Ancient History & Civilisation

The Nika Riot

The Nika riot, a blood-bath that led to over 30,000 fatalities and the burning of many of the most prestigious buildings in Constantinople, was and remains the most discussed as well as the most mysterious event of Justinian's reign (Plate 4.1).95 Procopius' summary account is prefaced by a description of the intense and violent rivalry of the circus factions, the Greens and the Blues, that afflicted the public life of the cities of the empire:

(The partisans) care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering (one another) in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitution are violated by friend or by foe; even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering, they pay no heed if only things are likely to go well with their faction (meros); for so they name the bands of partisans…I for my part am unable to call this anything but a disease of the soul. This, then, is pretty well how matters stand among the people of each and every city. (Procopius, Bell. Pers. 1.24.5–6)


Plate 4.1    Porphyrius the charioteer. The victory monument for Porphyrius, the most successful charioteer and darling of the Constantinopolitan hippodrome in the early sixth century. He is being crowned by a female figure, who is identified by the inscription as the personified Fortune of the city of Nicomedia. This large monument was decorated with reliefs and inscriptions on all four sides, and originally stood on the central spina of the race track (Alan Cameron)

Procopius presents a view of the Nika rioting from the perspective of the imperial authorities, and his account is full of details that could only have been available to a palace insider. This condemnation of the circus partisans, therefore, was certainly close to the emperor's own view of them. Justinian in fact had made a priority of curbing partisan violence from the early 520s, and had taken strong measures against the factions from the moment he became co-emperor in April 527:

He established secure, orderly conditions in every city of the Roman state and dispatched sacred rescripts to every city so that rioters or murderers, no matter to what faction they belonged, were to be punished; thus in future no one dared to cause any kind of disorder, since Justinian had struck fear into all provinces. For a short period the factions at Antioch were on friendly terms. (Malalas 422, 14–22, trans. Jeffreys-Scott)

Riotous behavior, often orchestrated or exacerbated by the factions, which were capable of mobilizing large numbers of followers, was a central feature of life in the great cities of the later empire, especially Constantinople. The circus factions in Byzantine cities were the organized partisans of the chariot races and other forms of popular entertainment. However, although they had no consistent ideological or religious aims, the circus factions were the only means by which the mass of the people could be organized, and if necessary mobilized. There had been huge riots in Constantinople in 496, 501, and 507, involving bloodshed, the fall from power of leading politicians, and enormous destabilization. In 512 pro-Chalcedonian riots organized by the factions had led to the proclamation of a usurper, Areobindus, and almost toppled the emperor Anastasius.96 At the beginning of the seventh century they were to be closely involved in the deposition of the emperor Maurice and the succession of Phocas.97 The reasons for the phenomenon have been much discussed. The mass of the people in ancient cities (including many members of the wealthier classes as well as the urban poor) were an enormous potential force, which became aware of their power through the organization provided by the factions. The style of government of the late Roman Empire had removed the constitutional buffers between the emperor and his people. Political business was mostly carried out within the walls of the palace. The point at which the rest of the population could make its feelings known was precisely in the hippodrome, where the emperor and his leading officials appeared at the races before the people. It was inevitable that the circus should provide the focal point for political discontent. The social environment of great pre-modern cities was also of critical significance. Constantinople, like Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, had an enormous population, and the eastern metropoleis had grown substantially in size during the mostly peaceful and prosperous years of the fifth and early sixth century. The majority of inhabitants were nevertheless poor and under-employed. Moreover, family ties and traditions, and links to a well-defined social hierarchy were certainly weaker for many urban dwellers than they had been in the small cities and villages of the Mediterranean. In addition, the huge religious and political changes that the Roman Empire underwent through late antiquity, while they provided new structures of authority, also contributed to deracination and a loss of social equilibrium. The social mixture was explosive, and its ingredients were also well known to the ruling authorities. Justinian, like other emperors, was well aware of the problems posed by Constantinople's unruly inhabitants. Much more difficult was the question of how to control them. Troops were often called in to deal with rioting in Alexandria, Antioch, and above all Constantinople.

Events in early January 532 ran for a little more than a week. Partisans rioted after the races on Saturday January 10, and this led to the arrest of seven ringleaders by the city prefect Eustathius. Five were hanged to death, while two, one from each faction, literally escaped the gallows (execution on the furca), fled from the city, and found refuge in a monastery across the Bosporus in Chalcedon. At the next race meeting, on Tuesday, the crowd asked the emperor to pardon the escapees. There was no response until the twenty-second race of the day, when the partisans resorted to a united chant of the single word Nika, “Conquer!” which has given the events their name. They rampaged to the headquarters of the city prefect, set free the prisoners they found there, and burnt it to the ground. The emperor, unmoved, ordered that the games continue on the following day, as programmed. The crowd now demanded that the city prefect be dismissed from office, in company with John the Cappadocian, the praetorian prefect, and Tribonian, the head of the legal commission. The last two men were the most prominent civilian figures of Justinian's radical government. Justinian, astonishingly, acceded to these demands, but as the riot did not abate, sent in his general Belisarius, whose troops killed many insurgents. The rioters set fire to public buildings, and the church of Haghia Sophia was destroyed. The next day the rioters made for the house of Probus, a grandson of Anastasius, whom they planned to put forward as a rival imperial candidate. Probus was not to be found, and his house too went up in flames. As the arson attacks intensified, Justinian called in fresh troops from Thrace. On Sunday morning he made a second appearance before the people in the hippodrome, clasping a copy of the gospels, with an offer of an amnesty for the rebel leaders. However, the response of the crowd was to put forward two other grandchildren of Anastasius, Hypatius and Pompeius, as imperial candidates. Their availability is extraordinary, since both had actually been sent home from the palace by the emperor the previous day. When a rumor spread that Justinian had fled, Hypatius accepted the imperial role offered to him, and was on the verge of leading an assault on the palace. At this critical juncture Justinian ordered a final intervention by three military commanders. Narses distracted and split the mob by cash distributions, while Belisarius and Mundus, both fresh from the eastern front, led their troops in an assault which slaughtered 30–35,000 people. The ringleaders were arrested, Hypatius and Pompeius executed, and numerous leading figures sent into exile.

One of the most significant aspects of the whole episode was the publicity which it received from the emperor himself.98 Justinian made announcements of his own victory and claimed to have removed tyrants in every city (Malalas 476, 22–477, 1). This propaganda evidently made much of the fact that a would-be usurpation had been foiled. However, it is clear from the sequence of events that regime change had not been the immediate objective of the rioters, and the relatives of Anastasius, far from being major threats, were little more than straw men. Surviving members of Anastasius' family were subsequently rehabilitated. Rather, the real targets of Justinian's actions were in fact his actual victims, the almost countless masses who paid with their lives. Procopius makes it clear that Justinian's guiding motive was to curb the unruly violence of the people, as organized by the circus factions. The troops who perpetrated the massacre of Sunday January 18, 532, were instruments of terror, designed to achieve this purpose. The question then arises whether the emperor's decisions and actions during the riots and burning of the city were purely responsive, or whether this was a situation that he had deliberately provoked, or one that he sought to exacerbate by his handling of the crisis, so as to justify the enormous level of violence with which it was repressed. In either case, the reports found in several of the sources, which suggest that the emperor vacillated during the crisis (Procopius tells the story that it was only a speech from his wife Theodora that prevented Justinian from taking flight from the city by sea, Bell. Pers. 1.24.32–37), are wholly incredible. No explanation of Justinian's handling of the Nika riot is likely to be correct that does not take account of the fact that Justinian during his early years was as decisive and self-confident a ruler as any that the empire had known in its history.

One of the effects of the Nika riot had been the devastation of a large area of the center of Constantinople. The praetorium of the city prefect had been burnt to the ground on the second day of the disturbances. There was much greater destruction as events approached their bloody climax, including the burning of the church of St Sophia and many buildings along the central avenue, the Mesê. By chance or by design the devastation presented the emperor with an opportunity to leave a permanent mark on the city. A great new square was laid out east of the imperial palace and south of the hippodrome. A new cistern of massive proportions was excavated beneath the courtyard alongside the imperial basilica, which housed the law library and accommodated the courts of justice. Roman architecture, as ever, combined display with functionality.

Above all work began on the great domed church of St Sophia, which still stands in Istanbul today not only as the most spectacular church of late antiquity, but as an inspiration to the religious architecture of the Renaissance Christian and of the Ottoman Islamic tradition (Plate 4.2). The architects were Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. It is noteworthy that today the ruins of Tralles, a large city overlooking the Maeander valley in western Asia Minor, are dominated by an enormous bath house, built during late antiquity from brick and re-used ancient masonry, and attesting to the extraordinary engineering and architectural skills which were transferred to Justinian's construction program for Constantinople (see Plate 4.3). Grand civic churches in the later fifth and sixth centuries were no longer the echoing barn-like basilicas of the age of Constantine. The most prestigious structures now tended to be cruciform, with a domed roof above the central meeting point of the four arms of the cross. The design of St Sophia shifted the emphasis away from the cross to the dome itself, from Christ crucified to Christ resurrected. The 180 foot dome of St Sophia, like that of its smaller predecessor at the Pantheon of Rome, was a metaphor in stone for the vault of heaven. The materials for its construction, above all the polychrome marble used for columns and the wall paneling, were assembled from all parts of the eastern empire. The power of the building lay in its monumentality and the unity of its design. The mosaics carried no figured decoration but the sign of the Cross, repeated again and again. The message that it conveyed was quite simply that imperial Christianity had triumphed.99 The building was completed in five years and dedicated in 537. The achievement of Justinian and his architects is measured in Procopius' description of the building's spiritual impact:

Whenever anyone enters this church to pray, he understands at once that it is not by any human power or skill, but by the influence of God, that this work has been so finely turned. And so his mind is lifted up toward God and exalted, feeling that He cannot be far away, but must especially love to dwell in this place which He has chosen. (Procopius, Buildings I, 1.61)


Plate 4.2    St Sophia. Justinian's great church, which was converted into a mosque when Constantinople fell to the forces of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. Here it is seen from the west, roughly along the line of the main street of Constantinople, the Mesê (S. Mitchell)


Plate 4.3    View of the enormous bath building of late antiquity at Tralles on the Maeander (S. Mitchell)

The design stretched contemporary technology to the limit, and the arches threatened to collapse under their own weight (Procopius, Buildings I, 67–78). In 557 the dome collapsed, and was reconstructed only by a supreme effort of Justinian's final years. The newly dedicated church received its second encomium in a poem of Paul the Silentiary.100

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