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The Nika Riot

In the fifth century AD, as the expense of festivals and spectacles increased, the circus factions began to take responsibility, not only for the races, but for other kinds of entertainment, including pantomimes and wild beast fights. The Blues and Greens came to predominate and, although this arrangement made organization easier, it also focused loyalty on these two factions alone, the Blues sitting opposite the imperial box (kathisma) near the starting gates of the Hippodrome and the Greens at the other end near the sphendone, a juxtaposition that no doubt contributed to a rivalry already made intense by the support of Justinian for the Blues. It was in the Hippodrome at Constantinople, as in the Circus at Rome, that the populace could express itself to the emperor and expect a response. And it was in the Hippodrome that partisans acted out when their faction was defeated, as when Porphyrius the charioteer won at Antioch in AD 507.

The factions, too, were responsible for ensuring that the emperor was duly honored; indeed, the emperor could sponsor a faction and glorify its victories without having them reflect on any individual but himself. Like the gladiatorial and wild beast shows, chariot races were associated with the imperial cult and the munificence of the emperor, even though they may have been paid for by the praetor or consul. As these acclamations became more important, the anonymous crowd that chanted them became empowered, as well. By the end of the fifth century AD, beginning with the accession of Anastasius in AD 491, this new political power had become destabilizing. It further was aggravated when Anastasius abolished the venationes in AD 498 and pantomimes in AD 502, leaving the amphitheater and theaters empty. All the passions of the people now were directed to the races in the Hippodrome.

The Nika riot began on Tuesday, January 13, AD 532. Three days earlier, several members of the Blue and Green factions, who had been arrested for an earlier disturbance, were to be hanged. But the execution was botched and two men survived and found sanctuary in a church, which then was put under guard. During the races in the Hippodrome, the crowd called on Justinian to show them mercy, chanting until the twenty-second race (of twenty four). But there was no response. Then, unexpectedly, another exclamation was heard: "Long live the merciful Blues and Greens!" (Malalas, XVIII.474). That evening, with Nika ("conquer," an exclamation used to encourage the charioteer) as their watchword, the two united factions demanded that the city prefect release the prisoners, setting fire to the Praetorium when he did not. The fire spread and others were set the next day, even though Justinian had announced additional races, a gesture that only emboldened the rioters, who set fire to the Hippodrome itself.

Now the resignation of three unpopular ministers was demanded, those who were perceived to be responsible for Justinian's refusal to release the prisoners, to which the emperor conceded. When this did not mollify the crowd, a force of Goths was dispatched, but the insurrection could not be surpressed and there were more fires, which spread throughout the city, including the church of St. Sophia, which "collapsed entirely on all four sides" (Theopanes, 6024). On Thursday, Probus, the youngest nephew of the late Anastasius, was acclaimed emperor but he, prudently, was not to be found, his palace being burned down in his absence. The incendiarism continued for the next two days, aggravated during the fighting with Thracian troops. Finally, on Sunday, January 18, Justinian went to the imperial box, Gospels in hand, and acknowledged his errors, promising to redress the grievances of the populace and pardon the rioters. But they were not to be pacified and acclaimed Hypatius, another nephew of Anastasius, as ruler.

As Justinian and his counselors deliberated over whether to leave the capital (if only to avoid the unpopularity of being present when the insurrection was put down), the empress Theodora counseled resolve, although the speech is likely a rhetorical set-piece.

"My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety. For while it is impossible for a man who has seen the light not also to die, for one who has been an emperor it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress."

Two of the emperor's best generals, Belisarius and Mundus entered the Hippodrome through separate entrances, trapping the mob inside; "in the end not one of the citizens, either of the Greens or of the Blues, who were in the Hippodrome, survived" (Theopanes). Of the populace that day more than thirty thousand perished (Procopius, I.24.54; Theophanes and the Chronicon Paschale say thirty-five thousand). Hypatius was executed and the estates of others who had collaborated, confiscated. Peace was restored, although "the chariot races were not held for a long time" (Theopanes).

In this tenth-century mosaic in the lunette of the vestibule gate of Hagia Sophia, Justinian on the left presents a model of the church to Mary, while Constantine offers one of the city.

The palace of Lausus, which still have may contained the statue of Olympian Zeus, was destroyed in the riot (Theopanes), as was the church of St. Sophia (Holy Wisdom or Hagia Sophia). Six weeks later, work began on rebuilding the church, which was consecrated five years later. It is described by Procopius in Buildings (I.1).

"So the whole church at that time lay a charred mass of ruins. But the Emperor Justinian built not long afterwards a church so finely shaped, that if anyone had enquired of the Christians before the burning if it would be their wish that the church should be destroyed and one like this should take its place, shewing them some sort of model of the building we now see, it seems to me that they would have prayed that they might see their church destroyed forthwith, in order that the building might be converted into its present form (22).

So the church has become a spectacle of marvellous beauty, overwhelming to those who see it, but to those who know it by hearsay altogether incredible. For it soars to a height to match the sky, and as if surging up from amongst the other buildings it stands on high and looks down upon the remainder of the city, adorning it, because it is a part of it, but glorying in its own beauty, because, though a part of the city and dominating it, it at the same time towers above it to such a height that the whole city is viewed from there as from a watch-tower. Both its breadth and its length have been so carefully proportioned, that it may not improperly be said to be exceedingly long and at the same time unusually broad. And its exults in an indescribable beauty (27-28).

All these details, fitted together with incredible skill in mid-air and floating off from each other and resting only on the parts next to them, produce a single and most extraordinary harmony in the work, and yet do not permit the spectator to linger much over the study of any one of them, but each detail attracts the eye and draws it on irresistibly to itself. So the vision constantly shifts suddenly, for the beholder is utterly unable to select which particular detail he should admire more than all the others. But even so, though they turn their attention to every side and look with contracted brows upon every detail, observers are still unable to understand the skilful craftsmanship, but they always depart from there overwhelmed by the bewildering sight" (47-49).

A bibliographic note: The principle source for the Nika riot is Malalas, who, as indicated in the preface to his Chronicle, depended upon oral information. The account given in the Chronicon Paschale derives from Malalas, and that of Theophanes from the Chronicon.

References: The Chronicle of John Malalas (1986) translated by Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys, and Roger Scott; The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History, AD 284-813 (1997) translated by Cyril Mango and Roger Scott; Chronicon Paschale, 284-628 AD (1989) translated by Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby; Procopius: History of the Wars [The Persian War] (1914) translated by H. B. Dewing (Loeb Classical Library); Procopius: Buildings (1940) translated by H. B. Dewing (Loeb Classical Library); Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (1999) edited by G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar; "The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal" (1997) by Geoffrey Greatrex, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 117, 60-86; History of the Later Roman Empire (1923/1958) by J. B. Bury (Dover).

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