Chariot-Racing Hooliganism? The Nika Riots of Constantinople

Dan Billingham

Constantinople’s Nika Riots of 532 may seem like a dark precursor to the so-called Dark Ages of the early medieval period. A tempting assumption to make is that a bout of collective madness and lack of societal restraint caused the grumbles of chariot-racing fans to escalate to the point of laying waste to large parts of the city and thousands dying. Sixth-century Constantinople was far from a place of anarchy, however. It was one of the most sophisticated cities on the planet, with a social order underpinned by a vast legal code. The Nika Riots were, in fact, more ofa sudden social implosion fuelled by mismanagement from an earnest emperor trying to do his best but failing disastrously.

Around a century after the Nika Riots, the sport of chariot racing was in terminal decline. That was anything but inevitable. It had already enjoyed a key cultural role in the ancient world for over a millennium. Its glorious era at Rome’s Circus Maximus was transported to the hippodrome of Constantinople, where it enjoyed several more centuries in the limelight.

The ruins of the Hippodrome, Onofrio Panvino, 1580.

Chariot-racing fans were, well, fanatical. Packing the great arenas to cheer on their favourite faction (team) was just one part of it. Merchandise such as statuettes of famous charioteers were popular, and curse tablets have been discovered on which fans would implore gods to wreak all manner of injustice and havoc on an opposition faction. Idolatry was granted to the brave charioteers, along with money that is staggering even in comparison to the earnings of modern sportspeople. 

This level of enduring fanaticism makes the poet Juvenal’s infamous line that the people “anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses” totally understandable. The popularity of chariot racing was so extreme, however, that it would be wrong to think cynical emperors were merely orchestrating spectacles for an intellectually vacant populace. Emperors mostly sought to harness for their own benefit a powerful popular interest in the sport – an exercise which, as Justinian showed in 532, could go disastrously wrong too.

Violence would appear to be a natural consequence of such fanaticism. This wasn’t noted to be a major problem at Rome’s Circus Maximus. Casual violence began to become more associated with chariot racing from the fourth century, however, and continued as Constantinople assumed Rome’s mantle. By the late fifth century, gangs formed within groups of fans that resemble modern-day football ultras. Several high-profile riots occurred during the reign of the Emperor Anastasius (491–518). The toll of several of these events was significant, with around 3,000 fans of the Blue faction killed in an ambush from fans of the Green faction in 501, but still there had been nothing quite on the scale of the Nika Riots.

Their potential for organised violence made chariot-racing factions a force to be reckoned with. How this force played into Byzantine politics is subject to scholarly debate. In his 1976 work Circus Factions, Alan Cameron dismissed earlier suggestions that the factions were aligned with different social groups or followed the religious divides of the era. He saw them as a social ill akin to modern-day football hooliganism with limited political impact.

Mosaic of the Reds, 3rd-century AD Rome (National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid).

The sociopolitical identity behind and between the factions does appear to have been muddled, but perhaps this is because the factions were too big even to fit within major social or religious fault lines. Blue was blue and Green was green. How people could declare allegiance to a colour is baffling for historians used to hunting for clear social explanations, but the popularity of the sport was such that people were generally confronted with that choice. Green supporters were accused of being Jews, Samaritans and blasphemers by an envoy of Justinian in the hippodrome in the build-up to the Nika Riots. That they walked out en masse in disgust at these accusations shows they identified as none of these.

Choosing which faction to side with became a major political decision for emperors. The varied conclusions they came to supports the idea there was no obvious social or religious dividing lines between the factions. Theodosius II (408–50) was an enthusiastic supporter of the Greens and changed the seating arrangements at the hippodrome to favour them. His successor Marcian then grew weary of the faction arrogantly thinking they could have everything their own way and barred all Greens from public office. Anastasius tried to stay neutral after taking the throne in 491 as Greens and Blues continued to bicker and riot. He eventually decided that the safest bet was to declare his support for a much less popular faction, the Reds.

There was no doubt at all which side Justinian, the emperor at the time of the Nika Riots, favoured. John Malalas, a key chronicler of the period, introduces him as follows:

In appearance he was short, with a good chest, a good nose, fair-skinned, curly-haired, round-faced, handsome, with receding hair, a florid complexion, with his hair and beard greying; he was magnanimous and Christian. He favoured the Blue faction.

There can be few examples in history of a leader’s favourite sports team being listed as such a vital characteristic. Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora, was also a Blue, despite the fact her father had trained bears belonging to the Green faction.

Detail of the 6th-century mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, depicting the Empress Theodora; Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter 2013 Fashion Collection, inspired by the aesthetic.

The imperial couple’s clear preference for one faction was perhaps the first mistake leading to the Nika Riots. Another key source, Procopius’ Secret History (Ἀπόκρυφη Ἱστορία, Apocryphē Historiā), written later in the sixth century, suggests that Justinian permitted the Blues to engage in a free-for-all and plunder at will. He is almost certainly wrong; some of the claims in his sensationalist critique of the imperial couple could come straight out of a modern fake news playbook, most notably that in her younger years, the Empress Theodora gained fame in Constantinople’s theatres by filling her private parts with rice on stage and having geese pick the grains out. We do not know whether the frequent claim she had been a prostitute as well as a stage actress is correct. The veracity of the story is besides the point to some extent – it was included no doubt as an easily memorable claim that would be repeated with enthusiasm, and chimed with a suspicion that many people had about the empress, true or not.

Similarly, the claim in Secret History that due to Justinian’s favouritism of the Blues, “everything was everywhere thrown into disorder,” is difficult to take literally. Procopius alleges that the authorities did nothing to punish violent supporters of the Blues who killed at will, corrupted the judiciary, violated the sanctity of churches, stole property, dishonoured children and forced women to sleep with their slaves – all while the Blue supporters received funding from the imperial treasury. It seems inconceivable that Justinian should permit total anarchy in the capital city given his obsession with the Law. He had spent most of his five-year reign working on a mammoth legal code that detailed, among a vast number of things, minute details of property law, such as sub-letting rights, obstructions of sunlight from extensions, and the liability for injuries inflicted by four-legged animals. Linking all manner of hideous crimes that violated moral codes to the faction was a crude attempt to fling further muck at Justinian.

Secret History was written perhaps as late as two decades after the Nika Riots, giving Procopius the opportunity to concoct a narrative in which the troubles seemed an inevitable result of a policy failure. The Chronicle of John Malalasis an interesting counterpoint in its total omission of any mention of the chariot-racing factions between Justinian taking the throne in 527 and 532. The war with Persia is covered in detail, as are various diplomatic exercises and public works in Constantinople; a few sentences are even devoted to a travelling Italian showman who appeared on the streets of Constantinople with a psychic dog in 529. When the chronicle reaches January 532, the reader is thrust straight into the trouble, with the escape of two faction members just before their scheduled execution for murder described as a “pretext for rioting”

Justinian and his court, San Vitale, Ravenna.

Malalas was receptive to trotting out the imperial line, so we cannot presume either that the riots were entirely spontaneous and unforeseen. Indeed he reports that before taking the throne himself, Justinian as a co-emperor instigated a crackdown on faction-related rioting across the Empire, which again contradicts the narrative of Procopius. That actual events were between the two contrasting portrayals seems a prudent assumption. As ludicrous as some of the details in the critique of Procopius are, that Justinian indulged the Blue faction more than he should have, despite attempts to curb the worst excesses, seems the likely kernel of truth around which his wild accusations could revolve.

That Justinian made his favouritism clear most probably emboldened the Blues. Not to the point that they turned the social order on its head in an orgy of crime as Procopius suggests, but probably to the extent that they felt entitled to push grievances to the emperor. Thus, when chariot-racing fans pleaded with the emperor to pardon the two convicts who escaped the hangman’s noose on the night of 10 January 532, they would have been confident of a response.

Justinian’s reaction was to continue to seek a middle ground between pandering to the powerful factions but showing some firmness. As Geoffrey Greatrex explains in The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal (1997), it proved to be a disastrous attempt to steer a way through a crisis that resulted only in turning it into something vastly more serious. Refusing to entertain the demands of the factions to pardon the convicts (his stick) added fuel to the fire, and the horrendous decision to continue to hold planned chariot races in the following days (his carrot) led to him accidentally stacking it high.

The imperial complex in Justinian’s Constantinople

A crowd of up to 100,000 people cried out for the release of the two convicts at the hippodrome the following Tuesday, and the unique scene then unravelled of the Blues and the Greens uniting in a call for justice. Nika (νίκα, the Greek imperative for “win!”) became the slogan of their struggle. Having failed to gain a response from the emperor, they simply took matters into their own hands. They marched that evening to the praetorium of the city prefect, burnt the building down and released the two prisoners held inside there.

After all of this, Justinian showed a bizarre level of blind optimism by deciding to continue with more planned racing on the Wednesday. It didn’t go well. No doubt sensing the weakness of the emperor, the supporters torched the hippodrome and made new demands. They called for the dismissal of three key imperial officials, and as the disturbances continued, Justinian eventually acquiesced.

Relenting in the face of fierce violence failed to stop the riots there though. Justinian had cut away much of his own authority with his slow and botched response, and after attempts were made to depose him for Probus, he had to battle to get it any of it back. This led to widespread destruction as troops engaged rioters and a mass slaughter of Greens in the hippodrome after the emperor had bought the Blues back to his side with gold coins.

The surviving walls of the hippodrome.

Greatrex is dismissive of suggestions that hostile senators sought to orchestrate the trouble to dispose Justinian. The eruption of violence was organic. That the rioters did not stop after their demands were accepted shows that they were largely motivated by the power of their own destructive force. They lacked all signs of clear leadership. Getting outmanoeuvred by a rabble must have been a deep embarrassment for Justinian.

It is worth considering how an emperor who was known to be studious and enjoyed considerable military success could miscalculate so spectacularly. A firm response either to free the convicts or crush trouble at its first sign would probably have avoided such a calamitous outcome. It seems likely that Justinian received conflicting advice from his palace. Given her famous rallying cry that she would prefer death to fleeing the throne as the imperial purple “would make the noblest funeral shroud”, the Empress Theodora could have been a voice urging a confrontation with the rioters. Other advisers may have highlighted the pragmatism behind Justinian’s support for the Blue faction and urged against confrontation.

The ending of the riots showed that while the unity between the Blues and Greens made the trouble so threatening, the division between the factions, imaginary as it was in many ways, came back to doom the uprising. Justinian’s grand chamberlain, the eunuch Narses, warned the Blues that a Green was about to take to the throne and bought their loyalty with gold coins, isolating the Greens, who were promptly slaughtered in cold blood.

Bas-relief of a chariot race, 3rd century AD, Circus Maximus, Rome.

In an era when protest movements can seem to develop rather suddenly, it is worth considering what lessons may be drawn from the remarkable events of Constantinople in 532. One that may frighten leaders in any age is the incredible momentum the riots developed. Given that there was no major existential threat to the Byzantine Empire at the time, it is difficult to ground the violence in a particular historical context. The spectacular failure of Justinian to get a grip on events is a lesson to heed in any crisis situation. Being ahead of events and making firm and clearly communicated decisions are all key. Indecision in the hope that things blow over does not help.

If Procopius’ portrayal of the sinister power of the Blue faction has a modicum of truth, Justinian also seems to have fallen into a trap of a poor, or at least unreliable, choice of political bedfellows. Their influence on the streets of Constantinople must have been extremely useful to the future emperor when he was an heir to his uncle Justin’s throne and was thus seeking to secure a platform of power. Justinian’s failed attempt to push back against their influence shows that by the time he had realised that a confident bunch of street gangs could also be a nuisance, it was too late.

While the disaster of the riots pushed him to the brink, the wider record of Justinian’s reign provides a cheerful footnote: however astonishing a setback is, you can work to redeem yourself. Constantinople was largely laid to waste by the riots, with the Hagia Sophia among the many buildings destroyed. Justinian’s restoration of the church gave it the magnificentstructure that survives today – a feat he repeated across the city by initiating other grand works. Having vanquished the rebellion in horrific circumstances, Justinian secured his place on the throne. The military successes later in his reign saw the Byzantine Empire recover lost territories in Italy and North Africa. After the blot to his early record, he presided over a golden age.     

Dan Billingham is a journalist and Durham University history graduate. He recently completed an unpublished novel based on the dramatic events of the Nika Riots.

Further Reading

Beyond the ancient accounts of Procopius and John Malalas, the following works give ruther details about the Nika Riots and their broader content.

Fik Meijer, Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, MD, 2010).

Geoffrey Greatrex, “The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal”, JHS 117 (1997) 6086.

Alan Cameron, Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium (Oxford UP, 1976).

Stella Duffy, The Purple Shroud (Virago, London, 2012).

Jeffrey Larson, The Emperor, the Church, and Chariot Races: the Imperial Struggles with Christianity and Entertainment in Late Antique Constantinople (Masters thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2012).