We’ve all got used to social media and communicating over the internet. We instinctively know what the real meaning of a lot of communications are. You can tell that an email or a message on Twitter is not genuine even without reading the whole thing. But put yourself in the place of an historian looking back on the 21st century from a 1,000 years in the future. Human nature probably won’t be very different, but the social context will have changed enormously. Many of the social conventions we regard as so obvious we hardly even feel the need to notice let alone explain will be far from obvious any more. There will probably be a thesis written on exactly what LOL means. Our future digital historian might well ponder statistics about how many plaintive tweets went unanswered and ponder how lonely people using Twitter used to be in the early years of the twentieth century. As to what they will make of Twitter exchanges between famous people – well we all know that their accounts are run by their offices. But how do we know that? Again, taken out of context would it make any sense?
It is worth bearing this in mind when looking back on the sources that Gibbon, and we, have to use to understand the late Roman Empire. The people back then had a whole set of media that we no longer instinctively understand and as a result we are probably never going to understand what went on to anything more than a rough approximation. We might even be way off the mark. And a good example of this is the accounts we have of Belisarius from his one time staff officer, Procopius.
Procopius in fact wrote two very different histories of his age. There is the official one that was intended for publication, and the so called Secret History which he kept close to his chest and which in fact didn’t see much of an audience until the late Renaissance. The Secret History is a scandalous account of the shortcomings of the court of Justinian with Belisarius taking a leading role in it.
The two accounts show both the general and his monarch in a very different light. Justinian comes off the worst. He is portrayed as a fiend in human form who can remove his head when he choses. Belisarius becomes a wretched cuckold who is so besotted by his wife Antonina that he becomes a pitiful figure. He might have reconquered half the western empire but his writ did not extend as far as his own household.
The reasons for the differences between these versions, and which ones give the truer picture have been speculated on by many historians. I can’t help thinking we haven’t really got much hope of disentangling what is going on. It could very well be that at the time it would have made such perfect sense that nobody would even think commenting on it to be necessary. For example one speculation is that Procopius needed to have an anti-Justinian text ready just in case there was a coup and somebody else took over. He wouldn’t stand any chance of getting hired -or maybe even of staying alive – as the mouthpiece of the old regime. And to live down his previous enthusiasm would need some pretty extreme reinterpretation. That might be where the demon stuff comes from. “What could I do? He had magic powers.” It certainly beats the dog ate my homework as an excuse.
But all that is, and must be, pure speculation. It could be that the Secret History was simply a psychological escape valve in a high pressure court where the expression of personal opinion had to be ruthlessly suppressed.
Gibbon takes a lot of what Procopius says about Belisarius in the Secret History at face value.
But just sticking to the undisputed facts – there is a lot that is rather odd about his personal life. He was married to an older woman called Antonina who was a close friend of the empress Theodora. Antonina came from the same background as Theodora in the theatre, which was a highly disreputable but nonetheless lucrative business in those days. It was strange enough that Theodora should have bagged the emperor. That someone from the same sort of place should also be married to a leading general is even more peculiar.
The speculation has to be that Theodora was involved in some way in bringing them together. And if so, did she use her influence to force one of the parties into it? And if so, which one?
Procopius steers clear of this particular issue and always portrays Belisarius as a loving and dutiful if somewhat gullible husband. Antonina on the other hand is completely the opposite. The couple adopt a son, who Antonina later falls for. There is an almost comic scene where Belisarius discovers the naked couple in bed, but is somehow persuaded by Antonina that the boy is simply helping her hide their treasure from Justinian.
Antonina had a son from a previous marriage called Photius, who seems to have got on well with Belisarius. He served in his army and later grassed up his mother over the affair. Belisarius reacted this time and had the youth sent away, though even now he seems to have forgiven his unfaithful wife. Was it necessary to keep on her good side in order to avoid offending Theodora? It has to be possible. But maybe Antonina was just such a looker that she was easy to forgive.
The trouble was that the whole thing seems to have become public knowledge. One of the senior officers called Constantine is reported to have expressed the opinion that Antonina should have been punished a bit more severely. Later on, Constantine ended up being executed on an unrelated but apparently trivial matter. Revenge of a woman scorned? If so Antonina had rather more influence than would be expected from a general’s wife.
We also see Antonina taking a big role in the political side of the Italian campaign. It is her, according to Procopius, who interviews and exiles the pope. This could be a way of deflecting the blame away from Belisarius, but if it was true then it suggests that Antonina was able to exert a lot of authority. If so, exactly how the middle aged former showgirl acquired this authority in the first place isn’t obvious. But it must have something to do with her relationship with Theodora.
In this reading Belisarius becomes a pitiful figure. He is fooled by his wife and becomes a laughing stock. The emperor despises him. He is put on trial on a trumped up charge on which he is found guilty. He is supposed to have threatened not to recognise Theodora as Justinian’s successor following a false rumour of Justinian’s death. But his punishment is moderated because of his previous service and the intercession of his wife on his behalf. We get the scene where Belisarius is shown pathetically receiving the news of his light sentence. He merely loses a large slice of his wealth. He supposed to have accepted this injustice with transports of delight rather than the defiance due to an ungrateful master.
He ends by wondering whether this is the sign of a weak or a strong character. Should Belisarius have been more manly in dealing with Justinian? Should he have used his prestige with the military to depose him? Or was his willingness to serve the sign of an above average willingness to put the public interest?
I am not sure I quite buy the whole setup to be honest. Belisarius was trusted enough to be brought back into service to repel an attack by the Bulgars. And he lived to a ripe old age. I think it was simply that Justinian was the better politician and knew how to wield power effectively. For all his military skill Belisarius just didn’t have the chops to take on Justinian. And Justinian had his potential rival just where he wanted him. Belisarius was the biggest threat to Justinian, but it was a threat that was managed with skill. If it meant giving him a triumph one year, and a show trial another, that was just what needed to be done. But that is just my take on it, you can no doubt form your own opinion.