Nika Riots in Constantinople: "Sports Fans" Riot & Burn the City

 
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Nika Riots in Constantinople: "Sports Fans" Riot & Burn the City

Chariot races in the Hippodrome, Constantinople, c. AD 500
Artist unknown, image courtesy of http://www.istanbulclues.com/hippodrome-of-constantinople/
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: January 13-18, AD 532

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

This incident is surely one of the most extreme examples of the dangers of combining sports, politics and angry fans. 

Background

The Byzantine Empire – also known as the East Roman Empire – was the successor, in many ways, of the empire of Rome, ruling the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. Since its founding in AD 330, the capital city of Constantinople sought to become everything that Rome had been.

By the early sixth century, the major form of entertainment in Constantinople was chariot racing. There were several major groups of supporters of various racing teams. They were known by the color of the clothing worn by their favorite drivers. Their supporters also wore clothing of the same color to show their allegiance. The major groups were the Blues and the Greens. These groups, however, had more than their favorite charioteers to hold them together. Religious philosophy, taxation, legal reform, even who should be emperor, were major topics of discussion amongst these groups. Comparing these groups to street gangs, political parties, or modern sports fan clubs is not a stretch.

In early January of 532, several events contributed to the coming storm. Justinian I, the current Byzantine emperor (who was, incidentally, a supporter of the Blues), was involved in peace negotiations with the Persians to end a war on the empire's eastern frontier. New tax policies had just been instituted, the legal code had recently been revised, and neither of these actions was popular.

The spark took place in the previous year, when several leaders of the Blues and Greens were condemned to death by hanging for riots after a chariot race. Most of the miscreants were executed, but on January 10, 532, two condemned men escaped their fate – when the gallows collapsed – and took sanctuary in a church, which was quickly surrounded by an angry mob. Nervously, Emperor Justinian commuted the two men's sentences to life imprisonment. This did not satisfy the two factions, as they were seeking to have the men pardoned completely. Hoping to tamp down the anger in the city, Justinian declared that there would be a series of chariot races on January 13.

Justinian I, Byzantine emperor (AD 527-565); Detail of mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy; Image courtesy of https://www.britannica.com/biography/Justinian-I
Justinian I, Byzantine emperor (AD 527-565)
Detail of mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Image courtesy of https://www.britannica.com/biography/Justinian-I

The Nika Riots

The Hippodrome, site of the chariot races, was built right next to the royal palace in Constantinople. The emperor could watch the races from the safety of his private box, after using a secret passage from the palace. [Imagine the Washington Redskins building a stadium next to the White House, allowing the President to watch pro football from the comfort of the Oval Office.] As the races began on the morning of Tuesday, January 13, the crowd was in an ugly, restive mood. It was usual between races for sections of the crowd to yell at the royal box, shouting political demands and hoping to affect imperial policy, as well as other slogans supporting their chosen faction.

However, this day, the crowd hurled insults at Justinian throughout the early races. By race #22 (out of 24 scheduled), all the attendees of whatever faction began chanting, "Nika! Nika!" This could be roughly translated as, "Win!" or "Conquer!" Whipped into a frenzy, the crowd rushed the imperial boxes and started the general rioting.

Some of the Blues and Greens converged on the prison where the two objects of their discontent were being held, and demanded their release. When they were refused, the prison was set on fire. The rioters also demanded the emperor get rid of three royal councilors who were not favorites of the crowd. Justinian did so, but that did not mollify the mobs. For five days, the royal palace was virtually under siege by the rioters, who also rampaged through the city setting fires which burned down much of the city, including the Church of the Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia (later rebuilt) and the Hippodrome itself, as well as killing hundreds in general street fighting.

Map of the palace quarter, with the Hippodrome, royal palace and Hagia Sophia indicated, c. AD 530
Map of the palace quarter, with the Hippodrome, royal palace and
Hagia Sophia indicated, c. AD 530

A force of Goth foederati (barbarians who were sworn to the service of the emperor) was sent to quell the rioting, but they were too few to make a dent in the uprising. Members of the clergy also tried to calm the rioters, to no avail. Some of the senators saw this incident as an opportunity to overthrow Justinian. Consequently, they declared a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of a previous emperor.

Empress Theodora Addresses Justinian

Empress Theodora (c. AD 500-548); From mosaic in Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy; Image courtesy of http://healthgrouper.com
Empress Theodora (c. AD 500-548)
From mosaic in Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Image courtesy of http://healthgrouper.com

Justinian, losing hope of bringing the situation under control, met with his councilors and members of the Senate, and began preparing to flee the city. However, his wife the empress Theodora (believed to have been a dancer/street performer prior to marrying Justinian), spoke up during this government council meeting. Her brief oration was recorded by the historian Procopius, who probably got it second-hand from a royal councilor who was present. Briefly, Theodora said she would rather die trying to restore order instead of fleeing the scene and living out her life in exile. Continuing, she said she could not imagine not being addressed as "empress." She ended her speech with this observation: [this is a loose translation] "The purple cloak of royalty makes an excellent burial shroud." Obviously, Theodora was essentially trying to embarrass Justinian into staying. How could he flee the city if his wife was willing to stay and risk her life? His resolve restored, Justinian and his advisors hatched a plan to end the disturbances.

A Plan is Put Into Action…

This is believed to be Narses, Justinian's loyal eunuch; From the mosaic in Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
This is believed to be Narses, Justinian's loyal eunuch
From the mosaic in Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

On Sunday, January 18, thousands of Blues and Greens were gathered in the Hippodrome, preparing to hold a coronation for Hypatius. As the rowdy crowd argued and made merry, a lone figure entered the Hippodrome; it was Narses, one of Justinian's favorite and most trusted eunuchs. He carried with him a bag of gold, and a cunning plan to defuse the situation. He went directly to the Blues' section, speaking with its leaders. The eunuch reminded them that the emperor had always been one of their supporters. "Oh, and by the way," he probably said, "you know, of course, that the man you are about to crown as your new emperor is a supporter of the Greens?" After making that simple observation, Narses began to distribute the gold to the Blue faction. The leaders of the Blues began speaking among themselves, then with their followers.

Soon after, just as Hypatius was to be crowned, the Blues left the Hippodrome in a body. This caused stunned confusion amongst the Greens. Almost immediately, two contingents of Byzantine imperial guardsmen – mainly Goths and Thracians – led by their commanders Mundus and Belisarius, stormed the Hippodrome from opposite directions, and slaughtered the vast majority of the Greens. The Nika Riots were ended.

Aftermath

Procopius puts the death toll at 30,000; a second source says 35,000. But, the Hippodrome could hold up to 150,000 spectators, and historians said the stadium was nearly full prior to the onslaught of the imperial guardsmen. In addition, the vast majority of Constantinople lay in ruins.

Footnote #1: Hypatius was seized, taken before Justinian and executed, his body thrown into the sea. Senators who opposed the emperor had their property confiscated, and were sent into exile. For all intents and purposes, the power of the chariot factions was forever broken. 

Footnote #2: Justinian ruled the East Roman Empire for another 33 years. He rebuilt the Hagia Sophia as well as the rest of Constantinople. He also launched new military expeditions to restore portions of western Europe to Roman rule. Another of his legacies was a revised Byzantine law code. As a result of these achievements, historians have given him the sobriquet, "Justinian the Great." In fact, the very word "justice" could be traced to his name.

Footnote #3: With the quelling of the Nika Riots, chariot racing as a spectator sport declined. As part of the "clean-up" afterwards, chariot racing was suspended for five years. Soon it was replaced by philosophical/religious debate, which would become nearly as deadly.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.