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Des eunuques dans la tragédie grecque. L’orientalisme antique à l’épreuve des textes

Dominique Lenfant


In the past few decades, eunuchs have been described as being for the ancient Greeks a fascinating symbol of eastern effeminacy and weakness as opposed to strong, male Greeks, exemplifying ancient Greek orientalism. Greek tragedy has been presented as a major source on the matter, although very few of the characters in the Greek plays we know are eunuchs. This paper examines the three cases that have been produced as evidence. In two fragments of lost plays (Phrynichos’ Phoenissae and Sophocles’ Troilos) there is indeed a castrated oriental slave, but both texts are limited to a few words. There is nothing to suggest that the eunuch either had a major role in the play as a whole or served as a symbol to contrast Orientals and the Greeks. The third alleged eunuch is the Phrygian slave of Euripides’ Orestes, this time a rather important figure in an extant tragedy, but it is shown here that he should not be interpreted as being a eunuch. Thus, eunuchs seem to have been unimportant in Greek tragedy, and consequently they cannot be considered to have been a fascinating symbol of the contemptible Oriental.


Eunuch, orientalism, Orient, Persians, Phrygians, Trojans, tragedy, Phrynichos, Sophocles, Euripides

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7358/erga-2013-002-lenf

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