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Lead Seals of Middle Byzantine Eunuchs: A Reassessment of the Evidence in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection

Felix Szabo, University of Chicago, Summer Fellow 2018–2019

I compiled a database of 438 lead seals held at Dumbarton Oaks that can be connected to eunuch owners from the 9th to 12th centuries. These seals offer a valuable corrective to mainstream Byzantine narratives, in which eunuchs often seem to exist as little more than stereotypes and moral examples. The information on these seals paints a rich picture of the varied fortunes and circumstances of their owners’ lives, and shows that eunuchs were not as confined either to the highest echelons of the courtly elite or to menial service in the imperial quarters as contemporary textual records suggest. Because these seals exist in such quantities, especially in comparison to better-known manuscript and reliquary commissions from eunuchs, they also offer important background against which to examine these exceptional items. Did eunuchs venerate the same saints as non-eunuchs? Did they understand their relationship to Christianity as somehow distinct due to their physical condition, or did they consider themselves perfectly “average” Christians—and did they show it on their seals? Further analysis of these seals will lay the groundwork for examining these and other questions, offering a first valuable corrective to longstanding historiographical bias, and recentering Byzantine eunuchs as actors in their own history.