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Nika Riots - AD 532

If the stir that Justinian made in his age was mostly due to his victorious warfare, he deserves recognition from a later time chiefly because of events and changes absplutism which occurred at home. To begin with, he carried the absolutism of the emperors, which had for several generations been steadily gaining strength, to a new level.

The occasion for this step was furnished by the famous Nika riots, which owe their name to the rallying-cry, Nika (conquer), of the rioters. These domestic commotions had their immediate origin in the passionate rivalry of the two factions of the circus, called the Greens and Blues. These factions served the curious function of backing each its particular color, green or blue, in the great chariot races, which constituted the leading public amusement of the capital. Carried away by the reckless spirit of partisanship, Greens and Blues went to such extraordinary lengths that bloody crowns and even deaths were no unusual termination of an ordinary day of sport.

However, the fact was under cover of sporting organizations the people combined to express themselves on the leading political, ecclesiastical, and economic issues of the day.

The race in the hippodrome, in its first institution, was a simple contest of two chariots, whose drivers were distinguished by white and red liveries: two additional colors, a light green and a caerulcan blue, were afterwards introduced; and, as the races were repeated twenty-five times, one hundred chariots contributed in the same day to the pomp of the circus.

The four factiom soon acquired a legal establishment and a mysterious origin, and their fanciful colours were derived from the various appearances of nature in the four seasons of the year; the red dog-star of summer, the snows of winter, the deep shades of autumn, and the cheerful verdure of the spring. Another interpretation preferred the elements to the seasons, and the struggle of the green and blue was supposed to represent the conflict of the earth and sea. Their respective victories announced either a plentiful harvest or a prosperous navigation, and the hostility of the husbandmen and mariners was somewhat less absurd than the blind ardor of the Roman people, who devoted their lives and fortunes to the color which they had espoused.

Such folly was disdained and indulged by the wisest princes; but the names of Caligula, Nero, Vitellius, Verus, Commodus, Caracalla, and Elagabalus, were enrolled in the blue or green factions of the circus: they frequented their stables, applauded their favorites, chastised their antagonists, and deserved the esteem of the populace by the natural or affected imitation of their manners. The bloody and tumultuous contest continued to disturb the public festivity till the last age of the spectacles of Rome.

A secret attachment to the family or sect of Anastasius was imputed to the greens; the blues were zealously devoted to the cause of orthodoxy and Justinian, and their grateful patron protected, above five years, the disorders of a faction whose seasonable tumults overawed the palace, the senate, and the capitals of the East. Insolent with royal favor, the blues affected to strike terror by a peculiar and barbaric dress - the long hair of the Huns, their close sleeves and ample garments, a lofty step and a sonorous voice. In the day they concealed their two-edged poniards, but in the night they boldy assembled in arms and in numerous bands, prepared for every act of violence and rapine.

The despair of the greens, who were persecuted by their enemies and deserted by the magistrate, assumed the privilege of defense, perhaps of retaliation; but those who survived the combat were dragged to execution, and the unhappy fugitives, escaping to woods and caverns, preyed without mercy on the society from whence they were expelled.

Without doubt too the sectional rivalry, which prevailed within the walls of Constantinople and which was so marked a feature of all medieval cities, found explosive vent when the hostile local groups faced each other in the vast race-course. While many of the political factors, which entered into the Nika rebellion, remain obscure, it is clear that the riot was more than an accidental clash among the spectators of a chariot-race, and that an attempt was made, under cover of the excitement released by the games, to depose the emperor; and it is no less certain that the emperor, having won the victory, reformed or modified the popular organizations of the Blues and Greens, divesting them, as far as in him lay but certainly without permanent success, of their character of political parties capable of bringing pressure to bear upon the government.

A sedition, which almost laid Constantinople in ashes, was excited by the mutual hatred and momentary reconciliation of the two factions. In the fifth year of his reign (AD 532) Justinian celebrated the festival of the ides of January: the games were incessantly disturbed by the clamorous discontent of the greens; till at length the blues rose with fury from their seats, their hostile clamors thundered in the hippodrome, and their adversaries, deserting the unequal contest, spread terror and despair through the streets of Constantinople.

The palace of the prefect, who withstood the seditious torrent, was instantly burnt, his officers and guards were massacred, the prisons were forced open, and freedom was restored to those who could only use it for the public destruction. A military force which had been despatched to the aid of the civil magistrate was fiercely encountered by an armed multitude, whose numbers and boldness continually increased: and the Heruli, the wildest barbarians in the service of the empire, overturned the priests and their relics, which, from a pious motive, had been rashly interposed to separate the bloody conflict. The tumult was exasperated by this sacrilege; the people fought with enthusiasm in the cause of God; the women, from the roofs and windows, showered stones on the heads of the soldiers, who darted firebrands against the houses; and the various flames, which had been kindled by the hands of citizens and strangers, spread without control over the face of the city. The conflagration involved the cathedral of St. Sophia, the baths of Zeuxippus, and many public and private buildings. From such scenes of horror the wise and wealthy citizens escaped over the Bosporus to the Asiatic side, and during five days Constantinople was abandoned to the factions, whose watchword, NIKA, gave a name to this memorable sedition.

As long as the factions were divided, the triumphant blues and desponding greens appeared to behold with the same indifference the disorders of the state. They agreed to censure the corrupt management of justice and the finance; and the two responsible ministers, the artful Tribonian and the rapacious John of Cappadocia, were loudly arraigned as the authors of the public misery. The peaceful murmurs of the people would have been disregarded: they were heard with respect when the city was in flames; the quaestor and the praefect were instantly removed, and their offices were filled by two senators of blameless integrity. After this popular concession Justinian proceeded to the hippodrome to confess his own errors, and to accept the repentance of his grateful subjects; but they distrusted his assurances, though solemnly pronounced in the presence of the holy gospels; and the emperor, alarmed by their distrust, retreated with precipitation to the strong fortress of the palace.

On the morning of the sixth day Hypatius, a nephew of the emperor Anastasius, was proclaimed emperor by the people; and if the usurper had complied with the advice of his senate, and urged the fury of the multitude, their first irresistible effort might have oppressed or expelled his trembling competitor. The Byzantine palace enjoyed a free communication with the sea, vessels lay ready at the garden stairs, and a secret resolution was already formed to convey the emperor with his family and treasures to a safe retreat at some distance from the capital.

In the midst of a council where Belisarius was present, Theodora alone displayed the spirit of an hero, and persuaded the emperor to remain. The firmness of a woman restored the courage to deliberate and act, and courage soon discovered the resources of the most desperate situation. It was an easy and a decisive measure to revive the animosity of the factions; the blues were astonished at their own guilt and folly, that a trifling injury should provoke them to conspire with their implacable enemies against a gracious and liberal benefactor; they again proclaimed the majesty of Justinian; and the greens, with their upstart emperor, were left alone in the hippodrome.

The fidelity of the guards was doubtful; but the military force of Justinian consisted in three thousand veterans, who had been trained to valor and discipline in the Persian and Illyrian wars. Under the command of Belisarius and Mundus, they silently marched in two divisions from the palace, forced their obscure way through narrow passages, expiring flames, and falling edifices, and burst open at the same moment the two opposite gates of the hippodrome. In this narrow space the disorderly and affrighted crowd was incapable of resisting on either side a firm and regular attack; the blues signalised the fury of their repentance, and it is computed that above 30,000 persons were slain in the merciless and promiscuous carnage of the day.

Hypatius was dragged from his throne, and conducted with his brother Pompeius to the feet of the emperor ; they implored his clemency, but their crime was manifest, their innocence uncertain, and Justinian had been too much terrified to forgive. The next morning the two nephews of Anastasius, with eighteen accomplices, of patrician or consular rank, were privately executed by the soldiers, their bodies were thrown into the sea, their palaces razed, and their fortunes confiscated.

The hippodrome itself was condemned, during several years, to a mournful silence ; with the restoration of the games the same disorders revived, and the blue and green factions continued to afflict the reign of Justinian, and to disturb the tranquillity of the Eastern empire.

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Page last modified: 31-10-2019 16:45:23 ZULU