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Discussions of fertility, both in antiquity and in modern scholarship, often focus on the female patient.  But what about men?  How and when was male infertility acknowledge and treated, and when and how was it deliberately induced?  This paper reviews the sources for general discussion of male infertility, and then focuses upon the most often discussed manifestation: eunuchs.

Eunuchs, to the Romans of the imperial era, were certainly an Eastern perversion; they appear at the courts of foreign kings and go about dressed as women while worshiping the goddess Cybele, herself an Eastern import. However, there is some evidence that eunuchs were being made for reasons other than religious initiation.  For example, the Digest includes reference to a rescript of Hadrian dealing with various circumstances in which eunuchs cannot be legally made. Far from a discussion of ritual castration, D.48.8.4-5 describes situations in which professionals (medici) perform the operation on slaves and free persons with and without the patient’s consent.  The practice is punishable by death under the LexCornelia, thus marking it as an act thought to be among the most transgressive, equal to murder.

The reason for this harsh treatment of practitioners of castration can hardly be explained away by xenophobic objections to priests of Cybele, and indeed there is reason to believe that the practice targeted by this law is not that of religious castration. Juvenal’s 6th satire (366 – 378) contains a telling passage in which he describes the castration of an adolescent slave as a method for making the perfect sex toy for a female master, a process that would render the slave both infertile and able to perform sexually.  Most of the methods mentioned in the Digest would allow the penis to function, and some would preserve a certain residual level of testosterone production as well as the scrotum. 

Eunuchs were hardly asexual objects in the literature of the Roman Empire.  The priests of Cybele in the Golden Ass were freed by their infertile state to acts of sexual ‘deviance’, for instance, and the sophist Favorinus bragged openly about his sexual exploits as a eunuch.  This infertile sexuality provided in its turn a way for women to engage in sexual encounters outside the bounds of marriage, and for men to avoid (though at some extraordinary cost) the embarrassment and expense of unwanted children.  The treatment of these eunuchs tells us a great deal about the tension between the expectation that ‘proper’ men be fertile and intact, and the pervasiveness of the practice of castration, even under extreme legal sanctions.

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