men leaders like General Belisarius lick women’s feet under gynocracy

Byzantine General Belisarius

The sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius in his Secret History courageously wrote of what a modern editor aptly entitled “The Gynocracy.” Relative to the alternatives, gynocentrism is the best master narrative for understanding the full course of human history. “The Gynocracy,” however, is a particular, personal history of men’s subordination to women in sixth-century Byzantium.[1] Within that history, Belisarius gratefully licked the soles of his wife Antonina’s feet. Belisarius’s gesture has much greater significance — both in Byzantine history and in the history of all humanity. A man leader licking a woman’s feet signifies men’s gynocentric subordination to women throughout history.

Before she married Belisarius, Antonina was an undistinguished actress. She associated with charioteers, gladiators, and other men performers that Roman women found sexually alluring. Antonina herself had strong, independent sexuality. She probably worked for some time as a prostitute. Given her work history, Antonina knew how to deal effectively with the Byzantine Empress Theodora. Antonina had no fear of committing crimes, for she wouldn’t receive serious punishment no matter what crime she committed.[2]

Before he married Antonina, Belisarius was an eminent general. As merely a young man, Belisarius led a Byzantine force that defeated a large Persian army at Daras in 530. The next year Belisarius led another important action against the Persians. Two years later Belisarius led a large Byzantine naval expedition against the Vandals in North Africa. With that expedition, Belisarius brought Carthage under Byzantine rule. In gratitude for Belisarius’s victory, the Emperor Justinian honored Belisarius with a spectacular triumph in Constantinople. Belisarius was also a key player in domestic politics. His troops participated in a massacre of protesters in the Nika Riots of 532.[3]

Antonina probably sought the large gains in status and material goods from marrying Belisarius. On his side, Belisarius was sexually infatuated with Antonina. At the time of their marriage, Antonina was a single mother with many children and more than ten years older than him.[4] Their marriage was tumultuous. She dominated him and ultimately brought him to career ruin and complete self-degradation.

Antonina intended to engage in extra-marital sexual activity from the start of her marriage with Belisarius. Initially she concealed her adulteries. But then she conceived an insatiable passion for their adopted son Theodosios. She acted on her passion. Belisarius refused to recognize that his wife Antonina was cuckolding him with their son:

When Belisarius once caught them in the act when they were in Carthage, he willingly allowed his wife to pull the wool over his eyes. For even though he was furious at finding them together in a basement room, she was not overcome with shame nor even flinched at her compromising situation. “I came down here,” she said, “with the boy to hide the most precious spoils of war so that the emperor doesn’t find out about them.” That was her excuse, and he let on that he had bought it, even though he could see that the belt around Theodosios’ pants had been loosened in the part closest to the genitals. He was so infatuated with this person, his wife, that he could not bring himself to believe the evidence of his own eyes. [5]

With Belisarius repressing the reality of his being cuckolded, he became moody, unpredictable, and depressed. Antonina killed several men and women servants who spoke about her affair with Theodosios. Not surprisingly, Belisarius lost the respect of the men servants in his household. They prudently turned to seeking to please Antonina.

Belisarius came to accept and honor his wife Antonina having sex with their son. Antonina was openly carrying out her adultery. Others were calling her an adulteress. That didn’t shame her. Her beloved son Theodosios, however, became nervous and self-conscious. He eventually fled to a monastery and became a tonsured monk. Antonina grieved deeply for the loss of her son:

Antonina became quite hysterical, changing her clothes and comportment to make it seem as though she were in mourning, and wandered throughout the house shrieking and wailing right in front of her husband. She lamented about what a good thing she had lost; how loyal; how charming; how kind; how vigorous!

She even got her husband to join her in lamenting the new religious vocation of their son with whom she had been having sex:

She went so far as to draw her husband into these laments and make him join in. So he too, pathetic fool, wept and cried out for his beloved Theodosios. Later he even went before the emperor and, entreating both him and the empress, persuaded them to recall him on the grounds that he was indispensable to his household and always would be.

Some men cannot imagine living other than as cuckolds. In a moment of weakness, Belisarius begged his step-son — Antonina’s biological son — to kill his mother. But Belisarius’s desire to have sex with her soon returned; it once again governed his behavior.

Alleging that Belisarius said that she was a horrible empress, Theodora stripped him of his generalship and his servants. He feared, with good reason, that she would have him killed. From a publicly celebrated general, Belisarius became “a private citizen: virtually alone, always gloomy and sullen, in constant terror of a murderer’s knife.” He appealed to the empress and emperor, but they and others now regarded him with contempt:

he departed for his home late in the evening, looking over his shoulder every few minutes as he was walking and scanning the streets all around to see from what direction his killers would come. In this state of terror he went up to his room and sat alone upon his bed, having no intention of doing anything brave, not even remembering that he had once been a man. His sweat ran in streams. He felt light-headed. He could not even think straight in his panic, worn out by servile fears and the worries of an impotent coward. All the while, Antonina, as if she were not fully aware of what was going on or as if she were not eagerly expecting what was to come, was fussing about the room pretending to have heartburn

Antonina actually had asked Empress Theodora to restore Belisarius to her in his former status. Theodora granted that favor, but decided to administer it dramatically. Thus a man sent from the Empress announced his presence at Antonina and Belisarius’s door:

Upon hearing this, Belisarius drew his arms and legs up onto the bed and lay there on his back, serving himself up to be slaughtered, so completely had his manliness deserted him. Without entering the room, Kouadratos presented him with a letter from the Empress. And this letter said the following: “Noble sir, you know how you have treated us. But I, for my part, owe so much to your wife that I have decided to disregard all these accusations against you, giving her a gift of your life. So from now on you may feel confident regarding your survival and property, but as to how you intend to treat her we will judge based on your behavior.”

In other words, as long as Belisarius acted subordinate to his wife, served her, and accepted her adulteries, he once again could serve the Empire as a general. For that reprieve, Belisarius was filled with joy and with deep gratitude for his wife:

He jumped up from the bed and fell on his face before his wife’s feet. Placing a hand behind each of her calves, he began to lick the soles of his wife’s feet with his tongue, one after the other, calling her the Cause of his Life and Salvation, promising that henceforth he would be her devoted slave and not her husband. [6]

That’s an extraordinary gesture of self-degradation — kissing the soles of a woman’s feet. However, Theodora and Justinian required their subjects to express regularly subservience to them in a similar way.[7] Moreover, the story is credible. Procopius himself served Belisarius for many years as his personal secretary. A historian who sought to provide a truthful record of the facts, Procopus plausibly learned from Belisarius himself how he had fawningly honored his wife and pledged to be her slave.[8]

The injustices and degradation that men experience under gynocentrism are scarcely recognized. That’s in part an educational problem. The enormously influential philosopher Aristotle wrote in his Politics:

what difference is there between women ruling and rulers who are ruled by women? For the result is the same. [9]

That’s completely misleading. Under gynocentrism, men and women leaders equally fail men. What matters isn’t the sex of the rulers, but whose interests the rulers serve. The continuing existence of sex-discriminatory military service, lack of attention to gross anti-men discrimination in child custody decisions, the huge gender disparity in the population of persons incarcerated, the prevalence of forced financial fatherhood, the contempt for men across decades of public debate over abortion, bizarre expert contortions in obscuring men’s lifespan shortfall, completely mendacious assertions about the sex incidence of violent victimization, absurd claims about men raping women — these all indicate that women rule the rulers of society. Most leaders of societies throughout history have been men. Most men leaders lick the soles of women’s feet.

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Notes:

[1] “The Gynocracy” is the title that Kaldellis (2010) gives to Part I (Chapters 1-5) of Procopius’s Secret History. For a brilliant analysis of those chapters, Kaldellis (2004) pp. 142-50.

[2] The facts in the above paragraph come from Procopius, Secret History 1.11-4. Kaldellis (2010) provides the most accurate English translation of the text. Bill Thayer has made conveniently available online the English translation of Henry Bronson Dewing for the Loeb Classical Library (1935). Richard Atwater’s English translation (1927) is also freely available online. Correctly transliterated from the Greek, the author of the Secret History is Prokopios and the general is Belisarios. I’ve used the more common forms Procopius and Belisarius to be more accessible to readers.

[3] The facts in the above paragraph are available in Kaldellis’s historical summary, Kaldellis (2010) pp. xviii-xx, as well as in other Byzantine histories.

[4] Secret History 1.12. When Antonina was “already past sixty years old” (Secret History 4.41), Belisarius was not yet fifty. Kaldellis (2010) p. 22, n. 62. Subsequent facts above come from the Secret History, unless otherwise noted. While the Secret History employs rhetoric, it also provides relatively high-quality facts. On the factuality of the Secret History, see note [3] in my post on Empress Theodora.

[5] Secret History 1.12, from Greek trans. Kaldellis (2010) p. 7. I have substituted “Belisarius” for “Belisarios” in this and other quoted text for consistency with my choice among the naming conventions. Subsequent quotes from the Secret History are (by chapter.section and page number in id.): 1.38, p. 9 (Antonina became quite hysterical…); 1,39-40, p. 9 (She went so far as…); 4.16, p. 19 (a private citizen…); 4.21-3, p. 20 (he departed for his home…); 4.25-8, p. 20 (Upon hearing this…); 4.29-30, p. 20 (He jumped up from the bed…).

[6] In a gynocentric work, Evans obscured the extent of Belisarius’s self-abasement to his wife. Evans merely reported:

He fell on his face before Antonina and kissed her feet. Henceforth, he said, he would be her slave.

Evans (2011) p. 166. Licking the soles of a woman’s feet differs significantly from kissing her feet. The explicit reference to tongue emphasizes the physical abasement.

Procopius subsequently reported that Belisarius “simply obeyed that woman {Antonina}.” Secret History 4.41, p. 22. Kaldellis declared, “Rather than suffer such indignities, any real man would have destroyed those two monsters {Antonina and Theodora} or died trying.” Kaldellis (2004) p. 146. Yet today many men both do and say nothing while men are subject to outrageous indignities and injustices.

Belisarius’s abjection is far from unique. In 1195, courtiers personally sought favor with the usurping Byzantine Emperor Alexios III’s wife Euphrosyne:

they prostrated themselves before the alleged emperor’s wife and placed their heads under her feet as footstools, nuzzled their noses against her felt slipper like fawning puppies, and stood timidly at her side, bringing their feet together and joining their hands.

Niketas Choniates, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 250.

[7] The Secret History states:

with Justinian and Theodora, everyone, including those of patrician rank, had to make their entrance by falling straight on the ground, flat on their faces; then, stretching their arms and legs out as far as they would go, they had to touch, with their lips, one foot of each of the two. Only then could they stand up again. Nor did Theodora waive this protocol for herself, she who demanded to receive ambassadors of the Persians and of the other barbarians in her own right

Secret History 30.23-4, trans. Kaldellis (2010) pp. 131-2. See also Secret History 15.15. Theodora and Justinian requiring those coming before them to kiss their feet is attested in other historical sources. Kaldellis (2004) p. 136. Id., pp. 128-42, explains the despotic significance of this proskynesis.

[8] Procopius served Belisarius as “assessor and private secretary in the East since at least 527 and would accompany the general for many more years.” Kaldellis (2010) p. xviii. On the credibility of Procopius’s Secret History, see note [3] in my post on Empress Theodora.

[9] Aristotle, Politics, Bk 2, Ch. 2.9, from Greek trans. Lord (1985) p. 74. Aristotle here uses the word γυναικοκρατια (gynaikokratia), which literally means “rule by women” or “government by women.” It’s a relatively rare word in ancient Greek. Kaldellis (2004) p. 149. Many believed that Belisarius betrayed his friends not because he was “ruled by a woman” (γυναιχοχρατία), but because of his fear of Empress Theodora. Id. p. 148. Belisarius’s servile behavior toward his wife after Theodora’s death proved otherwise. Secret History 5.26-7.

[image] Plausibly a depiction of Byzantine General Belisarius. Detail from the mosaic of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his court in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Probably created shortly before 547 GC. Thanks to Petar Milošević and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Evans, James Allen. 2011. The power game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora. London: Continuum.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2004. Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, history and philosophy at the end of the antiquity. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2010. Prokopios. The secret history: with related texts. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Lord, Carnes, trans. 1985. Aristotle. The politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Magoulias, Harry J. trans. 1984. Nicetas Choniates. O city of Byzantium: annals of Niketas Choniatēs. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

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