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The Nika Revolt

Violent Uprising in Early Medieval Byzantium

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The Nika Revolt was a devastating riot that took place in early medieval Constantinople, in the Eastern Roman Empire. It threatened the life and reign of Emperor Justinian.

The Nika Revolt was also known as:

the Nika Rebellion, the Nika Uprising, the Nika Riot, the Nike Revolt, the Nike Rebellion, the Nike Uprising, the Nike Riot

The Nika Revolt took place in:

January, 532 C.E., in Constantinople

The Hippodrome

The Hippodrome was the site in Constantinople where enormous crowds gathered to watch exciting chariot races and similar spectacles. Several other sports had been outlawed over the preceding decades, so chariot races were particularly welcome occasions. But events in the Hippodrome sometimes led to violence among the spectators, and more than one riot had begun there in the past. The Nika Revolt would begin and, several days later, end in the Hippodrome.

Nika!

Fans in the Hippodrome would cheer on their favorite charioteers and chariot teams with the cry, "Nika!", which has been variously translated as "Conquer!", "Win!" and "Victory!" In the Nika Revolt, this was the cry the rioters took up.

The Blues and the Greens

The charioteers and their teams were garbed in specific colors (as were their horses and the chariots themselves); the fans who followed these teams identified with their colors. There had been reds and whites, but by the time of Justinian's reign, the most popular by far were the Blues and the Greens.

The fans that followed the chariot teams retained their identity beyond the Hippodrome, and at times they wielded considerable cultural influence. Scholars once thought that the Blues and the Greens each associated with particular political movements, but there is little evidence to support this. It is now believed that the primary interest of the Blues and the Greens was their racing teams, and that occasional violence sometimes spilled over from the Hippodrome into other aspects of Byzantine society without any real direction from fan leaders.

For several decades, it had been traditional for the emperor to choose either the Blues or the Greens to support, which virtually guaranteed the two most powerful teams would not be able to join together against the imperial government. But Justinian was a different breed of emperor. Once, years before he took the throne, he had been believed to favor the Blues; but now, because he wanted to remain above partisan politics even of the most superficial kind, he did not throw his support behind any charioteer. This would prove to be a serious mistake.

The New Reign of Emperor Justinian

Justinian had become co-emperor with his uncle, Justin, in April of 527, and he became sole emperor when Justin died four months later. Justin had risen from humble beginnings; Justinian was also considered by many senators to be of low birth, and not truly worthy of their respect.

Most scholars agree that Justinian had a sincere wish to improve the empire, the capital city of Constantinople, and the lives of the people who lived there. Unfortunately, the measures he took to accomplish this proved disruptive. Justinian's ambitous plans to reconquer Roman territory, his extensive building projects, and his ongoing war with Persia all required funding, which meant more and more taxes; and his wish to end corruption in the government led him to appoint some overzealous officials whose severe measures caused resentment in several levels of society.

Things looked very bad when a riot broke out over the extreme strictures employed by one of Justinian's most unpopular officials, John of Cappadocia. The riot was put down with brutal force, many participants were jailed, and those ringleaders that were captured were sentenced to death. This engendered further unrest among the citizenry. It was in this heightened state of tension that Constantinople was suspended in the early days of January, 532.

The Botched Execution

When the ringleaders of the riot were supposed to be executed, the job was botched, and two of them escaped. One was a fan of the Blues, the other a fan of the Greens. Both were hidden away safely in a monastery. Their supporters decided to ask the emperor for leniency for these two men at the next chariot race.

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