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.