Nika Riots: History, Causes and Aftermath

Five years after ascending the throne of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian I (also known as Justinian the Great) did not only have to contend with the troubles brewing with Persia and the Iberian Wars, but he also had to attend to the internal wrangling which sought to dethrone him.

In just one week, the Hippodrome, a magnificent arena that was used to entertain the empire, became the bloodiest scene in the history of the Byzantine regime when Justinian’s brutal generals crushed the insurgents against his reign. But the appalling debris left after the riot did not last as long as the fame Justinian earned for rebuilding the post-riot empire.

But just how did the Nika riot begin? How did Justinian the Great deal with the Nika Riots that threatened to overthrow him? And what impact did those chaotic days have on the reign of Justinian and the empire as a whole?

In the article below, WHE takes an in-depth look at the major causes and effects of the Nika Riots.

Causes of the Riot

For many years, the Blues and the Greens were long at each other’s throats; however, during the Nika Revolt of January 532, the two factions put aside their differences to fight against what they believed was their common enemy – Emperor Justinian and his government. The rioters even tried to install a new emperor to replace Justinian.

Historians like to maintain that there were some specific reasons for the outbreak of the Nika Riot. Some of those reasons are discussed below:

Justinian’s new tax laws

The people resented the new tax system under Justinian’s praetorian prefect, John the Cappadocian and Tribonian, the Quaestor of the Sacred Palace. To many, John and Tribonian ruthlessly went after debtors and enforced the high taxes on the people. When the masses asked Justinian to sack them he saw no reason to replace the duo who would do anything to attain his targeted revenues.

Austerity measures taken by Justinian

In a bid to reduce public expenditure, Justinian cut down on funds channeled to the nobility-dominated civil services. Subsequently, the new policies made the vicariates of the dioceses defunct and also reduced the autonomy of many town councils.  Nobles were reduced to mere figureheads or entirely thrown out of their jobs. The displaced nobles then aligned with the senators who had questioned the high levies. The two sides harbored common hatred against Justinian’s reign, as they waited for the perfect moment to strike.

Nostalgia for the reign of Emperor Anastasius

It has been noted that there was a section of the people in Constantinople that considered Justinian and his wife Empress Theodora unsuitable rulers of the empire. With a lot of nostalgia for the reign of the late emperor Anastasius, those people viewed Justinian and Theodora to be of lower descent compared to senator Hypatius, the son of Anastasius, or any of the three nephews of Anastasius.

Justinian’s sweeping legal reforms

Soon as he came to the throne, Justinian appointed the hated Tribonian to reform the Roman laws into the famous “Cordex Justinianeus” (The Code of Justinian) among his “Corpus Juris Civilis”. Many of the aristocrats saw these thirteen-month legislative reforms as an affront to the Theodosian Code which was revered as divine and had taken almost a decade to complete.

Rivalry between the Green and Blue factions

The Hippodrome in Constantinople not only hosted chariot racing and dramas but it was also a key venue for the emperor to listen to the grievances of the people. The sports successfully grouped the people into “demes” or fan bases recognized by their designated colors. Two of these, the “Veneti”or Blues and the “Prasini” or Greens, were dominant teams during Justinian’s reign. The other two were the ”Russati” or Reds and the “Albati” or Whites. The fans, charioteers, chariots and even the horses distinguished themselves with the colors of affiliated teams. But the factions were more than sports fans. Beyond the games, they could influence socio-political decisions and trigger popular reactions.

Justinian himself was a fan of the Blues during Justin’s reign, probably to earn their support for the crown; but in his own reign, he decided to remain neutral, backing neither Greens nor Blues ─ quite a rare stance by an emperor.

The Greens were typical proponents of Monophysitism, a belief which Justinian secretly condemned in support of the rival Doctrines of Chalcedon. On the other hand, the dissatisfied senatorial class identified with the Greens.

Now the emperor proved his non-partisanship by withholding his support for the Blues and rivalling the beliefs of the Greens; his stance consequently posed threat from either sides.

Riots at Sycae and the pardoning of two death row prisoners

What finally and immediately sparked the insurrection began on January 10, 531. Some Blues and Greens were linked to riots at Sycae which led to some killings. Eudaemon, the praetorian prefect of Constantinople authorized their execution by hanging.

Two out of the nine culprits were saved when their ropes tore while they struggled for their lives. However, their sentence was postponed as they lodged in a monastery. Apparently one belonged to the Blues and the other to the Greens.

Three days later in the Hippodrome, the crowd requested pardon for the two, but Justinian only offered to imprison them instead of the hanging. The decision was unwelcomed to either factions who had come to the hippodrome already enraged with the tax and civil service reforms.

John the Cappadocian and Tribonian: The two most hated men in Constantinople in 532

There weren’t as many men in 6th century Constantinople that elicited more hate from the public than John the Cappadocian and Tribonian. Those two men were senior officers of the emperor. And over the years, the emperor had come to rely on them to institute his numerous legal and economic reforms. As many of those reforms did not go too well with some sections of the public, especially the nobility, it came as no huge surprise when the public demanded for the two men’s resignation.

Tribonian and John of Cappadocia were perhaps the two most despised men in all of Constantinople during the Nika Revolt. Image: Tribonian – the renowned Byzantine jurist and top advisor of Emperor Justian I

The Week-long Nika Riot Begins

Chariot racing was scheduled on January 13, 532 in the Hippodrome. Justinian made his way to the royal box to enjoy what the Blues and Greens had for the day. The crowd cheered on their teams “Veneti!”, “Prasini!”.

Things suddenly took a huge turn as on the twenty-second race, they began to spit insults at the Emperor. As if being orchestrated by a conductor, the Blues and Greens suddenly suspended their differences and began chanted in unison, “Nika! Nika! Nika!”─ meaning “Victory! Victory! Victory!”

Soon, the whole atmosphere turned into a chaotic one, as the crowd began to rampage. The emperor’s guards quickly ushered the emperor out of the Hippodrome to his palace. Sensing the winds in their sails, many of the rioters trooped around the palace in attempt to besiege it. When confronted to release the two men that were pardoned by the Emperor, Eudaemon refused, and the rioters set fire to his office complex in Constantinople.

Several structures around the Hippodrome and in the cities were set ablaze, including Theodosius’ famous basilica the Hagia Sophia.

Justinian then tried to satisfy the rioters’ demands by sacking Eudaemon, John the Cappadocian, and Tribonian, but it was simply too little and too late. It seemed as if there was nothing the emperor could do to pacify the angry crowd.

Sensing a bit of weakness and despondence creep into the mind of Justinian, the aggrieved senators and law makers in Constantinople reasoned that it was their time to strike and end Justinian’s reign.

With a bit of urging from some disgruntled senators, the number of rioters began to swell, as they tried to mobilize forces with the help of the nobility in order to overthrow Justinian. The rioters occupied the dwelling of Probus, one of the nephews of Anastasius, to declare him emperor, but when they found him absent, they went berserk and set his house on fire.

Meanwhile Justinian had two other nephews of Anastasius, Hypatius and Pompey in the palace. As soon as Justinian sent them out of the palace, the armed rioters led Hypatius to the Hippodrome so they could declare him an emperor.

Justinian, at this time, feared for his life in the face of the relentless rioters and hence planned to escape from the city. Empress Theodora convinced him to stay, stating “Who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die…how could an emperor allow himself to be a fugitive?”

How Justinian crushed the Nika Riots

The Nika riot is believed to have started on Tuesday, January 13, AD 532. In addition to the tens of thousands of rioters that were killed by Justinian’s generals, the emperor seized the properties of those agitating senators, with some forced to go into exile.

Inspired by the uplifting words of his wife, the frightened Emperor pulled himself together. On January 18, Justinian and his generals came up with a subtle master plan to use whatever means to crush the week-long insurrection.

Justinian assigned as many commanders as he could to enter the Hippodrome with no apparent threat to the new emperor nor the thousands of rioters.

The emperor and his advisors then tasked one unarmed eunuch by the name of Narses to infiltrate the camp of the Blues. A cunning military strategist and politician, Narses used political bribes to assured the Blues that the emperor was a big fan. He was able to convince some of the rioters that Hypatius was a diehard Green supporter. Narses then proceeded to distribute more gold coins to the Blues, which calmed down many of them to leave the Hippodrome.

Once Narses political bribery was completed, it was now the time for trusted generals like Mundus and Belisarius to do their part.

Having been notified of the departure of Justinian’s supporters from the Hippodrome, army generals Belisarius and Mundus led their forces into the Hippodrome incognito through the least expected entrance.

The event that followed could only be described as the stuff for nightmares. General Belisarius and his men proceeded to slaughter every one of the rioters in the Hippodrome. In the end, over 30,000 rioters were killed.

The massacre did not stop at the Hippodrome. Justinian ordered his soldiers to put down all the agitating lawmakers and civil servants that supported the rioters. The few lucky ones that managed to escape had their properties confiscated by the emperor.

Aftermath: Impact of the Nika Riots

The Nika Riot undoubtedly ended in Justinian’s advantage; he seized the opportunity to rebuild the empire. By February 23, 532, he had commissioned Anthemius of Trailes and Isidore of Miletus to supervise the reconstruction of a far magnificent and stupendous Hagia Sophia than Theodosius’. Image: Hippodrome of Constantinople in Istanbul, Turkey

The riot ended hastily, but it took a number of years for normalcy to be re-established in the ruined city. The emperor and his supporters brutally hunted down and arrested many of his opponents, including many members of the senatorial class that lent their support to the revolt.

Again, chariot racing, circus and any other entertainment activities were suspended as the Hippodrome was shut down for about five years.

The Nika revolt was a defining moment in the life and reign of Justinian. Had it not been for the tactical genius of Justinian and some of his generals, as well the invaluable support received from Empress Theodora, the Nika Revolt would certainly have ended the reign of Justinian. The emperor was able to take an absolutely bad event and use it in his favor, thereby strengthening his position and legacy.

Emperor Justinian avenged the senators’ contempt shown towards his reign and family. The emperor introduced new laws to suppress the lawmakers’ authority.

After Justinian’s triumph over the rioters, his people accorded him unprecedented respect. And with his kingdom stable, the emperor could now concentrate on his legislative reforms and expansionist foreign policy.

Reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia

Having been destroyed by rioters in 532 AD, the church of Hagia Sophia was rebuilt in an even more magnificent fashion during the reign of Justinian the Great

The famous Byzantine basilica, the Hagia Sophia, was one of the many magnificent buildings in Constantinople that was torched during the Nika insurrection. Following the crushing of the revolt, Justinian the Great rebuilt the Hagia Sophia using an even more elaborate design than the one that stood before the riot. As part of Justinian efforts to restore the devastated city back to its glory, funds were made available for the quick reconstruction of those buildings. It’s said that it took Justinian, with the help of renowned architects like Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, just six years to rebuild the Hagia Sophia.

In the eight months that followed, Phocas who had assumed the Prefect’s office in the heat of the riot, mobilized the funds for the construction but he was sacked and John the Cappadocian was reinstated.

After more than a millennium serving as an important cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque by Mehmed II, the Ottoman Sultan who conquered Constantinople in 1453.

Empress Theodora’s role during the riots

Rather than capitulate like many of Justianian’s senior advisors, Empress Theodora remained resolute and urged the emperor to respond with a decisive force in order to crush the revolt. Image: Empress Theodora. Image – Mosaic of Theodora, Justinian’s wife

As doubt and despair began to creep into the mind of Justinian, it was Empress Theodora who stepped in and encouraged the emperor to be bold and decisive in dealing with the revolt. Theodora’s role during the Nika revolt was remarkable, considering the fact that some of Justinian’s top officials advised the emperor to flee the city. Instead, the empress called Justinian to stay and fight to the bitter end.

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