Slaughtering the Spectators: The Nika Riots
SLAUGHTERING THE SPECTATORS: THE NIKA RIOTS
Imagine going to the Super Bowl to cheer for your favorite team. Your team also represents a political faction; the uniform (Red, Blue, Green or White) of your favorite team symbolizes more than just your favorite competitor, it represents your political philosophy and spectating is the only outlet for voicing your belief. You join in with fans screaming; “Nika! Nika!”or “Conqueror!” Your city, Constantinople (Byzantium or Istanbul), is in political crisis and has been teeming with unrest as your leader, Justinian I negotiates with the Persians for peace and has recently raised taxes. Justinian I is a public fan of Blue who is competing against Green. Tensions are high on the day they face off because members from both teams have recently been arrested for murder charges in a recent mob riot. Now imagine that the leader closes the doors of the Hippodrome (stadium) and slaughters 30,000 people over the course of five days. For you Patriot’s fans that’s about half of the capacity of Gillette! That’s what happened on January 13, 532 AD in Constantinople during the Byzantine Period.
Where: Constantinople was considered "New Rome" and founded in 330 AD by Emperor Constantine who famously was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Like the Colosseum in Rome, the Hippodrome was a popular public space where people could watch their beloved chariot racing seventy days out of the year. Emperor Septimius Severus oversaw the construction of Constantinople's Hippodrome when the city was still called Byzantium. The Hippodrome also became a place where citizens could voice their grievances.
RENOVATIO IMPERII or Restoration of the Empire
Justinian I aimed to restore the Roman Empire. He was viewed as an outsider (he was from modern day Serbia) and he inherited the empire from his uncle Justin. Nonetheless he was revered as "The Emperor who never sleeps," due to his ambition. Justinian is remembered for his keen interest in theology and most notably for the construction of the famed Hagia Sophia.
In the months leading up to the Nika Riots, Justinian had raised taxes in an effort to improve the conditions in Constantinople. He was negotiating a peace treaty with the Persians and tensions were high.
He was in danger of being overthrown days before. With upset senators and officials lobbying for Hypatius ( a Byzantine noble and the nephew of Emperor Anastasius I who ruled before Justin), Justinian was no doubt panicked. But on January 13 Justinian attended the chariot races and pretended nothing was happening. The chariot face off was between Green and Blue. He sat in the middle of the Hippodrome in the emperor's lodge seats. During the 24th and 25th races of the day, all the supporters' frustrations came to a head. Greens and Blues shouted to Justinian to grant clemency to those arrested earlier in the week. He fled amidst cheers as the rioters gained confidence. Over the course of hours, the city turned riotous. Justinian was set to flee the city he aimed to restore. Until his wife changed his mind.
"Royal Purple is the Nobilest Shroud" - Theodora
The daughter of a bear tamer and circus acrobat, Theodora was a known prostitute who's controversial marriage to Justinian influenced him to elevate her to the status of co-emperor so that she would be viewed as equal in class. She is rightfully regarded as one of the most powerful women of the Roman Empire. As her husband went to leave, Theodora is reputed to have said, "Royal purple is the nobilest shroud." Unwilling to die a fugitive or a coward on the run, this gutsy empress said that she would rather die a ruler and refused to leave the city. Ultimately this influence swayed her frightened husband to stay. This fateful decision resulted in the massacre which ended the Nika Riot. When the riotous spectators attended the Hippodrome, they were locked in and mercilessly slaughtered at the hands of Justinian's soldiers. This is the largest bloodbath of supporters in history.
Meijer, Fik (translated by Liz Waters) Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire. Johns Hopkins Press. 2004.
O'Donnell, James J. The Ruin of the Roman Empire. Harper Collins Publishers. 2008