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6 Famous Eunuchs

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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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