Did Antonina Use Witchcraft to Enslave the Mighty Byzantine General Belisarius?
Flavius Belisarius (500 - 565 AD) personified the perfect example of what a general of a powerful empire ought to have been. He was almost invincible in battle as he restored the influence of the Byzantine Empire in North Africa and Italy during the reign of the 6th century Emperor Justinian I, who reigned from 527 to 565 AD. As a man, Belisarius also cut an impressive figure as he was dashing, energetic, decisive and resourceful. However, like many powerful men before and after him, Belisarius’ one weakness had the sway to destroy men and ruin empires. His Achilles’ heel was none other than his wife, Antonina.
The Gothic War, covering the period from the first Byzantine attacks in 535 AD until the fall of Ravenna in 540 and the recall of Belisarius. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Historian Procopius’ Secret History describes Belisarius and Antonina’s marriage as plagued not only by Antonina’s infidelities, but also Belisarius’ stubbornness and his deep love for her. While Procopius credited Belisarius and Antonina’s relationship to his downfall, historian Edward Gibbon (1737 - 1794) did not seem too certain of what to make of this. However, he was ready enough to accept the reliability of Procopius’ accounts as he noted that: "the unconquerable patience and loyalty of Belisarius appear either below or above the character of a man". From the popularity of both Procopius and Gibbon’s writings in their respective times, both historians may have condemned Belisarius and Antonina to being remembered in history as a weak husband and a witch who brought down one of the most powerful generals in Rome.
Dark Magic or Womanly Wiles?
Not much is known about Antonina in ancient records apart from her being mentioned in the rather sensational histories of Procopius. Antonina was born in the harsh world surrounding the Hippodrome in Constantinople and, due to her low birth, spent her childhood in poverty. Both Antonina’s father and grandfather were charioteers. Her mother, Procopius contemptuously wrote, was ‘one of the wenches of the theater’. When she was old enough, Antonina met a man of her own social standing, lived with him and bore him children - Procopius was not sure whether they were married or not. One of those children was Photius who later, as a young officer, would accompany his mother and Belisarius to Italy.
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Top Image: Belisarius by Francois-Andre Vincent 1776 ( Public Domain )