Although Theodora sat stone faced on a high throne-like chair the emperor had descended and had perched on some broad steps, hardly above the discordant couple prostrate on the marble floor of an antechamber to the throne room proper. He wore no imperial raiment and seemed intent on playing the old friend to the general and his wife which, of course, he had once been.

It was Theodora who spoke first and hers was a regal voice. “Belisarius, we do not deny that you have served the empire well. We have not even until this day interfered with your enrichment of yourself beyond all right and justice. We have, however, now had enough of your haughtiness. You go about our city as though it were yours and your friends have been found advising high and low that you would be a better emperor than Justinian. They have been punished but because of your past services to us and the love we bear for Antonina we have abstained from punishing you. We shall continue to abstain if you and she are reconciled. Know Belisarius, that she has been of the greatest value to me and I expect that you will treat her with the greatest dignity and respect. Were it not for her you would be commanding some small fortress on the Hunnish frontier.”

“In all things public I have obeyed your majesties, and always will. But do as you will with me, our private lives are ours alone and no power can command them.” Belisarius’ voice was strong, even harsh; strange for someone prostrate on the floor below the meanest woman in the world. Still both church and civil law were on the general’s side according to the compendium of laws which Justinian himself had ordered to be made.

Clearly that was so. Clearly too Belisarius was not to be intimidated. Justinian first threw a glance at his wife than spoke in a far milder tone than she.

“Belisarius, have you never loved another woman than your wife?”

Belisarius did not dissemble. “Yes, of course I have.”

“And what did you do about it.”

“Why nothing, Your Serenity. We were friends. Many times I have had female friends. Antonina knew them too.”

“And did she not mind?”

“I don’t think she cared. They were just friends.” Belisarius looked at his wife trying his best to look accusing.

“Antonina, what did you think of Belisarius’ ‘friends.’”

“They were always my friends too. Truly I think I’d have understood though if they’d been more than friends to him. There was Aileen. Aileen was intelligent and cheerful. With Aileen he had no responsibilities. … And she had a nice butt. Admit it, Flavius, she has a nice butt.”

“But I never slept with her,” Belisarius interrupted coldly.

“And I’d not have cared … well not too much, if you had. You’re a man and believe me, I know men. I never required that you be a saint and I’m hardly one. You knew that when we married.” Anger showed in the Lady Antonina’s eyes but whether it was true anger at her husband or to cover her own embarrassment and shame I cannot say.

“Now that’s it. That’s the problem, isn’t it.” The emperor spoke softly. He was known to have a way of disarming his critics with his understanding manner, even if sometimes it was only a ruse. But this time he had nothing to gain. Theodora’s imperious approach had failed; now Justinian was simply trying to mediate between two old friends.

“I took an oath,” Belisarius began. “Just as I did to you. And I’ve kept them both and always will.”

“’And always will.’ Exactly Flavius.” The emperor was doing his best. “But not everyone keeps their oaths; nor is an oath a substitute for love. You’ve kept your oath, Antonina hasn’t. But do you still love each other?”

Belisarius looked at his wife who now sat on one of the steps below Justinian where he’d indicated that she should relax.

“I do.”

“And you Antonina? I know that you love Theodosius, and I can see why. He’s quite the jolly one and now you’ve made him rich with Flavius’ money. But he does not have to bear the responsibilities of your husband. It is easy enough to play the cheerful friend – just like this Aileen – when your job isn’t to send others to be killed. He can be off to some party with you or riding through the countryside on a pretty day. Don’t you think that Flavius would like to do that too? He could be enjoying life – would like too – but must instead be providing for his men so that as few as possible will die. Yes, he can be too much like a monk but he’s actually got much more to worry about than some cleric. He’s got real responsibilities. Believe me, Theodora and I know the problem. But let me put it to you directly. …And tell the truth: Do you still love Belisarius, prig that he is?”


“As much as when you married him?”

Antonina who had been looking at the marble floor raised her head and looked Belisarius in the eyes. “Yes.”

“Well that’s it then. I’ll make it easy for the both of you. As your emperor I order you to be reconciled. You are to make every effort to please each other, not yourselves. That is what marriage is. It is about pleasing someone else. Yes, romance is about being pleased and marriage is about pleasing another person. I do not say you should stop loving Theodosius; but Antonina, you must follow your husband’s example. Loving Theodosius needn’t mean sleeping with him.”

From her throne, Theodora had been watching and listening. What her husband had said and required was good, unrealistic but good. Now she added a few important words of her own, trying to moderate her haughty style. “Belisarius, I doubt that Antonina could ever forgive you if you harmed Theodosius. Not that he doesn’t deserve your anger but anger will not help the situation. I have given orders that he and Photius be found and Theodosius be returned to his monastery alive after I’ve had a little talk with him. I’ll also see to it that his abbot keeps him focused on the good of his soul. I’ve also learned that Theodosius has become quite wealthy. That money will serve us well to outfit your next expedition.” Theodora knew that those funds had been stolen from Belisarius with his wife’s connivance and recovered for his godfather by Photius; but it were best for everyone that not be mentioned. The empire did indeed need money and Belisarius had become very rich as a result of his campaigns.

Belisarius and Antonina left the Imperial presence together though they did not look like sweethearts. An imperial edict is not enough to undo hurt or restore trust. The author would like to report that all was well thereafter but Justinian could not make that happen and Theodora for her own reasons preferred that the couple not be too comfortable together. Justinian feared Belisarius’ popularity and Theodora feared Antonina’s ambition if not her husband’s. She contemplated how to sow just a little enmity between them again while at the same time drawing Antonina closer to herself. As for the couple themselves? Between bouts of glowering over breakfast there were flashes of kindness. They tried not to forget their hurt but eventually the night came when Antonina could not resist spanking the great man as of old.


 The next day she made some excuse to be gone but admonished
the household staff to remain on their guard lest Belisarius do something rash. He was depressed and Antonina knew he had no fear of death. Even the priests' teachings against suicide might not dissuade him. Justinian had turned against him and allowed Theodora to humiliate her husband, falsely accusing him of enriching himself at the emperor's expense. Her eunuchs had stolen his beloved bucellarii Their best friend, Theodosius, had soiled his bed and stolen his wealth. She herself had betrayed him, not once but almost from the day that Theodosius had been baptized. Belisarius might be capable of anything. Belisarius had fears, but they were not the fears of a coward. Procopius errs when he says that Belisarius feared assassins. Almost alone and surrounded by the enemy he had slain twenty tough Gothic soldiers. In the first Persian campaign he had led a rescue party against a far stronger enemy just to save the lives of some troopers. Belisarius did fear but not for his life. His was a fear without target, worse even than what an acrophobe feels on a rooftop, or a clostrophobe in an elevator; for there is no escape from nothing. He could have easily dealt with an assassin or even several but an extended and undirected panic attack was paralyzing. All that he could do was to lie down and hope that the end would come soon and that Christ Jesus might forgive him for all those he had sent to their graves in a futile life.

 Little Joannina was away enjoying a country estate with her grandmother; away from the unhealthy smells and heat of a Constantinople summer. Free from the constraints of city life, she was probably learning to swim and jump horses, and was old enough to have a crush on some little boy. For a moment the thought relieved Antonina of her own depression and she smiled at the thought of her little girl. She has everything that I couldn't give Callista and Photius. 
 Callista and Photius? Callista the pot merchant. Antonina smiled again despite the seriousness of her mission. She has a good husband now, thanks to Belisarius, not me. Photius? Where is he now? I'll have to answer to Christ Jesus. Did he get away from Theodora? There had been rumors that Photius was in prison, or worse, hidden away in some dank hole where Theodora was thought to keep her personal enemies. I've sinned against my own son for a paramour, but it's like I never knew him. But I must try to help him. Belisarius would but can't. If he tried to, Theodora would make it worse for Photius. Certainly she would. Besides Belisarius has just given up. He must blame himself for Photius' situation; but what can he do? Nothing. He feels that they're both already dead.
 The empress was not expecting what happened when Antonina entered her private chambers. Antonina had not even asked permission, or been announced.
 “Your Serenity.” They were in private so Antonina did not prostate. She did bow. “Your Serenity, I must ask that you and Justinian desist.” It was the
bravest thing that Antonina had ever said. She was confronting the meanest woman in the world without any cards to play. 
 “All right.” 
 Antonina could not believe that Theodora had relented without bargaining. Theodora never gave anything without payment of some kind. What is she up to, Antonina asked herself?
 “Who are you pleading for, Antonina; your husband or your son?”
 “All right. Go to your husband and wait. As for Photius, He would have killed your sweetheart, dear.” 
 “He's my son.”
 “He hated Theodosius, and he would have even had Theodosius not been your darling little sex-doll. He can be vicious and I want to teach him a lesson. There are consequences if you cross me and when he crossed you he crossed me.”
 Antonina blanched. What Theodora said had been brutally honest, but true. It hurt. “He's my son.”
 “Which is why I'm going to let him escape, but not yet. Now that's enough. I owe you a lot, Antonina, and I like you. You may be the only friend I have except for Justinian. So I'll do this for you. I'll speak to Justinian. I expect he'll be more than happy to have his best general restored to him now that he has his treasure.” 
 “Justinian was once our friend.”
 “Justinian was very sick. He nearly died. We both worried because your husband was both rich and popular. But you must not speak ill of the emperor, Lady Antonina.” 
 The empress was speaking in an unusually soft, nearly conspiratorial voice now, but the stiff form of address that she had just used left no doubt that Antonina had overstepped. Then she moderated her reproach with a little humor. “Were it not for Justinian, I'd still be blowing cocks somewhere, Antonina; and I'm too old for that sort of life.” 
 The empress paused. It was not her way to show a gentle side so she continued to speak in a low voice as though reluctant to speak at all. “By now you should know that Justinian is no one's friend. He'd like to be, but he dare not. Today's friend is often tomorrow's enemy. Your husband has always been loyal but circumstances can change people. Belisarius was rich. We needed money. He's arrogant. We wanted to break him, but we never intended that he sicken
and die.”
 Flavius is not arrogant, Antonina told herself. He just expects more in people than there is in them. But she had pressed Theodora enough. She said nothing. She bowed out thinking: Theodora is no one's friend either. We understood each other. We're both manipulative, both cynical bitches. She considered her own situation, as Theodora had probably intended. Theodora has the emperor, poor bitch. I have Belisarius. 
 Then Antonina went home to lie close by her husband. For weeks she lay holding him throughout both days and nights until one evening a servant announced a messenger from Theodora. Antonina quickly dressed expecting a summons to the palace. In the corner of her eye she could see that Belisarius had stretched himself upon the bed as though to be unresisting of whatever new misfortune was at their door; a dagger, or poison in a cup of wine or under the guise of medicine?
 Even allowing for Procopius taking delight in exaggeration, it is impossible to believe what next transpired without reference to clinical depression. When the 
messenger approached his sleeping room, according to Procopius Belisarius was unable to do ought but await a dagger thrust. But instead, the messenger brought so haughty a letter from Theodora that at any other time Belisarius would have rejected its effrontery. Lacking any other source one must with some reserve assume that Procopius gives at least the correct gist of it.
 "You are not ignorant, my good sir, of all your offenses against me; but I owe so much to your wife that I have determined to pardon all your offenses for her sake, and I make her a present of your life. For the future you may be of good cheer as regards your life and fortune. We shall know by your future conduct what sort of husband you will be to your wife!"
 What transpired thereafter would have been in their privacy and Procopius' yarn can be safely discounted as the imaginative narrative of things he could not know so often to be found in ancient writers. What we can trust from Procopius was that although Justinian had seized a part of Belisarius' wealth he now returned a large sum. Belisarius would need it. He would again use it in the empire's service. He could no longer bring himself to serve Justinian the man, but he would serve his country.
 In the meantime Theodosius died of dysentery. It seems that his death caused the last remaining scales to fall from Antonina's eyes for we hear no more of discord between her and Belisarius. Theodosius had been one of those persons - men and women both - who, no matter how much you may see through them in their absence, yet are entirely convincing in person. 
 Belisarius was fined a part of his estates but restored to his dignities and placed in command of all the imperial cavalry. Still fearful of him however, the royal couple did not restore his many faithful bucellarii 
 He was once again offered command in the east. 
 This was not to be. Antonina was determined to rejoin her husband wherever he campaigned but also determined not to return to the place of her
disgrace. Instead he accepted command in Italy which eleven generals and innumerable tax collectors had practically lost to Justinian. If Belisarius' honor had been completely restored, Justinian had also insisted on a crippling condition. His many wars, and the need to rebuild and reinforce forts on the Persian border, had left the empire's coffers depleted. Belisarius was to outfit the troops out of his own purse. The royal couple still wanted more of his money than they had dared to keep when restoring the general to his office. The wars against Chosroes and in Italy had been expensive as had the massive building campaign, and bribes to retain the loyalty of foreign princes. The new cathedral of Hagia Sophia had by itself nearly bankrupted the empire.