their masters than have eunuchs.  (65) If, then, they seem to be diminished somewhat in bodily strength, iron makes the weak equal to the strong in war.  So realizing these things he [Cyrus] made all those who served near his own person, beginning with the doormen, eunuchs” (Xenophon, Education of Cyrus [Cyropaedia] 7.5.5965).  In short, Cyrus believed that because eunuchs were despised by others and they lacked the normal family ties, they needed and would loyally serve a master who offered them protection, position, and possessions.  Therefore, he appointed eunuchs to every position close to him at the Persian court.  

However, eunuchs with the power that they sometimes came to possess could still become involved in violent plots and acts.  Herodotus described how Hermotimus was taken as a prisoner of war and then sold to Panionius, from the isle of Chios (off the western coast of Asia Minor, now Turkey), who trafficked in buying beautiful boys and then castrating them for sale in nearby Sardis and Ephesus for large sums of money.  In time, Hermotimus had the good fortune of being sent along with other gifts to Xerxes I (485465), who came to esteem him more highly than all of his other eunuchs.  However, when chance brought Hermotimus and Panionius together again, the former persuaded the latter to move to Sardis with his wife and children.  Then when he had Panionius and his family within his power, Hermotimus berated Panionius and forced him to castrate his own sons, and then the sons their father.  So, he served a “most cruel vengeance” on his castrator (Herodotus, Persian Wars 8.105106).  Another story is told about Eubulus of Assos (an ancient harbor city in northwestern Asia Minor), who in the fourth century BC owned a eunuch named Hermeias, whom he sent off to Athens to study under Plato and Aristotle.  When the eunuch returned, however, he repaid his master’s generosity by killing him and then ruling in his stead.69  Norman Penzer notes that because eunuchs in the harem focused their attention on women, one can see how some of them would harbor feelings of revenge and despair, becoming ill-tempered, morose, petulant, and arrogant.  It is quite incorrect to suppose that all castrated males lost all of their sexual desire.70  A eunuch who lost only his testicles could sometimes have erections for a considerable time afterward and even enjoy sexual intercourse, as is illustrated in “The Tale of the First Eunuch, Bukhayt” in the Arabian Nights, where a youth is castrated for seducing a maiden and then, after her marriage to another, is made her eunuch slave; however, having lost only his testicles, he continued kissing and having sex with her until her death.71         

A short but instructive profile of eunuchs during the Achaemenid period can be sketched from Albert Olmstead’s still instructive History of the Persian Empire (1948).  Here one can see, e.g., how foreign boys were castrated to be sent as royal tribute to the Persian kings, how certain eunuchs came to weld enormous power at court and over the king, how they could also act very treacherously at times, how those connected to the harem served the queen, and how some ministered in far-flung governmental positions, even as satraps (governors).  For example, during the reign of Cambyses (529522), who followed Cyrus to the throne, one inscription notes that the Persian eunuch Atiyawahy served as the governor of Coptos, in Egypt.72  During the reign of Darius I (521486), after the Persian navy captured the islands of Chios, Lesbos, and Tenedos (along the western coast of Asia Minor), the sailors rounded up all of the best-looking boys and then made the “most-favored” into eunuchs, to bring as presents to the king, along with beautiful girls as well for his harem (Herodotus, Persian Wars 6.3132).  The provinces of Babylonia and Assyria sent as tribute to Darius a thousand talents of silver, along with five hundred boys to be made into eunuchs (Herodotus, Persian Wars 3.92).73  Although a main achievement of Xerxes I (486465) was to continue the magnificent construction of his royal palace at Parsa (Persepolis), at the end of his life he increasingly disintegrated and fell more and more under the influence of Artabanus, commander of the palace guard, and Aspamitres, his eunuch chamberlain (Ctesias, History of the Persians 13.60).74  Finally, Xerxes was assassinated in his bedchamber by Artabanus, aided by Aspamitres and Megabyzus, the last a son of the king’s son-in-law.75  Xerxes’ queen Amestris was served by the all-powerful twenty-year-old eunuch favorite Artoxares, who helped persuade Megabyzus to seek (and receive) a pardon from the king.76  After the death of Artaxerxes, Xerxes II (his son by Queen Damaspia) was recognized as his successor (424); but he lasted only forty-five days before he was killed in his bed by Secydianus, another son of Artaxerxes, aided by the eunuch Pharnacyas, a favorite of his father.    Ochus then began to rule, taking the throne name of Darius II (423405) in Babylon.  He brought back the eunuch Artoxares, who had earlier been banished to Armenia; and thereafter this eunuch exerted a strong influence at court.77  However, Artoxares the king-maker, puffed up by his power, decided to make himself king.  He had already taken a wife, but then he decided to have a beard and mustache fashioned to wear; yet this being too much for his wife, she exposed his plot and so Darius executed Artoxares (Ctesias, History of the Persians 18.84; cf. Photius’s excerpts, 54).78  

During the reign of Artaxerxes II (404359), the queen mother Parysatis, saddened by the execution of the traitor Clearchus, honored his memory by ordering her eunuchs to plant palms secretly around his grave (Ctesias, History of the Persians, cf. Photius’s excerpts, 71).79  Artaxerxes enforced another peace on the Greeks in 374, and thereafter his enemy Evagoras remained quiet; yet still the same year Evagoras and his son were murdered by a eunuch.80  Artaxerxes had 360 concubines (a different one for each day of the year, if he wanted) and he produced 115 sons.  However, thinking that his father lived too long, his eldest son Darius plotted along with fifty other sons to kill him.  However, after the conspiracy was revealed by a eunuch, Darius was executed.  Another son, Ariaspes, was kindly and beloved; but Ochus (who would become Artaxerxes III) worked through eunuchs and favorites to persuade Ariaspes that his father was angry with him, until he poisoned himself.81  After Artaxerxes III (358338) came to the throne, the Persians marched against Egypt in 344, commanded by Rosaces, the satrap (Persian governor) of Ionia and Lydia, regions in western Asia Minor.  Bagoas the chief eunuch served as his commander-in-chief, while the whole vast army was directed by the king himself.82  However, in the end, Artaxerxes was poisoned by his physician, on the order of the eunuch Bagoas.  The eunuch kingmaker then placed prince Arses on the throne, although this would mark the beginning of the decline of the Persian Empire.  Artaxerxes IV (Arses, 337336) objected to the tyrannical control exercised by the eunuch kingmaker, Bagoas, and tried to poison him; however, it was the king who fell victim to a drought and died, after reigning for less than two years.  Then Bagoas gave the throne to the 45-year-old Darius III (335331).83  When Alexander the Great came, he subdued all of Palestinian Syria, except for the city of Gaza, a sea port famous for its spice trade, which had been fortified by the eunuch Batis and was garrisoned by Arab mercenaries.84 

Llewellyn-Jones believes that Cyrus the Great (559530) probably used only a few hundred eunuchs; yet after Darius I (521–486) received his tribute gift of five hundred boy eunuchs from Babylonia and Assyria (Herodotus, Persian Wars 3.92), the number of eunuchs at court must have expanded from then on.85  Darius appears to have filled all of his chief offices of state with eunuchs, including advisers to the king and generals in the field.  They also supervised the education of the young princes, and “found it easy to make them their tools.”86  Herodotus commented that eventually eunuchs in Persia became “far too numerous to count” (Persian Wars 7.187), and one estimate suggested that there were more than three thousands eunuchs attached to the Persian court, at one time or another.  Piotr Scholz also notes that, beginning with the reign of Cyrus the Great, we have nearly a complete list of all of the “chief eunuchs” who served the Persian kings; and many of these were extremely influential, taking part in important decisions, accompanying the king wherever he went, and carrying out diplomatic assignments.  Some court eunuchs bore the title, “friend of the king,” and Bagoas was also called the “chief steward” of Artaxerxes III (358338).87  Another Bagoas, described both as an eunouchos (“eunuch”) and a spados (one whose testicles had been removed by dragging88), was the catamite of Darius III (335330), the last king of Persia, before this particularly beautiful and youthful-looking eunuch was presented as a gift to Alexander the Great.  According to the Roman writer Curtius (ca. 100 AD), this companion thereafter exerted a strong influence over Alexander, who was extremely fond of him.89  

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones notes that the Achaemenid ruler viewed himself as God’s representative ruler on earth and so kept himself away from the gaze of his subjects, except for formal audiences.  His private hours were spent in the domestic ‘inner court’ with his eunuchs, his children, and women from his harem.  These harems were quite large, including not only the wives and concubines, but sisters, mothers and other female members of the royal family.  The Persians were even more jealous of their women than other cultures, keeping them locked up in their rooms; and if they did travel, they did so in carriages covered on all sides with draperies.90  Women are entirely absent from Persian pictorial scenes (and also usually from Assyrian reliefs), while Egyptian royal art promoted images of the royal wife, mother, sister and daughters.  The Persian king frequently dined with his mother or wife, while a eunuch nearby waved a large fan (fly-wisk) to keep insects away.91  Because eunuchs could enter the private world of the harem as well as the outer public spheres, they were invaluable aids to kings, as well as to the powerful royal women in the inner court.  An extra set of eyes and ears for both the king and queen, eunuchs relayed official messages between the inner and outer courts, along with unofficial gossip and secrets.92  Eunuchs were found everywhere the women were; and they accompanied the harem when it went along with the king on royal hunts, on his annual migration from palace to palace, and on military campaigns.  Greek victors mention taking many eunuchs among their Persian captives (Plutarch, Life of Themistocles 16.4 and Life of Aristides 9.4).93  Darius I (521486) had at least six official wives, who were lodged in the harem with their children (the princes and princesses), along with however many unmarried sisters he had.  In addition, there were numerous concubines.94  Darius was so pleased that Democedes the Greek physician was able to help him recover from a sprained foot that he “bade the eunuchs take Democedes to see his wives,” each of whom dipped a saucer into a chest of gold (pieces) to give him his reward (Herodotus, Persian Wars 3.130).  It is said that Darius III lost 329 concubines when he fled from Alexander the Great in Syria.  In fact, the harem could grow at any time to more than four hundred royal ladies, not to mention the slave girls, women-in-waiting, and eunuch staff.  In addition, the queen mother and powerful wives no doubt were served by their own private staff of up to a dozen eunuchs for each of them.  Yet, the small rooms in the harem at Persepolis reveal that high social standing did not mean that the royal women enjoyed anything like spacious living quarters.95    

The Book of Esther in the Bible is set in Susa, one of the four Persian capitals (including also Ecbatana, Babylon and Persepolis96) during the reign of Xerxes I (486465), who was the son of Darius I and grandson of Cyrus the Great.97  When Queen Vashti refused to obey a royal command to appear before Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) the king and his guests at a state banquet, he banned her forever from his presence (Est 1).  Then later, when he sought a new queen, he chose Hadassah / Esther, a Jewish orphan who had been adopted and raised by her cousin, Mordecai (2:7).  Later Esther would save her people from an evil plot by Haman, a powerful noble who had been made the second-highest official in the realm, but who also wanted to exterminate all Jews in Persia, including and especially Mordecai, whom he detested (3:35).  Eunuchs (sarisim) appear repeatedly in the pages of Esther (1:10–12, 15; 2:3, 14–15, 21; 4:4–5; 6:2, 14; 7:9), called “chamberlain(s)” in the KJV, but “eunuchs(s)” in most later English translations.  Their importance at court is shown by the fact that many are specifically mentioned by name, including: Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, Carkas, Hegai, Shaashgaz, Bigthan, Teresh and Hathach (Est 1:10; 2:3, 14, 21; 4:5), all bearing or having taken on Persian names,98 as with Esther.  Seven eunuchs especially attended Xerxes, and one of their important tasks was to carry messages between the king and his harem (1:1012).  Another chief eunuch of Xerxes, Hermotimos, although he is not mentioned in the Bible, was the one who exacted his revenge on the slave-dealer who had castrated him, by turning both him and his sons into eunuchs (Herodotus, Persian Wars 8.105106).99  Xerxes was also served by a council of seven “sages,” apparently not eunuchs, who were astrologers, magicians and legal experts (1:1315).100  However, after the Persians had suffered two defeats in fighting the Greeks (Darius in 490 and then Xerxes in 480), Xerxes returned home, weary from battle, to continue work on building the royal palaces at Persepolis and Susa.101  However, when “the king’s servants” (the eunuchs who attended him) saw that the king was sad and lonely, they suggested that a search be initiated to find a new queen (2:14).  So, as “beautiful young virgins” were gathered from around the empire (Haddassah / Esther among them), they were placed “under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch [saris], who is in charge” of these women, in a special harem (2:3, NRSV).  However, after a virgin went in to sleep with the king, she was then transferred to the main harem, “in custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch [saris], who was in charge of the concubines” (2:1314, NRSV).  After Esther was selected to be the new queen (2:17), she was given her own “maids” and “eunuchs” (4:4); and one of the latter, named Hathach, carried messages back and forth between Esther and Mordecai (4:517).  Later, court eunuchs came and “hurried Haman off to the banquet that Esther had prepared” for the king and him (6:14).  Then, after Haman’s evil plot was exposed, Harbona (one of the king’s eunuch servants, also present at the original dinner, Est 1:10), suggested that Haman be hung on the gallows that he had built for Mordecai; and so the king ordered it (7:310).  Most of eighteen English translations surveyed had no trouble rendering sarisim in Est 1:10 as “eunuchs,” although a few translations rendered the term as “chamberlains” (KJV 1611), “personal aides” (LB 1976), “personal servants” (CEV 1995), or “officers in attendance” (NJB 1998).  Of course, eunuchs performed many functions in ancient times besides being harem servants, some of them exerting great influence in political and administrative affairs.102  However, that eunuchs could sometimes be a danger to and even plot to kill the king can also be seen here in Esther, where Mordecai overhears a plan among eunuch guards to assassination Xerxes; and he then reports this to Esther, who passes the information on to the king (2:2123).  Such plots against the king were not uncommon;103 and in fact in 465 Xerxes would be murdered in his bedchamber by the commander of his palace guard, aided by his eunuch chamberlain (Aspamitres), so that Artaxerxes, age 15, could be made king.104  

J. Stafford Wright (1970) has suggested that Mordecai himself might have been a eunuch, because no wife or family are mentioned related to him (cf. Est 2:7) and because he had such easy access to the women’s quarters, to see how Esther was doing (2:11).105  In fact, we are told repeatedly that Mordecai sat “at the king’s gate” (2:19, 21; 3:23; 4:2, 6; 5:9, 13; 6:10, 12) and he was even known by the king as one “who sits at the king’s gate” (6:10), which probably referred either to the main entrance to the royal complex or more specifically to the king’s residence, both important posts.106  Two others who “guarded the threshold” here are specifically described as “eunuchs” (2:21); and “keepers of the door” leading into the palace or the harem, from the time of Cyrus on, had routinely been eunuchs (Cf. Xenophon, Education of Cyrus 7.5.65).  Robert Gordis (1976) suggested that perhaps Esther had the king appoint Mordecai to this position so that he could be near the harem;107 however, the Biblical text implies that Mordecai was already sitting at this gate before Esther was installed as queen (2:1719).  Gordis also suggested that Mordecai may have been appointed as a judge to dispense justice at the royal gate, but this is speculative (Bush).108  What we are told simply, over and over, is that Mordecai sat with other guards at the King’s Gate, but without calling him either a “guard” or a ”eunuch.”  One explanation may be that castration was so repulsive to the Jews that the author of Esther simply could not mention the fact that Mordecai was a eunuch, or even label him a doorkeeper, which would point to him as being a eunuch.  It would surely have looked very strange for a bearded man to be hanging around outside the palace and harem.

Xenophon describes the duties of the cupbearer at the court of Astyages (584549109), the Median king and Cyrus’s grandfather.  (Media was an extensive kingdom northeast of Babylon, whose noblemen later sided with Cyrus of Persia because of the cruelty of Astyages their king, so that by 550 Cyrus had taken control of all of the Median territory.110)  However, before this, at a dinner banquet with Astyages, the young Cyrus was distributing meat around to the guests; and the king said to him:  “(8) ‘But to Sakas, my cupbearer [his name revealing that he was Sacian or Scythian, a foreigner], whom I honor most . . . do you give nothing?’  Now Sakas happened to be handsome and to have the honor of admitting those who sought Astyages and of excluding such as he did not think it opportune to admit.  And Cyrus answered rashly, as would a boy not yet afraid.  ‘Why, grandfather, do you honor him so?’  And Astyages replied jokingly, ‘Do you not see how nobly and gracefully he pours out my wine?’  The cupbearers of these kings carry the cup with refinement, pour the wine cleanly, hand over the cup while holding it with three fingers, and present the cup in the way it is most easily grasped by the one who is about to drink.  (9) . . . Now the cupbearers of the kings, when they present the cup, draw out some of it with a small cup [ladle] and, pouring it into their left hand, swallow it down, so that they might not profit if they have added poison” (Xenophon, Education of Cyrus 1.3.89, Ambler).  One should note here not only how fond the Median king was of his handsome eunuch cupbearer, but how the latter tasted all of the king’s wine first and also controlled who was allowed to come into the king’s presence.  

Ctesias (flourished 400 BC), one major source of information on Persian court life, was a Greek physician and historian from Cnidus (a small town in modern southwestern Turkey) who lived perhaps up to seven years in the presence of Artaxerxes II (404359) and then later wrote a 24-volume History of the Persians, known in Greek simply as Persica.111  Plutarch of Chaeronea, in his Life of Artaxerxes, called Ctesias’s work “a perfect farrago [confused mixture] of extravagant and incredible tales,” although it was considered an important historical source by Plato, by the Athenian orator Isocates, and by the Macedonian philosopher Aristotle of Stagira.  Unfortunately, we do not have the whole work, but primarily only an ancient reworking by Diodorus of Sicily, a first century BC Greek historian, with excerpts also preserved by the Byzantine scholar Photius (c.815897).112  Photius’s excerpts of Ctesias’s Persica (online, see “Ctesias,” in the References) inform us, e.g., that three eunuchs (Artoxares, Artibarizanes and Athous) had the greatest influence upon Darius II (423405) and that Ctesias obtained details like this from Darius’s wife, Parysatis (sect. 52).  He describes how the eunuch kingmaker Artoxares ordered his wife to make him a false beard in his plot to take over the throne, but she betrayed him, which led to his execution (section 54).  Ctesias also describes how Parysatis, queen mother under Artaxerxes II (404359), poisoned the queen Statira for persuading Artaxerxes to kill Clearchus, whom Statira admired.  Enraged by this, Artaxerxes II then seized and tortured Parysatis’s eunuchs, including her chief confidant, Ginge, which caused a lasting mother-and-son quarrel (section 70).  Still, Parysatis had her eunuchs secretly plant palm trees around Clearchus’s grave (section 71).  Now there is nothing that sounds unreasonable about all of this (and various anecdotes are repeated in other ancient sources).  Yet, if a scholar has evidence that suggests that anything specific that an ancient ‘historian’ has written is untrue, this certainly should be given serious consideration, but point by point.  Jona Lendering notes that although Ctesias’s writing is “not free of old wives’ tales,” especially in another work he wrote on India,113 it is interesting that he knows the names of important eunuchs at the Persian court, from whom no doubt he received a good bit of his information, since they were interested in court history.114 

Another, more direct source of information on Persian court life and eunuchs are the ruins of the royal compound at Persepolis (Greek for the Old Persian name Parsa, meaning “City of the Persians”115).  Of special interest is a famous relief scene found there commonly called “Darius and Xerxes Giving Audience” (Janson’s History of Art), although because of dispute now over the identification of the main figures would probably be better called simply “Royal Audience Scene, with the Crown Prince,” found in the Treasury area and measuring about 20’ wide and a little over 4’ high.116  Actually, there are four almost identical reliefs of this scene at this site, showing the enthroned king speaking to an officer standing before him, while behind the king stands the crown prince, then the royal cupbearer and the royal arms-bearer, while guards are positioned at the side (see “Online photos of archeological works, ” last entry, at the end of this article).  The best preserved scenes are now displayed at the Tehran Archaeological Museum,117 while damaged replicas remain at the site.  Besides these four scenes, there are other scenes which show the king enthroned, but with only the chief cupbearer present, standing directly behind the king and waving a fly-wisk.118  On two other scenes, as well, at the top of two tall stone door-jambs (sides of the door to which a door was attached), which led into the 100-column Throne Hall, the cupbearer with his fly-wisk stands directly behind the king, the two of them pictured alone.119  Clearly this later scene was a very important one, that appeared at various locations at Persepolis; and it suggests that the person closest to the Persian king was a eunuch.  

Albert Olmstead (and others) identified the king here as Darius I,  sitting on a high-backed throne and holding a long scepter that reaches to the floor, along with a (sacred) lotus flower with two side buds.  In the “Royal Audience Scene, with the Crown Prince,” the king is shown conversing with the commander of the royal bodyguard, not a eunuch but a bearded Mede (his nationality indicated by his attire) and probably the most powerful official at court.  Between them stand two tall incense burners, which would have contained frankincense.  Behind Darius then stands Xerxes the crown prince, and behind him the cupbearer, who in later Achaemenid times would come to exercise even more influence than the commander-in-chief.  Although a scarf covers the cupbearer’s chin, enough of his beardless face is exposed to show that he is a eunuch.  In his hand he grasps a looped napkin, the badge of his office.  The cupbearer is then followed by the bearer of the royal weapons, holding a battle-ax, a bow case, and a short sheathed sword.  At the far sides of the scene, then, stand two guards, or “immortals” (Olmstead).120  

Erick Schmidt, who directed archaeological work at Persepolis between 1935–1939 and also published the results of these important excavations in three volumes (1953, 1957, 1957),121 notes how the king and crown prince wear long, flat-ended beards, while the bearded servants have shorter, neatly-trimmed beards,122 and the towel-bearer (cupbearer) has his chin covered with a scarf.123  The fact that this servant displays no moustache curls reveals that he must have been a eunuch124 (see “Online photos of archaeological works: Persepolis: Close-up of a eunuch’s head,” at the end of this article).  Edward Meyer writes that this towel-bearer was the “eye of the king,” and it was to this official that the ruler “entrusted supervision of the empire and his officialdom,” while the napkin identifies him as the “cupbearer.”125  In another place, however, Schmidt suggests that this might be the “cupbearer or lord chamberlain,”126 the latter English word referring historically either to one who “manages the household of a monarch or noble”127 or who manages the bedchamber (cf. the Greek term eunouchos, Strong G2135, made up of eunē [“bed”] and scheō [“to hold control over”]).  Yet, Albert Olmstead views the position of royal cupbearer as separate from that of royal chamberlain (the one who served the king in his bedchamber).  He suggests that at Xerxes’ banquet given for his guests (and described in Est 1) the eunuch cupbearer would have served the king with a golden cup, after he tasted the wine to see that it was safe; and then after the banquet was ended, the royal chamberlain would have put his inebriated master to bed.128  Later, Herod the Great (before the birth of Christ) had three different personal eunuch servants, one to serve him his wine, one to serve his food, and the third in charge of his bedchamber, who also managed the principle affairs of state (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 16.8.1).  Unfortunately specific information about cupbearers in ancient Persia is very limited.  Still, Xenophon’s comments about the “cupbearers of kings,” relating to Astyages, king of the Medes (Xenophon, Education of Cyrus 1.3.8–9) and the reference to Ahikar as “chief cupbearer” to two Assyrian kings (Tobit 1:22) show that this was an ancient, enduring and important position; and cupbearers performed other important duties as well, as seen in the former case in controlling access to the king’s presence and in the latter case being appointed “keeper of the signet [ring]” and in charge “over all the accounts” of the kingdom and “the entire administration” (Tobit 1:2223).  However, instead of the term “cupbearer” in ancient sources on Persian history, one tends to find, e.g., Aspamitres called the “eunuch chamberlain” of Xerxes I (Ctesias, History of the Persians 13.60)129 and Bogoas the “chief eunuch” of Artaxerxes III,130 and “friend of the king” as well.131  Nehemiah appears to be an unusual case which refers specifically to a “cupbearer to the king” in the surviving ancient sources that relate to Achaemenid Persia, although we are not told what other responsibilities Nehemiah probably carried out as well.

Moreover, Shapur Shahbazi (1976) and Donald Wilber (1989) do not identify the main figures here in the “Royal Audience Scene, with the Crown Prince” as King Darius I and Prince Xerxes, but rather as Xerxes I and Darius, the latter a crown prince who never made it to the throne.  The king faces the commander of the royal bodyguard (hazarpat), who covers his mouth with his hand as he talks, so as not to pollute the king’s air.  Shahbazi suggests that this commander may be Artapanes, who held that post during the last years of Xerxes’ reign.  Then behind Prince Darius stands the “royal chamberlain” (in charge of running the palace) who may be Aspamitres, a relative of Artapanes.  He appears to be a eunuch, since his chin is covered by his elaborate headdress (baschlyk), the same headdress seen on other eunuch servants who are depicted carrying food in reliefs at the palace.  However, Wilbur writes that the cloth which the royal chamberlain carries should be more properly called a “towel,” since napkins were still unknown.  In ancient times food was eaten with the fingers, and before and after meals a basin of water was passed around, along with a towel for drying the hands.132  Also, while Darius laid out the first stage of the Treasury (where the most famous of the “Royal Audience Scene, with the Crown Prince” reliefs were found), it was much altered and expanded by Xerxes, who retreated to Persepolis after his defeat at the hands of Greeks, in 480, turning his attention to building efforts there.133 

Lars Wilson, although he offers many unorthodox and undocumented theories on this audience scene (see online sources in the References), does ask the interesting question, could the cupbearer pictured here possibly be Nehemiah?  He points, e.g., to the “hooded head covering” with its floppy tail,134 and the fact that the national origin of persons pictured at Persepolis can often be identified by their attire.  Still, when this Persian headgear style is compared with the floppy caps worn by Israelites depicted on the Black Obelisk (ca. 825 BC),135 significant differences are immediately seen apart from the common flap which hangs down in back.  In fact, the distinctive baschlyk headwear identifies the wearer not as Jewish, but as a eunuch.  We do know, of course, from Ahikar (Tobit 1:2122), that capable cupbearers could sometimes continue serving from one king’s reign (Sennacherib) into the next king’s reign (Esarhaddon).  However, if Darius is pictured here, the cupbearer is probably not Nehemiah, since forty-one years passed between the death of Darius I and the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I, which means that Nehemiah would have been past sixty when he made his first trip to Judah as governor.  However, if Shahbazi and Wilber are correct and the king pictured here is Xerxes I (486465), who directly preceded Artaxerxes I (464424), then historical sources would indicate that at the end of Xerxes’ reign Artabanus was commander of the royal guard and Aspamitres his eunuch chamberlain; and so they may be the ones who are pictured in the famous Royal Audience Scene.136  Still, we do not know when exactly these various reliefs were carved; and also the scenes may be generic, that is, representative of whoever at any certain time was the king, the heir apparent, and the palace administrator.  Rezaeian shows how two of these majestic king-and-prince audience scenes probably stood at the ground level, center, of two grand staircases which led up to the entrance of the great Apadana, or Royal Audience Hall (on two sides of the building), the most splendid palace at Persepolis,137 which was completed by Xerxes I.138 

Hunting for Castrates in Israel before the Exile

Online photos of archaeological works:

The Assyrian king with a royal eunuch waving a fly-wisk, standing by a dead lion, wall relief, from Ashurnasirpal II’s Northwest Palace, Nimrud (ninth century BC), British Museum, London, online (second photo down) – accessed November 3, 2010.

Ashurnasipal II flanked by two (beardless) eunuchs, with a winged god to the left, wall relief, from Ashurnasirpal II’s palace, Nimrud (ninth century BC), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, online– accessed November 3, 2010.

Head of a eunuch, with coifed hair and a special earring, from Sargon II’s palace, wall relief, Khorsabad (eighth century BC), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, online– accessed November 3, 2010.

Ashurbanipal dining with the queen in his garden, attended by court eunuchs, wall relief, from Ashurbanipal’s North Palace, Nineveh (seventh century BC), British Museum, London, online [L.jpg] – accessed November 3, 2010.

Group of royal eunuch servants (with swords), approaching the king, Assyria, wall relief, original palace site unknown, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, online November 3, 2010.

Royal Audience, with the Crown Prince, palace, wall relief, from Persepolis, showing Darius I (or Xerxes I) speaking to the commander of the palace guard, while behind the throne stands the crown prince, his cupbearer (or chief eunuch, with his barren chin covered), the royal arms bearer, and two guards (left) also shown here, Tehran Archaeological Museum, Iran, online– accessed November 3, 2010, or

FOOTNOTES:    1. Van De Mieroop, pp. 121–24,161.    2. Ibid., pp. 179–180, 189.    3. Assyrian dates are taken from Van De Mieroop, pp. 29596; with the end date taken from Reade, p. 72.    4. Cf. Wiseman, “Babylonia,” p. 394; Reade, p. 44; Van De Mieroop, p. 227.    5. Israelite dates are taken from Cogan, p. 1010; with the date Hezekiah began to rule independently taken from Oswalt, p. 683, and the end of Hoshea’s rule taken from Harrison, “Hoshea, 5,” p. 767.    6. After Solomon’s death in 928, the kingdom of Israel split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.    7. Reade, plates 12, 6263.    8. Van De Mieroop, p. 199.    9. Wiseman, “Babylonia,” p. 394.    10. Reade, p. 46.    11. Van Selms, “Samaria, 1,” p. 296.    12. Reade, pp. 4647.    13. Babylonian dates are taken from Van De Mieroop, p. 292.    14. Ibid., pp. 250, 258.    15. Versteeg, online p. 1.    16. In 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar may have come to Jerusalem as crown prince, before he ascended to the throne later that year and then experienced his first full regal year in 604; cf. Van De Mieroop, p. 258.    17. Archer, p. 31.    18. Van De Mieroop, p. 268.   19. Persian dates are taken from Van De Mieroop, p. 293; cf. Llewellyn-Jones, p. 42.    20. Van De Mieroop, pp. 267–268.    21. Clines, p. 848.    22. Huey, p. 797.    23. Clines, p. 848.    24. Radmacher, Jer 25:1011, p. 914.    25. LaSor, “Jerusalem,” p. 1016.    26. Cf. Yamauchi 1988, p. 583.    27. Cf. Bowman, p. 671; Yamauchi 1988, pp. 571–572, 595, 684.    28. Bullough, p. 5; Penzer, p. 135; Van De Mieroop, p. 230.    29. Scholz, p. 70.    30. Erech in the Bible, noted in Gen 10:10, was located sixty miles northwest of Ur, Abraham’s birthplace; cf. Feinberg, “Erech,” p. 126.    31. In G.  Taylor, p. 285, n. 169.    32. Dates from Van De Mieroop, p. 285.    33. Donald Wiseman, The Alalakh Tablets, 1953, p. 25; in G. Taylor, p. 289, n. 179; Pope, 415.    34. G. Taylor, pp. 178–179.    35. Scholz, p. 74.    36. Cf. Van De Mierooop, p. 147; and map 7.1, p. 124.    37. D. Hawkins; in Deller, p. 309.    38. Deller, p. 310.    39. Radner, “The King’s Advisors,” online pp. 12.    40. Penzer, p. 15; Burke, p. 200.    41. Reade, p. 31.    42. Ibid., pp. 3637.    43. Deller, p. 303.    44. Reade, pp. 13, 24, 33, 36.    45. Ibid., p. 31, pl. 39.    46. Deller, p. 308.    47. Reade, p. 31.    48. Cf. also the Black Obelisk, in King and Stager, p. 262.    49. Reade, p. 31.    50. Deller, p. 308.    51. Saggs, pp. 14849.    52. Ibid., p. 150.    53. Llewellyn-Jones, p. 36.    54. Saggs, p. 150.    55. Grayson, p. 93.    56. Contenau, p. 137; Carson, p. 516; Liefeld, p. 1009.    57. Deller, p. 305.    58. Grayson, p. 95.    59. Ibid., p. 97.    60. Van De Mieroop, p. 250.    61. Collins, p. 137.    62. New Oxford American Dictionary, “Akkadian.”    63. Reade, p. 13.    64. Llewellyn-Jones, p. 22; cf. Myers, p. 96.    65. Grayson, p. 90.    66. Cf. Tadmor 1983, pp. 279–281.    67. Collins, p. 133.    68. J. M. Cook, Persian Empire, 1983, p. 136; in Collins, p. 134.    69. Olmstead 1948, p. 435.    70. Penzer, pp. 144–145.    71. Pezner, p. 148; Anonymous, Arabian Nights, pp. 181–182.    72. Olmstead 1948, p. 90.    73. Ibid., p. 293.    74. Ibid., pp. 230, 267.    75. Ibid., p. 289.    76. Ibid., pp. 312–313.    77. Ibid., pp. 355, 357.    78. Ibid., pp. 363–364.    79. Ibid., p. 375.    80. Ibid., p. 406.    81. Ibid., p. 424.    82. Ibid., p. 437.    83. Ibid., pp. 489–490.    84. Ibid., p. 507.    85. Llewellyn-Jones, p. 33.    86. George Rawlinson, quoted in Lewis Coser, 1964; and in D. Greenberg, p. 122.    87. Scholz, pp. 8182.    88. Penzer, p. 142.    89. Scholz, pp. 8283.    90. Llewellyn-Jones, pp. 2527.    91. Ibid., pp. 2930.    92. Ibid., pp. 2829.    93. Ibid., p. 38.    94. Ibid., pp. 3031.    95. Ibid., pp. 3132.    96. Hayden, “Persia,” p. 779.    97. Cf. Hayden, “Xerxes,” p. 1161.    98. Huey, p. 800.    99. Bullough, p. 6.    100. Huey, p. 801.    101. Hayden, “Xerxes,” p. 1161; also Huot, online pp. 23.    102. Huey, p. 800.    103. Ibid., p. 810.    104. Alexander, online p. 1.    105. In Huey, p. 805.    106. Bush, p. 412.    107. In Huey, p. 810.    108. In Bush, p. 412.    109. Dates from Diakonoff, p. 112.    110. Van De Mieroop, pp. 257254.    111. Lendering, online pp. 12.    112. Ibid., online pp. 34; and see introduction to Photius’s excerpts of Ctesias’s Persica.    113. Cf. commentary on Ctesias’s Persica, in Photius’s excerpts, online p. 5.    114. Lendering, online p. 4.    115. Stronach and Codella, online pp. 1, 4; Huot, online p. 3.    116. Cf. Stronach and Codella, online p. 4; Janson’s History of Art, pl. 2.30, p. 42.    117. Cf. Wilber, fig. 61.    118. Cf. Schmidt, 1, p. 97A, B.    119. Cf. Rezaeian, pp. 5859, 56.    120. Olmstead 1948, pp. 216–218; cf. pl. XXX top.    121. Stronach and Codella, online p. 2.    122. Schmidt, 1, 1953, p. 257.    123. Ibid., p. 225.    124. Ibid., p. 165.    125. Ibid., p. 169.    126. Ibid., p. 135.    127. New Oxford American Dictionary, “chamberlain.”    128. Olmstead 1948, p. 183.    129. Ibid., p. 267.    130. Ibid., p. 437.    131. Scholz, p. 82.    132. Wilber, pp. 8889.    133. Stronach and Codella, online pp. 1,4; Huot, online p. 3.    134. Wilson, L., “Darius I,” online p. 1.    135. Cf. King and Stager, p. 262.    136. Wilber, pp. 8889.    137. Rezaeian, pp. 8, 2627.    138. Ghirshman, p. 775.                           


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Grayson, Albert K.   “Eunuchs in Power: Their Role in the Assyrian Bureaucracy.”   In Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz, eds., Vom Alten Orient zum Alten Testament: Festschift fur Wolfram Freiherrn von Soden zum 85. Geburtstag am 19. Juni 1993, pp. 85–98.   Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1995. 

Greenberg, David F.   The Construction of Homosexuality.   Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1988.

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_______.   “Xerxes, 1.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4, pp. 1161.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.  

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Myers, Jacob M.   Ezra, Nehemiah (Anchor Bible).   Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.

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Reade, Julian.   Assyrian Sculpture.   London: The British Museum; and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983, repr. 1994. 

Rezaeian, Farzin.   Persepolis Recreated (book with DVD).   Canada: Farvin Rezaeian and Sunrise Visual Innovations, 2004.

Saggs, Henry W. F.   The Might That Was Assyria.   London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984.

Schmidt, Erick F.   Persepolis.   Vol. 1: Structures, Reliefs, Inscriptions, 1953.   Vol. 2: Contents of the Treasury and Other Discoveries, 1957.   Vol. 3: The Royal Tombs and Other Monuments, 1957.   Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  

Scholz, Piotr O.   Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History.   Trans. J. A. Broadwin and S. L. Frisch.   Princeton: Marcus Wiener, (German 1999) trans. 2001.      

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_______.   Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia).   Trans. Wayne Ambler.   Ithica and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. 

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TRANSLATIONS:   Contemporary English Version, 1995.   King James Version, 1611.   Living Bible, 1976.   New International Version, 1978.   New Jerusalem Bible, 1998.   New Revised Standard Version, 1989.


© Bruce L. Gerig 2010

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