The Muslims of Medieval Italy

By Alex Metcalfe | Go to book overview

10
Eunuchs, familiars, collaborators
and conspirators

The use of eunuchs in the south Mediterranean

The employment of highly trained eunuch functionaries on a grand scale had a long history in the ancient and medieval Mediterranean. Indeed, they were a standard feature of Byzantine and Arab-Muslim regimes. Moreover, from the ninth century, it was not unusual to find ruler, court and administration dominated by powerful cliques of bureaucrats (both eunuchs and kin groups), to the extent that the ruler was often reduced to assuming the role of a figurehead.1

In Sicily, it was the formal creation of the kingdom, followed by the invention of a centralised and sophisticated administration that had given rise to a class of royal administrators whose devotion and loyalty to the crown served the interests of both masters and servants. However, the palace eunuchs at Palermo and Messina were not merely administrative functionaries who acted on the bidding of the king’s officials – many of them were the king’s officials. Unlike the Latin magnates of the kingdom, the high-ranking eunuchs lived in close physical proximity to the royal palace and maintained a permanent presence within them, in part, because the dīwān offices were located inside the main palace itself.2 In addition, there were many lower level, ancillary staff who were also eunuchs and who were likely to have had access to all areas of the palaces, including the women’s quarters. Hence, the palace eunuchs held sway at a range of levels in the very nerve centre of the kingdom and their senior staff quickly came to be key political players. Along with the burgeoning royal household, as the size and complexity of the royal administration and organisational needs of the kingdom grew, so too did the power, influence and indispensability of the eunuchs. In the regimes of the Fatimids and Abbasids, it was not uncommon to find a purge of eunuchs, scribes and officials after the fall of a chief administrator. In Sicily, where the system had developed under George of Antioch and Maio of Bari, similar dynamics are perhaps seen with the deaths of Philip of Maydiyya and other palace eunuchs in 1153, and the massacre of eunuchs in 1161.

Precisely who was and who was not a eunuch is not always obvious in the narrative and charter sources, and even less so from some of the modern trans-

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