In our modern world, the spouses of major political figures may sometimes themselves spend quite a bit of time in the limelight, and be significant assets to the careers of their politician partners. In the sixth century, the wife of the most famous and successful Roman general of the day became nearly as powerful and famous as he was. Belisarius was the preferred general of Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565), and served his emperor by leading his armies to defeat the Persians, and to recover North Africa from the Vandals and Italy from the Ostrogoths. Antonina, his wife, was more than a smiling face dragged along for the ride. She was a serious political operative in her own right, and her partnership with Belisarius enabled both of them to reach astounding heights of power in the middle of the century.
Belisarius and Antonina worked together to secure most of their greatest achievements. Antonina was famous in her own day for accompanying Belisarius on his military campaigns. The historian Procopius of Caesarea exclaimed, “she made a point of accompanying him to the ends of the earth!” Antonina traveled with Belisarius to Italy in 535 and was at his side when the general and his army triumphantly (and peacefully) entered Rome on 9 December 536. It had been 60 years since the Eternal City was ruled by a Roman Emperor.
“Antonina was a serious political operative in her own right and, with Belisarius, reached astounding heights of power.”
The restoration of Roman authority did not come without some growing pains, however. Within a few months, Belisarius and Antonina began to suspect that Pope Silverius, resident within the city, secretly favored the recently departed Ostrogoths. This was not an unreasonable suspicion, as Silverius owed his papacy to an irregular appointment by the Ostrogothic King Theodahad. So, late in March 537, Antonina and Belisarius together schemed to depose the pope and replace him with someone more loyal to the Roman cause. The anonymously authored Liber Pontificalis provides a vivid depiction of the deposition, suggesting that the couple received the pope in audience while Antonina was reclining on a couch and Belisarius was sitting at her feet. It was Antonina who then spoke, saying, “Tell us, lord Pope Silverius, what have we done to you and the Romans to make you want to betray us into the hands of the Goths?” The pope was then stripped of his vestments and hurried out of the room. A short time later, Belisarius and Antonina appointed Vigilius to be pope.
This is a remarkable story that shows the power of Belisarius and Antonina when they worked together. More than this, the deposition of a pope by these two figures is essentially unprecedented. Before this moment, the last time a pope had been deposed and replaced was in 355, when Emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361) deposed Pope Liberius. A pope would not be deposed again until Emperor Constans II (r. 641-668) deposed Pope Martin I in 654. The deposition of a pope was perhaps a once-in-a-century event, and the other successful depositions were made possible only via the extraordinary pressure of the emperor. That Belisarius and Antonina could together depose Silverius, seemingly without much resistance, speaks to their authority and power.
Beyond the restoration of Rome and deposition of Pope Silverius, Antonina was with Belisarius for most of his other signature victories. In 533, Belisarius led a Roman army from Constantinople to North Africa. The Romans romped through what is today Tunisia, defeating the Vandal army twice and securing control of the entire Vandal kingdom and its capital, the ancient city of Carthage. Antonina traveled with Belisarius and his army every step of the way. In 540, Belisarius and the Roman army victoriously entered Ravenna, the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, after accepting the submission of the Ostrogothic King Vittigis. Antonina was right there as well.
“It is just as significant that Antonina was not with Belisarius for his greatest failures.”
While Antonina was present for most of Belisarius’ greatest victories, it is perhaps just as significant that she seems not to have been with him for his greatest failures. On 19 April 531, Belisarius suffered a serious setback to his military career by losing to the Persians at the Battle of Callinicum. According to Procopius, the officers of the Roman army had pressured the general into offering battle when he thought it was not propitious. Antonina was not present with Belisarius for this campaign or battle, and one wonders whether she might have steeled him to resist the pressure from his subordinates. Similarly, in Summer 542, Belisarius made a serious political faux pas by speculating on who should take the throne next if Justinian, at that time lying sick with the plague, should die. The report of Belisarius’ musing was forwarded to the emperor, who recalled and disgraced his general. Once again, it seems that Antonina was not present at the time. With her political acumen, she might have helped Belisarius to manage the rumor mill and avoid this precipitous fall from favor.
Antonina was the wife of a famous Roman general but stopping the description of her with that sells her short. She was a seasoned traveler and a wily political operative in her own right. It was the partnership of Antonina and Belisarius and their shared experiences that helped to propel them to the heights of success and power in the sixth century.
Featured image: Basilica of San Vitale, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.