"Hunnic Fashion" - Greens, Blues and Constantinople's Nika Riots in 532

18 January Constantinople in 532, the Nika riots ended after a week in an orgy of blood in the Hippodrome.

“At this time Justinian, by openly encouraging and provoking the Blue faction, shook the Roman Empire to its foundation, like an earthquake or a flood, or as though each city had been taken by the enemy. Everything was everywhere thrown into disorder; nothing was left alone. The laws and the whole fabric of the State were altogether upset, and became the very opposite of what they had been. First of all, the revolutionists altered the fashion of wearing the hair, for they cut it short, in a manner quite different to that of the rest of the Romans. They never touched the moustache and beard, but let them grow like the Persians: but they shaved the hair off the front part of their heads as far as the temples, and let it hang down long and in disorder behind, like the Massagetae. Wherefore they called this the Hunnic fashion of wearing the hair.“ (Procopius, “Secret History”)

The four Bronze horses that once graced the Hippodrome in Justinian’s days and were brought to Venice in 1204, after the city was looted during the Fourth Crusade by the order of Doge Enrico Dandolo, now known as “Horses of Saint Mark“

It was a public safety nightmare. The capital's two largest and most influential fan clubs, the Blues and the Greens, numbering 10,000s of members in a city that could boast a population of about half a million people, had joined forces. It was no ball sport that drew the masses 1,500 years ago though, but chariot races, nevertheless, the effects of rivalling fan clubs, hooligans and riots were at least as tumultuous as a meeting between supporters of West Ham United and Millwall during a Football League Cup match. On a full moon. With a capsized beer lorry near Upton Park. And Het Legioen in town. Late in 531, Emperor Justinian had a few rioters sentenced to death. The clubs were rather not amused. The emperor was no racing fan, the war in Persia was lost, taxes had been raised, even for the rich, and they did their best to incite the mob and the empress, the daughter of a bear keeper at the Hippodrome, was a Greens fan anyway. Then, in January 532, two of the condemned could flee from prison, sought sanctuary in a church and the edifice was quickly surrounded by fans of both the Blues and the Greens to protect their own from Justinian’s police. And the emperor himself came up with the very bright idea to hold The Races to smooth things over and pardon the two escapees. 

Byzantine mosaic of a charioteer in the Hippodrome

On January 13th in the Hippodrome then, things got completely out of hand. The fans, thousands of them, no longer shouted “Blue!” or “Green!”, but Nίκα! – Conquer! – all of them, ganged up, tried to storm the Imperial palace, set the city on fire and rioted for the next five days, the city’s most important church, Hagia Sophia, went up in flames, along with the senate building and the barracks of the city watch and the Imperial life guards. Political dissidents and seemingly overtaxed senators began to whet their knives. Justinian considered fleeing the city, but allegedly, the bear keeper’s daughter, Empress Theodora said something along the lines of “The Purple makes a fine winding sheet” and convinced her husband to stay and face the worst. In the meanwhile, his field commander Belisarius had arrived from the Persian frontlines with fighting troops to save the day, about the time when the fan clubs were about to proclaim one Hypatius, a Green, as new emperor. But by then, Justinian at last had devised a truly Byzantine plan.

Byzantine infantry from a contemporary illustration

The emperor’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Narses was a rather frail, well-educated and pious 50-years old Armenian eunuch. On January 18th, he went alone to the rioters’ headquarters in the Hippodrome, sought out the leaders of the Blues and made an offer they could not refuse. When Hypatius was to be crowned, the whole rival fan club walked out of the stadium and left the Greens a bit baffled. Astonishment turned quickly into terror when Belisarius’ troops along with Germanic mercenaries under the command of Justinian’s Gepid General Mundus stormed the place and massacred everyone in sight, man and horse and chariot. Allegedly, more than 30,000 lost their lives, their remains buried in the ground of the Hippodrome. In the aftermath, Justinian admittedly remained unpopular with the good people of Constantinople, but had at least enough building ground available in the better spots of the half-destroyed city to realise a few ambitious construction projects, the new Hagia Sophia among them, for centuries the biggest church in Christendom and still one of Constantinople’s best known landmarks.

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