Belisarius enjoyed great prestige and respect throughout the empire for his brilliance in battle. But at the same time he was also the laughing stock of the empire. It was an open secret that his wife was carrying on an affair in public with their adopted son. Time and time again, Antonina had made a fool and a cuckold of her husband. She had brought him nothing but great shame. Although Belisarius loved her deeply, she had gone too far. Find out how he got his revenge on the adulterous couple.
Theodosius Enters a Monastery
Throughout his affair with his adopted mother, Theodosius had one great fear; that Belisarius would find out and kill him for it. The danger was great. Antonina made no attempts to hide the affair from anyone. Since this was an open secret, a dark cloud hung over Theodosius’s head. Having had enough of danger, Theodosius left his mother and fled to a monastery, determined to lead a new life.
But Antonina was distraught to see her son go. She mourned for him as if she had lost her husband. So deep was her attachment that she implored Belisarius to bring their beloved son back. As usual Belisarius could not deny his wife’s request. He dutifully went to Justinian and told him that Theodosius was vital to his household and the defence of the empire. As such, the emperor decreed that Theodosius return to Belisarius’s household at once.
The long separation only increased the lust that Antonina had for her son. She could not wait for him to return to her so she could ravish him with abandon. While the lovers remained in Constantinople to catch up on lost time, Belisarius left for the Persian front to defend the empire once more. With her husband gone, Antonina made no effort to hide the affair. Soon everyone in Constantinople knew what she was doing with her son. Although the scandalous affair shocked the masses, they wisely held their tongues. Only one man had the guts to right the wrong done to Belisarius; that man was Photius, son of Antonina.
The Motivations of Photius
As the son of Antonina, Photius knew his mother better than anyone else. From young he had led a hard life with her until Belisarius came along. Belisarius treated Photius as if he were his own son, bringing him up with love and seeing that he got the best education. Quite naturally, Photius loved and respected his stepfather. But as much as he loved his stepfather, he hated his mother. For some unknown reason, Antonina tried to have Photius killed, but the attempt failed. As a result, Photius nursed a grudge against his mother which he swore to repay. Although he hated his mother for cuckolding his beloved stepfather, there wasn’t much he could do about it. He knew that Belisarius was too foolish to listen to reason. And as long as Antonina was around, she could easily twist Belisarius around her finger. He bided his time and waited until Belisarius left for the Persian front alone. This was the moment Photius needed and he left with his stepfather.
The Punishment of Antonina and Theodosius
When they were safely out of Antonina’s reaches, Photius took Belisarius aside and told him about her affair. As expected, Belisarius refused to believe it. But Photius had come prepared. He patiently refuted his stepfather’s doubts and showed him proof of Antonina’s infidelity that he had carefully obtained over the years. But the most damning factor that convinced Belisarius was the fact that Photius was Antonina’s son; the last person on earth to bring such charges against her.
At long last, Belisarius realized he was a fool. One can only imagine the inner turmoil he felt at the betrayal. Crimson with rage, he swore to kill the ingrate called Theodosius for the humiliation. But even in his great anger, he added that he still loved Antonina deeply. Even though she had hurt him, he would not harm her. Photius was only too happy to get back at his mother through Theodosius. But the two men had to bide their time. They knew that they could not act rashly while Theodosius remained under Antonina’s protection.
The moment arrived when Antonina sent Theodosius to Ephesus for an unknown errand while she went to the Persian front to join her husband. Instead of getting a warm welcome, Antonina found herself imprisoned on her husband’s orders. She complained loudly against the unjust treatment. But she had to hold her tongue when her husband raged wildly at her infidelity. He swore that if she did not shut up, he would kill her on the spot.
While Antonina got her just desserts, Photius was busy questioning her eunuch about Theodosius’s location. When he learned that Theodosius was in Ephesus, he set off at once with a handful of picked troops determined to catch him. Somehow, Theodosius got wind of Photius’s intentions and quickly hid himself in his favourite hiding place; the Church of Saint John. It was against the law and God to seize a person who sought sanctuary from a church. But Photius was not bothered. He bribed the bishop who allowed them to capture Theodosius. Despite his pleas for mercy, Photius had him imprisoned in a castle in the Taurus Mountains near Syria. Pleased with a job well done, Photius returned to Constantinople. Thus far the vengeance of Belisarius had gone according to plan.
But Antonina was not so easily beaten. Despite being under lock and guard, she still had one last trump card up her sleeve. That trump card was the Empress Theodora. Due to her close friendship with Theodora, Antonina knew she could count on the empress to save her. Even though Belisarius had her under strict guard, Antonina managed to send word to the empress through her servant.
When Theodora heard the news, she acted swiftly to save her friend. She went straight to the only man who could command Belisarius; her husband Justinian. Through Justinian, she issued an order asking for the release and proper treatment of Antonina. With great reluctance and anger, Belisarius had no choice but to release his smug looking wife. The couple however still remained on hostile terms. Meanwhile Theodora was not done. She arrested Photius and threw him into the imperial dungeon. There he remained, refusing to divulge the whereabouts of Theodosius. Still Theodora had her means. In the end, her agents found and freed Theodosius, returning him to the side of Antonina.
The inner turmoil that Belisarius went through hampered his battle on the Persian front. Aware that Belisarius was vital to the defence of the empire, the empress step in to reconcile both husband and wife. This would allow Belisarius to focus solely on battle. Once relations between husband and wife returned to normal, Antonina convinced her husband to allow Theodosius back into the household. Happily for Belisarius, Theodosius soon died of dysentery. With his son’s death, there was nothing left to distract Belisarius. As for Photius, he escaped from prison years later. After which, he promptly made his way to Jerusalem and entered a monastery. He now knew that no one could save Belisarius from his mother’s clutches.
Reflections of the Vizier
If not for the meddling of Theodora, Belisarius would have gotten his vengeance on the adulterous pair. At the very least he could take comfort in the death of Theodosius through dysentery. Fate had intervened where man could not. Meanwhile Belisarius knew he was helpless against the two women. This was probably why he made no attempt to rescue his stepson who had earned the wrath of his mother. What could Belisarius do? Aware of his impotence within his household, he focused on defending the empire from its enemies. The great general had returned once more.
Bridge, Anthony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1993.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.