Antonina: A Byzantine Slut
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This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (July 2019)
In 429 AD, a Vandal Kingdom was founded on Roman territory in North Africa. In 455, the Vandals pillaged Rome. In 533, the late Roman (or Byzantine) emperor Justinian I – who now ruled from Constantinople – sent his brilliant young general, Flavius Belisarius, against the Vandals. Belisarius had just defeated a major Persian invasion of the eastern frontier, now he quickly restored Africa to the empire. When jealous subordinates warned Justinian that Belisarius intended to rebel and take the throne himself, the general showed his loyalty by returning to Constantinople without his guards. Justinian honored him with a triumph through the streets of Constantinople, made him consul, and then ordered him to also retake Sicily and Italy, at that time under Gothic rule.
Beside Belisarius rode his wife, the one-time prostitute Antonina who was a product of Constantinople's crime- infested streets and slums. Antonina and another former prostitute, Justinian's wife, the Empress Theodora, were two of the most formidable women of that or any age.
The christological disputes of the fifth century haunted the reign of Justinian and Theodora. Monophysitism disputed orthodox doctrine in the eastern empire and Arianism was the faith of the Barbarians who held the west. Antonina and Belisarius had even been godparents to a young man named Theodosius when he converted to the orthodox Catholic faith. They had married less than two years before the African campaign and Antonina had borne a daughter. Kastenellos assumes that the baby Joannina must have remained in Constantinople, presumably in the care of Belisarius' mother and a grown daughter of Antonina.
Antonina and Belisarius loved each other deeply as they did their godson, Theodosius. But Antonina loved Theodosius too well. They engaged in a ten years affair while accompanying Belisarius in his brilliant campaigns in Africa, Sicily, and Italy where, despite grossly inadequate forces, he conquered the Gothic kingdom which ruled even the city of Rome itself.
Since almost nothing is certain of Antonina's life before meeting Belisarius, Kastenellos has invented a plausible youth. What is known from Belisarius' private secretary and biographer, Procopius of Caesaria, is that she was the daughter of a charioteer in the hippodrome of Constantinople and that after his death her mother prostituted the barely teenage girl. Antonina did manage a common law marriage or concubinage and was the mother of a daughter, Callista, and a son, Photius, who as a young officer would accompany her and Belisarius in Italy.
In the fictional early life of Antonina, she is widowed and survives two earthquakes and a fire which are known to have ravaged the city of Antioch at that time. She meets and falls for the considerably younger Belisarius, and he for her. Then he is ordered back to the capitol. As fate would seem to have it, she meets and is befriended by an elderly senator whom, it is hinted, the imperial couple have requested return her to the capitol and to Belisarius. There they are reunited..
After her marriage to Belisarius we have more exact, if slanderous, information from Procopius, and the story becomes a sympathetic narrative of her known life. The subtitle of Antonina is A Byzantine Slut and Kastenellos does not whitewash her infidelity, but he does sympathize. Antonina was a strong-willed and liberated lady from the streets of Constantinople who, Procopius admitted, contributed substantially to the Italian campaign. Antonina withstood a siege of Rome which lasted over a year. When her husband tried to send her to safety in Byzantine-occupied Naples, she instead raised an army and led reinforcements to relieve Rome. She was also the Empress Theodora's agent in reconquered Italy and did not hesitate, as her husband did, even to depose a Pope who was suspected of treason. In Kastenellos' opinion, "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".
Procopius hated Antonina. Kastenellos has written a more understanding account of her life. The narrative is based upon the facts reported by Procopius but with severe criticism of his interpretation and lack of empathy or insight. It is fictionalized only to the extent necessary to tell the tale of Antonina in the form of a novel.
Throughout all this, while Belisarius was risking his life and fortune for the emperor, the reader is immersed in literally Byzantine politics. His lieutenants are disobedient political appointments with familial relations to Justinian, or are barbarian chieftains with little loyalty to anyone. A rival, the grand chamberlain Narses, plots against the general. While he is waging war on the Persian frontier, to please Theodora Antonina entraps Justinian's venal finance minister in a treasonous plot. All the while she is romantically involved with Theodosius. She and her son become increasingly estranged until he finally reveals her affair to his stepfather. When Theodora deprives Belisarius of his wealth and honors he is depressed beyond bearing. It is while he is awaiting assassination that Antonina fully realizes the fullness of her love for the man who had always loved her and she intercedes with the empress to have Justinian restore him to command responsibility. The biography of Belisarius ends with his return to favor when Justinian must summon his greatest general to defeat a Bulgar army threatening Constantinople. When he dies soon afterward, Antonina fulfills his last wishes and then enters a convent to prepare for her own death.
The main source for the lives of the characters are histories written by Procopius of Caesaria. Belisarius was Procopius' hero and most of his criticism of the hero is that Belisarius is love blind toward Antonina. He defames nearly everyone else. In the Anecdota or Secret History Justinian is quite literally a devil in human guise and he repeats much scuttlebutt to support that statement.
The Empress Theodora is a conniving former porno star who had managed to marry into the ruling dynasty. Antonina is a low born slut who is below disdain and who seduces the general with caresses and enchantments. Kastenellos sees it otherwise. With a clear eyed understanding of Antonina's illicit behavior, he admires her strengths. As Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “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.” He is much less understanding of Procopius whom he considers a supercilious slanderer.
Perhaps because of his dislike of Procopius or perhaps because of Procopius' dislike of Antonina, Kastenellos stretches the historical record and identifies him as a eunuch despite that there is nothing in the record to support such a supposition, Then too, there is nothing to prove it otherwise and Kastenellos admits to the supposition in an afterword.
Belisarius, though not well known in the west, was one of history's greatest battle leaders and also one of the most noble. He is often cited as one of the Last of the Romans. Besides his conquests in the west, he twice defeated Persian armies and in his last years turned back an invasion by Bulgars with little more than their fear of his name. Aside from his portrayal of Procopius as a eunuch, Kastenellos has tried to stay accurate in so far as the facts are known.
With always inadequate forces and often disloyal officers, Belisarius won battles and campaigns as much by maneuver and deception as conflict. He spared enemy lives wherever possible. He was completely loyal to Justinian but his own subordinates were not always loyal to him. The officers that he commanded were self-serving and unreliable; but the common soldiers loved and respected him. In a brutal age, he was noted for his humanity. Though his emperor always suspected that the general would one day attempt to seize the throne, when that was suggested to him by the Goths of Italy he pretended to accept their offer of support only to turn the Gothic kingdom over to Justinian.
In the story Antonina is presented as an independent and strong willed woman who loved two men at the same time. However, her infidelity is not allowed to overshadow her contributions. Wherever the narrative has differed from the strict historical record as we know it from Procopius, that is explained in an afterword. All persons referred to and all terms and places are referenced in appendices. While sometimes giving more details about people than in the novel itself, these notes may seem unnecessarily extensive. Kastenellos has assumed that today's readers have little knowledge of the political and religious disputes of the post-classical Roman world.
- Count No Man Happy: A Byzantine Fantasy, Kastenellos' other novel set in the Byzantine Empire, about the reign and fantasies of the Emperor Constantine VI.
- Procopius of Caesaria: Wars I, II, III, IV, Anecdota (Secret History). c. 500.
- Mahon, Lord (2006). The life of Belisarius. Reprinted by Westholme Publishing.
- Italy and her Invaders: the Imperial Restoration. Clarendon Press. 1885.
- The Generalship of Belisarius. Private Press. 1995.
- The power Game In Byzantium, Antonina and the Empress Theodora. Continuum International Publishing Group. 2011.