You know how strong a marriage is when it has to cope with a problem. Justinian and Theodora had a crisis early on in their reign. But they were a tough and resourceful couple. She was from the streets. He was a wily peasant who knew that he had landed on the throne by luck and that it could all unwind easily enough. He had his bags packed and was ready to go if things went wrong.
And things did indeed go wrong in a fairly spectacular way early on in the first few years of his reign. The trouble came from the place that Theodora had come from, the circus. Her father was a member of the circus staff – usually described as a bear trainer. This is Byzantium though, he may not have actually trained bears. What exactly Theodora got up to isn’t clear either. We have some pretty lurid descriptions from contemporary historians. There is no reason to doubt them, but they could have simply been gossip. Gibbon put the juicy bits in footnotes in the original greek – eighteenth century Britain was a pretty puritanical place but as ever the most puritanical were the least educated. But whatever the details Theodora was familiar with the rumbustious circus life and was associated with the Green faction. The Greens were the party of the commoners to some extent.
Justinian on the other hand was a supporter of the Blues – who tended to be orthodox and conservative. I wonder if their split loyalties lead to any domestic problems? Probably not – they seem to have been a very devoted couple. But the circus did give them some headaches nonetheless. The fans were a rowdy lot with violence and even riots common enough events after a big race. In 531 there was some trouble on the severe end of the scale when fighting broke out and some people were killed. The authorities moved in and hanged the offenders.
But two managed to escape – one Blue and one Green. Both factions were sympathetic to the escapees. They were installed in a church and protected by an angry mob. Justinian offered a compromise. He commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, and at the same time declared a race for a few days later.
It was a reasonable enough proposition. The crowd might well have been expected to be placated.
But the people obviously thought that they could get more. With the Blues and the Greens united they felt powerful. In the ancient world order ultimately rested on muscle, and the bulk of the army were away fighting the Persians. Rather than restoring order, Justinian’s offer provoked more rioting. Even today, with good equipment and communications, police can struggle to handle a crowd when it gets out of hand. I well remember the riots in Trafalgar Square over the introduction of a poll tax. The authorities were unable to prevent the crowds from setting fire to buildings and bringing the centre of London to a halt. Constantinople had even fewer resources to control its population. And it is worth remembering that the impressive stone architecture that has survived from the Roman era was surrounded at the time with a lot of wooden buildings, and a fire was much harder to deal with in a city with only a rudimentary fire brigade..
The Hippodrome was huge even to modern eyes. It was 450m long and 130m wide and capable of holding 100,000 spectators. One has to wonder at the ability of the emperors to preside over such a huge crowd in the days before amplification. But they must have succeeded somehow, because the Hippodrome had already played a role in major events such as the elevation of Anastasius – the emperor before Justinian’s uncle – who was proclaimed as such in the stadium. It was a rough place to do business. On a later occasion Anastasius was nearly hit by a rock.
Justinian was no doubt anticipating that a day of races would reignite the long standing animosity between the Greens and the Blues, leaving him where he wanted to be – above the fray and still in power. But the leaders of the two factions had obviously been in touch and the games proved to be the exact opposite. The crowd was united in first singing the praises of both groups, and then as the day went on started shouting Nika in unison. Nika means ‘victory’. They no doubt anticipated that the victory was indeed going to be theirs.
Towards the end of the day they poured out of the stadium into the streets which they now ruled. The gates of the palace were set on fire.
Fire is a blunt weapon, but it is often the only powerful one that a crowd has open to it. I think it represents a ratcheting up of the ante in any confrontation. Gathering in large numbers threatens the established order implicitly. Throwing stones at the police threatens the established order explicitly. But when you start burning the place down, you mean business.
The rioters were now playing with fire, literally. But they also started playing with fire metaphorically. They started making political demands. They wanted the chief of police sacked. That was reasonably standard – rioters never get on with the law. But they also wanted some key courtiers removed as well. This was not the kind of thing you’d expect from people carried away by the moment. It suggested that the leadership of the rioters were in cahoots with some disgruntled elements from the establishment.
This was confirmed when some nephews of a previous emperor turned up in the crowd.
It all began to look a lot less like a random riot and a lot more like a coup directed by people with connections.
The emperor gathered his advisors together. The situation was a grim one. There were few troops on hand. The senatorial classes were unreliable and it wasn’t at all clear which ones were likely to throw their lot in with the rioters, or even which ones were actually stoking up the situation themselves.
Justinian had a boat loaded with treasure ready to flee in the harbour. It looked like the time had come to flee the city while he still had his life. But Theodora was having none of it. She had come from the bottom of society to the top. She was going to stay there or die.
She must have been a formidable woman. Justinian was no pussycat, and there were two hard nosed generals in the meeting – Belasarius and Mundus – so to carry the day by force of character alone was no mean feat.
Belasarius pulled together what troops he could and set about the violent suppression of insurgents.
The narrow configuration of the Hippodrome was a gift to a general of the skill of Belasarius. Although the rioters had huge numbers, by trapping them in the stadium Belasarius was able to deploy his soldiers at either end and advance steadily towards each other killing crowds of people in between.
The casualty figures aren’t known, though the figure of 30,000 often suggested doesn’t seem unreasonable. What is certain is that the riot was over and Justinian was now firmly in control. He had established himself as a man who would defend his throne with as much ruthlessness as it took.
I can see a lot of parallels between what happened in the sixth century in Constantinople and events that have been in the news in our lifetimes. In fact only recently a court in Egypt has handed down death sentences to 11 football fans who were involved in a riot after a match in Port Said. The riot already has a death toll of at least 72. It seems to be the practice in Egypt to sentence a lot of people to death but not to actually kill them, so hopefully they will get off.
I am not much in favour of the death penalty generally, but in this case it would be particularly inappropriate because much like the Nika riots there was clearly some politics going on. Or quite a lot of politics in fact. I don’t know any of the details but in cases like this it is rarely the guys pulling the strings that end up facing the music in court.
Riots don’t just happen in the middle east of course. We have them in London. They have them in America. And politics is never far from the story. Even in nominally democratic countries people often feel the need to take their grievances to the street. How else are black people going to get policemen to stop shooting them in America if they don’t make their feelings known in the most vigorous way open to them?
Even the most totalitarian of regimes – and the Byzantine Empire was certainly in that class – have to take notice when the people are throwing stones and torching buildings.
But the Nika riots also show the drawbacks of rioting. It is easy to end up getting manipulated for others’ political ends. Also, when you stand up to the coercive powers of the state you might win concessions. But you might also provoke a bloody reaction and end up entrenching that which you are fighting against. And of course, you can end up dead.
The destruction in the capital was extensive. But that was probably a stroke of luck from Justinian’s point of view. He was to be a great builder, and he now had a blank sheet on which to start drawing.