Archive for the ‘Excerpts From Antonina’ Category
The grim day had come, as at last it must for all who are born of Eve.
It was a pleasant warm spring afternoon on their Thracian estate and Antonina, now an elderly grande dame of nearly seventy, knelt beside her husband’s deathbed. To the last she would remain at his side as she had, and he by hers, since they had first met so many years and campaigns ago.
Antonina would have much to fear when her own death came. Would it be the bright angel of a merciful God who would come to carry her to paradise, or a dark angel of justice come to throw her soul to the devils below? Antonina wished that she had faith in the absolution of the priests; she had more trust that her husband would intervene before Christ’s throne on her behalf..
She had not been a good woman while her Belisarius was the finest man who ever lived save Jesus himself. She knew that he would have nothing to fear in the hours ahead when he slipped away to eternity. True, he had been a soldier and had dealt out death his whole career, but that was in warfare and war was the way of the world. Her own sins had been political or in petty retribution. He had saved the Roman world from the Persians and reconquered much of the empire from the barbarians; but he had always spared life when able to. She feared for her own soul but not for that of the dying man.
“I love you, my lord.”
“No, I love you. I just did not know how much until now.”
In time Antonina had come to regret the infatuation she had once had for Theodosius. He’d been fun to be sure; but like every other officer under her husband’s command he’d had his own agenda. He had used the general as he had used her, and she him. She hoped it had not been entirely a calculated thing but he had advanced because he was Belisarius’ trusted son in Christ.
Theodosius had long years ago faced Christ’s justice for their sin. One day soon she also would have to. Dare Antonina ask a favor of her husband that she dared not ask of Christ herself: “When you are with Our Lord, please pray for our godson and for me.” Belisarius squeezed her hand with something still of the iron grip with which he had held a sword. Then he left this earth.
Belisarius died. The old widow wept for three days and nights but on the morning of the fourth day while she looked out across the Sea of Marmara she was at peace. In Belisarius she had seen and known and loved a reflection of the Divine Mercy. She had betrayed him and he had forgiven her. Yet in her way she had loved him as deeply as he had loved her. As Edward Gibbon wrote: “She reigned with long and absolute power over the mind of her illustrious husband; and if Antonina disdained the merit of conjugal fidelity, she expressed a manly friendship to Belisarius, whom she accompanied with undaunted resolution in all the hardships and dangers of a military life.”
This author chooses to believe that Antonina was less to be faulted than successful businessmen and gossips. She was just unimpressed by the hypocrisy of those who make much of the seventh commandment while ignoring the others. Antonina had boldly sinned in the sunlight. She had not hidden her sins in the dark, and Belisarius was so secure in himself and their marriage – a marriage firmly founded on a lifelong friendship, not male rights of property over her – that he would forgive her anything and defy any man to call him cuckold. This his jealous and cowardly secretary Procopius dared only after the general’s death.
Belisarius died. Antonina wept for three days and nights but on the morning of the fourth day while she looked out across the Sea of Marmara she was at peace. In her heart she no longer just felt, but now knew that he had been blessed.
CONSTANTINOPLE – 511 AD
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.
ANTIOCH – 526 AD
In Antioch someone knocked over a lamp or failed to carefully attend a cooking fire; the reason was never determined. The city’s slum district was aflame and the fire, though eventually contained, could not be extinguished. The city’s garrison did all they could and several soldiers surrendered their lives trying to save children; but as quickly as one group of shanties was pulled down the fire would spread down another alley. Eventually it reached the wharves and warehouses along the river.
Displaced slum dwellers gathered in makeshift shelters made of branches and old cloth without any facilities at all for sanitation or cooking. There were more small fires in the camps and the troops were spread thin trying to contain these along with the main blaze. In truth, the devastation was never completely controlled before the city was struck by a second and worse calamity, an earthquake. Now the wealthier districts which had been spared by the fire began to topple house upon house.
Antonina had been fetching water when the first shock hit. She was not a panicky female from the nobility. She grabbed Photius and lay face down over him in an open square with her hands over her head. She tried to pray. She felt guilty that she was asking God’s help now and at no other time and did not dare to make him any promises that she knew she would not keep if she lived. She just asked his mercy and reminded Christ that he was good and kind. In a moment between bouts of fear for Photius’ life and her soul she prayed that God would get her respectable employment far away from Antioch, maybe in one of Constantinople’s many rich villas; or better still, find her a husband.
When the first shocks subsided Antonina returned to the reality of her life. She didn’t really want a job waiting upon her betters, nor did she want another demanding man. But now they’d be no need for pretty pots to decorate the homes of Antioch for some time to come; so that half formulated plan was null. Whoring wasn’t great either but it was far more likely.
In temporary quarters outside the city proper Antonina began to pace in an unsettled manner. She could not shake off the realization of how short life could be. It would be stupid to continue just living day-to-day. Corpses were being found and excavated all around her. The very young were a particularly sad business but their deaths did not have the same horror of mortality and damnation about them that the deaths of women near her own age did. Young women who had no opportunity to repent their sins; who, like her, had likely given no more than formal ascent to religion and had then been so suddenly taken to be judged. Antonina decided that she didn’t want to go back to giving blow jobs to rich men, and anyway, there weren’t many men looking for her skills in a city that still shook from time to time. Although it never occurred to her that she might be alive because for a moment she had turned to Christ, she took up nursing the injured and cooking for the other aid-givers. It didn’t pay but for once there was purpose in her life. She and Photius ate and she felt better than she had since Belisarius had left, and that was what she wanted.
The shocks were felt even in Constantinople. Fast imperial couriers soon brought the news of Antioch’s total devastation overland along the coast road through Anatolia to the capital. Within two weeks help from Constantinople began trickling in. Justin had pledged massive assistance and chosen sackcloth over wearing the imperial purple. The co-emperors appeared to the city’s populace in this simple attire asking for those with medical experience to board one of the relief ships headed for the devastated city. They pledged financial aid and imperial workmen to help in the rebuilding. Though aged and in ill health Justin led the services in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia. Even so, he could not forget the Monophysite heretics of Antioch and suspected that the hand of God had been involved.
“Most merciful God who sent an earthquake that the jailer of Paul and Silas might listen and believe, accept the repentance of thy people in Antioch and save that city from the fate of heretics. Be merciful also to us thy obedient servants; let our aid ships fly quickly to Antioch. In anticipation of thy mercy we here pledge to rebuild thy churches there in a manner greater and more fitting than they were hither-fore, and likewise to provide for the orphans and widows of that city, and assist with our own gold and silver in the rebuilding which must be done. Remember thy city of Antioch where Peter and Paul preached and where thy people were first called Christian. Do not destroy it for its heresy, we pray.”
Justinian listened to his uncle and was moved by Justin’s sincerity. He promised himself that he would not wait until he was near death to do the sort of things that Justin had pledged in his last days. Many of the churches which great Constantine had built throughout the empire two hundred years before were now in disrepair, he would rebuild or replace them and give glory to Christ. The priests would bless him and posterity would remember him for his sanctity.
Perozes would not fall into the trap he saw. Clearly, he must have thought, the young Roman in command lacked finesse if he were so naive as to expect him to make a simple frontal assault on the Roman middle and be enveloped and trapped. Instead he would ignore the infantry and Ephthalite archers to direct his cavalry only at the flanking Roman cataphracts. He expected to entangle with them before the Roman archers could seriously impede his heavily armored horsemen. If he could drive these back against the walls of Daras they would be nothing but a confused mass of men and horses, pinned against their own walls to be shot down by Persian bows in the hands of experienced cavalrys or impaled on their lances. The Roman infantry could then be expected to flee the field when they found themselves squeezed between two armored columns.
But Belisarius, himself, was with the infantry. He had even sent his horse to the rear. He stood at the head of his young men. Foolish? Perhaps; perhaps not. Beside him one of his best recruits held the eagle aloft so that Perozes would know where the Roman commander stood with a shield resting against his thigh, his spathion in his right hand, and a simple infantry pike in the other.
He sent a message to his cataphracts under Hermogenes and Pharas, encouraging them but also reminding them of the shame of their previous loss to the Persians. His words have been recorded and probably improved by the rhetoric of Procopius: “Persians are not invincible, nor too strong to be killed. You know that, having taken their measure in the previous battle. You were superior to them in bravery and in strength of body. You were defeated only by reason of being heedless of your officers. This you cannot deny. You now have the opportunity to set right that defeat, for while the adversities of fortune cannot be set right by effort, reason may easily become a physician for the ills a man caused himself. If you heed orders you will win in battle, for the Persians come against us basing their confidence on nothing else than our previous disorder. As for the great numbers of the enemy by which more than anything else they hope to inspire fear; despise these men. Their pitiable infantry is nothing more than a crowd of untrained peasants who come into battle only to dig through walls, despoil the slain, and serve the real soldiers.”
Again, the scene somewhat resembled Troy. The days of single combat were generally a thing of legend by then but that day a tall and powerful cavalryman rode out from the Persian ranks and taunted any “Greek” to single combat. One of the Roman regulars, a bold man named Andreas who in civilian life had been a wrestling coach in Constantinople, took up the challenge and speared the Persian in seconds. Another lancer challenged the Daras defenders. Andreas also laid him on the ground. The omens were bad and Perozes delayed a day.
The next day the opposing armies resumed the same positions as on the previous. Unbeknown to Belisarius, Antonina was standing with a group of women and tradesmen and merchants, on a section of the the city’s walls that they had appropriated. She looked across the thin desert grasses that separated the Roman army and Belisarius from the Persians. There was nothing she could do but watch: watch and wait and worry. Antonina had come to Asia again but she was no longer the girl who had accompanied Anthemius Antonius to Antioch. For the last year she had lived in the household of a Roman senator, something like a guest and something like a family member; and then in a little room of the Great Palace itself. She was experienced now not only in the vices of the Roman empire which she had seen from birth, but also in the more proper behavior of those who directed the state, sometimes with larceny but sometimes by the very same men with virtue and nobility. Today would see the latter.
She had taken the road through Anatolia to Daras, avoiding Antioch. En route she had seen first hand the bloody business of empire. Along the frontier soldiers too badly injured to travel were being cared for in monasteries and villages. These were the veterans of Mindon and other skirmishes. She noted that the villages had been stripped of young men; they were with Belisarius now. Food was scarce for those who remained, having been requisitioned for the army. There was no starvation but there was hunger.
Now she felt useless but consoled herself with the thought that after the battle she could help the injured using the knowledge of wounds she had acquired while treating the maimed of two earthquakes. For now she would watch and hope her soldier would survive the horror about to unfold on the field below. He did not know she was there and would have had no time for her had he known.
Almost out of sight from Daras’ walls, behind a dust cloud raised by the Persian horde, there was another group of camp followers watching from a hilltop and praying to Ahura Mazda, and to his prophet Zarathustra. Had he the time, her husband might have spared a thought for the enemy women, but that was not in Antonina’s makeup. She stood alert and watching only the Romans. She tried to look confident and strong to the others gathered around her. That much she could do for her side. Just for a moment she considered taking charge and hushing the nervous clatter of the wives and washerwomen and prostitutes. No, she thought, they can no more be silent than a child would be on his first day at school. Let them jabber away if it helps them. The Arab money changers were more serious. If the battle turned against Belisarius and the Romans,- as most expected, they would simply slip through some unguarded gate before the town could be looted. If it went in their favor there would be plenty of Persian loot to purchase from the victorious soldiers at a tenth its value. This they would resell in the Antioch bazaar.
The Persian attack came at noon heralded by trumpets. Daras’ women hurried to the battlements of the town along with old men and boys. The men and boys strung bows while the women prepared to take the wounded to safety. Antonina, with the camp followers, had never seen a battle but she was not afraid of every movement the enemy made. The Persians were fearsome to be sure, but so were her Romans. She felt that today was not going to be a standoff like yesterday or a skirmish from which both sides would emerge slightly bloodied and each claiming victory. There is such a thing as days of decisive battle and both armies on the plain of Daras were intent that this would be such a day.
Belisarius had been busy for weeks preparing his soldiers, but he knew that once battle was joined there was little that could be done by the commander. Like Antonina and the camp followers Belisarius would not be able to do much more than watch the troopers and their junior officers at the bloody work of slaughter; possibly slay a Persian or two if they attacked where he stood. That and pray. It mightn’t bring victory but it couldn’t hurt. Besides, the wounded and dying on both sides would want prayers.
There was an exchange of archery directed at the all-important cavalry and each side covered themselves with their shields as best they could until most of the arrows had been fired. Belisarius again stood with the infantry. He knew his officers from their months together in Constantinople, and knew they could be relied upon to lead the Roman cavalry. He’d stay with the infantry. His farm boys and the young men of Daras were proud, for the general himself was with them. Today the weak and despised infantry of the sixth century Byzantine Empire were determined to hold their ground for him. More, they would support the haughty cataphracts instead of merely taking up space to divide the wings of the Persians and spread them far apart. Indeed were it not for the steady commands of Belisarius the infantry would have charged from their trenches to attack the opposing Persian infantry who, as it turned out, would not even be committed to battle.
Now the enemy cavalry could be heard gathering in formation. These lancers were the scions of Persian squires whose own fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers had fought the fathers and grandfathers of Romans for generations, Their own sons would do the same if they survived this war to father any. They were proud. Just as Belisarius’ local boys had determined to hold their ground, not one Persian would be so craven as to flee without orders however frightened he might be. Should he do so his family would lose everything they owned and be shamed forevermore. Better to die bringing down a Roman than to flee.
The solid front of Persian cavalry split and charged the Roman cataphracts on both flanks of Belisarius’ infantry and light Ephthalite cavalry. At first the battle seemed to go their way as the cataphracts were pushed back. Yet arrows from the Ephthalites and also from the city walls were taking a toll at the trench. Just as bad, when the Persians managed to advance near to the battlements they found their broken front could not panic the foot soldiers between their two thrusts. A line of Roman pikes held against one attacking column on the right and another on the left. Unheard of! The Persians were unable to squeeze the Roman infantry. Fire continued from both the horse archers stationed with the infantry and from old men on the battlements. Moreover, the Roman heavy cavalry were showing themselves braver than expected. It was the Persians who were becoming worried and confused. The Roman cataphracts had not broken as they’d retreated toward the city wall. They turned, and under the command of John, the son of Nicetas on the right and Bouzes on the left they pushed back. Now Belisarius ordered the mounted Ephthalite archers to attack both Persian prongs in their rear while their vanguard was still engaged at the wall. Persians on the Roman right could only break west like fluid from a ruptured bladder. Even this escape was denied them on the Roman left for Belisarius had stationed his Heruli reserves behind a small hill and he now sent a message to Pharas who had asked the honor of that command. He ordered Pharas to release these fresh ax-wielding Swedes and close the box on that side.
The Persians left eight thousand dead on the battlefield including many of their immortals. These were the picked shock troops of Persia who tried in the last hour of battle to save the day by counterattacking the Herulian horse. They failed and retreated, a thing almost unknown until that day.
When the enemy fled the field, the Romans would have followed them slaughtering comfortable cavalrymen and poor infantrymen alike were it not that Belisarius forbade it. It would have been poor tactics. The Persians were not cowards. If they could regroup they would still have outnumbered what by then would be his equally disorganized Roman army. There was another reason too: mercy.
It was the first defeat Persia had suffered at the hands of the despised Romans in decades. Kobad was learning that the Byzantine cavalry was becoming as good as his own. He was also learning that Constantinople had bred a new kind of general, a man willing to delegate the honor of responsibility for his primary forces to trusted lieutenants while himself remaining afoot with bowmen and half-trained peasant pikesmen. That day at Daras he stood with the Roman infantry and gave them the confidence to provide a solid wall which the proud Persians could neither penetrate nor confound. In Babylon Kobad considered whether it might not be best to negotiate.
As night fell Belisarius began his most hated duty but one he would not shirk. He had sent scouts to watch the retreating Persians and with a priest he now returned to the field of carnage. The dead of both sides were all about. He had ordered that the Persian bodies be given a proper funeral. The Persians would have wanted to be exposed for the birds to devour as was Mazdan practice but there were far too many and the danger of pestilence so near the city too great. A Mazdan chaplain was found. He had come of his own volition to do his duty by his god and countrymen… indeed a holy man. He performed the rites and begged Ahura Mazda to forgive the Roman desecration of fire. While the Christian soldiers stood apart the bodies were cremated. The Roman dead were buried near the battlefield while priests sang masses that God would forgive them the slaughter they had wrought for the good of his Christian empire.
The wounded of both sides had been brought within Daras’ walls and were being tended to in its hospices and churches. Romans had preference but both were cared for as the Persians would have cared for fallen Romans had the field been theirs. War was for kings; the wounded soldiers were brothers now. Many would not see the next dawn; perhaps they were the lucky ones. Crude surgery would save some lives but the shock of amputation or the gangrene which often followed merely increased and prolonged the death-agonies of many more. Once, when the empire had been pagan, a spiked roller drawn across the battlefield had provided the coup de grace to badly wounded friends and foes alike. Soldiers wondered if that had not been a better way but it was forbidden by the church. God is merciful, Belisarius though, but theologians at their books who have never seen a battlefield… Oh, what’s the use. The world is what it is.
Inhaled hashish and mandrake mixed in wine were used as anesthetics when available but they worked poorly and could kill. They were reserved for surgery on those not strong enough to endure much more pain but who yet had a chance of survival. All night the saws and knives did what swords and axes and arrows had left half finished. All night long there were screams. The next day there were fewer. Belisarius came again – he owed his men that – and took time to speak with those Romans who were conscious:
“Yes, I will see that a letter is sent home. I will write it myself.”
“No, your wound will heal.” He hoped he wasn’t lying.
“Rest your head on my hand. Let us pray together.”
“You have saved Daras, young man. Your mother is here; your father too. He was on the wall and saw you fight. He says you were very brave.”
Then the general had to return to his staff. The enemy had been defeated and was retreating. but they might turn and attack again. There were plans to be made. He tried to look confident. He tried to look cheerful.
A woman who had kept her head covered and her back to him, seemingly busy with unpacking bandages, watched him leave with a feeling of pride mixed with a sense of horror. The man she loved had ordered and overseen this butchery.
When Belisarius returned to the capital he did not think to make a formal proposal of marriage through an intermediary. Antonina was past the age for such things. The actual details of the wedding would be handled by the manager of one of his estates; but in Constantinople Antonina was busy as any bride-to-be, considering what she would wear on her wedding day and deciding which cubiculariai she would invite and which she would make excuses not to.
For his part, Belisarius had much to attend to before their wedding day that had nothing to do with that event. For one thing he wanted to visit the families of bucellarii who had fallen at Daras or Sura. Some lived in Constantinople but others were near his Thracian estates So for awhile he and Antonina were parted. That was the decorous thing anyway.
Several weeks passed. Now it was early morning and the Thracian countryside was quite still and peaceful. A few birds did squawk loudly to each other about some matter, probably worms, but there was no breeze to stir the autumn foliage. It was damp but a clear sky told Belisarius that the day would be a fine one. A figure was approaching across the field before him. It had exited the tree line some three hundred meters away but was obscured at first by a mist that rose from behind it, Probably off a pond hidden by the woods, the tactician in the general thought.
What was it to him if someone else was also out enjoying the dawn and the damp and the coolness of the morning? It was nice to be alone here but maybe they would have a nice little chat about something of no importance. That could be nice if the chat wasn’t just clichés about the weather. Belisarius spent most of his time concerned with defense and court politics. He was very good at the first, and knew it; but horrid at the second, and knew it. It might be nice to simply speak with someone about the plans for a new cathedral in Thessaloniki that Justinian was building. That he could honestly praise. That would satisfy Justinian if the stranger turned out to be an imperial spy. Or he could start a conversation with reference to poetry; not really his strong point but that was all the more reason to discuss poets and possibly learn something. Belisarius was not good at just wasting time.
Keeping one eye on the approaching figure, he let his mind roam over other early mornings he had known. Many of them were far from as peaceful as this one; mornings when he had not known the feeling of dew on grass or listened to squawking birds in the trees because he had been devoting his full attention to training infantry or to Persian dispositions in the sands of Mesopotamia. For all the glory his victory at Daras had brought him, battle was a depressing business. Before the sun had set those desert sands had been covered with Persian and Roman dead and maimed. Once he had slipped and fallen on a bit of grass splattered with blood and unidentifiable human insides. He shook off the memory with a silent prayer to be forgiven for those things he had to do for the empire and the emperor… his emperor: Justinian the Great… Justinian the flawed. He even offered a prayer for the tyrant for Antonina had warned him that such a friend was not a friend, and could not be.
An aide brought Belisarius a cup filled with hot spiced water which had been drawn from a sweet spring nearby. Like others of his age, Belisarius did not disapprove of a little wine mixed with water in the morning; it was a good start for many men and could be relied upon to improve their mood; but he usually preferred spiced hot water. Some otherwise good soldiers had not the strength to stop awhile after they had tasted their first wine of the day.
He drew himself back to the present to watch the approaching figure. He began to suspect, and then to be sure, that it was a woman, though for many minutes he could not discern anything more. The hot “tea” was good this chill morning. Its vapors refreshed his nostrils. It is a woman. Not a girl though. Her walk is familiar… indiscreetly familiar! Belisarius forgot decorum. The cup lay where he dropped it as he ran down the hillside.
Antonina stopped and stood alone in the field looking even smaller than she was. Her arms were outstretched in greeting. She forced a silly grin to light her face and hid her fear as her soul spoke to her mind: Do as Theodora says woman. You must be more than you have ever been before. If you can’t say it, it would be better that you had not come; you can still go back to Antioch. That would not do. There would be no going back to a life of miserable obscurity and without Belisarius. I may die here, right now. Though frightened, her mind agreed to the bargain. Then she dropped her arms and a serious demeanor overtook her whole face and frame.
Belisarius stretched out his arms to embrace his fiancé who had made the trip from Constantinople to be with him. Definitely indiscreet. Antonina stopped him with a hand the way a defensive back holds off a linebacker. Belisarius was puzzled. Antonina looked at the grass.
She had left Photius in Antioch to be raised as she could not raise him. That had been three years before. She should not have hid him from Belisarius. She had spent long hours trying to fall asleep while thinking of him. Of his welfare, yes; but also of how Belisarius would receive the news of him as someday he must. It would be impossible to keep knowledge of who his mother was from the boy as he approached manhood. Nor had Antonina intended such when she had left him in Antioch. At that time she’d had no concept of the height to which she would quickly rise. She had only hoped to one day see him again when she was established in some small business after her days of seducing men were over. She had hoped that he might come to join her then and share in the work and profit. All such vague plans were superseded now.
If she did not tell Belisarius, what would happen when one day someone told Photius that his mother was the same Antonina who was a cubicularia in the Great Palace, and the wife of the great general Belisarius? She would be revealed not only as the mother of a bastard but as a particularly cold hearted one who had left her child for a promising new husband. He’d probably kill her as he had the right to do.
“Mi-lord, I have a son… and a daughter.” Her daughter? Antonina had not even kept track of her. As a young teen she had left the baby outside a convent to be raised by the good nuns. Maybe the girl had become one too. No-one, not even the nuns, knew who the girl’s mother was. She could have kept that hidden but Antonina, in a fit of honesty toward her fianceé, decided to come completely clean.
She waited for his reaction. She felt like hell. Then the hard-heartedness of what she had just said aloud struck her fully and she blanched. She had dreaded this all the months that she and Belisarius had been betrothed. He knew that she had lived with Anthemius Antonius in Constantinople and Alexandria and Antioch; but she’d been unable to tell him of Photius or of the girl for fear of being ostracized and losing him. She did not even know what name the nuns had given her daughter. She had been the child of a simple liaison years before when she was nothing more than a very young street walker. Our wedding cannot be, I should never have led him on.
Belisarius was good but he had a position to maintain. It was more than noble that he had been willing to wed, not simply live with, an actress and a prostitute; surely two bastard stepchildren could not fit in too. True, the empress Theodora had been a courtesan and she had a daughter too; but she was the empress and was known to be a vindictive bitch. Whatever others might privately think of her, they would say nothing which could, and surely would, get back to the palace. Besides, her daughter might well have been fathered by Justinian. Antonina’s husband was merely a soldier; the finest commander in the Roman army but still only a soldier. Belisarius would be damaged and called a fool by the wagging tongues of the city. She waited for his anger and rejection.
Belisarius was standing very erect and looking down on her. “Antonina, where are the children?”
Antonina’s face was drained of blood. Fear and worry were in her eyes. He had every right to draw his dagger and strike her dead.
Belisarius kept his face impassive for a moment. Then he looked down at Antonina as a father might on a beloved child who he knew to be suffering more disgrace in her heart then he could bear to see. “Antonina, send for them and I will order a feast when they arrive. Your son will be my son, your daughter our daughter. We will not speak any more of this, of the whys of it; but you should not have kept it from me. You must go to a priest and do whatever penance he requires. ”
Antonina could not look Belisarius in his eyes. She simply slipped slope-shouldered past him. Once again she had far underestimated her fiancée. She had never seen such charity, not even in a priest.
Photius was sent for but finding Antonina’s daughter was more difficult. She had left the babe outside a convent-orphanage when only hours old. Antonina had often thought of the child but knew that what she had done was surely the best thing she could have done. Some working girls did raise daughters in whore houses. They would become prostitutes and support their mothers in their old age. At least she hadn’t done that. The girl would be brought up in religion.
When she returned to Constantinople accompanied by a troop of Belisarius’ bucellarii, Antonina went straight to the convent where she had left the infant years before. After some vague explanation to a novice she was let into the presence of the abbess. She was unsure how to begin and the nun was not of the sweet variety,
“I left my baby girl here nineteen years ago.”
“And I suppose you’re wracked with guilt,” the abbess said without sympathy. “Now you think to salve your conscience, but that is not what would be best for your child. I cannot help you. Go to a priest and confess how you deserted her.”
Antonina could be as hard as the abbess but today tears threatened to break forth. “It is not as you think. It is not for myself that I ask but for my child. I am to be married and my future husband insists that we do what we still can for her.”
“That is good of him. Not many men would marry an old whore … save our sacred emperor himself, of course. But still, I cannot help. I must think of the girl’s happiness. She is long past being of age to marry but has not. It is a sad story. What do you expect you could do for her now?”
Antonina found herself on her knees and the abbess softened her tone slightly. She took Antonina’s hands in hers but Antonina spoke before the abbess could dismiss her with a prayer. “Her future is assured now. I am to marry general Belisarius.”
That changed everything of course. The baby had been christened Callista and she worked in a market near the city’s Golden Horn selling pottery. Despite her fear and sorrow a chuckle almost passed Antonina’s lips. She sells pots.
“She loves a man, a cataphract named Ildiger. But it is impossible. She has, or at least until now she has had no family. He doesn’t care but his family does. She is a simple orphan with no dowry save what little she has saved of her earnings and a bit more from the church’s St. Nicholas fund.”
An orphan girl without a dowry, in love with a minor nobleman? Surely parents cared as much for their child’s happiness in that century as now, but love was something that came after marriage not before. Most couples wed when they were little more than children, and when the concept of “teens” was unknown. Romance was no more to be trusted in the Christian Roman Empire than it had been in classical times. Parents knew better than twelve and fourteen year olds what sort of a girl or boy their son or daughter would be happy with.
The abbess thought for a moment, than admitted: “Under the circumstances it may actually be best that neither Callista nor Ildiger wed when they were young.”
The good abbess now had reason to help Antonina locate the pot shop where her former charge worked. A generous dowry materialized and the marriage was arranged. When Photius arrived from Antioch there was a feast as Belisarius had promised. For the first time Antonina found herself hosting family and a few good friends. Even her mother was invited. She glowed. Callista called Photius her brother, and afterward Photius spoke alone for hours with his stepfather. The following month Callista and Ildiger had the rare pleasure of marrying entirely for love.
Now Belisarius and Antonina prepared for the arrival of Photius, newly graduated from the palace school of strategy and tactics. While he waited, Belisarius was fully occupied with preparations for the invasion of Italy itself. Antonina and her bodyguard had nothing of importance to do however, except to enjoy the sun and warm breeze. Theodosius lay on the beach with Antonina. Her other guards stood in groups not far away and for decency several Sicilian noblewomen sort of joined with them, or at least sat with them from time to time. The day was as fine as any but hot. At one point Antonina hiked up her tunica and waded into the warm sea but soon returned to sit beside her escort again. The sea had wet her hair and Theodosius watched as she brazenly released it from the confines of a noble Roman lady’s coif to fall in scented tresses to her waist. She was his commander’s wife, Theodosius reminded himself… Oh fortunate of men. Then Antonina smiled and laughed a younger girl’s bright giggle. It would have been far easier for Theodosius to keep to his duty of simply occupying the general’s wife’s time with chit chat and parlor games had she frowned. He looked around at her other guards who pretended disinterest and to the Sicilian noblewomen who seemed unable to decide what was proper behavior around these two people who obviously cared more than a little about each other. Antonina was a tease; everyone knew that. The question was whether or not Theodosius was made of stone? Surely Belisarius should have entrusted Antonina’s entertainment to some eunuch.
The next day, Theodosius himself went to suggest just that. He got as far as the general’s quarters but stopped outside. What would he say? He couldn’t just make up some excuse to be replaced in such an easy duty and one safe from death in battle. Belisarius would see through it and he would soon be a dead man. It would be worse and a quicker demise to admit he lusted after Antonina. Neither was an option and so he turned about, worrying for his life and his soul. He returned to his own rooms and for a few minutes considered speaking with one of the priests who accompanied the army. But what would be the use? He could hear in his mind’s ear what a priest would say, and he did not need to hear it. Anyway, Theodosius did not really want to lose the sight of Antonina at play or forget the smell of her damp hair.
He and Antonina were more and more to be seen together laughing and happy in each others company as they went about whatever task Belisarius had assigned to them, or Antonina had assumed on her own as Theodora’s agent. One day they were examining the accounts of the Sicilian garrison when Antonina stretched up on her toes to haul a wooden box of records from a high shelf. She should have asked for help but that was not Antonina’s way. She stumbled and fell backwards into the arms of Theodosius. He innocently caught her at the breasts but was slow to release the wife of his general. Antonina looked at him over her shoulder smiling. Theodosius nervously recovered a proper demeanor towards his godmother and the wife of the second most powerful man in the Roman empire; but Antonina trapped his hands on her bosom, and continued smiling naughtily. Their tenderness for each other had been growing in Africa and Constantinople and that had not gone unobserved by Procopius, among others.
“It’s OK. I’m not one of the sillies in the Great Palace who think their virtue is more important than friendship.”
“Godmother, it would not be right; if we start we will not stop.”
“Hush. Don’t think so much of what is right. I love my husband more than my life and I always will. But he is very busy and we are very lonely.” Antonina’s hands were now loosing the sash about Theodosius’ waist. Theodosius was almost impotent with fear of Belisarius’ wrath, but not quite. He was indeed lonely. As Antonina’s constant guard he could hardly visit the whores that satisfied other soldiers’ needs and the lady was lovely to behold in the afternoon sun which streamed through the windows. As always there was the slightest scent of thyme about her. She was also strong and and possessed of a feminine dominance that broached no refusal. She was not young. She was not a skinny waif. She was not heavy but definitely full bodied. Nor was Antonina, the Romanesque lady, accustomed to being refused by anyone in any manner. For her it meant nothing if a man enjoyed her breasts. That she could do for the lonely Theodosius as she had once done for coins. Belisarius would not need to know. She was not choosing the youth over her husband, she told herself, just passing time in a gawd-awful army post. After all, no-one would care if they had been two friends playing a dice game or shooting arrows at a target. To Antonina it was nearly the same.
It was only the heavy footfalls of Belisarius’ guards approaching that ended the awkward moment. Seconds later Antonina was explaining to her husband how she and Theodosius had been stashing a store of Gothic coin among the uninteresting boxes of paper records: purchases of corn and olive oil, of camp wine and of carts, of pigs and goats. It would be sufficient to purchase some mules for the bucellarii and, she added quite innocently, a nice dinner for her and the tired commander at a seaside restaurant.
The explanation was not lost on Theodosius. He had debts and there would be much more loot for Justinian’s coffers when they took Italy. His mistress might spare a small part, a thing he would never dare suggest to his commanding officer.
In the weeks following, Theodosius tried to avoid Antonina without alerting Belisarius that anything had changed. He wanted to be a loyal godson and Antonina was his godmother. He dared not ask to be relieved of his duties as her constant guard and companion when away from camp for that might arouse suspicion in the general who would recall how cheerful Antonina always was around Theodosius. Instead he asked to be assigned a combat command. Belisarius would not hear of it; the youth was not muscular enough. He then requested that he be assigned to duties surveying the recently captured towns for recruits and war material. It would give him the chance to see the wonders of the empire when the caesars had still ruled from Rome, and to visit many holy and beautiful churches and monasteries – for he could rightly claim a more than usual bent for the religious life, if not for a life of holy poverty. This Belisarius reluctantly granted and Antonina as reluctantly yielded to it as necessary. She had come to love the cheerful banter of her godchild which dispelled the sober climate of an army camp at war. She did love her husband with all her heart save that little space reserved for the youth. Before long, however, she asked of Belisarius that she accompany Theodosius on these trips, except of course, to the monasteries where women were not permitted.
It was a mild week in January. Winter in Constantinople is usually cold and rainy with an occasional light snowfall. There had been none this season so the angry factions took to the streets. The fair weather was no blessing to Justinian for many of the Blues and Greens soon gathered in the open air Hippodrome to vent their grievance. It had been in a fit of justice that the emperor had executed leaders of both factions but the result was that the Blues and Greens could no longer be played off against each other. They formed an alliance and demanded both reparation from the emperor and the head of the judge who had sentenced the men.
Without anyone giving an order parts of the city were fired. The old cathedral church of Hagia Sophia and a part of the palace complex were in flames. Many “uncooperative” businesses and the homes of “stuck-up” senators were destroyed. “Nike, Nike (victory)” the mobs of outright gangsters and Constantinople’s lowlife yelled as they assaulted the city’s prisons to free inmates of whichever party, They swore to toss Justinian into the sea and make a new emperor, one who understood the reality of the world. Was it not the factions who organized entertainments, helped widows, and protected shopkeepers from corrupt guardsmen and the foreigners who came to Constantinople only to line their pockets and avoid the authorities in their homelands? “All Justinian can see is some roughness; that’s life… Would he have us all be monks? The world is a rough place… So we skim a little off rich tradesmen. Don’t we keep them safe?” .
Justinian panicked. His own guards might be reluctant to defend him. When he appeared at the Hippodrome in an effort to appease the factions with promises he was nearly mobbed and he retreated. Icons were displayed and attempts to organize a holy procession made. But these too failed. The wealthy of the city as well as many senators from old and distinguished families fled to the Asian shore. The emperor hid in his inner palace which remained untouched by the fires. In the Boucoleon harbor a warship was prepared to evacuate him and the empress, its crew growing more nervous by the hour.
Outside the hippodrome riots went on for a full week hardly checked by the efforts of troops with whips that the city prefect sent into the streets. Constantinople had no real police force; the factions themselves had years before taken over much of that task. It was a bit as though the Mafia or a Chicago mob was policing the city and providing order. The city prefect and his troops were usually wary of interfering with their day-to-day operations and the gang enforcers were generally careful not to invade each others’ turf. Businessmen bought protection. It was the emperor’s attempt to restore his authority on the street that had resulted in the riot and now sections of the city were ablaze with no-one to put out the fires, another task usually handled by the gangs for a price.
Belisarius and Antonina were at a villa outside the walls, the guests of a longtime friend of the general, when they heard the news of the riot in the city, At first they thought it a minor disturbance and Belisarius’ host simply sent an aide to gather news each day. But on the fourth day the aide brought word that the rioting had become widespread. Clearly the riot was now beyond the strength of the city authorities alone to control. Civil discord was not his responsibility but Belisarius felt that he must return to the palace in case the life of the emperor himself was jeopardized. Antonina should come too; she might be of some use in council for she knew the factions’ leaders well. She had screwed one or two of them.
Antonina volunteered that Constantinople would be safer after the affair was put down; if it could be put down: “The hoods are very stupid to gather in the Hippodrome. Crooks should know enough to be secretive but these have gathered publicly in one stadium with only two exits where soldiers can get at all of them at once. Justinian should send in troops. Innocents also would die of course, but they’d be lowlifes. They might be innocent of crimes but they’re still hangers on. I know their type.” For a moment Antonina lost her new-found delicacy. “They’re shits who haven’t the guts to actually knife someone themselves but who like to hang around those who will. Shits who think only of a little bit of gain and nothing of cheating others and are a pain in the ass. It’s too bad for them but they’d not be missed.” … Hell! She thought, I’ve only been in the palace for a few months and already I’m thinking like a noble bitch.
Even as they prepared to return to the palace an imperial messenger arrived instructing, actually imploring, Belisarius to present himself as soon as possible before Justinian and Theodora. He made it plain that Justinian was frightened although he dared not say as much. No sooner had he left than Belisarius and Antonina followed after him. They just threw on some riding clothes, disdained a carriage, and hopped upon two polo ponies which had been quickly saddled by servants of their worried host. With them was a small bodyguard of their friend’s bucellarii; just a few dozen but enough to cut their way through any scattered rabble that they might encounter.
It only took an hour to reach the landward walls. Once inside Belisarius considered that without passing dangerously near to the hippodrome it would not be possible to approach the palace by land. It was located on the opposite side of the city. Rioting in the streets continued to ebb and flow between different districts but the orgy of looting and burning had tired the rioters as any orgy eventually must. Many of the rabble were falling back in small groups to the epicenter of the rebellion. Belisarius’ borrowed bucellarii could easily have slaughtered the tired criminals and criminal wannabes before them in the streets but would be no match for the thousands inside the stadium if they should sally in force. Besides, Antonina might be taken by the rebels. That could not be risked. At the harbor of Kontoskali within the land walls, Belisarius requisitioned a skiff. He and Antonina skirted the hippodrome and docked without incident at the palace water gate of Boucoleon, their guards following soon after in larger boats.
By then it was evening and they were too late to hear much of the discussion that had split imperial advisers into two camps. The larger of the two advised the emperor to flee by night and rally loyal regiments across the Bosporus. The far smaller understood that whoever held the capital was emperor in the minds of most citizens, civilians and soldiers alike. For Justinian to flee would be near suicidal. The factions would crown their own emperor. Justinian would be tracked down and assassinated wherever he might go within the empire, or be betrayed in a foreign land. Already the rioters had set about forcing Senator Hypatius to assume the imperial dignity. He was aged and he and his brother Pompeius wanted nothing so much as to live out their lives undisturbed. Though it was said that he was truly reluctant, the citizenry respected Hypatius and the factions thought him malleable. The emperor would go to bed that night not knowing whether in the morning he would still be ruler of the civilized world or dead. Neither did Hypatius who had so far been able to put off assuming the imperial symbols but was under great pressure to do so. He was being pressured not only by the rabble but also by men of wealth and position who saw that their riches would be taxed away by the emperor and his finance minister to pay for the glorious achievements with which Justinian meant to immortalize his reign. It was not clear to Hypatius where duty lay. He only knew that if the rebellion was not successful he and his brother would be held responsible if he assumed the throne; and that if he did not accept it the rioters themselves might kill them for their loyalty to Justinian.
On the morning of the fifth day even the palace guard was becoming restless. They weren’t afraid of a mob but they did disdain an indecisive leader, and Justinian seemed unable to come to any decision to end the rebellion. Yet Belisarius, the hero of Daras, was there with them and he had a large number of his bucellarii available; for they had made their way in groups to the palace barracks. His friend the strategos Mundus, commander of the Illyrian divisions was also there with his retainers. Their bucellarii were few compared to the rebels but they were excellent troops, well armed and armored and, of course, trained and disciplined.
There too were Theodora and Antonina. Antonina was not waiting demurely aside like a proper wife but instead stood at her husband’s side like a shield.
Justinian had another fear. These bucellarii had sworn loyalty to Belisarius and Mundus, not to him. Justinian hated that and feared it. His uncle, Justin, had constantly been concerned that a general who was strong enough to put down a rebellion with his personal troops might also be popular enough to raise one himself. Might his largely ceremonial palace guard find itself fighting touch bucellarii as well as street thugs? What if the rioters raised Belisarius on a shield instead of Hypatius? Escape by sea began to look the more attractive option.
While the men debated, the empress took Antonina aside. “You alone don’t seem frightened, Antonina. Have you a pact with those scum?”
“Mi-lady, no! But I am not afraid of them either. If one of them had a brain he’d be terrified…. Belisarius is here. He came not because of the emperor’s summons; we were leaving for the city when the messenger arrived. If my husband were disloyal he could as easily have gone to the hippodrome and become emperor. In fact, it would have been easier. He would have had his cataphracts and the people behind him. And you? Just Mundus and your guards.” Antonina was speaking boldly but now was certainly not a time for discretion and surely Theodora would value a straightforward defense that made such perfect sense. Going to the hippodrome had obviously occurred to Antonina if not to her husband. Yet they had not. Theodora made a mental note.
Procopius was also in the room and although he could not overhear their discussion it was plain to him that Theodora listened carefully to her cubicularia. It confirmed what he had already concluded: that the flirty Antonina was far more than a mere pretty to decorate a husband’s bed. When they had married she had seemed a simple if tarnished woman, one he’d assumed was overwhelmed at what the fates had provided her. Quickly he had realized that she had become much more to both Belisarius and Theodora. She not only understood the world outside the Great Palace, she was strong and ready to give advice; probably good advice. Somewhere in the back of his mind he resented that. Procopius had thought he’d be the general’s right hand but with so strong a wife beside him that position was jeopardized.
Procopius watched as Theodora turned from Antonina to Justinian. Her back was straight and there was anger in her face. The anger was not at Antonina’s frank words but at her husband’s timidity. Theodora summoned the best Attic phrases she had heard from educated men and put them together in a monologue not unworthy of the ancient authors: “My opinion is that it is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety. For one who has been an empress it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as Basilia. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, there the boats. However consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. As for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that the purple is a good burial-shroud.”
Procopius made some more mental notes for the book he would one day write.
The decision was made and on the sixth day of the rebellion Belisarius led his bucellarii to one end of the hippodrome. Mundus led his own bucellarii and the imperial guard through a passage connecting the palace to the race track. Belisarius forced the entrance in person and his men arrayed themselves in battle order within. The one-sided butchery began. Thirty thousand were killed
In truth though, it was not the troops who did most of the slaughter. It was the rebels and criminals themselves. Even while those inside the palace were debating what to do, Narses had been spreading bribes and promises among the Blues. That had added to the rebel’s disorder and mutual suspicion. Most died in the panic when they found themselves facing armed and disciplined soldiers. Thousands were trampled or had their heads smashed into brick walls by comrades. Others used the knives which all of them carried in attempts to cut a way out through their friends and enemies. They failed; but before the troops could cut them down they had stabbed and slashed at each other in a brawl such as has never been seen before or since.
The factions had not anticipated their massacre and neither had the troops who carried it out. Somehow the thought of thoroughly excising this cancer had never occurred to any emperor before; or if it had, none had possessed the courage to try surgery on such a scale. Until that day Justinian hadn’t either. The rebels had felt secure in their numbers, especially when word leaked out of the palace that Justinian was considering flight. But Theodora proved herself a tougher fighter than her husband and Belisarius and Mundus did what had to be done. No mercy was shown. These were not enemy soldiers serving their country and king. They were not even honest rebels intent upon replacing a bad emperor with a better. They were murderers and thieves, so the city’s criminal element was largely eliminated at one cut. The city prefect could be assured that the few who survived would henceforth dwell in the shadows for some years to come. Citizens could walk the streets at night with far less fear than had been possible almost since the founding of the city. Prayers were offered that Christ would have pity and pardon the dead, but in that brutal age, when even the best of men and women and children died of the slightest disease or accident, there was little mourning and no condemnation of the slaughter.
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.
“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?” “Both.” “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.