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Memoirs of a Byzantine Eunuch

Author: Christopher Harris

Cover illustration: Willi Gray  

'If you still had your balls,' the charioteer muttered, 'I'd cut them off.'
How often I have heard that said! Whole men think it witty and original, and the fact that it is so often repeated tells us what low esteem eunuchs are held in. But the man who stood before me was not joking. He was quivering with fear, and so was I. My knife trembled like a leaf, its blade flickering in the dim light. The chalice I held in my other hand, an elaborate jewelled vessel obviously taken from some church or other, also shook, and I feared that I would never be able to carry out the task I had been entrusted with.
I stood as still and straight as I could, hoping my borrowed chasuble would make me look more dignified than I felt. Michael and his cronies, who could not hear what the charioteer had muttered, looked impatient. The emperor was dressed in more elaborate vestments than usual. The others, following his example, were dressed as bishops or as various sorts of priests, though their manner was far from reverent. They lounged in their finery, not caring that their snowy tunics and gold-hemmed capes were dragging in the dirt. Lamps and candles had been set up all over the room. Without providing much light, they risked setting fire to heaps of straw and fodder that lay all over the uneven floor. However, the lighting, faintly revealing the vaulted ceiling, as well as picking out odd details of our assorted costumes, did its job. It made the stable look like a church, albeit a church of filth and disorder.
A groom dressed as an acolyte held a silver dish bearing a mound of horse dung. It had been selected for its neat shape and resemblance to a small loaf, and the groom who carried it smirked at his burden, lifting the silk cloth that covered the dung, sniffing it with apparent pleasure, as though it really was freshly baked bread. No one else shared his joke, though a few courtiers, dressed in their own clothes, hanging back and glancing at each other nervously, tried to give the impression they were enjoying themselves.

I wished, as I stood there with the knife, that I had not pursued the emperor's scholarly enquiry quite so vigorously. How was I to know that half-remembered superstitions about the potency of gladiator's blood could have any relevance to me? There are no gladiators in Constantinople, and it is centuries since there were any at Rome. When Michael asked about those ancient beliefs, I could have admitted that I knew nothing, and left it at that. But I suppose I must have absorbed something of my master's habits. Photius seldom admitted ignorance, except of things he thought beneath contempt, such as racing, or court gossip. When asked something he did not know, he prevaricated, then went and found out, usually consulting Leo or Theodore, or some other scholar with more time to investigate than he had. I followed his example, consulting Theodore, who produced an ancient book which, when interpreted by him, confirmed what Michael hoped, that the blood of a gladiator, if drunk fresh, imparts strength, vigour and
dexterity. It was the emperor's idea to use a charioteer instead of a gladiator, and to offer the blood in a mockery of the Eucharist.

'Get on with it,' Michael said. 'How can we have the ceremony without blood?'
A horse pissed noisily, filling the air with foul steam. Hoping that the horse would not give Michael ideas, I pressed the blade against the charioteer's skin, then cut very gently, just below the ear. I would much rather have cut somewhere else, a finger for instance, but that was not deemed dignified. For the rite to be solemn, the cut must be dangerous. My victim held himself rigid, giving me a sideways glare, and I knew that if he ever caught me alone, my life would be over. I allowed his blood to flow into the jewelled chalice. Each drop gleamed as it trickled down the bright silver, joining the dark pool at the bottom of the bowl. When the chalice was almost full I drew it back, allowing the charioteer, pale and trembling, to raise a hand and staunch the flow.
'You may go,' Michael said to him. 'And it's no good looking at me like that! It serves you right for losing.'
The charioteer slunk away, holding tightly onto his neck with bloodstained fingers. Michael waved a hand and a couple of thurifers leapt forward, brushing the straw from their silk cassocks. They were guttersnipes, recruited for the occasion, and not at all sure who we were or what was expected of them. On Michael's command they threw grains of asafoetida into their thuribles and began to swing them enthusiastically, filling the air with acrid vapour. It might have been worse. The emperor's first idea was to use brimstone, but he had abandoned it when Basiliscianus, who had been a sailor and claimed to know about such things, pointed out that in the confined space of the stable the fumes would have killed us. I disliked Basiliscianus, who was a pretty, simpering sort of youth, who always demanded more attention than anyone else. It was hard to imagine him lasting long as an oarsman, though it was easy enough to picture him drawing attention to himself, flaunting his oiled body and being plucked from the rowers' ranks by an indulgent emperor. Whatever his past, we all had cause to be grateful to him then, as no one else could have contradicted the emperor and been listened to.
When the charioteer was out of sight and the air was full enough of fumes, Michael began to intone. He, of course, had the emperor's privilege of entering the sanctuary at Hagia Sophia and witnessing the Mystery. He knew the appropriate words, and could repeat them accurately, but on that occasion Michael did not repeat the formulas used by his patriarch. He uttered words of his own, improvising and elaborating as he went on.

When he had gone on for long enough Michael held out his little finger, reached beneath the silk cloth and scooped up a small lump of the horse dung. He held it beneath his nose, sniffing it for a moment before popping it into his mouth. The others held back, watching their emperor rolling dung round his mouth like sturgeon's roe, knowing that they would be required to do the same. He swallowed the dung with a loud gulp, smacking his lips for effect. 'Delicious,' Michael said. 'It reminds me of tripe. However well they clean tripe, it always retains an odour of the farmyard. That is one of its charms, don't you agree?'
A few of the courtiers agreed nervously, recalling banquets of offal they had been obliged to eat, while others continued their efforts to shuffle backwards unobtrusively.
'Come forward my flock,' Michael said, 'and receive the Sacrament.'
No one moved.
'Who will be first?' For a moment Michael looked vulnerable. His eyes filled with fear and his lip trembled until he looked like small boy who had been denied something he longed for.
'It was a good idea, wasn't it?' Michael said, his voice almost inaudible.
There was a chorus of inarticulate sounds that might have been interpreted as agreement. Michael looked a little happier. 'Who will join me in the Paulician mass?' he asked.
The courtiers and grooms looked at each other apprehensively. What would happen if no one obeyed him? Would they all be horribly punished? Or was the whole business so embarrassing that Michael would not dare to do or say anything?
'Who will partake in this unholy meal?' Michael asked. 'Who will join the community of sinners?'
Worshipping the devil did not, in itself, seem such a bad idea. What repelled me was the silly ritual, devised by an emperor who knew nothing of Paulicianism, and was known to dislike ceremony. As for the devil, he was as good as any other god. Perhaps I should have prayed to him, rather than to God, when they sliced off my balls. The Evil One might have kept me whole. The genital organs are the devil's favourites, being the source of all temptation and most pleasure.
Basiliscianus stepped forward, smiling and looking back at the others. 'I will be first,' he said, kneeling at Michael's feet, a posture he was rumoured to adopt often. He looked up expectantly, parting his lips slightly. Michael broke off a little of the dung and placed it on his friend's lips. Basiliscianus turned to the others and swallowed it ostentatiously. Then Michael held out the jewelled chalice and allowed Basiliscianus to sip the charioteer's blood, muttering a few words as he did so.
One by one, the others all came forward and knelt to receive the flesh and blood of the devil. I held back, hoping that my role as an assistant celebrant might somehow make my participation unnecessary. But it did not. Like the others, I was obliged to ingest a little of the dung and drink some of the charioteer's blood, joining, not the community of sinners, but a company of dissemblers and sycophants.

How did I, Zeno of Tmutorokan, a eunuch, come to be serving the Emperor Michael III at a heretical mass held in the Hippodrome stables of Constantinople, while dressed in the cast-off vestments of a Metropolitan of Thessalonica? It is a question I have often asked myself. I suppose that my life, that any life, could be represented as a series of accidents. But that is not entirely true. We make plans, and so do others. The gods watch over us, and use us for purposes of their own. Demons lie in wait for us, eager to lead us astray. And the result, which no one will deny, is that things seldom turn out as expected.
Perhaps you doubt that the gods take any interest in creatures like me? Well, here is a fact that will make you think again: the most significant event in my life happened in the year of Our Lord 837. And that was the year the Great Comet blazed in the sky, lighting the darkness with its portentous tail. If that is not enough for you, there were omens on the Earth, as well as above it. I became a eunuch, and thus began my adventures, because my attention was distracted by a talking bird. And birds, as the Paulician heretics assert, are creatures of the devil.


RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 364

Publication date: 27.06.2002

ISBN numbers:
978 1 903517 03 1
978 1 907650 90 1

World Rights
Rights sold: Russia (AdaptecT-ough Company),
Lithuania (Media Incognito).