Category: History

The Nika Revolt

The Nika Revolt


Edward Gibbon observed:

Constantinople adopted the follies, though not the virtues of ancient Rome; and the same factions which had agitated the circus raged with redoubled fury in the hippodrome.

The Hippodrome of Constantinople did not seat as many as the Roman Circus Maximus but they made up for this reduced capacity with their fervor for chariot-racing. Whether or not enthusiasm for chariot races should be counted as folly, much of what surrounded these races was foolish and destructive.

The two principal organizations fielding the teams that raced in the Hippodrome were the blues and the greens. Nearly every citizen aligned with one of these two factions and the two groups hated one another. In trying to understand such an inveterate enmity, later writers sought to couple their allegiance to racing teams with something more momentous. They claimed that the greens were Monophysites, who believed that Christ was of one nature that showed two aspects, while the blues were Dyophysites who held that Christ was of two natures united in one. Recent scholarship has concluded that the unifying passion for both factions was chariot racing alone. Disputes about the Trinity had split Christians into feuding camps of Nestorians, Catholics, Arians, and Monophysites. The rift between Catholic Dyophysites of the west and the Monophysites of the east kept the Western and Eastern Empires from reuniting. Emperors couldn’t repair the schism and theologians couldn’t resolve the issue, so perhaps it might have been for the best if the charioteers had been left to decide the question.

There was no underpinning issue, no loyalty to one emperor against a usurper, no tenet of theology, no division between classes, separating the blues and greens. The blues cheered for one chariot to come in first and the greens rooted for another. Yet that was enough to kill for.

There had been a long tradition of athletics in the ancient world but before, young men exercised and exhausted themselves running and wrestling. Quite contrary were Christians traditions that abased the body, and it was the anchorite who remained immobile until his limbs atrophied, the hermit who went years without bathing with filthy skin, matted hair, and long ragged fingernails who were celebrated.

The Olympic Games were discontinued and the gymnasiums and baths fell into disrepair until converted to other uses.  Yet the young men who would have themselves trained in earlier centuries didn’t find anchorites and stylites enough to rouse their enthusiasm. It was still feats of athletics not asceticism they craved. They found these feats in the Hippodrome. The object of these races was not to kill, but collisions were common and frequently fatal, and one exit, named the Deadman’s Gate, was used to drag out the corpses of unlucky charioteers. These young men, drunk on adrenaline if not on wine as well, sickened and entranced by the sight of the blood and the smashed bodies of the fallen, penned up in their sections until nearly frantic with stifled energy, were set spilling into the streets after the day’s races were run. Around any corner they may bump into their enemies, and whether exhilarated in victory or rankled in defeat, they will vent their feelings.

There was a gentler and more amiable side to these associations. A family of greens, homeless after a fire, will find shelter among their fellows. A family of blues going hungry will find food left on their doorstep contributed by the blue grocers of their neighborhood. The associations look after their own by the more questionable but still widespread practice of patronage. A young green just setting out in the world might find a place in the civil service as a shorthand writer because the head of the department is a green and has been alerted to his candidacy and assured of his character.

While his uncle Justin was emperor, Justinian was in line for the throne but as he well knew, these accessions are never a sure thing. Some men, aspiring to rule a state, will not hesitate to unsettle and even to harm it, if it suits their purposes. They will use the poorest, the most despised, and the most violent of the populace to strike at their rivals and enemies. Impatient to take control themselves, they will make the sitting government seem powerless and contemptible.

The young mother walking her toddler, the peddler manning his booth, the granny out buying bread, the young gallant ogling the young mother, all placidly about their business when a man streaks by running for his life. They look and rounding the corner a gang of blues armed with cudgels and knives. They know enough to look in the other direction and here come the greens. Those who’d just been enjoying their promenade or their shopping or tending their livelihood must now run for their lives. They flee for shelter as the two gangs collide. The peddler leaves his booth to save his skin and his booth is soon tipped and his wares scattered and stomped by the combatants. The young mother screeches and claps her hand over her child’s eyes as a young brawler stumbles by trying to hold his entrails in his belly. The young dandy backs away pleading that he doesn’t belong to either party while two men advance on him.

And where are the police in all this. Too timid to intervene or even show themselves. Whether Brownshirts against Reds, the mobs of Clodius against those of the boni, or blues against the greens, throwing cities into anarchy and turning streets into war zones has been one of the ploys of the ruthless and ambitious.

The blues rendered him good service and Justinian rose to become emperor. Having climbed onto the throne he began to see things from a new angle. What the blues destroyed and tore down in their rampages, he must now trouble to rebuild. The men they murder can no longer pay taxes to fund his great projects. He’s become the protector of these citizens and when these gangs terrorize them, it is he who looks puny and impotent. On the other hand, if he suppresses the violence he himself secretly fomented, his reign will shine in comparison to what’s come before.

Many centuries later, another who’d used gangs of thugs for a similar end will arrive at the same conclusion, and he will purge them swiftly and thoroughly. Justinian decides on a half measure. He will enforce law and order against both the blues and the greens. For the greens this was a continued persecution, for the blues a sudden betrayal.

All great fires begin with one spark and for the Nika Revolt it was a botched hanging. Two men, on a blues and the other a greens, were to be hanged but the scaffold broke and both tumbled to the ground, their necks unbroken. An execution had turned into a trial by ordeal and God had made his Will known. Several monks came from a nearby convent and conducted the two into the sanctuary of a church.

When Justinian presided over the races at the Hippodrome, spokesmen for the blues and for the greens pleaded for the lives of the two survivors. Justinians didn’t deign to answer. A crowd gathered at the palace of the prefect and they clamored for the two men to be spared. The servant was just as silent and arrogant as the master. Their words were ignored and so the crowd of supplicants acted. They attacked, killed the soldiers, burned the prefecture, and opened the jails.

The riot spread and grew in violence. The mob looted and burned, and most shocking of all, women left the seclusion of their quarters to rove the streets and join in. Justinian was willing to concede, to promise, to flatter, and he made another appearance at the Hippodrome. But it was too late for that. The crowd wanted to new Emperor and they’d found a candidate with the proper blood to replace him. They jeered at Justinian’s blandishments and he scuttled back into his palace.

Back inside his citadel, Justinian met with his advisers. Frightened and disheartened, he saw no choice but to flee the city, raise an army, and retake the capital. Abashed, his counselors had little to offer but the Empress spoke up. She’d been born among the lowest of the low, the daughter of a bear trainer at the Hippodrome. After her father’s death, her widowed mother had remarried the man who’d taken her husbands job. The widow and her daughters had come through and were safe, but suddenly the greens fired her new husband without cause or explanation, most likely for reasons of patronage. The mother took her small daughters and appeared on the floor of the hippodrome to beg for her husband’s job so that they might not starve. The greens ignored their appeal.

The blues saw how callous and mean the greens looked in refusing to take pity on a widow and her small children in front of an entire arena full of spectators. Their leader got to his feet, and he promised that if she would go over to the blues they would be provided for. Her mother defected then and there, and from that moment on, Theodora was loyal to the blues and hated the greens. When she’d been a child, the blues had saved her, but the child is now an Empress and she must save herself and her crown, even if that means destroying her former benefactors.

And so she spoke. They can run they will likely never return. The Emperor may flee if he had lost all hope, but for herself, she will conquer or die.

The men who ruled an Empire were shamed before a woman, a former dancer and actress, by many accounts a former whore as well. Recovering his courage, Justinian ordered Belisarius and a troop of Goths and Mundus with a contingent of Herulians to storm the Hippodrome and end the revolt. The soldiers made it through the streets and reached the Hippodrome. Belisarius and his men slipped through the western gate and Mundas and the Herulians entered through the Deadman’s Gate and both troops launched themselves against the rebels.

The crowd massed inside the arena was huge, vastly outnumbering their attackers, but these were trained soldiers, armed with sword, shield, and spear and wearing full armor. The rebels wore nor armor, and if they carried weapons, these were nothing more than knives or clubs. German barbarians had been chosen because they were foreigners from distant lands and felt no kinship for the citizens of the capital. The Goths and Herulians didn’t spare the rebels, not even when they begged to surrender and at least thirty thousand were slaughtered. The revolt was crushed and Justinian’s throne was saved.

Sultans, Red Weddings, and Stern Measures

Sultans, Red Weddings, and Stern Measures


Hard men are sometimes called upon to do distasteful things that the soft and foolish reprehend as treacherous and cruel. Tywin Lannister encouraged Walder Frey to murder guests he’d taken under his own roof and with whom he’d broken bread. Within his own circle, he was unapologetic:

Explain to me why it’s nobler for ten thousand men to die in battle than for a dozen to be killed at dinner.

He’d committed an outrage against all the laws of gods and men, something abominable and unforgivable, but in so doing he’d taken a few lives to save many. In fairness, he was not so disingenuous as to claim he’d been moved by tenderness. He went ahead with an atrocity to end a war and strike down foes that were a grave threat to his family. He didn’t care about the fate of foot-soldiers, either his or the Starks. He did care about the survival of his house and his heirs. His daughter and grandson may gloat but he remained grim, understanding that odium will always attach itself to such treachery but still willing to bear that odium.

There is a dour altruism in paying an awful price to buy life and peace, but that altruism is merely folly if the price doesn’t yield the projected return. The blood is spilled and the price is paid irrevocably and finally; the blessings, however, are all to follow. Will they follow?

The object was to teach his enemies a lesson. Let the Northerners remember what happens when they march against the South. Their failure is assured and the penalties will be dreadful. The induction should be simple and obvious, but different minds may trace the same premises to very different conclusions. In reviewing their disasters and defeats, even the downtrodden will find some excuse, some extenuation, and they are sure that one small correction will lead to victory and the retrieval of their fortunes.

If the vanquished owe their defeat to being outwitted or betrayed, if they can ascribe their failures to bad luck, they will easily convince themselves that this time they’ve learned, this time they won’t make the same mistakes, this time they will win. Only the most daunting and inarguable arithmetic can surely and perpetually dismay a defeated yet still formidable foe that further resistance is futile. Only if they see that they must pit hundreds against thousands, knives against guns, boys against men, will they submit.

Tywin seeks to inflict suffering and loss so bitter that his foes will never dare to face him or his again. Yet men and women feel fairness and unfairness more keenly than good or ill. A solitary animal will want a warm, dry den and a full belly but a social animal will compare his lot with his fellows. Men and women are social animals not solitary ones, and while they want comfort, pleasure, and nourishment, they want to have their due share of these even more. If they have food and shelter, they will still be dissatisfied if others have more for no good reason. They will readily lose some if their rivals lose more.

No true utilitarian can ever be envious but human beings are envious. In our depths, we are more envious than we are covetous. We want more, but we also want our neighbors to have less. If we harbor such rancor for our neighbors what may we be willing to suffer to harm our enemies? We will plunge down into perdition if we can drag those we hate down with us. The winds in Europe blow from west to east, but in the First World War it was the Germans who first unleashed poison gas. Stymied and furious, and giving no thought what they were bringing down on themselves, they broke open the pestilential vials and the cloud of poison crawled over to the French lines. The Allies had hesitated to use so noxious a weapon, but the barrier had fallen, the seal was broken, and from then on, the winds wafted their own deadly clouds into the strongholds of the Germans and held the enemy poison off.

To a rational mind it is the numbers that tell. Poets and boys may want to festoon war with nonsense like honor, but that’s like frilling iron with lace. Shrewd men, hard men, know that it’s resources and money that win wars. Yet to go to war is in itself irrational. Whether it’s because they’re deluded, foolish, or just spiteful, men will hurl themselves to destruction against all odds and all reason. We are too mad and too unpredictable to be so easily cowed or predicted.

It was customary among the Ottoman Turks for the Sultan who’d just taken the throne upon the death of his predecessor to execute every other claimant. These murders were lamentable but they were preferable to the civil wars that would have resulted from the contention of several aspiring Sultans. This custom sacrificed fewer than a dozen to save thousands.

This purge followed every accession and so it came to be anticipated. Mustapha, the presumed successor to Suleiman, the greatest of all the Sultans that had come before and who came after, had been borne by his favored concubine Gulbehar. Yet despite her proven fertility and long-standing affection, she was ultimately replaced in the Sultan’s heart by a newcomer named Roxelana. Roxelana had two sons of her own with Suleiman and she knew that when he died and Mustapha took the crown, they both were doomed. If they were to live, Mustapha must die. Sharing Suleiman’s bed and his counsels, she had many opportunities to bring the father to fear the son as a usurper.

Old and infirm, Suleiman had remained behind in the capital while Mustapha led the armies. As they lay together, Roxelana murmured to him of Mustapha’s great ability and popularity with the troops. Suleiman’s Vizier, a man Roxelana had raised to power, seconded her warnings and reported that the soldiers were more than ready to cast off a Sultan who could barely mount a horse and kept to his seraglio with one much younger, stronger, and already with them in the field. Suleiman became fearful and wondered why Mustapha would squander the most promising seasons of his reign waiting for his aged father to die on his own when his rule might begin at once.

Roused to action, Suleiman gathered a host and set forth. He made camp at Eregli and summoned his son and heir. Mustapha’s friends and followers begged him not to go but he answered that if he were to lose his life he can do no better than give it back to him from whom he’d received it. He obediently went to his father’s pavilion where he was met instead by three mutes with bowstrings and strangled.

Since it had become plain that the question of the succession was to be decided while the Sultan yet lived, Roxelana’s two sons were soon battling. They fought and the cruel and debauched Selim triumphed over the amiable and capable Bayezid. The decision of battle had awarded the throne to Selim and for the peace of the Empire, Bayezid had to die. The fugitive had taken refuge in the court of the Shah of Persia, and after extended negotiations, Suleiman was obliged to pay his arch-enemy an enormous sum for the privilege of executing his own son.

Beethoven, Pluratch, and the Status of the Artis

Beethoven, Pluratch, and the Status of the Artis


There are some significant passages at the beginning of Plutarch’s Life of Pericles.

`Nay, many times, on the very contrary, when we are pleased with the work, we slight and set little on the workman or artist himself, as for instance, in perfumes and purple dyes, we are taken with the things themselves well enough, but do not think dyers and perfumers otherwise than low and sordid people.

And a little further on:

Nor did any generous and ingenuous young man, at the sight of the statue of Jupiter at Pisa, ever desire to be a Phidias, or on seeing that of Juno at Argos, long to be a Polyclitus, or feel induced by his pleasure in the poems to wish to be an Anacreon or Philetas or Antilochus.

For Plutarch and his age, the creator of the beautiful was a mechanic, fellow to Snug the joiner, Quince the carpenter, and Bottom the weaver. However lovely his handiwork, he was simply a drudge, albeit a skillful drudge. The highest and the only truly worthy object of human reason was a political and military career. The noblest spirits were those that advanced their state in preeminence and power. The hero exerted himself for his own tribe, city, or country. Everything he accomplishes was in spite of other tribes, cities, or countries and he could only succeed by the defeat of these competitors. The aim was for the enrichment and the security of the state. He can win victories in the field, bring back spoils from other lands, foil enemies foreign and domestic, and safeguard public virtue. An advancement of all humanity together was never imagined. Hesiod’s fives ages of mankind ran from good to bad. Every change was a fall into something worse and the ideal constitution was one that was immutable. Lycurgus made a constitution for Sparta and having drawn from the citizens a vow never to change it until his return, he went off and starved himself to death. Wholesale change could end only in broils and disorders.

For our own age, Brasidas, Lysander, and Demetrius the Besieger are not considered particularly admirable yet we do concede their martial and organizational abilities. Pericles is esteemed not because he made war on Sparta but because he made Athens beautiful. It is the Parthenon not the Peloponnesian War that is his legacy. If the Age of Pericles was Ancient Greece at its height, Phidias was its pinnacle.

Beethoven may have been the idol of Romanticism but he was ever a child of the Enlightenment. For the Greeks and Romans, genius was a tutelary and personifying spirit, an effulgence of a man’s talents and destiny. However bright, it was still his own, his representation, a shadow of light not of darkness. The Romantics made it not a personification of an extraordinary individual’s capacity, but that capacity itself. And it was no longer simply his, but something beyond merely human, something preternatural in its origins and its reach. It was a channel to the very Godhead. If Plutarch denigrated the artist in a manner that sounds crass and boorish to our ears, Romantic adulators like Bettina Brentano lifted them up above our mortal sphere. Fraulein Brentano’s two greatest idols were Beethoven and Goethe and she imparted to posterity an intriguing anecdote about her two demigods.


As they were walking together, Beethoven and Goethe crossed paths with the empress, the dukes and their cortege. So Beethoven said to Goethe: Keep walking as you did until now, holding my arm, they must make way for us, not the other way around. Goethe thought differently; he drew his hand, took off his hat and stepped aside, while Beethoven, hands in pockets, went right through the dukes and their cortege, barely miming a saluting gesture. They drew aside to make way for him, saluting him friendlily. Waiting for Goethe who had let the dukes pass, Beethoven told him: I have waited for you because I respect you and I admire your work, but you have shown too great an esteem to those people.

This story is most likely apocryphal, but in its etymology apocryphal means revealing. And this little incident, fictitious or factual, is revealing. While Beethoven may not have in fact spoken these words, he almost certainly would have agreed with them. He set a great store by himself and his gifts, but this regard also imposed tremendous demands upon him. His talent was a solace and a joy, but never an entitlement, and it was equally a burden and a duty. As a child of the Enlightenment he believed that progress was possible. He believed in its possibility and he looked for its realization. In the French Revolution, he felt that he was witness to the fulfillment of these hopes. The Revolution plunged into slaughter and horror and it seemed that Plutarch was vindicated. In Napoleon, Beethoven and his fellow horrified yet still hopeful dreamers believed that they’d witnessed the end of the Revolution and the beginning of something new and better. The Revolution had been an ending, a tearing down, and that sad chapter was now closed. A new chapter is now opened and a new order is now established upon the earth. Napoleon takes power, there is peace in the streets, bread in the shops, a better code of laws in the books, and reforms that had baffled generations pushed through in the blink of an eye.

In another probably apocryphal anecdote, Beethoven had named his Third Symphony the Bonaparte Symphony, but when Napoleon had himself crowned emperor, he struck off the title and renamed it the Eroica. He renounced the constant for the variable. Political office isn’t needed to advance the cause of humanity and in Metternich’s Vienna it seems rather an opportunity as well as an injunction to arrest it. It is the creator not the ruler who will lead. He still believed in progress and he was convinced that his music and Goethe’s and Schiller’s poetry could light the way for everyone. From nearly the beginning of his career he’d dreamed of doing something grand with Schiller’s Ode to Joy and in his Ninth Symphony, he realized that ambition. Goethe, Schiller, and he were the explorers, plunging ahead into the promised land. The scouts will return and recount the wonders they have seen and they will guide kings, prime ministers, princes, dukes, farmers, midwives, fishermen, children, and even emperors across the Jordan.

Croesus; or that Men are not to Judge of our Happiness until Death

Croesus; or that Men are not to Judge of our Happiness until Death


Herodotus tells the story of Croesus king of Sardis, and of how he hosted Solon and fought Cyrus. Solon the Athenian was touring Asia and since he had so great a reputation for wisdom, King Croesus was eager to have him as his guest and to impress him with his hospitality and munificence. Solon was invited into the king’s palace and ate at the king’s table. Solon had seen the king’s great hall and eaten of his sumptuous food, but not content with this, Croesus ordered that he be taken through his treasure house so that he may see his mountains of gold and his chests of jewels. Confident that the Athenian had been awed by the luxury he’d tasted and the riches he’d seen, he asked him who of all the men he’d met, he considered the happiest. Solon didn’t hesitate and he named an Athenian, not nearly as rich and powerful as Croesus, a man respected but not renowned and unknown outside of Athens. The king asked why, and Solon answered that while he lived his country flourished, that he was the father of healthy and virtuous children, and that he died gallantly on the field of battle. This wasn’t what Croesus had wanted to hear but he tried once more, and he asked who was next happiest after Tellus. Solon named two more Greeks of no great wealth or worldly importance for very similar reasons. Unable to hold back his anger, Croesus reminded him that he was a great king and the ruler of many nations, and asked why he should be set below obscure commoners. Solon answered that the powers above are fond of humbling the high and mighty, and many who had enjoyed wealth, luxury, and fame, are brought down and stripped of all these things to die in poverty and anguish. The men he’d named had died as contentedly as they’d lived and were beyond the buffets of fortune.

Croesus was displeased with this answer and, taking Solon to be an impertinent, envious scoundrel, he was very glad when he departed his kingdom. Not long after, the kingdom of Persia was growing powerful, conquering and absorbing other lands around it. Croesus wondered if he should check and overthrown the Persians before they grew so strong that they became unstoppable. After a gift to the oracle of Delphi of two huge and costly bowls, one of gold and one of silver, Croesus sent messengers asking if he should make war on the Persians. The oracle answered that if he attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire. Croesus was greatly encouraged by this reply, and didn’t consider that there were two sides to this prediction. Certain that if he attacked, he was to prevail, he went to war. The two kingdoms mustered great armies and they clashed at the banks of the Halys River. The armies fought to a bloody draw and withdrew. Croesus sent his forces into winter quarters, as was traditionally done, but Cyrus, king of the Persians, kept the field and coming against the Lydians unprepared, he overcame them.

Croesus had begun the war and he had lost it. Cyrus ordered him, as the aggressor to be burned alive, but on the pyre with the flames crackling at his feet, Croesus called to Apollo and the god sent a rain which put out the fire. Croesus was saved from the flames, but his wife had killed herself and his kingdom was lost. In his distress he groaned aloud, “O Solon! Solon! Solon!” Cyrus heard this and wondered at whom the prisoner was invoking so dolefully. When the interpreters explained to him the whole story of Solon’s warning and the oracle’s prophecy, the Persian was so moved by the fall of a fellow monarch that he ordered him released and made Croesus one of his most trusted counselors.

An improbable tale, but a picturesque and moving one, and one by which the Greeks and Romans set great store. They myths and legends of the Greeks and Romans abound with tales like this, about the mighty and the seemingly blest, who suffer terrible reverses and die in misery. This is only to be expected. The world takes little account of the sufferings and hardships of the struggling farmer, the widow, the orphan, and the beggar, and when they succumb to adversity and perish, little account is taken of their end. In their miserable condition, the poor and the friendless have not far to fall, and their final descent lacks the contrast of those hurled headlong from glory down to perdition and ruin. The fall of kings and archangels is far more compelling than the last flickerings and gutterings of the wretched.

Yet the ancients held that there was great wisdom in Solon’s injunction. Centuries later, Montaigne was inclined to agree with them.

That the very felicity of life itself, which depends upon the tranquility and contentment of a well-descended spirit, and the resolution and assurance of a well-ordered soul, ought never to be attributed to any man till he be seen to play the last, and doubtless, the hardest act of his part. There may be disguise and dissimulation in all the rest: where these fine philosophical discourses are only put on, and where accident, not touching us to the quick, gives us leisure to maintain the same gravity of aspect; but, in this last scene of death, there is no more counterfeiting:

The Neo-Platonic assumption is to be marked, that whether well or ill descended, our soul, imprisoned as it is in the flesh, is nothing more than a sojourner in this unhappy world. Therefore, it is in the release of this soul from its material bondage that the greatest truth is to be found. If we hold that our term on earth is a durance in a gross and alien realm, then it is only upon the freedom found in the destruction of our incarnate prison that our real nature is seen. This fixation with death and the end of life only makes sense if it comes from this disgust with the material world.


A utilitarian along the line of Bentham will confer equal weight upon the beginning, middle, and the end of life. Sliding the beads of his abacus back and forth, he will add up the pains and pleasures of each stage of the journey. However sudden, violent, and appalling, the agonies of the very last hours will be outweighed by the countless felicities that came in the many decades before. The events just before death are no more meaningful than those of the middle, and the bliss of the very first days of life means every bit as much as the anguish of its end.

We may shrink from declaiming all of life nothing more than a sham, while also not wishing to resort to an accountancy that turns life into a ledger of pain and pleasure. There is truth in tragedy. Our lives may not be nothing more than a gross illusion, but a present happiness, while not simply a figment, may be based upon a cracked foundation. In Shakespeare, the tragic hero will prosper in spite of a tragic flaw which will ultimately destroy him. His happiness is real but it is also doomed. Croesus in his pride refused to heed the warning of Solon, and he failed to see that the oracle was referring to him not as a conqueror but as a victim of his own intransigence. In Shakespearian and in Greek tragedy, the hero is doomed but in Aeschylus and Sophocles it is fate which is his undoing. His fall is written in the stars while in Shakespeare the fatal words are written in his heart and mind. Whether within or without, the end is already written: Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.