Nika Riots

I’ve finished the last of the 12 emperors, Justinian, in Lives of the Caesar, edited by Anthony A. Barrett. While I don’t yet have a handle on how to review it, the final chapter did present the Nika Riots in some detail — almost making them clear. They took place in January 532, mostly in the Hippodrome, and involved:

  • two teams, the Blues and Greens,
  • the emperor and alternates the rioters put forward, and
  • a great deal of fire and destruction.

At first, the Blues and Greens were on opposite sides: the Blues supported the emperor (who also supported them) and the Greens were upset with a man on Justinian’s staff — the guard of the imperial bedchamber. The Greens said this guard, Spatharias, was a murderer. The Greens walked out of whatever event was scheduled for that Sunday, January 11.

The next step was for the city prefect, Eudaimon, to order the execution of a mixed Green and Blue group of ruffians. Two of their number, one Green and one Blue, managed to escape to sanctuary. On January 13, the Blues and Greens united to plead to Justinian for mercy for their friends.

This group, by now a mob, had a motto: Nika! In good mob fashion, they killed, burned, presumably looted right and left, and released prisoners. The fire spread and destroyed the Hagia Sophia.

In Sunday January 18, Justinian tried to hold games to appease the mob. Nothing doing. The mob wanted someone else for emperor, an Hypatius, nephew of a recent emperor, Anastasius I (r. 491-518). Justinian and his men feared for their lives and were all set to flee when Theodora set them straight, saying she refused to go. The men thought better of being shown up by the empress and stayed, but Justinian sent packing all the cowering senators who had joined them in the imperial digs.

Justinian sent two groups to the hippodrome to regain control. Belisarius led his “bucellari” and Mundo led his “Herulians.” They sneaked in and killed between 10,000 and 30,000.

The results of the successful quelling of the riots were:

  • The senators formerly upset by Justinian and his wife supported the imperial couple
  • Theodosius undertook a great building project to replace everything that had been destroyed, and
  • The two nephews of Anastasius were executed.
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