NOTE: When I wrote this I had not yet heard of Robin Pierson’s excellent “History of Byzantium” podcast. You can keep reading this if you like, but I think you’d be better off going and listening to the episode on the Nika Revolt, here, though you should probably start with the episode before it for background. Well, technically you should start with episode 1 of that series, and even more technically you should start with the “History of Rome” podcast, by Mike Duncan, that preceded it, but within reason those two episodes should do.
When Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from his presidential grandeur last February, it happened really quickly. The Euromaidan protests had been going on since November 2013, had graduated to the occasional riot the following month, and by late January the protesters seemed to be camped in Kiev’s Independence Square for the long haul. Then on February 21 Yanukovych signed a deal with the “leaders” of the opposition promising a return to the 2004 Ukrainian Constitution and new elections. The protesters rejected the deal that their “leaders” had negotiated, and the following day Yanukovych’s position collapsed, and he had to flee Kiev. As Josh Marshall says, Yanukovych’s support “melted away” in a matter of hours, and it was probably his decision to sign that Feb. 21 deal with the protest leaders that sealed his fate. Once his backers saw that their leader was trying to cut a deal with his opponents, they all began to look for the life boats.
Today is the 1483rd (sue me) anniversary of an event that could have gone in a very similar direction, but actually resulted in the defeat of the protesters. I’m talking about the Nika Riots in Constantinople in 532, which nearly forced the abdication of Roman Emperor Justinian I. They grew out of the 6th century equivalent of a soccer riot, and Justinian’s hide was saved largely by his wife, Theodora, who refused to abdicate and thus forced him to stand the rioters down. Of course, Justinian’s decision to marry Theodora in the first place may have helped bring the riots about, but on balance I think she comes out of this whole affair in pretty good shape.
Theodora is one of the more notorious women in Roman history. When Justinian found her sometime around 522, she was already famous in Constantinople as a burlesque dancer and prostitute (child prostitute, at least by our standards; she had been a sex worker since her early teens at the latest). Justinian wanted to marry her, but as heir to the Empire he had to get permission from the emperor (his uncle, Justin I) and the empress (his aunt, Euphemia), and that wasn’t immediately forthcoming, allegedly because Euphemia absolutely refused to give her blessing to the match. Euphemia died in 523 or 524, though, and Justin then let the marriage proceed.
Famed Byzantine historian John Julius Norwich writes in A Short History of Byzantium that, although it’s obviously impossible to know what the common residents of the Roman capital felt about Justinian’s socially mismatched choice of wife, “some must have seen it as a disgrace to the Empire.” Others, again per Norwich, may have appreciated the otherwise aloof heir to the throne displaying some human emotion by marrying for what was obviously genuine love (it certainly wasn’t a political match). What probably didn’t strike anybody as appropriate was the fact that, upon assuming the throne at Justin’s death in 527, Justinian and Theodora ruled more or less as equal partners on the throne. Remember how some people reacted in 1992 when Bill Clinton said that America would be getting “two [presidents] for the price of one” if he got elected? It was kind of like that, but worse. Empresses were supposed to be consorts, not co-rulers. To make matters worse, they began to adopt some very unusual (for the Romans) regal practices, like insisting that anyone coming before them prostrate themselves. This kind of affect didn’t sit very well with upper class Romans especially. And on top of that, Theodora was a Miaphysite Christian, part of a branch of Christianity that was popular in the east and in Egypt, but very unpopular in the capital. All in all she was a polarizing figure.
If you know anything about Byzantine history, you know that Justinian is one of the eastern empire’s most celebrated emperors, and that he came closer than any of his successors would in reconquering the western Mediterranean and rebuilding the full Roman Empire. But his first few years on the throne didn’t go so hot. He was saddled with continuing his uncle’s war against the Persians (going to war against Persia — in this case the Sasanians — was a favored pastime of many Roman emperors, and it was frequently a bad idea), which by January 532 was in a stalemate leading to a peace deal that would cost the empire 11,000 pounds of gold in reparations to the Persians. But the immediate cause of the riots was more immediate than that, and one that would seem pretty familiar to a modern observer: overtaxation and resentment among Constantinople’s residents, in particular members of the Senate and of the chariot racing factions.
I’m being pretty literal when I say that the Nika Riots were basically a soccer riot that got out of hand. The main sport back in those days was, as anybody who’s seen Ben Hur could tell you, the chariot races. Racers and their fans were divided into teams, or factions, of which the two biggest by 532 were the Blues and the Greens. Several members of both factions had recently been arrested for various outbreaks of violence after chariot matches, and most of those who were arrested had been executed by January 13. But a couple of them were still alive, and the city was rife with angry demands that they be released. This was the match that lit the fire.
The fuse, though, went deeper than a couple of chariot hooligans. Justinian had appointed two officials to important positions whose actions on the job were beginning to enrage the people of Constantinople:
- John of Cappadocia was Justinian’s Praetorian Prefect, responsible for outfitting the army in the midst of the war with the Persians, and he had instituted a number of new taxes that, surprise, weren’t playing too well with the subjects. Worse, though, was John’s habit of carting anybody he suspected of hiding wealth (to dodge taxes) off to be imprisoned and/or tortured for their crime of, ah, well, maybe nothing; it’s not clear how much evidence of tax evasion John demanded before taking action, if any. His ability to trump up charges against anybody he felt like charging, and then to get Justinian’s permission to pursue those charges, meant that he was the most feared, and hated, man in the city.
- Then there was Tribonian, Justinian’s quaestor (his Attorney General, though this being an empire he was able to make laws as well as enforcing them). Tribonian was already suspect because he wasn’t a Christian, but he also had this habit of, well, making the law up as he went along, mostly in favor of anybody who tossed a few coins his way. The thing was, though, Tribonian knew the law forwards and backwards, and as Justinian was working on a reorganization of the Roman law code, he needed a guy like Tribonian on the payroll to help him accomplish it.
So these two guys were the kindling.
On January 13, Justinian attended a chariot match in Constantinople’s hippodrome. Justinian had arranged the match to quell the simmering hostility over the recent chariot faction arrests and executions, along with an announcement that the remaining prisoners would have their sentences commuted to imprisonment. That turned out not to be enough for the crowds, and may actually have been the kind of “sign of wavering” that begins the collapse of the state (like Yanukovych’s willingness to negotiate). At some point during the afternoon’s races, we’re told that the Green and Blue factions stopped chanting for their particular racers and began chanting “nika, nika” (“victory, victory”) in unison — and they weren’t talking about the racers anymore. The crowd poured onto the streets of Constantinople, stormed the city prefect’s office (to free the prisoners) and John of Cappadocia’s office (to burn it to the ground), and effectively besieged Justinian and Theodora in the palace. The next day, the rioters demanded that John and Tribonian be dismissed and, even though Justinian did what they wanted, they then “enthroned” their own “emperor”: Hypatius, a nephew of Justin’s predecessor, Emperor Anastasius I. Justin had used his post as head of Anastasius’s palace guards to engineer his own succession over the claims of Anastasius’s nephews, so Hypatius did kind of have a beef with Justin’s heir, as well as a legitimate family claim to the throne, but the sources suggest that he was “enthroned” essentially against his will.
The rioting continued for days, until Justinian seems to have believed his situation in the capital was untenable, because the sources tell us that on January 18 he made plans to have his court evacuated. This would presumably have set off a much larger civil war (as it’s unlikely Justinian would have just given up) that could have dealt massive damage to an empire that wasn’t on particularly solid footing (it had only recently lost its western half, was mired in an unwinnable war with the Persians, and was splintering along religious lines over the various disputes about Christ’s true nature). Who’s to say whether Justinian could have This is where Theodora comes in. The best source for Justinian’s reign, Procopius, tells us that she refused to leave the city, asking “how could an Emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive?” Justinian wouldn’t abandon his wife (and her words probably shamed him into staying), so instead he relied on two generals, Flavius Belisarius and Mundus, a German mercenary, to get him out of trouble, as well as an appeal to the most reliable of human foibles: greed.
The mob was big and angry but not organized, so defeating it wasn’t all that difficult for trained soldiers, provided the generals could find some. They were somehow able to exfiltrate themselves out of the city, get to where their troops were encamped, and then lead them back into the city and into the hippodrome. Meanwhile, Justinian sent one of his servants into the hippodrome surreptitiously, to approach the leaders of the Blues and offer them money to turn on the Greens. Hypatius was a Green, apparently, so it didn’t take much to convince the Blues that they were getting the shaft here and that they’d be better off taking the money and getting out of Dodge. They did so, and then the soldiers burst in and started killing everybody, Greens and those Blues who’d remained. As many as 30,000 people were slaughtered.
It’s safe to say that if the rioters had come out on top of this episode, later history in the eastern Mediterranean would have looked very different. As it was, Justinian (a little peevishly if you ask me) reinstated John and Tribonian in their offices, though Tribonian seems to have spent most of his time on the law code from this point on, and John’s ability to institute new taxes seems to have been severely curtailed. Justinian took the opportunity in the chaos after the riots to confiscate a number of wealthy estates in the city, and more importantly the city’s simmering discontent seems to have been broken; the emperor never faced another serious attempt to remove him from the throne. Hypatius nearly got a reprieve from Justinian (recall that he really hadn’t wanted to become the focal point of the revolt), but Theodora wouldn’t hear of it (she contended that as long as he lived he would be a potential source of rebellion), so he was executed. The city was in ruins, and Justinian rebuilt it on a massive, unprecedented scale. Belisarius was one of the most successful generals in Roman history; he led the conquests of Italy, North Africa, and southern Spain that nearly, if only briefly, restored the Empire to its former size and scope. The conquests were almost entirely rolled back during the 541-542 Plague of Justinian, when disease (probably bubonic plague) ravaged the Empire so badly (perhaps as many as 25 million people died from the pandemic in total) that the Germanic tribes in the west were able to regain the territories that Belisarius had won from them. Theodora continued to rule at her husband’s side, and made some significant advances for women like outlawing forced prostitution, making rape punishable by death, and increasing wives’ rights in case of divorce. She died in 548, and Justinian and Belisarius both died in 565. It wouldn’t be much longer before their empire was to lose most of its remaining territory.