Saturday, February 02, 2008

Justinian 31, Factionists 10: The Nika Rebellion of AD 532

(Following is an article that I wrote several years ago for the sadly departed magazine, Catholic Men's Quarterly about the Nika Rebellion which began on January 11 in AD 532. There's also a detailed account of the Rebellion in my book, Belisarius: Glory of the Romans.) Enjoy!

It’s a safe bet that most of you reading these words have been to a professional football game. Many of you—particularly those who live in Philadelphia—have probably witnessed the occasional brawls between the home crowd and those foolish enough to wear an opposing team’s colors. A few of you, I dare say, have been involved in such altercations.

But how often have you witnessed football fans actually kill opposition partisans? Well, perhaps I should qualify that by saying American football fans. When was the last time you heard of agitated sports nuts rioting in the streets and burning down half their city? OK, again, Chicago and Detroit excluded.

The emperor Theodosius II in the imperial Kathisma
at the Hippodrome, Constantinople.
In AD 532, the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire, was also home to the most rabid sports fans in recorded history. Their sport of choice wasn’t three yards and a cloud of dust on the gridiron, but the old passion of the ancient Romans—four teams and a cloud of dust around the spina. Since the gladiatorial games had been banned nearly 150 years before, chariot races of the variety most memorably portrayed in the film Ben Hur became the singular mania of the Romans. Practically every city in the empire had its track. But Constantinople was the big leagues. Only the greatest charioteers got to race before the 80,000 raucous lunatics who packed into the sprawling Hippodrome.

So central were the races to Roman life in Constantinople that the Hippodrome directly abutted the palace complex, the seat of government. And the emperor’s box, the Kathisma, had a corridor linking it directly with the imperial residence itself. There had traditionally been four teams or factions in Roman chariot racing, each identified by a color: Red, Green, Blue, and White. By the 6th century AD, the Reds and Whites had become the equivalent of the Arizona Cardinals with the Blues and Greens achieving dominance.

But the Blue and Green factionists were more than just drinking buddies who got together to watch the races. They were combination sports clubs, political parties, street gangs, and organized crime syndicates whose goals were usually limited to beating the rival faction—literally.

The 6th century historian Procopius describes the factionists as barbarian wannabes, who let their beards grow long and shaggy. They apparently invented the “mullet” as well, cutting their hair short in the front but letting it grow long in the back. As to their dress, they favored tunics that were wide at the shoulders and narrow in the waist, designed to make them look Terrell Owens-esque. However, as Procopius reports, when they threw up their arms at the races, sunken chests and blubber guts abounded.

Until the ascendancy of Justinian in the 520s, the factionists generally spent most of their energy fighting with each other. Justinian, however, seemed to show an unusual favoritism toward the Blues, effectively making them immune from criminal prosecution. As a result, the Blues left off merely stomping on the Greens and started attacking the general public as well. Procopius describes a familiar scene for anyone who’s ever lived in a bad neighborhood: honest folks went around armed, wore shabby clothes so as not to draw attention to themselves, and scurried home before it got dark.

But eventually the depredations of the Blues went too far and Justinian was forced to take action. The city prefect, Eudaimon, began rounding up the ringleaders of both factions and convicted seven of them on charges of murder. All seven were condemned, but during the executions, the scaffold collapsed. Two of the factionists, a Blue and a Green, survived and were spirited away to sanctuary in a church by some monks. Not to be deterred, Eudaimon set guards around the place to seize the men if they tried to escape.

At the Hippodrome three days later, the Blues and Greens suddenly found a common cause not at all associated with the races—clemency for their brethren holed up in sanctuary. Throughout the day, the factions together appealed to the emperor to have mercy. But Justinian turned a deaf ear. By the 22nd race, the factionists were fed up. Their leaders took counsel—something as unheard of as Redskins and Cowboys fans planning a tailgate together—and the united factions marched out of the Hippodrome chanting “Long live the merciful Blue-Greens.” They were determined to take action, and to prevent imperial soldiers from infiltrating their ranks, they devised a watchword—“nika” or “conquer.”

The mob made its way to Eudaimon’s headquarters, and when their demands were rejected once again, proceeded to burn the place down. Unfortunately, fires in ancient cities were not easy to contain and this particular fire quickly consumed the nearby buildings, including the monumental great church of Hagia Sophia, originally built by Constantine, and rebuilt by Theodosius II. The rioters then began looting private homes and killing the soldiers sent out to suppress them.

Realizing that the situation was spiraling out of control, Justinian sent out the patricians Basilides and Constantiolus to address the mob. When asked why they were rioting, the factionists now gave a more ambitious response. They demanded the ouster of Eudaimon along with two of Justinian’s other top ministers: John the Cappadocian, the ruthlessly efficient head tax collector, and Tribonian, a legendary jurist who was also notorious for selling justice to the highest bidder. To their shock, Justinian gave in immediately, dismissing all three and appointing others in their places.

Far from quelling the riot, Justinian’s concessions had the same effect as failing to penalize illegal chop-blocks in the first quarter of a Raiders’ game—the bad behavior just got worse. Soldiers were again deployed to curb the mob, but the result was more fires and the destruction of part of the palace, the upper stands of the Hippodrome, the famous baths of Zeuxippus, and the Senate house. The emperor was now effectively besieged in the palace which was surrounded by charred and smoking ruins. The factionists ruled the rest of the city.

It was at about this point that the riots took an even more ominous turn for Justinian. The crowds descended on the house of a patrician named Probus, the nephew of the deceased emperor Anastasius, and the cry went up, “Probus for emperor of the Roman world!” In response, Probus fled—a credit to his foresight—and the mob expressed their disappointment by trying to burn his house down. But Anastasius had two other nephews, the patricians Hypatius and Pompeius, both of whom were now holed up inside the imperial palace with Justinian.

Justinian’s next move was more concessions, with the same predictable result. In an effort to placate the angry crowd, he entered the Kathisma of the Hippodrome carrying the Gospels and pledged a general amnesty. “By this power, I forgive you this wrong-doing and order that none of you be arrested,” the emperor declared. “Be at peace, for the fault lies not with you, but with me. For my sins made me refuse what you asked of me.”

This speech invited the sympathy of a few of the Blues, who cried out, “Augustus Justinian, you conquer!”

But others began chanting for Hypatius. Justinian probably tried to rebuke them, but they yelled back, “You are breaking your oath, you donkey!” Justinian was silenced by this mockery and left the Hippodrome in what must have been a state of extreme agitation.

After this disquieting audience, the emperor likely feared that some of those trapped with him in the palace, to save their own hides from the mob, would kill him and put Hypatius or Pompeius on the throne. Therefore, upon his return from the Hippodrome, Justinian ordered the nephews of Anastasius to their homes. The two men protested, saying that it would be wrong for them to abandon their emperor during such a crisis. But their objections seemed to cement Justinian’s fears, and he remained adamant that they leave at once.

The two managed to escape in secret to their homes, but once word of this got around, the crowds immediately descended upon them and declared Hypatius emperor. The patrician’s wife, Mary, grabbed hold of her husband and urged him to refuse, crying out that the people were leading him on the road to death. But the mob would not be refused. Placing a gold chain on Hypatius’s head in lieu of the imperial diadem, they led him to the Hippodrome and there acclaimed him.

Inside the palace, Justinian, all-powerful emperor of the Roman world, was ready for drastic action--flight. Gathering up his treasure, he had a boat prepared to take him across the Bosphorus out of harms way. However, his wife, the Empress Theodora, stood up and barred the way, doing the Byzantine equivalent of “getting in his grill.” A hard woman who had survived a youth of grotesque debauchery among the same factionists who were now torching the city, Theodora was not about to climb down from the pinnacle of power without a fight. “If it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty,” the empress declared, “As for me, I approve of a certain ancient saying that royalty makes a good burial shroud.”

Theodora’s pep talk fired up Justinian and his remaining loyalists. Among these were two of his best generals—Belisarius, a first-round draft pick fresh from campaigns against the Persians, and Mundus, a Gepid free-agent acquisition who had just returned from the province of Illyricum. Also present was the crafty offensive coordinator, Narses, Justinian’s head chamberlain. From him came the idea of dividing the factionists by means of bribes. And this he did, secretly distributing money to some of the Blues. When these began loudly acclaiming Justinian in the Hippodrome, the partisans of Hypatius bombarded them with rocks.

While Narses was busy sowing discord, Belisarius and Mundus set out with several hundred armed and battle-hardened soldiers in a desperate gamble to crush the rebellion. Out numbered fifty-to-one, their first attempts to force their way into the Hippodrome from the palace were rebuffed by imperial guardsmen who refused to take sides until one or the other was victorious. In desperation, Belisarius and Mundus led their men out of the palace through the dangerous smoldering ruins of the city to approach the Hippodrome from the outside. Entering through gates on opposite ends, the generals knew that they would have to hack their way through the vast multitude gathered inside to reach the conspirators in the imperial box.

And hack they did.

As soon as the mob realized that the fight was on, they attempted to resist. But since few of them were properly armed and their opponents were well-trained soldiers attacking in formation with shield, arrow, and sword, the battle soon turned into a massacre. Breaking away from the main fight, Belisarius and some of his bodyguards fought their way to the Kathisma and there arrested Hypatius and Pompeius. More soldiers poured into the Hippodrome via the passage from the palace and with no way to escape, the rioters were cut down without mercy. The death toll was estimated to be 30,000 or more.

The next day, Hypatius and Pompeius were executed and their bodies thrown into the sea. The body of Hypatius later washed up on shore and Justinian ordered it buried in a cemetery for criminals. Over top of it, he erected a stone which read, “Here lies the emperor of Louppa.”

Justinian I offers his Hagia Sophia to the Blessed Virgin
and Christ Child.
The one enduring result of the so-called Nika rebellion may be seen to this day towering above city of Istambul—Justinian’s magnificent Hagia Sophia, built over the ruins of the previous church destroyed by the rioters.

So the next time you hear someone say that they bleed Eagle Green or that they’re dying to see Eli lead Big Blue to the Super Bowl, just remember that 1,500 years ago, maniacs who made the ephemera of sport their religion and the stadium their cathedral did literally bleed and die for their misplaced passion.

Paolo Belzoni is the author of Belisarius: The First Shall Be Last, a novel of the early life of this Late Roman hero. A detailed description of the Nika Revolt is included in his follow-up novel, Belisarius: Glory of the Romans. He is also a long-suffering fan of the Philadelphia Eagles.

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