We must begin our story fifty two years earlier. Antonina’s father had won the trophy at the hippodrome, the race course of Constantine’s city – the New Rome – assuring him a continued income for some time to come. There had been celebrating late into the night until, at last, the now quite drunken charioteer came home to his family. He was still excited:

“By the mother of God…”

“Don’t use the Theotokos’ name like that or you’ll go to hell,” Antonina’s mother yelled back.

“Then by Diana’s big tits I’m still the best; and the Blues will pay for a lot of wine and meat for us so long as I keep winning.” Antonina’s father was referring to one of the two factions in the hippodrome, the Blues and the Greens, who make modern sport rowdiness pranks by comparison. They regularly killed each other and murdered for profit, rioted in the streets and could even threaten the throne. Indeed they were at least as much political and criminal as athletic factions, and as deadly enemies as the Chicago gangs of the nineteen-thirties.

His wife went to bed. After eating some bread to soothe the queasiness that too much wine had left in his stomach, the drunken man found his child asleep in bed. As he was wont to do, he lay beside her only intending to hug his child for a few moments. It would have been better had he fallen into a stupor instead. The author would like to draw a curtain rather than describe fully and unnecessarily what happened next and would affect Antonina all the days of her life.

Very soon there were other men. Antonina developed into a beauty sought by all and available to any who would please the child with some bauble. She had long strong legs, deep black eyes and light hair. She had a waist as narrow as her bosom and hips became full. There was a lilt in her voice and on her lips bright repartee to match. This emphasized her intelligence. Sometimes she would sit and talk with the more learned whom she met. From them she learned not only a bit of philosophy and theology but also to be patient; that a few little lies would please a dignitary even when he knew that she was lying; that power was available to a girl who used cunning and flattery so long as she never showed her iron back.

I do not mean to blacken her. After all, Antonina was perhaps no more than twelve or thirteen and surrounded by particularly poor role models: cutpurses and even cutthroats among her father’s Blue supporters. Even among those who were not guilty of crimes, the pettiness of a hardscrabble life had necessarily left them without much learning and with little regard for those who had. Antonina had as yet no wish to harm others but saw no reason why she should not accept the little advances in society that book learning or being friends with a senator could provide. Roman society in the sixth century was stratified but not without opportunities for the ambitious and clever.

Antonina’s father had not been made rich by his victories. He was lauded as much or more than a modern athlete. His name was placed on a monument at the hippodrome. He was wined and dined to excess. He had women. But as with modern boxers he was surrounded by thieves. When he passed his prime those pimps and frauds whose comradeship he had purchased with his winnings faded away from him with excuses. Like lice they attached themselves to new winners. Then he died.

In time, like any young person in her situation, male or female, Antonina developed a hard shell to hide a troubled soul. She had no thought of where she was going, much less where she should go. Far ahead is difficult for any child to more than dream about. There was only the now. If someone showed any honest care for her she would always respond in the only way she knew. She wanted to be nice to him but knew no other way than to share their body heat and for that moment forget together that the world is a cruel place.



Antonina’s next years were awful. She was not much more than a child when her mother put her on the stage, which is to say more or less officially prostituted the teenager. After all, there was no money coming in anymore. “It was good enough for me,” she’d say to others, “and look at me; I married a charioteer. Antonina is pretty. She could do as well, or even better. Already she knows some men of wealth who might like to put her up in a place of her own and pay her bills. Lord God, she does have bills. The girl likes nice things… and why shouldn’t she? She’s pretty.”

To Antonina her motherly advice was simple: “I don’t say ignore what the cushy priests say; but you must live for yourself not for others. What have any of your high friends ever done for you that wasn’t for themselves? Let a guy think you love him, that will make him guilty if he’s a decent sort. If not, take what you can before he drops you. Try to get something against him too. You’ll need it when you’re older.”

Practical advice, but cold. At first Antonina did just as her mother advised, and she did well. She even became known beyond the slums and the hippodrome. By seventeen she could sometimes be seen early in the morning returning from one of the city’s better districts. In the evenings she entertained. She quickly learned that there was a better life than that of a whore and cheap dancer for the crowds that thronged the hippodrome and the theater. She found direction. By age eighteen she’d begun to study by day and at night assume something akin to the role geishas performed in medieval Japan: a cultured entertainer who could sing and play the lyre, dance prettily with her clothes still on, chat a bit about Homer and Aeschylus, and choose her own consorts, not the other way ’round. Still, a feeling of self worth does not necessarily accompany success. Antonina bore a daughter and gave her up to be raised by nuns. When grown the child married Ildiger an officer who later served with her husband in Italy. Antonina showed herself more caring – or maybe more fearful for her soul – than others in her position. In her day baby girls born to whores did not always survive.

In her later teens Antonina was to be seen very often in the company of a man of senatorial rank, one Anthemius Antonius. He was the scion of an old family, not himself wealthy but with a certain prestige; the type of man for whom some dignified employment would always be found by family or friends more successful than he. Could Antonina have done better? Possibly. But Antonius was the type of solid person that a working girl, very aware that she was no longer the child whore that gentlemen seemed to desire, might choose. He was unmarried, a widower. He would provide for her, and if she behaved herself, would likely keep her. They could age together. He wasn’t exciting but Antonina looked about and decided that excitement just meant late hours. It also meant being the excitement and she was getting a bit sick of that.