Belisarius was almost invincible in battle. He was dashing, energetic, cunning, decisive, intelligent and resourceful. Due to his brilliance, he conquered North Africa, Sicily and Italy for the Byzantine Empire. It almost seemed as if he was invincible. But every human being has at least one weakness and the great general was no exception. It was unfortunate that his one crippling weakness had the power to destroy men and ruin empires. That weakness was his deep love for his wife Antonina who did not share his fidelity.
The Early Life of Antonina
Antonina, the daughter of an unnamed charioteer, grew up in the harsh world of the Hippodrome. Due to her low birth, she spent her childhood in poverty. The primary sources hint that she was easy from a young age. When she was old enough however, she met a man who shared her social standing and lived with him. No one knows if they were officially married. During her time with him, she had children, but it is hard to say if that man was their sole father. One of her children was a son named Photius who grew up hating her promiscuous ways. As fate would have it, the man she lived with died early, leaving Antonina and her young children to fend for themselves.
Antonina Meets the Shining General
Antonina struggled to get by until she crossed the path of Belisarius. A rising star in the empire, Belisarius was young and dashing. More importantly, he had the favour of the Emperor Justinian himself. But even though Antonina was probably nearing 40 and a good 10 years older than Belisarius when he met her, the young general fell madly in love with her. Soon after, this unlikely couple got married.
Antonina had struck gold with Belisarius because he would love her for the rest of his life. He treated her as his closest confidant and kept nothing from her. She was even privy to his military and political secrets. If she ever wanted to see the world, Belisarius fulfilled her wish. He took her with him on all his campaigns. He brought her to North Africa, Italy and even to the eastern frontier of the empire. Despite her husband’s deep and abiding love for her, Antonina was not satisfied. She could not bring herself to remain faithful to one man and she had no qualms about carrying on behind her husband’s back.
Antonina and Theodosius
No one knew how many lovers Antonina had over the years. But what people remembered was the illicit affair that she carried on with Theodosius. Now, Theodosius was the adopted son of Antonina and Belisarius. The couple liked him so much that they went from being his godparents to his adopted parents. In the eyes of the law, he was their son. He was also was half of Antonina’s age.
From the start, Antonina went all out to seduce him. The fact that he was her adopted son did not trouble her in the least. Still, she took pains to be discreet in the initial stages of the affair. But soon, as long as Belisarius was not around, she did not bother to hide the affair from her servants or her friends. She knew she had complete control over her husband who listened only to her. As for her servants, they were aware that their lives were forfeit if they dared to tell on her.
Trouble in Carthage
As time passed, Antonina became more complacent and careless. During Belisarius’s North African Campaign, the family stayed at the palace in Carthage. One fine day, Antonina was ravishing Theodosius in a basement room in the palace. Before they could get dressed, Belisarius stumbled upon and found them half-naked. There was little room for doubt as to what was going on. Quite naturally, the general lost his temper and raged against the lovers. But Antonina kept her cool. She calmly explained to her husband that they were hiding the most valuable pieces of treasure to prevent them from falling into Justinian’s hands. Then, she chided Belisarius for thinking lewd thoughts about her and their son. She told him that if he persisted with this nonsense, she would ignore him forever. Foolishly, Belisarius believed her and calmed down. No one knows how she explained away her nakedness but peace reigned once more in the household.
Trouble in Sicily
Having gotten away with her affair right in front of her husband’s very eyes, Antonina became bolder than ever. When Belisarius left to wrest Sicily from the Goths, she and Theodosius stayed behind to enjoy themselves. Shortly after Sicily fell, Belisarius sent for his wife and son to join him on the island. With the way Antonina carried on her affair, it was soon common knowledge in Sicily. Everyone on the island knew what was going on except Belisarius. But no one, not even Belisarius’s loyal officers, dared to say a word. The reason was simple. Everyone knew of Belisarius’s great love for Antonina. It would have been hard to convince him of any charge brought against his wife. The people also feared Antonina’s vengeance and did not trust Belisarius’s resolve to defend them from it.
The wisdom of the crowd soon proved correct. Macedonia, a chambermaid in Belisarius’s household, hated her mistress for some unknown reason. Seeking revenge, Macedonia decided to tell her master about the ongoing affair. But she was no fool. She knew that Belisarius would not be easy to convince. To strengthen her credibility, she brought along two household slaves to back up her story. After she had obtained her master’s oath to keep their names a secret, she told her sordid tale. Belisarius listened quietly, but soon he face turned crimson with rage. When further questioning left no room for doubt in his mind, he swore that he would arrest and execute Theodosius for this humiliation. He called for his guards and ordered them to bring him his son. Father and son needed to have a heart to heart chat.
Luckily for Theodosius, some of the other servants learned of Belisarius’s intentions. Fearing the wrath of Antonina if something happened to her beloved son, they quickly rushed to inform him of the danger. With his life at stake, Theodosius wasted no time in making his dramatic escape. He quickly hopped on a boat and left Sicily. From there, he fled a thousand miles east to Ephesus, in Asia Minor, and hid in the Church of Saint John.
Soon, Antonina also got wind of what was afoot and went to see her husband. Once again, she duped him into believing her innocence. She began by chiding him for listening to blatant lies. How could she depend on him if he would not even make an effort to defend her virtue? How could he call himself her husband if he chose to believe outsiders over her? She told him that she was very disappointed with his foolish behaviour. He had hurt her feelings too badly this time by doubting her integrity and she did not know if she could bring herself to trust him again. By now, Belisarius was thoroughly alarmed and sought his wife’s forgiveness. To appease her, he even revealed the names of his informers although he had sworn not to do so.
Antonina had done the impossible and fooled Belisarius once more. She had survived and now the slanderers would pay the price for their malicious lies. First, she had the tongues of all three servants cut out. Then she had them tied up in sacks and thrown into the sea. Their deaths would serve as a warning to all who dared to defy her. After this incident, things returned to normal. At the request of his loving mother, Theodosius returned to Sicily. All the people on Sicily patted themselves on their backs for not being foolish enough to defy Antonina. Their wisdom had kept them alive.
Reflections of the Vizier
I find it very hard to believe that Antonina could dupe an intelligent and resourceful man like Belisarius to such an extent. Yet I am not alone. All of his contemporaries could not fathom why he was such a fool either. Antonina was not a prized catch, she had no wealth or status and everyone, except her husband, knew she was unfaithful. Although Belisarius’s domestic problems had not yet affected his ability to lead, things would change in 541. With such an obvious weakness, those who wanted to control Belisarius could do so through Antonina.
Bridge, Anthony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1993.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.