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The Eunuchs of Assyria: Social Castration as Imperial Strategy in the World’s First Empire

Project description

Gender, sexuality and power in ancient Near East

The Assyrian Empire brought most parts of the Near East under its hegemony from 900 BCE to 600 BCE. As the world’s earliest empire, it has been widely studied from a king-centred approach. Only recent works on queenship sparked the consideration of traditional gender suppositions concerning power exercise in ancient Near East. The EU-funded Assyrian Eunuchs project focuses on the ša-rēši class of men defined as eunuchs to demonstrate that Assyria was a collaborative enterprise based on the active cooperation of a variety of groups and persons including the king. It will directly address traditional perceptions of the relationship between gender, sexuality and power structures in Assyria by describing the identity positions of the eunuchs, their historical evolution and the specific means used to negotiate their status.


The study of Assyria, the world’s earliest empire, has sought to define and reconstruct the material and immaterial structures of imperial power. Research to date has focused primarily on the roles and agency of the king, the most visible actor in the extant sources, though recent work on queenship has initiated an important reconsideration of traditional gender assumptions regarding the exercise and materialization of power in the ancient Near East. This project takes the next step in recognizing Assyria, like later empires, as a collaborative enterprise, one whose success was based in the active and deliberate contributions of diverse groups and individuals including but not limited to the king. It uses the ša-rēši, a class of men defined as eunuchs, as its chief case study to directly challenge traditional assumptions of the relationships between gender, sexuality, and power structures in Assyria. The project will focus on four major objectives: delineating the identity positions of the eunuchs and their historical situation and development; defining the specific material and visual means by which the eunuchs negotiated their status and agency; critically assessing traditional assumptions on the relationships of gender, sexuality, and power, and the ongoing influence on these of Orientalism; and illuminating the actual roles, functioning, and agency of eunuchs in Assyria. The project is strongly multidisciplinary, involving close analysis of newly accessible textual, artefactual, and image corpora through the application of advanced approaches and methodologies drawn from disciplines including art history and material culture studies as well as archaeology and philology. Results will redefine our understanding of the world’s earliest imperial system, Assyria, and serve as a model for reconsidering the roles of perceived marginal groups as important actors in other imperial systems.


Net EU contribution
€ 246 669,12
14195 Berlin

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Berlin Berlin Berlin
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 246 669,12

Partners (1)