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The Most Powerful Eunuchs From History

Updated November 19, 2020 22.4k views12 items

Over thousands of years, elite individuals across the world have employed famous eunuchs in positions of power. Eunuchs are typically castrated men, though some historical texts have referred to them being simply celibate or infertile. Because eunuchs were seen as less than men, who were unable to reproduce, and who had no ties to the aristocracy, they would often have a king's confidence. 

Eunuchs have made incredible contributions to politics, war, history, and culture. For example, eunuchs were used to guard the Ottoman sultan's harem. They also conspired and played big roles in political processes. Throughout the millennia, certain eunuchs in Chinese courts actually held a lot of power, such as the position of admiral of China's giant fleet. Read on to learn about famous eunuchs and how these castrated men greatly influenced history around the globe. 

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Meet Sima Qian, the man who penned The Historical Records as one of ancient China's first great historians. His dad himself was both an astronomer and a court historian (meaning he recorded daily events at the imperial court for posterity) and, on his deathbed, reportedly begged his son to complete his great opus. Sima Qian decided to continue his dad's mission to record all known history while reforming the Chinese calendar.

    Once, Emperor Wu, Sima Qian's imperial master, sent a general named Li Ling out to fight some nomads. Li Ling lost and the emperor ordered all of Li Ling and his family to be killed. Sima Qian pleaded on Li's behalf and the emperor sentenced him to death or castration. Sima Qian chose castration and became a eunuch so he could live and finish his book.

  • Photo: Charles Heath / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Mohammad Khan Qajar Founded A New Dynasty In Iran

    The Iranian Qajar dynasty was started by a eunuch! While, Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar might not have been able to procreate (a rival had him castrated at age six to prevent his rise to power), this eighteenth-century tribal leader wasn't short of ambition. Mohammad spent sixteen years as a political hostage at an enemy court, but eventually escaped to his family's stronghold and accumulated power over the next decade in his capital of Tehran. During his wars of conquest and subsequent reign, he inflicted cruel punishment, slew many, and sacked lots of cities until his assassination in 1797.

  • Bagoas Was A Persian Mastermind Who Schemed To Control The Throne Behind The Scenes

    The Persian Empire had a few famous eunuchs with the same name of Bagoas (including one who allegedly romanced Alexander the Great). One particular Bagoas lived during 4th century BCE. According to Diodorus Siculus, this Bagoas was "a eunuch in physical fact but a militant rogue in disposition" who was a key advisor to King Artaxerxes III. Bagoas was probably also a military commander. He conquered Egypt, looted its temples, and served as an important administrator in the empire.

    Diodorus Siculus claims that Bagoas poisoned Artaxerxes and popped his youngest son, Arses, on the throne; eventually, he slew Arses and his kids, too, and put Darius III on the throne. Bagoas unsurprisingly tried to poison Darius later, but the king got wind of the plan and forced Bagoas to drink the poison instead.

  • Some of Europe's most famous early modern singers were eunuchs, or castrati. Castration, though barbaric, prevented young male singers' voices from fully changing, gifting them with an extraordinary range and timbre that modern singers cannot match. One of the most celebrated was the eighteenth-century warbler Farinelli (born Carlo Broschi), who was trained in Italy. He even went on the early version of a stadium tour of Europe. He hung out at the Spanish royal court for over two decades, where he sang the same four songs every night to King Philip V for years to alleviate that monarch's depression.