Originally posted a decade ago on a curated site, now long gone
The young Emperor of the East at Constantinople was preparing to flee the city, effectively abdicating his throne. The mobs had been outside the palace complex for five days, screaming for blood. Justinian was at a loss. The palace guard was having difficulty holding back the rioters. Vast areas of the city had been put to the torch, including the great church Hagia Sofia.
Justinian ordered a ship prepared to take him across the Bosphorus into exile. He had ruled for only four years.
And to think this all started at the chariot races.
Roman citizens were mad about chariot racing. Gladiatorial combat had faded with the coming of Christianity to the empire, and chariot racing took its place. The largest racetrack in the world, the Hippodrome, was here in the capital city. Four-horse chariot racing was organized into teams – the Reds, Whites, Greens and Blues. Every citizen worthy of his salt was a fan of one team or the other.
In Constantinople, only two teams had any following – the Blues and the Greens. Justinian himself was a rabid fan of the Blues. Fans would wear the team colors and sit in the fan section at the Hippodrome. During the reign of the Emperors there was no such thing as a political party. No outlet for grievances among the population. Various aristocratic families pushing their own agendas found they could expand their influence by publicly supporting one of the teams.
If Brutus the Wealthy was a supporter of the Red, the Reds began to support Brutus the Wealthy. After all, he was one of them.
The fans and leadership began to meld into associations combining aspects of sports, street gangs and political parties, taking positions on issues of the day. The fans could be rallied in support of various agendas and would shout slogans at the Emperor between races. It reached the point where chariot race fans became difficult to control in the stadium and the guards had to rely on the fans themselves to police the crowd. Hooliganism and violence would break our occasionally between factions as the fans left the stadium; a killing or two was not uncommon.
After a series of chariot races several months earlier, a number of people were killed in clashes between the Blues and the Greens. Several fans from each group were arrested and hanged, but two escaped custody—one Blue and one Green—and sought asylum in a church. Thousands of fans from each group surrounded the church to protect their man from the Imperial Guard.
Justinian grew worried. He postponed the hanging of the two languishing in the church, but refused to pardon them. He decided to give the people a diversion – more chariot races on January 13, 532 at the Hippodrome.
The Hippodrome was next to the palace complex and thus Justinian could watch from the safety of his box in the palace while presiding over the races. From the start the crowd was raucous, more drunk than usual, hurling insults at Justinian. By the end of the day the partisan chants had changed from “Blue” or “Green” to a unified “Nika!” meaning something akin to “Go and conquer!” The crowds began to assault the palace. A number of Senators saw the rioting as an opportunity to overthrow Justinian, as they were opposed to his new taxes and lack of support for the nobility.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In front of the crowd of Blues and Greens they declared a new emperor, Hypatius, nephew of the former Emperor Anastasius I.
Justinian was in despair and ready to flee. He sent for his wife, Theodora, to tell her to prepare to leave the city.
Theodora watching the races from the Imperial box in the palace
Theodora had been an actress and dancer and part-time courtesan; now she was Empress of the Empire. She was smart, shrewd and tough as nails. Justinian had fallen madly in love with her. Theodora was, for all practical purposes, co-ruler.
Justinian was in the midst of a meeting of his Council when she arrived with Belisarius, a loyal General of the army and Narsus, a popular palace eunuch and keeper of the treasury. Both Belisarius and Narsus stood out of range, taking care not to hear the words between the Justinian and his wife.
“You sent for me, Caesar?” Theodora said.
“I’m preparing a ship to take us across the water to safety. We will leave as soon as you are ready.”
Theodora quietly answered her husband and his Council: ”I am not leaving.”
Justinian look at her incredulously. “We must leave! Otherwise we will both be dead in a matter of hours!”
Theodora’s voice firmed. She spoke to Council and the emperor with steely resolve.
“Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as Empress! Royal purple makes a fine burial shroud; I will die here rather than live hiding in exile!”
Justinian threw up his hands in desperation, wondering what to do next.
Theodora called to Belisarius and Narsus, and told her husband; “We have devised a plan to put down the rebellion.”
The general and the eunuch stood by sheepishly, somewhat embarrassed for the emperor as Theodora explained the plan to her husband.
“Do you think it will work?” He asked thoughtfully.
Theodora smiled. “I am of the people. I know it will work!”
The Hippodrome was filled with thousands of fans of the Blues and Greens, sitting in their respective sections. The Greens intended to crown the new emperor, Hypatius, this day.
Belisarius ordered the army to the ready, while Narsus, carrying a box of gold coins from the treasury entered the racetrack, unarmed. Hundreds had been killed, their bodies still lying about the field.
Narsus was well known and well loved by everyone. He came to the races often, mingling with the crowd rather than sitting with Senators or in the imperial box. He was a trusted and fair administrator.
Narus ignored the Greens and approached the Blues in their section. He began to speak, quieting down the crowd.
“Have you forgotten that the Emperor is a Blue? Has always been a Blue? That he is one of you? Have you not seen him in the colors?” he asked. “Hypatius is a Green! Do you want your new Emperor to be a Green?”
Narsus took one of the golden coins from the box and held it up for all the Blues to see; on it the likeness of Emperor.
“If Caesar does not survive this day he wants you to remember him as a Blue!”
And then he began giving out gold coins to the Blues with extra vigorish going the the leaders of the Blue mob. Cheering began as Narsus finished speaking; as Hypatius was being crowned, the Blues stormed out of the Hippodrome.
The Greens were stunned. They had thought that the Blues were with them.
Justinian’s general Belisarius then moved on the Hippodrome and slaughtered over 30,000 Greens. Hypatius was executed and the Senators supporting him were banished for life. Theodora’s words, “Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss,” rang in Justinian’s ears as he ordered the death of Hypatius. Theodora insisted on it, standing at his side as he did so.
Justinian rebuilt the great city, including Hagia Sofia, which became the largest church in the world until the building of St. Peter’s a thousand years later. He went on to re-conquer much of the western territories of the Roman Empire lost to the barbarians; Belisarius swept the hated Vandals from North Africa, extending Justinian’s rule all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Narsus, although a eunuch, became a great general in his own right, retaking Italy, Sicily and Dalmatia from the Goths. He was the first Roman general to enter Rome in half a century.
Theodora became the greatest empress of Byzantium. She actively participated in Justinian’s legal and spiritual reforms, and her involvement in the increase of the rights of women was substantial. She had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution and closed brothels. She created a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the Metanoia (Repentance), where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves. She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape, forbade exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery. The contemporary historian Procopius wrote that she was naturally inclined to assist women, especially those in misfortune. Today she is a saint in the Orthodox Church.
The Quadringa, the four great copper horses representing Roman chariot racing which stood over the Hippodrome, can now be seen on the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice – booty from the Crusader sacking of the city in 1204. A copy of the Quadringa stands atop the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and Wellington’s Arch in London. The pylons of the Hippodrome still stand in Istanbul.
And the next time you get a beer spilled on you at the stadium, remember the Greens!
One of the two pylons of the Hippodrome standing in Istanbul