San Vitale mosaic
Presumed portrait of Antonina in the mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna. On the left is represented Her daughter Giovanna

Antonina (484/495-after 565) was an Eastern Roman Empire (which is improperly called Byzantine Empire) patrician, wife of the general Belisarius and very close to the Empress Theodora, wife of the Emperor Justinian. Antonina and Theodora were generally seen as two women with a very strong and very influential personality. In Antonina's specific case, the historians' reports almost speak of a real relationship of domination towards her husband Belisarius, despite this being one of the greatest generals of the Empire, who emerged victorious from the Nika revolt, the war against the Vandals and the Greek-Gothic war. Belisarius was systematically betrayed by Antonina, and episodes narrated by the historian Procopio of how the great general also licked his wife's feet, as a sign of submission. Episodes that we will see better later.

San Vitale mosaic Belisarius

Antonina (whose Greek name is spelled Ἀντωνίνα) was the daughter of a charioteer who ran at the Hippodrome of Constantinople also active in Thessalonika, and of a prostitute, and like Theodora she came from the hippodrome environment.
Antonina's marriage to Belisario was probably the second for the woman, who previously had already had a son, Photius, who was a military alongside His stepfather in numerous military campaigns, and perhaps even a stepdaughter.
Most of the information relating to Antonina comes from the Secret History, a work written by the historian Procopio of Caesarea, which traces the portrait of a particularly strong and influential woman and a particularly submissive husband, albeit at the same time among the most skilled soldiers of his time, able among other things to defeat the Goths who were besieging Rome between 537 and 538.
About Antonina's youth and the context from which she came, Procopio speaks of an "obscene and dissolute" life and of the fact that she had already been the mother of many children before marrying Belisarius, referring specifically to Photius.
After her marriage to Belisario, the woman followed her husband in the wars against the Vandals in Africa in 533, together with Theodosius, godson's son of the general with whom Antonina began to enter into a relationship. Although the two had once been discovered while undressed, the general preferred to believe an apology from the wife to justify what he had just seen, and the relationship between Antonina and Theodosius continued.
Procopius also attributes an important merit to Antonina in the war against the Vandals: the woman, in fact, kept drinking water in Byzantine vessels in some jars after most of the supplies had been contaminated.
Antonina was then sent to Rome with her husband on the occasion of the Greek-Gothic war. Belisarius' mission was not only to defeat the Gothic king Vitige, but also to depose Pope Saint Silverius (536-537), Who enjoyed Gothic support but towards which there were many reservations from Constantinople, since the Empress Theodora had sympathies towards the Monophysites and, at the death of Pope Saint Agapetus I, had sided with Bishop Vigilius who had given reassurances about it. Theodora, who was Antonina's close friend, wanted to count on her support in the mission assigned to Belisarius.
Thanks to a forged letter that falsely accused Saint Silverius of complicity with the Gothic king Vitige who was besieging Rome, the Pope was deposed by Belisarius and replaced with his successor, Vigilius (537-555). Silverio is today revered as a saint and is patron of the island of Ponza, near which is the island of Palmarola where he died in exile.
Just in the meeting between Antonina and Saint Silverius an episode is told by Procopius that speaks of what it almost represents as a relationship of submission to her by Belisarius. During the meeting, in fact, Antonina was lying on a triclinium and her husband Belisarius was lying at her feet, a position that generally in Ancient Rome was attributed to Servus ad Pedes.
Antonina probably remained in Italy until 540, when returning to Constantinople with Theodora she started plotting to bring down John the Cappadocian, Prefect of the Praetorium of the East. After the return of Belisarius, in fact, the latter had gained considerable popularity and John was seeing him as a rival. Antonina therefore brought into play a ruthless stratagem, pretending to want to organize a conspiracy against Justinian and managing to find John on his side, who, caught on the fact, was forced to flee and retire to a monastery.
Theodosius, the godson of Belisarius and lover of Antonina, had also settled in a monastery, which made the patrician sad, but when the general was sent to the eastern limes for a campaign against the Persians, the young man left the monastery and returned to to be Antonina's lover.
In 541 Antonina also went to the eastern limes, but because of Photius, Belisarius he had discovered his relationship with Theodosius and seemed determined to punish her by segregating her and doing the same with her lover. However, the Empress Theodora, Antonina's close friend, had Fozio and some followers of Belisarius tortured to reveal where Theodosius was and free him. Convened Antonina, he told her that he wanted to show her a precious gem which she had come into possession of, and made her reunite with Theodosius.
Subsequently, in 543, Belisarius fell out of favor in the eyes of Theodora, since Justinian had been infected by the plague that had affected Constantinople and, in the period of illness before he recovered, it was feared that many generals and high officials were plotting to choose a new emperor.
Thanks to Antonina and her close friendship with Theodora, Belisario was rehabilitated. Procopius narrates that upon receiving Theodora's letter of forgiveness, the general threw himself at Antonina's feet, stroking her legs and licking the soles of her feet. It is a gesture that well gives the idea of ​​Antonina's influence, since Belisarius, even in a difficult moment, was one of the most powerful generals of the empire, and prostrating himself at the feet of his wife and licking her soles represented a very eloquent gesture.
Theodora also favored the marriage between Giovanna, daughter of Antonina and Belisario, and her nephew Anastasio, a marriage that would have made him inherit the vast possessions of the Belisario family. However, after Theodora's death in 548, Antonina broke the marriage.
In all probability Antonina died subsequently to her husband, who died in 565, but it is not known exactly when.
Historical interpretations of Antonina are different. Our main source in relation to his life is represented by the Secret History of Procopius, a particularly acrimonious work against Justinian and his wife Theodora but which, even before criticizing the imperial couple, takes it out on Antonina, to whom the first chapters are dedicated. The work, in any case, generally considered the work of Procopio, according to some, could be the work of a namesake, Procopio of Constantinople, since it was published posthumously.
The work, in any case, however hard it is on the figure of Antonina, emphasizing her debauchery and her passion for intrigue, follows a critical pattern towards her, but certainly is based at least in part on elements of truth , first of all a close relationship with Theodora.
In 2012 a novel dedicated to the figure of Antonina was released with the eloquent title "Antonina: A Byzantine Slut", the work of the American writer Paul Kastenellos, specialized in novels set in the Eastern Roman Empire.

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