Regions often can acquire interesting reputations, such as being known for having intricate ceremonies and populations of great warriors, or being sea-faring people with magnificent artists. The Abasgi people, however, from the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, did not become famous due to any of those aforementioned national traits. Instead, the Abasgian region was designated with the uncomfortable reputation of being the producers of the best eunuchs in Europe. By the early medieval reign of Emperor Justinian of Constantinople (r. 527-565), a great portion of the eunuchs employed in the Roman / Byzantine Empire had long been sourced from Abasgia. According to Procopius (c. 6th century), a historian from Constantinople, many of the Abasgi eunuchs may have been unwilling participants put under the knife to be sold in a gruesome, but lucrative, industry that padded the pockets of Abasgian rulers. Emperor Justinian, despite having eunuchs serving in serval important positions in his own court, ultimately endeavored to put a stop to the Abasgian eunuch industry. On Abasgian eunuchs and Justinian’s attempts to stop the regional practice, Procopius wrote:
“[T]he Abasgi dwell along the coast, and their country extends as far as the mountains of the Caucasus…[T]hey have suffered most cruelly at the hands of their rulers owing to the excessive avarice displayed by them. For both their kings used to take such boys of this nation as they noted having comely features and fine bodies, and dragging them away from their parents without the least hesitation they would make them eunuchs and then sell them at high prices to any persons in the Roman territory who wished to buy them… And it was in consequence of this that the most of the eunuchs among the Romans, and particularly at the emperor’s court, happened to be Abasgi by birth. But during the reign of the present Emperor Justinian the Abasgi have changed everything and adopted a more civilised standard of life. For not only have they espoused the Christian doctrine, but the Emperor Justinian also sent them one of the eunuchs from the palace, an Abasgus by birth named Euphratas, and through him commanded their kings in explicit terms to mutilate no male thereafter in this nation by doing violence to nature with the knife” (Procopius, The Wars, 8.3.12-19).
The Abasgi people, understandably, were said to have welcomed Justinian’s intervention with gratefulness. Abasgian rulers and eunuch traders, however, were not content with losing their lucrative trade. Unfortunately for the emperor, subsequent diplomatic campaigns that Justinian attempted in hopes of integrating Abasgia into his empire ended up backfiring, giving the Abasgian rulers enough momentum to launch a rebellion. As told by Procopius, “Roman soldiers sent by the emperor began to be quartered among them very generally, and they sought to annex the land to the Roman empire, imposing certain new regulations upon them. But because these were rather severe the Abasgi became exceedingly wroth” (Procopius, The Wars, 8.9.10-11). In response to the rebellion that occurred in Abasgia, Emperor Justinian unleashed his military against the region. According to Procopius’ account, the rebellion was crushed and the region faced devastation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Miniature of Emperor Justinian from the Digestum Vetus (BL Arundel 484, f. 6), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana, and The British Library).
- History of the Wars by Procopius, translated by H. B. Dewing. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1919.