532: The Nika riots begin in Constantinople. After the fall of the unified Roman Empire, the western Romans and the eastern Byzantines each had well-developed associations called demes. These supported different factions or teams and the various teams competed at events with a special love of chariot racing. There were four teams, at first, each with their own color – Blues, Reds, Greens, Whites – and the color was worn by the team members and their supporters. By the time the Empire split into two, the only teams left with any influence were the Blues and the Greens. Emperor Justinian I (Byzantium) was a Blues fan. The teams had become the focal point for nearly everything including politics, gangs, theology, and even claimants to the throne.
In 531, some members of both teams were arrested for a murder during rioting after a chariot race. At first, these riots were rather mild but things escalated over time, much like riots after sporting events today. The arrested men were to be hanged, but on January 10, 532 one member of each team managed to escape and were given refuge in a church which was surrounded by an angry mob. Justinian was in delicate negotiations with the Persians to secure peace and the public was upset by the high taxes to continue war. To appease the masses, he declared a race would be held on this day and the sentences would be reduced to imprisonment – the crowds wanted full pardons.
On this date, crowds streamed into the Hippodrome (next to the palace) for the races. The Emperor could watch from the safety of his palace, but the crowds were obviously unhappy with the ruler. By the end of the day, at race 22, the crowds had switched from yelling out their color to screaming in a unified manner “Nika” which means Win or Conquer. The crowds erupted into a riotous mass and attacked the palace. Over the next five days, the palace was under siege. Fires were intentionally set and destroyed much of the city including the pre-eminent church, the Hagia Sohpia – which Justinian would eventually rebuild. The crowd began to crown their own man, Hypatius, as emperor.
Justinian sent Narses, a loyal eunuch, into the Hippodrome alone and unprotected even though hundreds had already been killed there. The small man approached the leaders of the Blues with quiet determination and a bag of gold. He pointed out that Justinian favored the Blues. He also pointed out that Hypatius was a Green. He distributed his gold coins among the Blues who then encouraged their followers to leave the Hippodrome even as the ceremony to crown Hypatius was beginning. The Greens were stunned. After the Blues left, generals Belisarius and Mundus stormed the Hippodrome and killed the remaining rebels. In all, about 30,000 rioters were killed. Justinian had Hypatius executed and Senators who had supported him exiled.
Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress. – Theodora, refusing to flee with her husband, Justinian
Royalty is a fine burial shroud. – Theodora
The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Riots born out of political issues aren’t the same as those born out of personal greed. – Ross Kemp