She was a very practical woman, in everything, including death. Sixteen years before she died, she gave a speech in which she said, “It is impossible for someone who has seen the light of this world not to die.” She was thirty-four years old. And she spoke the words just after mercilessly ordering the slaughter of 30,000 rebels in the city’s sports stadium.
The great chest of her sarcophagus is made of rosy alabaster marble, which is highly prized because of its rarity. Some call it ‘golden’ marble. It was mined from the great quarries at Hierapolis, which is present day Pamukkale, Turkey. The sarcophagus sits in the imperial mausoleum of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), a church which, along with many others, she had commissioned.
The Church of the Holy Apostles still stands and her sarcophagus may be visited.
She died on June 28, 548. It was cancer, according to modern medical evaluations of the symptoms. The official histories of that day record that the entire year prior to her death was accompanied by earthquakes, thunder and lightning and, of course, the shattering of a column. The last item, an obvious concession to superstition, was a sinister omen, which, in hindsight, should have forewarned everyone. But it didn’t, as was so often the case.
Her name was Theodora, and she was a walking, talking scandal for most of her life. The primary scandal of her life was this: that someone of such humble origin could and did ascend to the imperial throne of the Roman Empire and exercise absolute power.
Her father was a common bear-keeper, in other words, a performer in a sidestreet circus. While her mother was a street dancer, who danced for tips on public thoroughfares. Trained as a street mime, Theodora was ambitious. She longed for a life of opulence. Upon the death of her father, she decided to use her natural talents to improve her circumstances. Her talents consisted of a beautiful face, a beguiling body and a startling intellect. Assessing her place in the pecking order, her talents and her options, Theodora became a prostitute. It was a pragmatic response to the situation and the facts.
Quickly she became successful, with many steady clients and more business than she could handle. Prostitution was common. Theodora was unique. Realizing her rarity, she became a courtesan, specializing in rich, politically powerful men. Employing her iron will, she chose her consorts with great care. What could they do for her? With each manipulation she invested her profits wisely. Moving from opportunity to opportunity, she soon was the mistress of Hecebolus, the governor of Pentapolis, to whom she bore her one and only child, a daughter.
Theodora, growing bored with Hecebolus, goaded him into dumping her. Since she owned property and controlled her own money, she found surrogate parents for the child, provided them with funds to raise her. She returned alone to Constantinople.