Justinian’s Riot

Serious commentary on current political events is not my forte. While it may seem irreverent in light of the serious anquish in the wake of the May 2020 Killing of George Floyd Protests and Riots, rioting has a long history. Here’s my Roman history tangent to the turmoil.

Confinement to prevent spreading of today’s plague had brought about improved air quality in many pollution hot spots of the world, but mass or massive fire quickly reverses such trends. Setting fires is a popular tool in the arsenal of rioters and with reason — since it’s easy, quick, pretty indiscriminate, and it sends distant smoke signals. And so, today’s riots are reversing some of the air quality advantages one could look at when determined to find the silver lining of Covid-19.

There were other riots in Ancient Rome, but the most famous are probably those of 532 AD in Constantinople, known as the Nika Riots. The emperor at the time was Justinian I, known as Justinian the Great, a name tied to a law code. The emperor survived the events which Procopius (History of the Wars) describes as below:


At this time [January 1, 532] an insurrection broke out unexpectedly in Byzantium among the populace, and, contrary to expectation, it proved to be a very serious affair, and ended in great harm to the people and to the senate, as the following account will show.

It started with sports teams. (Nika was a chant meaning “Victory!”) The Romans were fanatical about their preferred (chariot and horse) teams that were named for their colors. There had been four, but at the time of Justinian, there were two, the Blues and the Greens.

In every city the population has been divided for a long time past into the Blue and the Green factions; but within comparatively recent times it has come about that, for the sake of these names and the seats which the rival factions occupy in watching the games, they spend their money and abandon their bodies to the most cruel tortures, and even do not think it unworthy to die a most shameful death. And they fight against their opponents knowing not for what end they imperil themselves, but knowing well that, even if they overcome their enemy the fight, the conclusion of the matter for them will be to be carried off straight away to the prison, and finally, after suffering extreme torture, to be destroyed. So there grows up in them against their fellow men a hostility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or disappear, for it gives place neither to the ties of marriage nor of relationship nor of friendship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with respect to these colours be brothers or any other kin. . . . I, for my part, am unable to call this anything except a disease of the soul. . . .

The officials lost control and the rioters set the city on fire:

At this time the officers of the city administration in Byzantium were leading away to death some of the rioters. But the members of the two factions conspiring together and declaring a truce with each other, seized the prisoners and then straightway entered the prison and released all those who were in confinement there. . . . Fire was applied to the city as if it had fallen under the hand of an enemy. . . . The emperor and his consort , with a few members of the senate shut themselves up in the palace and remained quietly there.

The following article from 13 years ago looks at some of the problems we have in understanding what actually happened in riots including the fact that riots are recorded by elites and are generally subordinate to the writer’s discussion of politics. It also describes the ambivalence felt by authorities in connection with the use of force against the people — similar to Minnesota’s governor and Minneapolis’ mayor reluctance to use force until the fourth night of protest.

Riot Control and Imperial Ideology in the Roman Empire

Author(s): Benjamin Kelly
Source: Phoenix, Vol. 61, No. 1/2 (Spring – Summer, 2007), pp. 150-176
Published by: Classical Association of Canada
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20304642

Also see:

7 Defending Freedom with Civil Resistance in the Early Roman Republic

Dustin Ells Howes
pp. 203-226 (26 pages)

In the legend and history of the early Roman republic, freedom was of a different nature and protected with different means. The origin story of the republic is characterized by dramatic acts of public self-sacrifice and the assiduous avoidance of violent confrontations with fellow Romans. The founding examples provided by Lucretia and Brutus set the stage for roughly a century of widespread civil resistance by the plebs. The resistance centers on refusals to participate in defensive wars. The technique proves highly effective, as the republic establishes many institutions favorable to the plebs and vastly expands their role in governance, including wartime decision making. In the early republic, there is a robust notion of defending freedom, but it is specifically contrasted with defensive warfare—and violence in general. The plebs defend liberty through self-sacrifice and secessions from military service. Liberty is more important than the defense of the city.

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