The Nika Riots: A Day at the Races Turned Deadly

A Roman chariot race, showing men from two of the four color-themed demes, or associations, that produced the Blues and the Greens. From a poster advertising the 1925 film version of Ben-Hur. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The year was 532 C.E., the palace has been besieged by a people angered by a harsh increase in taxes. The mob was led by senators who saw the event as an opportunity to overthrow a leader who did not support them. Emperor Justinian I was left with the mentality that there was only one way to outlive this assault. Run. For his own safety, he felt he had to flee from the besieged palace, from the angered people, and from those who wish to see him out of power; but then he would have to live the remainder of his life on the run as a fugitive. What would come of this, and how did a day at the races result in an Emperor left with no choice but to flee from his own subjects?

The Emperor Justinian, from a mosaic at Ravenna | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The early days of Justinian’s rule were fraught with major expenses. There was Justinian’s luxurious lifestyle. There was the recent conflict with Persia that cost the realm dearly. There was the monumental construction program started by Justinian to build multiple churches, including a church dedicated to Mary the Mother of God, as well as renovating seven other churches. The construction and rebuilding of these churches already resulted in higher taxes, but it would not be the end of the expensive construction projects. Justinian soon called for the construction of two more churches, in remembrance of martyrs St. Sergius and St. Bacchus.1

While the action of taxing was not uncommon, it was still incredibly unpopular with the people of Byzantium. While the taxes issued by the Emperor were extremely unpopular among the citizens, the attitude was only worsened by the appointment of John of Cappadocia, who was appointed to enforce the taxation on the citizens. He was cruel and was devoid of any social graces. But despite their hatred of John, Justinian only saw him as a superb administrator, and before long John of Cappadocia was promoted to Praetorian Prefect. In his new position, John instituted stringent cuts to the provisioning of the army; he launched a determined campaign against corruption; and he introduced approximately 26 new taxes, which fell harshly on both the rich and powerful upper class, as well as on the poor peasantry. Through his efforts, John was successful in bringing about a better economy for the empire; but unfortunately, his moral depravity got the better of him, and anyone that he believed had hidden taxable wealth or had undeclared riches were arrested, flogged, or even tortured. These actions, as well as his actions in Lydia and in other provinces, resulted in John of Cappadocia being one of the most hated men in the empire, alongside Emperor Justinian I.2

There would be a third man who would join the ranks of John and Justinian and also become one of the most hated men in the Empire. It was the jurist Tribonian, who in 529 C.E. was appointed Quaestor of the Sacred Palace, which is the highest law office in the government. Tribonian was not a Christian and did not follow the same moral codes that Christians upheld, and he was all too ready to sell justice to the highest bidder, for his own personal gain. He was known for repealing certain laws and enacting others that benefitted those who paid him. While Tribonian was corrupt, he was also incredibly charming and was capable of impressing those he came in contact with, especially with his incredible intellect. It was his intellect that caught the attention of Justinian, who at the time was attempting to complete the recodification of Roman Law, and he saw Tribonian as the man capable of assisting him in completing this task. It is undisputed that the corrupt acts of Tribonian and the tyrannous acts of John of Cappadocia were largely responsible for the events that occurred in 532 C.E.3

The actions that were taken by Justinian I, John of Cappadocia, and Tribonian during the early years of Justinian’s reign as emperor led directly to the Nika Riots. Aside from the harsh taxation, corruption, and mistreatment of citizens, there were other causes that contributed to the populace’s dislike of these three men. There were many lost lawsuits that should have been won, and there were many men who were forcibly removed from their political positions by Justinian. But none would be worse for Justinian than his decision to establish a policy that repressed both major factions in the city: the Blues and the Greens. Justinian, who was once heavily supported by the Blues, greatly limited their power and privileges once he felt his position on the throne was secure. These same limitations were also enacted on the Greens. The mistreatment of these factions were festering, and those who were once enemies found themselves on common ground, with a common enemy.4

A map of the palace quarter, with the Hippodrome and the Hagia Sophia | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On the 13 of January in the year 532 C.E., Justinian took his place in his private box overlooking the Hippodrome and gave the signal for the races to begin. His appearance at the Hippodrome was met with an uproar, which was not uncommon, but it would not be long before Justinian realized that this chanting was different from times before. On normal days the crowd would chant ‘Nikā!’ a word of encouragement meaning ‘Win!’ or ‘Victory!’, followed by their favored team, such as “blue” or “green,” but this was not a normal day. On this day the greens and blues were united, and their chants were directed not at each other, but at Justinian. Like a menacing chorus, united they chanted the single word ‘Nikā!’, over and over again. At this moment there were no more teams or factions, there was a single unified voice. It was no longer “blues” versus “greens.” It was the people versus Justinian and his government. While the races commenced, it was expected to bring an end to the tension, but they failed to do so, and by the end of the 22nd race, the frustrated populace poured out of the Hippodrome with one thing on their mind: destruction.5

The rioter’s first of many targets was the palace of the City Prefect Eudaimon, where they murdered the guards who stood in their way. As they stormed the palace of the City Prefect, they released all the prisoners from their cells and set fire to the building. The rioters wreaked havoc through the streets, leaving a trail of burning buildings in their wake. The buildings destroyed by the rioters included the Senate House, the Baths of Zeuxippius and of Alexandria, the churches of St. Irene, and St. Sophia, as well as many others. By the end of the first day of rioting, there were countless buildings that were reduced to rubble and ash. Each passing day for a five-day period new fires were constantly emerging throughout the city, leaving a thick layer of smoke filling the sky.6

On the second day of the riot, the mob returned to the Hippodrome where they demanded the immediate dismissal of the tyrannous John of Cappadocia, the corrupt Tribonian, and the City Prefect Eudaimon. With little hesitation, Justinian, who by this point was seriously concerned for his own well-being, granted these demands at once. As the third day came around, the mob’s anger was not quelled by the removal of these officials, and soon they began demanding a new Emperor. A man named Probus was a favorite of the crowd and was chosen to become the new Emperor. Probus was the nephew of the late Emperor Anastasius and did not wish to become Emperor and soon fled the city. Once the mob realized he was gone, they set fire to his house and continued on their never-ending rampage. Finally, on the 18th of January, Justinian gained his composure and faced the mob in the Hippodrome, in which he proceeded to take the blame for the events of the riot and promised that if they all returned peacefully to their homes, they would not be charged for the damage done to the city. This tactic was not new and had been attempted successfully once before under Emperor Anastasius, but this situation was much more complex and far more serious than that which Anastasius had faced. The crowd erupted with chants and slurs directed towards Justinian resulting in an immediate and hurriedly retreat into the safety of the palace. It would not take long for the rioters to find another replacement for Justinian. The new favorite was a man by the name of Hypatius, who was another nephew of the late Emperor Anastasius. Hypatius was an old man with a distinguished military career. He had no ambitions of taking the throne, and while the mob searched for him, he attempted to hide unsuccessfully. He was discovered and carried shoulder-high back to the Hippodrome, where he was crowned with a golden necklet and seated on the throne.7

As the palace was on the verge of being taken over by force, without resources, and without hope, a desperate Justinian met with his counsel and advisers. His empire was collapsing around him, and death almost certain at the hands of his subjects was drawing near. With the capital city in flames, and with a mob at the Hippodrome triumphantly acclaiming Hypatius and insulting the name of Justinian, Justinian knew his options were limited and as a result, he began making arrangements for himself and his court to flee from the capital at a moment’s notice if the need arose or if he no longer felt he could defend his own life.8 Justinian argued that it was now his moment to flee and that if he did not leave soon, he would surely fall victim to the rioters. Suddenly and without hesitation, Empress Theodora, the wife of Emperor Justinian, intervened. She no longer cared, that as a woman her place was at Justinian’s side and quiet; she no longer cared whether or not it was proper for a brave woman to give counsel to a group of frightened men.9

Empress Theodora, from a mosaic at Ravenna |
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.”10

Theodora alone remained calm while Justinian’s counsel met. Her husband and those in his counsel began to go mad and were desperate to find a way to live another day. After stepping up and giving this moving speech to Justinian and his counsel, her ambition, confidence, and bravery in the face of almost certain death raised her to the stature of heroine. Her stance proved that she was a worthy leader, and much more than just the Empress standing at the side of Justinian. Her words shocked the crowd of men, and as a result, they began to regain their composure. It was agreed that they would cease their discussions of fleeing and that they would overcome this riot through the use of force. Justinian, a man who was once in a fit of panic and fear, a man who was willing to live the remainder of his life on the run, had been put back together by his powerful Empress, and with her strength, they would outlive this. Fortunately for Justinian, two of his best generals were at the palace during this conflict, and ready to step up and take control of the conflict. These two generals were Belisarius and Mundus. The two, along with Justinian, quickly decided on a plan of action. The plan they had concocted included a well-known and liked eunuch who was also one of Theodora’s closest confidants. Narses worked to detach the Blues from the rebellion by persuading them with gold, and was successful in doing so. Narses snuck into the Hippodrome and met with the Blues and informed them that although Justinian had treated them unfairly, he was still a strong supporter of them and that if they continued to take part in the riots, they would be left with Hypatius as emperor, who was a Green and would not support them they way Justinian would. After distributing the gold to Blues’ leaders, Narses reported to one of the exits of the Hippodrome to await the coming onslaught.11

Belisarius and Mundus snuck out of the palace and began to put their plan into action. They began rallying their soldiers and marched to what would be a bloodbath at the Hippodrome. The plan called for a signal, and once that signal was given, both men, along with their soldiers, would burst into the Hippodrome. It did not take long for that signal to be given, and both groups simultaneously burst into the Hippodrome, leaving the mob in shock with little time for reaction. Both Greens and Blues were slaughtered, no one was safe, and no prisoners were taken. Meanwhile, Narses, stationed with his men at the exits of the Hippodrome, were given the order to murder all those who tried to escape. Within minutes, the angry shouts and insults were replaced with screams of terror and the cries of wounded and dying men, soon these screams and cries would also be silenced as the mercenaries stood in the Hippodrome that was now soaked in the blood of 30,000 bodies, finishing off those who remained, and looting the bodies of the dead.12 A trembling Hypatius was arrested and kept alive and was marched to the feet of Justinian. A man who did not wish to be emperor was on his knees in front of an old friend who would determine his fate. Hypatius swore that he did not wish to be emperor, and he in fact told his supporters not to be violent, but to turn themselves in. Justinian responded, “All that may be so. But since you had so much control over these people, you should have exercised it before they set fire to my capital.” Justinian was inclined to be merciful due to the mass amount of deaths that had followed the six-day riot, but that mercy was not shared by Theodora who once again stepped in, and reminded Justinian that although Hypatius was old and not wanting to lead, he was still favored by the people, and his continued existence would only lead to further rebellion. Once again, Justinian followed the advice given to him by his wife, and the following day, Hypatius was executed and cast into the sea.13

These deaths marked the end of the Nika Riots. While Justinian learned from this experience, he was quick to move forward. Within weeks of the riot, Justinian felt confident to reinstate both Tribonian and John of Cappadocia back into their former positions. But he was unwilling to take further risks, and possibly repeat the events of the Nika Riots. While taxation remained the same, it no longer went beyond reason, and the actions that were previously taken by John of Cappadocia were not repeated. But Justinian was not the only one who was affected by this incident. The people were too. After the loss of 30,000 citizens, those who survived were left knowing that Justinian was not a man who would be trifled with, and they were not free to do as they pleased as they had with previous emperors.14

The aftermath of the Nika Riots was unpleasant: 30,000 dead in the Hippodrome with countless more lives lost throughout the six-day revolt, and the capital city in ruins. The cause of such mass death and destruction? An emperor who taxed his people relentlessly, and allowed his appointees to enforce their will on the populace with no consequences, a populace who no longer wished to see such a ruler in office, and an empress whose words and ambitions had an impactful effect on her husband that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands.

  1. John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (Vintage Books, 1997), 62.
  2. John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (Vikings, 1988), 195-196.
  3. John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (Vintage Books, 1997), 63.
  4. John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (Vikings, 1988), 197.
  5. John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (Vikings, 1988), 198.
  6. John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (Vintage Books, 1997), 64.
  7. John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (Vikings, 1988), 198-199.
  8. Charles Diehl, Theodora, Empress of Byzantium (F. Ungar Publishing Company, 1972), 87.
  9. John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (Vikings, 1988), 199.
  10. William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), ???
  11. Charles Diehl, Theodora, Empress of Byzantium (F. Ungar Publishing Company, 1972), 88.
  12. John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (Vikings, 1988), 200.
  13. Charles Diehl, Theodora, Empress of Byzantium (F. Ungar Publishing Company, 1972), 89.
  14. John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (Vikings, 1988), 200-201.

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40 Responses

  1. A well written article worthy of its reward. I find it interesting how both the rich and the poor were affected by the harsh taxation policies of Justinian. I also find it amusing how Justinian turned his back on those who supported him, as I believe that is just asking for a revolt. It’s shocking that 30,000 people died in the riot, dwarfing the number of protests in recent history. I suppose the value of human life, especially those not of noble blood, was a lot lower.

  2. This article was really well written and I learned a great deal. I would agree with these people about getting taxed heavily, I would be angry too. However, it was cool that the rich were getting taxed just as bad plus he was also taking care of corruption in the government. Which was all good until he thought it was a good idea to appoint literally the most corrupt guy possible for law position. Great article though.

  3. Aaron this is a very well-written article with great sources to cover your points. The article is well organized and explains everything in a clear concise way. It’s very cool that you picked a topic that is rarely talked about. It’s insane how many people suffered under Justinian’s rule and how the new tax expenses affected everyone. It was also interesting to read about how people back then protested and how it managed to still be a way to voice your opinion about a government.

  4. A well-written article coving an event I had never heard of. It’s interesting to read about how Justinian alienated those who had once been his allies. Which in turn lead to the unification of both the blues and the greens against him. It’s also interesting to read about how much influence Theodora had over Justinian, considering she was able to talk him into putting down the rebellion.

  5. Very well done with the research on the article! Some may see that these periods of history would’ve been very hard to live in. However, I would say there is little that has changed. There is a lot of wrong being done is such an organized manner that the ones who face the brunt are not paid any heed to. I would say there is a lot that resembles the way the modern world has been structured.

  6. Your article is well written and very interesting. I see many parallel’s throughout history of this event even in our country today. I found the first sentences particularly interesting, “the palace has been besieged by a people angered by a harsh increase in taxes. The mob was led by senators who saw the event as an opportunity to overthrow a leader”, how apropos to the past year. Power struggles remain the same and the average person pays the price. Did the senators leading the mob pay a price? Another observation, those in positions of power both who claimed a religious belief and those who did not abused their positions. I cannot blame the religion or lack thereof, I blame the corruption of the character coupled with power to act out that corruption without consequence. I generally adhere to anything that can better a persons character should be viewed as good for society. Well done in your article to get me thinking like this.

  7. Aaron, this article was a great read. One thing that I was left thinking was that despite all the changes that the world has gone through, some things still just remain the same and one of those that people never underestimate the power of taking it to the streets. The loss of live was tremendous, but in the end the government did learn a lesson to not abuse their power beyond reason and tax fairly. Another unfortunate thing that has persevered throughout history is the abuse of power, especially in nations of transition. I think that when rulers have the chance to abuse power, I think many take it. That is why it is so important that there are key institutions put into place that prevent abuses of power and install accountability.

  8. Extremely well-done Aaron! I had never heard of the Nika Riots before reading this article. It is a shame to see how many people died from a lack of empathy by Justinian and his government. It is interesting to see how people have used forms of protest for hundreds of years as a way to voice their opposition to oppressive governments. We see it continue to happen even today.

  9. It is a shame how our past treated one another, with almost everything being death, torture and such. It would suck to be living in that period over trying to make sure that what you do isn’t a offense to the crown or some person individually. I do understand high taxes was uncalled for and the projects done felt like a lot to do in a time period like such. I do believe Justinian and his government were in the wrong but somehow kept their stay thanks to strategies and such by how they acted at the rival parties they faced.

  10. This does remind me of our political system a bit new taxes for expenses instead of reorganizing existing funds, rules of law being changed to suit those with money and throwing out reasonable cases against them. There are also part that are not like our own, religion doesn’t play as big a role in the government, one doesn’t hold near complete political control with little limits on their power.

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