6 Famous Eunuchs

Eunuchs, or castrated men, have played an important part in many cultures throughout the world since ancient times. They were usually castrated while still young boys in order to smooth their paths into secure government and/or religious positions in places like Egypt, China, India, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire. Others were castrated as adults as punishment for crimes committed that were sexual in nature. Still others castrated themselves as a result of zealous religious beliefs or fear of sexual temptation. Here are six noteworthy eunuchs from history.

1. Sporus (First century CE)

Castration was a big no-no under Roman law; even slaves were protected against the act. However, eunuchs could still be purchased from outside the Roman Empire. Not surprisingly, the notoriously bizarre emperor Nero saw himself above the law and castrated Sporus before he married him. Little is known about Sporus' background except that he was a young man to whom Nero took a liking. Nero considered Sporus to be his wife, and their marriage ceremony included Sporus wearing a bridal veil, Nero providing Sporus with a dowry, and afterwards, a wonderful honeymoon in Greece. (Nero also married two other men, although they were not castrated because in those marriages, Nero was the wife).

It's possible that Nero used his marriage to Sporus to assuage the feelings of guilt he felt for kicking his pregnant wife, Sabina, to death in 65 AD. Sporus bore an uncanny resemblance to Sabina, and Nero even called him by his dead wife's name. The affair was short-lived, however, because Nero killed himself in 68 AD.

Sporus was not widowed for long. He soon married Nymphidius Sabinus, who made an unsuccessful bid for emperor that ended with his death at the hands of his opponent's followers. Sporus again became involved with another powerful man, Emperor Otho, who was also killed by his enemies. Sporus then became linked to greedy, gluttonous, and debauched Emperor Vitellius, who later had a villainous idea for a halftime show during one of the gladiatorial combats: he planned for Sporus to dress as a young woman and be raped for the viewing enjoyment of the crowds. Sporus committed suicide to avoid the humiliation.

2. Origen (185-254)

In the early days of Christianity, there was much consternation among believers about the issue of sex. Many early Christians wanted to renounce all things "worldly" such as physical pleasure, material goods, and family ties in order to imitate the life of Jesus Christ. The Gospels, particularly Matthew 19:12, advised, "For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake. He who is able to receive it, let him receive it."

Most theologians understood this passage to mean that a true Christian should become celibate in the hopes of gaining favor in heaven. The Greek theologian Origen, however, took this passage to heart and castrated himself. It is not at all clear why Origen did this since he seemed to be living the life of an unattached and celibate scholar. One fourth century church historian claimed that he did this so he could teach female students without the fear of temptation. In any case, it seems the Origen was not alone in his zealous behavior because during a church council that met in 325 in Nicaea, the practice of castrating oneself became prohibited.

3. Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

AbelardIn medieval intellectual circles, Peter Abelard was known as one of the most brilliant theologians and philosophers, and students flocked to study under him at Notre Dame in Paris. As devoted a scholar that he may have been, the beautiful and intelligent live-in niece of a churchman named Heloise caught his eye. Abelard asked the churchman if he could move in with him and Heloise, explaining that the commute to Paris from where he was staying was too onerous. In exchange he offered to tutor the seventeen-year old Heloise. (Abelard himself was more than twenty years older).

The two became intimate, and Heloise was soon pregnant. They married secretly, as scholars in the Middle Ages like Abelard were supposed to behave like clerics. In a series of misunderstandings, the churchman thought that Abelard had abandoned Heloise and he became so furious that he hired some men to castrate him, ending the love affair. Abelard joined a monastery, wrote about his ordeals in a work called History of My Misfortunes, and later resumed teaching and engaging in intellectual debate. Heloise joined a convent but continued to pine for Abelard in her letters to him. Their child was raised by family. Despite their separation, the two lovers are now buried together in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

4. Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627)

Eunuchs were common in imperial China for thousands of years, right up until the end of the Ching dynasty in 1911. They often came from very poor families and were castrated as children so they could work in the Emperor's palace. Imperial eunuchs often wielded tremendous power because they ran the government bureaucracy and were the only males allowed within the walls of the imperial palace.

Wei Zongxian's family did not intend for him to be a eunuch. He was born poor, grew up in circumstances normal for children in his village, married, and fathered a daughter. Unfortunately, Wei was also a gambler who quickly found himself in debt and was constantly threatened by those to whom he owed money. Wei decided to have himself castrated at 21 so he could enter the service of the emperor.

For thirty years, Wei was clever enough to stroke the right egos and make excellent connections within the palace. Probably the best career move he made was to befriend the future emperor Tianqi's wet-nurse, Mistress Ke. When the young Tianqi came to the throne at fifteen, Wei set about distracting the boy with all kinds of fun activities while he consolidated his power base and became the de facto ruler. Wei was also the director of the secret police so anyone who opposed him was purged, and shrines dedicated to Wei were erected all over China. Wei's situation changed very quickly when the emperor died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-three. Wei committed suicide and his body was dismembered and the remains displayed in his village as a warning to others.

5. Thomas "Boston" Corbett (1832-1894)

boston-corbettThomas Corbett is known as one of the men responsible for killing John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. He was born in England and immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was seven years old. While in his 20s, he became a born again Christian and took the name "Boston" in honor of the city where his metamorphosis took place. But Corbett had a weakness for prostitutes, and he castrated himself with a pair of scissors to avoid sexual temptation. Interestingly, the Massachusetts General Hospital records noted that he did not bleed particularly badly externally, but what caused worry was that his scrotum swelled and turned black. He turned out OK, though. Later that day he went to a prayer meeting, took a walk, and then enjoyed dinner.

It is perhaps not surprising that Corbett was later locked up at a Topeka mental institution. He had threatened members of the Kansas House of Representatives with a gun claiming that some of them had been disrespectful during opening prayers.

6. Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922)

Moreschi_giovaneFor roughly three hundred years, castrati (castrated opera singers) could be found singing in churches throughout Italy and in the Pope's choir. As previously mentioned, castration was prohibited, but parents made many excuses for why their sons had been castrated, blaming it on accidents, medical necessities, and so on. One historian estimated that at the height of castrati popularity in the eighteenth century, about 4,000 boys were castrated each year in Italy. Moreschi was the last castrato to sing in the Sistine Chapel choir, and the only one to have had his voice recorded in 1902 and 1904.

The eighteenth-century castrato Farinelli was the most famous of all castrati with rock star-like popularity. He sang for royalty, popes, and adoring fans all over Europe, Still Moreschi will probably be better remembered as his singing can still be heard today.


job secrets
10 Secrets of Hotel Room Service

Guests visiting New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1930s enjoyed an amenity that was unheard of at the time: waiters delivering meals directly to their rooms. While the Astoria’s reputation for luxury has endured, room service is no longer exclusive to five-star stays. Roughly 22 percent of the country’s 54,000 hotels [PDF] are willing and able to bring breakfast, lunch, or dinner to people who prefer to eat while splayed out on a large and strange bed.

To get the scoop on what goes into getting food from the kitchen to your floor, Mental Floss spoke with Matt, a hospitality specialist who spent a total of 10 years working in and around room service for a major San Francisco hotel. Matt preferred not to use his last name; since his stories sometimes involved naked people, undercooked chicken, and Oprah, you can understand why. Below, check out a few things you should know before you dig into that tray.


When a room service delivery employee takes a tray from the kitchen to your room, it’s typically covered in a metal lid to retain heat and to prevent other guests from sneezing on it. The higher up you are, the longer it has to travel—and the more that lid traps steam, soaking your food in moisture. “Food sweats in there,” Matt says. “Instead of having crispy, toasted bread, you get wet toast. The longer it stays in there, the worse it gets.” If you want crunchy fries, you’d better be on the first couple of floors.


A seafood dinner is presented on a plate

That lid is a nuisance in other ways. Because it traps heat, it’s effectively cooking your food in the time it takes to get from the chef’s hands to yours. “If you order a steak medium, it will probably be medium well by the time it gets to you,” Matt says. While you can try to outsmart the lid by requesting meat be cooked a notch lower than your preference, it's not so easy to avoid overcooked fish—which will probably also stink up your room. Instead, stick with burgers, club sandwiches, or salads. According to Matt, it’s hard to mess any of them up.


Just because you see a menu in your room, it doesn’t mean the hotel has a kitchen or chef on-site. To cut costs, more hotels are opting to out-source their room service to local eateries. “It might be ‘presented’ by the hotel, but it’s from a restaurant down the street,” Matt says. Alternately, hotels might try to save money by eliminating an overnight chef and having food pre-prepped so a desk clerk or other employee can just heat it up. That’s more likely if sandwiches or salads are the only thing available after certain hours.


Two coffee cups sit on a hotel bed

No, not for the reason you’re thinking. Because so many hotel guests are business travelers who are away from home for weeks or months at a time, some of them get tired of eating alone. When that happens, they turn to the first—and maybe only—person who could offer company: the room service waiter. “People are usually traveling alone, so they’ll offer you food,” Matt explains. Sometimes the traveler is a familiar face: According to Matt, he once sat down to eat with Oprah Winfrey, who was eating by herself despite her suite being filled with her own employees. He also says he had a bite with John F. Kennedy Junior, who wanted to finish watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High before heading for his limo.


Busy hotel kitchens aren’t always paying attention to whether the chicken wings they buy in bulk are frozen raw, frozen cooked, or somewhere in between. “Ask for them extra crispy,” Matt says. That way, they’ll be cooked thoroughly regardless of their freezer status. “I recommend that to everyone.”


A hotel guest pours milk into a bowl of cereal

Breakfast is undoubtedly the busiest time for room service, and those little cards that allow you to check off your menu items the night before are a huge help. “It’s great for everybody involved,” Matt says. “The kitchen can pace themselves and you can get your food on time.”


Yes, guests answer the door barely clothed. No, this is not optimal. “We don’t want to see it,” Matt says. “It's something we dealt with numerous times.” While it's likely your waiter will use discretion, any combination of genitalia, drugs, or illicit activity is best kept out of their sight.


A hotel room service tray sits in a hallway

That move where you stick your soggy fries outside your door? It can lead to some awkward encounters. Matt says he’s seen other guests stop, examine trays, and then pick up discarded food from them. Other times, people leave unimaginably gross items on the trays. “I’ve found condoms on there. Divorce paperwork. All kinds of things.”


Weird people aside, “We don’t really want it out there,” Matt says. “It stinks.” Instead, dial 0 for the front desk and let them know you’re done eating. They’ll dispatch someone to come and get it.


A tip is placed near a hotel check

People pay out the nose for room service, with hotels adding surcharges for “service” and “in-room” dining that can turn a $5 club sandwich into a $15 expense. That’s not great news for guests, but it does mean you don’t need to feel bad about not offering a cash tip. Those service fees usually go straight to the employees who got your food to your room. “I never tip,” Matt says. “Most of the time, the service and delivery charges are given to the waiter or split between the people who answered the phone and pick up the tray. It’s better to leave it all on paper to make sure it gets divided up.”

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.


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