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Earinus the Eunuch: Martial (from Book 9) and Statius (Silvae 3.4)

Translation and notes copyright © 2002 John T. Quinn; all rights reserved.

The summary of an otherwise lost volume of Dio Cassius' Roman History records that the Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 CE) hated the memory of his brother, the previous emperor Titus, so much that: "although he was in love with a eunuch named Earinus, he decreed that, from now on, no-one in the territory ruled by Rome should be castrated. And so he insulted Titus, who had also been strongly attracted to castrated boys." (67.2.3)

The edict against castration was promulgated in the early years of Domitian's reign. Earinus, however, is not known to us as a public figure until 94 or 95 CE, when Martial and Statius commemorated him in their poetry. From Martial's verse, we see that Earinus served as cupbearer, and was Domitian's favorite slave. He was also a teenager, as the comparison, which Martial makes three times, to Jupiter's cupbearer Ganymede makes clear. (If we choose to do so, the Ganymede comparison can likewise be pressed to bolster Dio's gossip about Domitian's romantic proclivities, for Jupiter also enjoyed Ganymede sexually.) Statius' poem seems to confirm the age of Earinus, and supplies two additional, basic facts: that Earinus was originally from Pergamum in Asia Minor, and that he was castrated in Italy. In the prose preface to his third book of occasional verse (= Silvae), Statius also reveals that Earinus is now a freedman, and that Silvae 3.4 was in some sense commissioned by him.

Martial's six poems on Earinus are all found in his ninth book of Epigrams. They form a cycle, divided into two parts: the first three poems play on the impossibility of fitting the name "Earinus" into Martial's metres, and the second three refer to the dedication of his hair (plus a mirror) which the eunuch made to Asclepius, the god of healing who enjoyed a prominent cult at Pergamum. In this translation, I have prefaced the cycle with two more poems from the same book. These poems which precede, in Martial's book as well as in this selection, the "Earinus cycle" do not mention Domitian's favorite. However, since they laud the imperial decrees against castration (and child prostitution), they must somehow color the reading of the six poems on Earinus. Scholars differ on exactly how. Some see the collocation of the first pair with the following poems as a surreptitious "dig" at a hypocritical Domitian, himself eunuch-crazy. More likely, the first pair embraces sincere praise for the emperor's edicts, and offers a delicate hint of sympathy for the unfortunate Earinus, whose condition as a eunuch is nowhere mentioned by Martial.

Although Statius does refer to Earinus' condition, he graciously couches it in the midst of 106 lines of hexameter verse, along with the rueful note that Domitian -- too late for Earinus -- banned castration. The poem celebrates Earinus' dedication of hair to Asclepius by recourse to mythological fantasy -- a technique that is reminiscent of the last piece on Earinus by Martial. Although certainty is not possible on the issue, all indications point to Statius' poem being later than, and hence consciously in competition with, Martial's cycle. Martial and Statius were the most distinguished poets writing in the Domitianic era; that they were unfriendly rivals is indicated by the fact that, despite common patrons, neither ever deigns to mention the other in his verse.

Left unmentioned in their Earinus-poems, too, is the reason why, in the first place, the eunuch dedicated a lock of his hair. Perhaps it was in fulfillment of a special vow on behalf of the ruler (as, centuries before, Callimachus had represented Berenice doing in The Lock of Berenice); perhaps it was in thanksgiving for his being freed from slavery. But the most attractive theory is that the dedication was meant to signal the passage of Earinus from boyhood to manhood. This was a common occasion for a Greek teenager's dedication of hair, and so needed no special mention by our poets -- especially when silence served so well the cause of sensitivity. Earinus had passed out of boyhood, but, as a eunuch in the ancient world, would never be reckoned truly a man.

Further Reading

Martial (from Epigrams, Book 9)

Domitian's Edicts Against Making Children Eunuchs and Prostitutes

9.5
Greatest tamer of the Rhineland & the world's father,
restrained prince, your cities thank you for their growth
in population; producing children's no longer an atrocity.
No boy sorrows now for his stolen manhood
sliced away by the craft of a greedy slavemonger;      5
unhappy mothers don't slip their prostituted babes
some coins for an overbearing pimp to tally up.
Restraint, not to be found in the bedroom before you,
has appeared, because of you, even in the brothel.
9.7
Pimping a man, letting the rabble defile him, is an outrage
   too small against our gender? So the pander
owns the cradle, is free to swipe a kid from his mother's
   breast and set him hawking for filthy money?
Immature bodies forced to suffer unspeakable abuse!       5
   Horrors like these repulsed the father of Italy,
known for rescuing tender youths, not long ago,
   from lust that cruelly renders manhood sterile.
Boys, grown men, old men - all loved you before;
   now, Caesar, toddlers love you too.       10

On Earinus' Name<1>

9.11
A name born with roses & violets;
signifying the year's best season;
smacking of Sicilian & Attic honey;
redolent of the phoenix's fragrant nest.

A name sweeter than divine nectar;       5
liked more than his own by Attis<2>
& the boy who mixes Jupiter's cups.<3>
Spoken in the hall of Mount Olympus:
a host of Venuses & Cupids answer.

A name noble, gentle, dainty,       10
I hoped to recite in polished verse.

But you, recalcitrant syllable, rebel.
Poets lengthen you to "Eiarinus" -
Greek poets, whom nothing stops
jumping between "Aires" & "Ares".<4>       15
The Muses I serve are more stern,
forbidding the use of tricks like that.
9.12
Your name heralds the mild time of the year, when bees
   of Attica make raids upon the fleeting spring;
a name that deserves painting with Venus' Acidalian pen,
   and her own needle is glad to inscribe in stitches;
a name that letters made of Red Sea pearls should mark,       5
   or letters of amber nuggets, polished by hand;
a name the expressive wings of geese could raise to heaven,<5>
   and fit to belong in Caesar's home alone.
9.13
If I were named for autumn, I'd be known as Oporinus;<6>
   for winter's shudder-inducing stars, Chimerinos.
Therinos my name, if called after the sweltering season.
   If spring bestowed a name, who'd that be?

On the Dedication of Earinus' Lock of Hair to Asclepius

9.16
A mirror advising his beauty & a sweet-smelling lock
   of hair - these are the presents set up as sacred
to Pergamum's god by the palace-slave his master loves
   most, the boy whose name signifies "springtime".
The land counting among its treasure such a gift       5
   is blessed, and needn't yearn for Ganymede's hair.
9.17
Latona's grandson, revered god whose soothing herbs
   charm the thread & too-short distaff of the Fates,
your boy, renowned now, sends you from Rome the hair
   his master praised, and thus fulfills a vow.
Also, he adds to the consecrated locks a round mirror       5
   whose face judged the bloom of his own secure.
Save, o god, his youthful beauty. Spare him seeming
   more lovely in long hair than he is in short.
9.36
Noticing a servant in Italy shorn of his curls, the Phrygian
   lad (the well-known favorite of the other Jupiter)<7>
said: "Take a look at your Caesar - the freedom he granted
   his boy! Supreme ruler, grant yours the same.
Long locks are concealing the first fuzz on my cheeks;       5
   your Juno chuckles, and refers to me as 'man'."
The father of heaven replied: "Sweetest of all boys,
   the facts themselves, not I, deny your request.
Our Caesar has a thousand pet-servants like you; his hall's
   immensity hardly contains these ethereal males.       10
But if hair cut short gives you a grown man's appearance,
   whom can I call upon to prepare the nectar?

Statius, Silvae 3.4

The Lock of Hair of Flavius Earinus,
Dedicated to Asclepius in His Temple at Pergamum

In the prose preface to Book 3 of the Silvae, Statius writes: "Also there's Earinus, the freedman of our Emperor Germanicus<8> - you know how long I've dawdled over his wish, although he'd asked me to inscribe in verse the lock of his hair which he was sending, along with a jewelled box and mirror, to Asclepius in Pergamum."

Go, I pray you, hair. Race across calm seas;
travel as you rest softly upon the gold surrounding you.
Go, for gentle Venus will give you smooth sailing
and make the winds mild. Maybe she'll pluck you from the perilous
ship, and convey you over the water on her own seashell!<9>       5
O Asclepius, grown son of Apollo, gladly accept this hair,
well-praised, which Caesar's best boy gives you. Display it
before your full-tressed father. Let him consider the sweet
sheen, and long be fooled into thinking it his brother Bacchus'.
Perhaps he'll clip strands from his own immortal hair       10
and encase them within gold - another gift for you!"

Pergamum, you're more blessed than pine-clad Mount Ida!
Ida may boast of the sacred abduction, and rightly so.<10>
She gave to the gods that boy whom Juno always gazes on
with anger, withdrawing her hand & refusing the nectar he offers.       15
But you, Pergamum, are the gods' delight & famed for that fair
child you sent to Latin lands, whom the Jupiter of Italy
& our Roman Juno<11> alike are happy to see their servant;
each approves of him. Such overwhelming pleasure
comes to the powerful lord of the world by divine plan.       20

The story goes that glittering Venus was on her way
from Mount Eryx to the Idalian glens, driving her gentle
swan-chariot, and passed through Pergamum's temple, where
the greatest comforter of the ailing dwells, the kindly god
who wards off approaching death & whose guardian snake       25
heals.<12> Here Venus saw a boy of incomparable beauty,
outshining the stars, at play before the altar of the god.
She first was somewhat deceived by the sudden sight of him:
one of her cupids? But no bow was in sight, and his shoulders
bore no trace of shadow from wings gleaming above.       30
In awe of his childish charm, she contemplated his features & hair,
saying: "Overlooked by love, are you allotted to Italian
towns? To endure a humble home's ordinary yoke
of slavery? Never! I will give you a master to match
that beauty of yours. Come, then, boy. Come with me.       35
I will speed you in my chariot across the starry skies,
a wonderful gift for a leader of men. No commonplace duties
await you. Your destiny is the palace, to be a slave for love.
I've never seen, I swear, nor engendered anything so sweet
the whole world over. Endymion will yield you place;       40
Attis too, and the youth destroyed by fruitlessly loving
an empty reflection on the pond.<13> The sea-blue nymph would prefer
to catch you & your water-jar, and drag you firmly under.<14>
You're beyond them all, boy. The only man more handsome
is he to whom I'll give you." And so into the chariot       45
drawn by swans she lifted him, and told him to be seated.
No time had passed when they saw the Latin hills, the homeland
of ancient Evander,<15> which Germanicus, the world's revered father,
embellishes with new works that reach the tips of the stars.
Urgent anxiety assailed the goddess - how best to arrange       50
his locks? What clothing would serve to spark his rosy complexion?
What gold would most rightly adorn his fingers, his neck?
She knew well the heavenly eye of the emperor. She it was
who held the nuptial torches and generously supplied his bride.
With practiced hand she fixes the lad's hair, drapes him       55
in purple robes, enriches him with her own burning rays.
The crowd of slaves, the previous pet-servants, give way.
It's his more radiant hand that carries to the mighty leader
the first cup, & the heavy agate goblets & glassware;
the wine turns sweeter by the new grace with which it's proffered.       60

Youngster dear to the gods! Chosen the first to drink
the holy nectar, to touch so often that huge right hand<16>
whose sway the Dacians<17> yearn to know, whose touch, the Persians
& Armenians & Indians! A favoring constellation attended your birth;
the deities have indulged you with countless blessings. In time past       65
your country's god left high Pergamum and crossed the sea
to prevent the down of puberty from taking hold of your bright
cheeks, from spoiling with darkness your face's graceful beauty.

Apollo's grown son alone was granted the power to feminize
the boy. With silent skill he gently compels the body,       70
almost unbattered by the wound,<18> to take leave of its gender.
Yet Venus is worried; cares gnaw her, fearful that the youth
suffers.
        The winning mercy of our lord had not yet begun
to preserve our males, intact as they were born. Shattering
the sexual organs, altering manhood, is sacrilegious now;       75
men as she's produced them is what Nature likes to see -
none else. No cruel custom now makes women in slavery
afraid to endure the labor of becoming mothers of sons.

By now, if born later, you'd also be a grown young man -
a shadow on your jaw, strength in fully-developed limbs.       80
Gladly you'd send to Asclepius' temple more than one
dedication.
         But now a single lock of hair is sailing
home to your land, hair which Venus drenched in perfume.
Each of the three spry Graces combed it through her hands.
It bests the purple tuft unlawfully clipped from Nisus<19>       85
& angry Achilles' locks, vowed to the river Sperchius.<20>
The moment the command came to take from your blond head
an early harvest, and lay bare with violence your gleaming shoulders,
dainty cupids joined their mother in hurrying here;
they readied the hair and draped around your chest an apron       90
of silk. With arrows tied together they cut the lock,
bringing it to rest on gold and gemstones, while their mother Venus
caught it falling, to apply & reapply her magical essences.
A household slave, by chance carrying cradled in his hands
a mirror splendidly set in jewels & gold, then spoke:       95
"Add this as well; no gift will please your country's temple
more, not even gold itself. Fix your gaze
on this, and leave your features impressed upon it forever."
So he spoke and shut the mirror, trapping the image.

The favored lad raised his hands to the stars, and said:       100
"Gentlest guardian of the human race, in return for my gifts,
choose, if so I deserve, to renew in lasting youth
my lord. Preserve him for the world's sake. The stars, the waves,
the earth make the request, along with me. I pray
he lives beyond the years of Priam & Nestor combined,<21>       105
happy to age with his palace and Rome's Capitoline shrine."
Pergamum marvelled as her altars trembled, confirming these words.

Notes

  1. "Earinus" means "belonging to spring" in Greek. Its first three syllables contain short vowels - one too many to fit any of Martial's metres. (Nor will the name fit Statius' hexameters.)
  2. The boy-love of the goddess Cybele, whom Martial mentions in the Latin here.
  3. Ganymede, the Trojan prince whom Jupiter took up to Olympus to serve as his cupbearer & sexual delight.
  4. At Iliad 5.31, Homer feels free to lengthen the initial alpha of Ares, the Greek god of war, and immediately follow it with the name correctly rendered.
  5. The V-formation of migrating geese would especially suit rendering Earinus' Greek name into its Latin equivalent, "Vernus".
  6. Oporinus means "belonging to autumn." The names proceed through the Greek terms for the seasons.
  7. Since Martial seems to be playing in these opening lines with audience recognition of characters' identities, I've preserved the periphrasis. The "Phrygian boy" is Ganymede. But Earinus was also from the Phrygian region of Asia Minor, and became Italian only by serving in Domitian's Roman palace. Notice, too, that Jupiter here becomes "the other Jupiter," since Domitian has displaced him as the most immediate lord of the universe.
  8. Domitian gained the honorific "Germanicus" for his alleged victories over the Germans.
  9. When Venus was born full-grown in sea-foam, she travelled to land on a shell.
  10. The young Trojan prince Ganymede was on Mt. Ida when Jupiter caught sight of his beauty. Turning into an eagle, Jupiter swooped down and snatched him to the gods' home on Olympus, ostensibly to be his cupbearer, but in fact to be the object of his affections. Juno seethed with anger at this slight to her sexual desirability, and this was, as the opening lines of Virgil's Aeneid would have it, one of the reasons why she always hated Troy and the Trojans.
  11. Domitian "Germanicus" and his wife.
  12. Asclepius' cures were often said to be effected with a snake. (Cf. the snakes entwined on the modern symbol of the "physician's staff".)
  13. The mythical Endymion was the youth kept by the Moon as her sexual pet. Attis was the young lover of Venus. Narcissus was cursed to fall in love with his own image reflected in water; he spent all of his time admiring the beauty he saw until he wasted away and died.
  14. Hylas, the handsome boy-love of Hercules, was kidnapped under the waves by a nymph (a minor water-goddess) when she saw him come to her pond to fetch water. Martha A. Malamud & Donald T. McGuire, Jr. have argued that the Hercules-Hylas pair elsewhere in Domitianic ideology stands for Domitian-Earinus: pp.210-212 in "Flavian Variant. Myth. Valerius' Argonautica", in A.J. Boyle, ed., Roman Epic (London: Routledge, 1996).
  15. Evander was the legendary king of a small kingdom located at the future site of Rome.
  16. The emperor's.
  17. A people living in what is now Romania. Domitian's armies fought with them, but it was Emperor Trajan, twenty years later, who finally added them to the Empire.
  18. Henriksén (1997), pp.282-284, develops an earlier scholar's suggestion that Statius by these words indicates the precise procedure by which Earinus was made a eunuch. Paulus Aegineta (Epitome medica 6.68) explains how to create the "thlibias" variety of eunuch: a young boy, no more than a few years old, is made to sit in a vat of hot water; when his scrotum is relaxed, a person reaches a hand into the water, and crushes the testes between the fingers until they are liquefied in the sac. Some support for Earinus as a thlibias may come below, where Domitian is said to have outlawed "shattering" (rather than "cutting off" or the more generic "destroying") the male genitals. Still, Statius' words are general enough to prevent me from committing to the notion that Earinus was specifically a thlibias.
  19. In the first book of his Georgics, Virgil wrote about Nisus, king of Megara. His city was invulnerable to attack as long as a purple-colored lock of hair remained uncut on his head. But his daughter, in love with a king attacking Megara, one night cut her father's hair as he slept.
  20. Book 23 of Homer's Iliad states that the father of Achilles, worried about his son's safety in the expedition against Troy, had vowed to dedicate to the Sperchius, the river of his homeland, a lock of the boy's hair if he returned home safely.
  21. King Priam of Troy was far into old age when the Trojan War began; Nestor, a Greek leader in the war, lived to be at least 90 years old.

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