In 532, two rival hooligan groups joined forces to rebel against the Byzantine emperor.
It is the evening of Sunday, the 18th January 532. The uprising has been defeated. Over 30 000 citizens of Constantinople have lost their lives and wide areas of the city have been destroyed. What happened?
Riots had begun five days earlier in the hippodrome where the legendary chariot races took place. It was initiated by supporters of the greens and blues, the two factions of ancient Constantinople.
Chariot races were an enormously important event in the Roman Empire. Long after gladiator fights had been abolished, they still were a major sport event in both Rome and later in Constantinople. Similar to modern Formula One races, four different racing stables competed with each other: the greens, blues, reds and whites. The latter two lost importance with time and as a result only the blues and greens are mentioned in later sources.
The racing stables did not only provide the horses and hired charioteers, but they were also responsible for the organization and realization of the races. Chariot races were an enormous industry employing thousands of people.
But the colours of the factions did not only represent the racing stables but also the whole fan base behind them. Already in the second century, Pliny claimed that people were not attracted by the speed of the horses or the ability of the charioteers but by a piece of cloth – a “jersey”. If two charioteers switched their jerseys, people would similarly switch their favour, he lamented. Similar to football nowadays the people were cheering for “their team”. The supporters would wear the same colours and not seldom start fights with members of other factions although they knew that it was illegal and that they would be arrested and potentially sentenced to death.
Even the emperor showed affiliation to the factions – Caligula and Nero were greens, Vitellius was a blue. In order to demonstrate approachability, the emperor was actually expected to share the fascination of the people.
But the factions were more than simply sports clubs. The hippodrome was an important place for communication between the people and the emperor. The factions gave the people a voice. With loud acclamation they showed him approval or disapproval. Although the emperor was an autocrat, ruling without the benevolence of the people was hard. Therefore, the factions were a not negligible factor in domestic politics.
On Tuesday, the 13th January 532, the atmosphere was heated during the races. Emperor Justinian – before his coronation a massive supporter of the blues – was not very popular. He was struggling in the war against the Persians and tried to compensate for that with a very authoritarian style of government. The expensive war made him demand higher taxes from both the poor and the wealthy people. Besides, he had just sentenced several troublemakers from among the factions to death a few days prior to that. Two delinquents survived the execution because the rope ruptured in the decisive moment which was seen by many as a divine sign and they demanded their release.
Normally, the blues and greens were antagonistic but this time they joined forces against the emperor with the battle cry “Nika!” (Win!). Nevertheless, the races continued in the following days, and so did the protests. At some point, the benches in the hippodrome caught fire and also parts of the city were in flames. The soldiers cracking down on the rioters could not stop the trouble.
While the riots gradually turned into a revolt, the factions made political demands. They wanted several officials to be dismissed to which the emperor complied. But still, the riots in the streets went on and the emperor ordered regular troops from outside into the city to fight the rioters.
In the morning of the 18th January, Justinian called the people into the hippodrome and guaranteed them exemption from punishment. After first considering the offer, the people then rejected his approach. At the same time, a counter-emperor was proclaimed on the forum.
In the afternoon, the emperor had managed to bribe parts of the blues causing confusion. Thereupon the imperial troops entered the hippodrome causing a terribly bloody massacre and mass panic. Around 30 000 people lost their lives and the revolt was struck down. In the years following the Nika riots, there were no more chariot races in Constantinople.