This week marks 1,485 years since some of the worst rioting the world has ever seen – the Nika riots that began on Jan. 13, 532 and lasted for five days.
The people of Constantinople were fiercely partisan for their chariot racing teams – you either supported the Greens or the Blues. But this support was not just limited to sports, it also encompassed political and theological positions. The combustible mix of three such emotional topics must have kept tensions constantly high in the city.
At the time of the riots, Justinian I ruled with his wife, Theodora. Justinian was known to be a supporter of the Blues, but had become concerned about the power wielded by these two plebeian groups. In addition, many people felt oppressed by heavy taxation and the implementation of new laws by Justinian and his unpopular highest advisers, John the Cappadocian and Tribonian.
The Blues and Greens first came to blows in this instance after the Hippodrome races on Jan. 10th. The Emperor’s soldiers broke up the fighting but carried off the ringleaders from both sides, executing several of them, although two (one Green and the other Blue) escaped. These two parties became, for once, united against their new common enemy – Justinian.
During the races on Jan. 13th, Justinian became aware that the chants of the crowd, “Nika, nika” – victory, victory – were aimed against him and not at the other team. The rancor grew during the ensuing chariot races and the angry mobs exited the Hippodrome, and rioting commenced. City officials were killed and about half the city torched over the next five days. By the 18th, Justinian was ready to abandon the throne and Constantinople. However, the indomitable Theodora said he could leave, but she’d rather die and be buried in a purple shroud than cease being Empress. He decided to stay.
Instead, he and his advisers and his General Belisarius concocted a scheme to end the rioting. A palace eunuch was sent with gold to the Hippodrome where the Blues and Greens had assembled. He approached the Blues and reminded them of Justinian’s previous support, handing out gold coins liberally in the process. Many Blues departed the stadium, leaving the Greens and a few Blues. Belisarius and his soldiers then entered and slaughtered whoever remained – about 30,000 people were killed without mercy that day.
Constantinople, the greatest city in Europe at the time, was devastated. The remaining people were thoroughly intimidated and many buildings were ashes. From these ashes, however, rose the church of the Hagia Sophia, whose magnificence was not equalled for many centuries.
Few riots in history have wrought as much devastation as the Nika riots did. Still, it was just a precursor of the devastation that would occur with the bubonic plague that appeared nine years later, killing perhaps 300,000 in the city alone.
Justinian and Theodora were the most iconic rulers of the Medieval Roman Empire, leaving a memorable imprint with Justinian’s legal code and the Hagia Sophia. However, as these spare outlines of the Nika riots demonstrate, life under their rule would have been challenging at best.