The Nika riot is the name given to a large disturbance in Constantinople in January 532 that came close to overthrowing the Emperor Justinian (527–565). The name Nika refers to a common cry of fans of the chariot races in the city stadium (Hippodrome): they urged on their favorite charioteers with the slogan “may he win” or “nika” in Greek. In late antiquity the inhabitants of the cities of the Roman Empire were, for the most part, keen followers of the races in the Hippodrome; gladiatorial combats and the hunting of animals had been abolished before the reign of Justinian, which left the races and pantomime as the prime sources of entertainment. The Hippodrome in Constantinople could accommodate about 100,000 spectators. There were four main teams that took part in the races, which took their names from colors: The Blues and the Greens (the most prominent), the Reds, and the Whites. Supporters of these teams regularly came to blows, both with each other and on occasion with imperial forces. Although it was once thought that the supporters’ groups (or factions) represented wider interests, such as a particular religious or doctrinal view or a section of society, it seems more likely that they were drawn from the whole population and united rather by loyalty to their particular team. These teams had networks throughout the empire, and in some cases it is clear that they had particular sections of the Hippodrome reserved for their use; they also had financial and political interests. The emperor himself was not above the rivalries between these circus factions. Theodosius II (408–450), for instance, had backed the Greens, while Justin I (518–527) and his successor Justinian (527–565) both generally supported the Blues. By backing one of the major factions, an emperor might assure himself of the support of an important element of the population. For this very reason, the reign of Anastasius (491–518) proved more tumultuous than others because he favored the Reds and thus had to confront both Blues and Greens.
The Hippodrome itself is of importance to the unfolding of the riot of 532. This was the place where the emperor met his subjects and where they could make their grievances heard. The population expected that the emperor would give serious consideration to their requests, which they might bring to his attention by rhythmic chanting, organized by the factions. They could ask for the dismissal of an official, for instance, or complain about the cost of food. An emperor, for his part, could gain their approval by granting a request or by a well-timed gesture of humility. Thus Anastasius calmed the people in November 512 by appearing in the imperial box (kathisma), which was connected to the imperial palace, without his imperial regalia. There was thus a well-known dynamic or ritual to the exchanges between the emperor and the people that took place in the Hippodrome. Both sides had a part to play, and both needed to tread carefully to maintain their position.
The more extreme supporters of the factions, often called partisans, had grown more reckless over the decades before the Nika riot. The Emperor Anastasius had taken a tough line in suppressing their violence, which curtailed their activities to some extent. But under Justin I trouble broke out anew; it seems as though Justinian gave significant support to the Blues, allowing them to break the law with relative impunity, perhaps in a bid to ensure that he had their backing in succeeding his uncle. Once on the throne, however, Justinian took a sterner approach that risked alienating his former supporters.
The Nika riot has attracted much attention not just because it nearly unseated the Emperor Justinian, but also because it is better documented than any other such disturbance. The historian Procopius of Caesarea, who described Justinian’s conquests in Italy and North Africa and his wars on the eastern frontier, was in Constantinople as the legal adviser of the general Belisarius. He offered an eyewitness account of events, albeit a biased one. The chronicler John Malalas, also a contemporary, offered a detailed account, which can be supplemented by two later chronicles, the Chronicon Paschale and that of Theophanes, both of which preserve some elements lost from the surviving text of Malalas. The Syriac historian known as Pseudo-Zachariah of Mytilene provided a few supplementary details, as do the Latin chronicle of Count Marcellinus and the more general work of John the Lydian, On the Magistracies of the Roman State.
On January 10, 532, the city prefect of Constantinople, Eudaemon, had seven partisans executed for murder at Sycae. One Blue supporter and one Green were saved when the ropes from which they were hanging broke. They were rescued and taken to a nearby monastery, which was then sealed off by soldiers. At the Hippodrome on Tuesday, January 13, the factions asked that they be pardoned, but Justinian gave no answer. Toward the end of the races, therefore, the Blues and Greens united with the cry of “nika” and went on the rampage. Justinian and his entourage sought refuge in the palace. In the evening, the members of the factions burned down the headquarters of the city prefect Eudaemon after he failed again to let the two partisans go. The emperor then decided to try to defuse the situation by continuing the games on the Wednesday, but the crowd’s response was to set fire to the area around the Hippodrome. It is likely that Justinian’s failure either to accede to the (relatively minor) request of the factions or to immediately send in the troops against the rioters was interpreted as a sign of weakness, which perhaps explains the turn that matters then took.
The rioters at this point put forward new demands, seeking the sacking of the prefect Eudaemon, the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian, and the quaestor (legal adviser) Tribonian. Such demands for dismissals were not new; in this case, it is possible that they may indicate the involvement of high-ranking opponents of Justinian, acting behind the scenes. At any rate, he promptly gave in and appointed three new ministers. Despite this, the factions were not pacified, and the rioting continued. The emperor therefore dispatched Belisarius and his forces to restore order; although they undoubtedly inflicted losses on the rioters, they were unable to regain control, being unaccustomed to fighting in the crowded streets of the capital. On Thursday, January 15, a crowd acclaimed Probus, the youngest nephew of the Emperor Anastasius, as emperor; when it emerged that he was not at home, the rioters burned down his house. Street fighting continued on Friday, January 16, leading to the destruction of much of the city center; Justinian, meanwhile, summoned more troops from Thrace, who attacked the rioters on Saturday, January 17, causing further damage to the city.
On that Saturday evening Justinian dismissed from the palace the two other nephews of Anastasius, Hypatius and Pompey, who had thus far remained with the imperial court. This is surprising, since they were clearly potential rivals to the throne; they may have agreed to play along with the uprising in order to make it easier for the emperor to eliminate the rioters once assembled in the Hippodrome, but certainty is impossible. On Sunday morning, January 18, Justinian appeared in the Hippodrome without his diadem and sought the people’s pardon. Some supported him, but others hurled abuse. While Justinian therefore withdrew from the Hippodrome, Hypatius had been met by other partisans and presented with improvised imperial robes; he then took his seat in the imperial box in the Hippodrome. Justinian contemplated leaving the city at this point—perhaps in flight, but perhaps in order to avoid association with the massacre that he was about to unleash. At any rate, however, he did not go; Procopius claimed that the emperor’s wife, Theodora, stiffened his resolve with a stirring speech. Instead, various commanders were given orders to enter the Hippodrome (where the people were assembled to acclaim Hypatius) and to regain control. At the same time, the eunuch Narses distributed money to the factions to boost support for Justinian.
Belisarius took the lead in the onslaught. Although he could not get into the imperial box from the palace because the soldiers guarding it had apparently defected to Hypatius, he entered the Hippodrome by a different route and began a massacre that left some 30,000 dead by the end of the day. On the next day, Monday, January 19, Hypatius and Pompey were executed and the property of rebellious senators was confiscated. Soon afterward, plans were drawn up for the rebuilding of the city center. Indeed, such was the speed with which the area was rebuilt that some scholars have suggested that Justinian deliberately provoked the riot not only to flush out opposition but also to clear space for his ambitious building projects.
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