Monday, January 31, 2011

The Nika Riots

It is one week to the Super Bowl, and while Packers and Steelers fans are plenty passionate, win or lose, one can reasonably expect both sides to retain enough composure to refrain from overturning cars or breaking storefront windows. And even if they can't, they certainly won't band together and threaten to overthrow the Bears-loving Obama administration.

You know where we're going with this, right?

Back in the Roman Empire, and continuing into the Byzantine, chariot racing was one of the sports of choice. There were four chariot teams in Istanbul (then Constantinople)- the Reds, Blues, Greens and Whites; however, at the time we'll be looking at, the Blues and Greens had basically killed off the Reds and Whites. The fans were passionate beyond almost anything in modern times, with rivalries going far past Yankees-Red Sox and more along the lines of Partizan-Red Star, as team members tended to take political views as well, often shouting these views during races.

It didn't help that, in previous years, emperor Anastasius had abolished two other sources of entertainment, the venationes (animal hunts) and pantomimes (a tad raunchier than the mimes we know today), which put even more importance on the chariots than usual.

On January 10, 532 CE (remember, it's not BC and AD anymore; it's BCE and CE), some Blue and Green partisans were to be hanged for murders that had happened during a recent bout of hooliganism. Most were. For one Blue and one Green, though, the hanging was botched, and they managed to escape into a church.

Justinian, the current emperor (and a Blue supporter), was not a giving man. Taxes didn't quite go far enough for him. When someone rich died, Justinian was prone to claiming that their will left him all their money. When a noble was held for ransom, Justinian claimed that the noble agreed with his decision to not pay the ransom, and then took the ransom money himself. He confiscated military bonuses, claiming that he won the peace and the soldiers should be happy to reward him.

Each faction was more than willing to help their fellow partisan out, and since there was one Blue and one Green, there was a united mob protecting the two, calling for them to be pardoned. When Justinian instead only commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, the Blues and Greens had a literally old-fashioned sports riot, with fires set all over Constantinople. Three days later, another race day was held at the Hippodrome, the stadium these races were held at and which Justianian's palace conveniently overlooked.

The people had plenty of gripes with the emperor, and while this wasn't their greatest concern, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. Instead of shouts in favor of the Blues or Greens, everyone shouted 'Nika'- 'victory' or 'conquer'- towards the palace. It wasn't hard to figure out what they wanted to conquer. Justinian certainly knew. There was a five-day bout of rioting. The situation was serious enough that some opportunistic senators declared a new emperor, Green supporter Hypatius. Again, a mob formed around the two partisans, but this time, when they were refused, the prison was burned down with the two inside, as was, among other things, the Hagia Sophia.

Justinian ran for his life, taking along his inner circle, including his wife, Theodora. But on the way to exile, Theodora stopped and stirred Justinian's resolve, expressing that she would rather die than run. The exact quote appears in question, but here we'll go with "Purple is a fine burial shroud." Well, if the wife was willing to fight, Justinian couldn't well run now, could he?

Part of the inner circle were two of Justinian's best generals, Belisarius and Mundus, who the emperor quickly put to use, as well as a eunuch, Narsus. Narsus was sent alone to Hypatius' coronation at the Hippodrome, the base of operations, with a bag of gold, and confronted the Blues with the reminder that Justinian was a Blue himself, while Hypatius was a Green.

This proved persuasive. The Blues, after some discussion, walked out of the coronation. The Greens couldn't believe it.

Meanwhile, Belisarius and Mundus had maneuvered themselves to opposite ends of the Hippodrome, sealing in the Greens and any Blues that were still there. Every rioter still in the Hippodrome after the walkout was slaughtered, totaling some 30,000 dead.

That was that. Justinian had reasserted control. Just to be safe, he also executed the senators who put Hypatius up as emperor, as well as Hypatius himself. He was in fact stronger than when the whole mess had started; he would never be so threatened again. Much of that money he had built up, along with a whole lot more he would proceed to take, would be put towards rebuilding Constantinople.

If you're in Istanbul, stop by and check out the work he had done on the Hagia Sophia.

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