Today in 532, the capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople was convulsed by one of the most violent riots in its history. Known as the Nika Riots, the aftermath represents a major turning point in the development of modern Istanbul.
In an example of the past not being a foreign country, Constantinople supported to major chariot teams known as the Blues and Greens. Part sports organization and political factions, the Blues and Greens reflected the political life of the city with pro and anti imperial factions using the chariot races as an outlet for the often violent passions that dominated daily life in the imperial capital.
A year earlier, in 531, several members of both the Blues and Greens were arrested for murder during an earlier riot (The English Football Fan Association has a few things to learn about the art of sport rioting). Most of the murderers were hanged except for a Blue and a Green who had sought sanctuary in a local church.
At the same time, the emperor Justinian was negotiating a peace treaty with the Persians as well as facing a possible revolt in the city itself. In an attempt to reduce these pressures, Justinian called for a chariot race. By the end of the race, the Blues and Greens had put aside their differences and began shouting Nika (“Win” or “Conquer”) and began a 5 day riot throughout the city, including besieging the palace. Seeing an opportunity, many of the nobles joined the rioters in an attempt to take advantage of the situation.
The riots nearly led to the abdication of Justinian, but his wife Theodora was not about to give up her position without a fight and convinced her husband to stay and face the rioters which he did.
Employing his general Belisarius in a classic case of divide and conquer, the leader of Blues was reminded that the emperor was a supporter and while we’re at it, why are the Blues making common cause with their rivals in the first place. And if this alone was not incentive enough, Belsarius bribed the Blues to cease rioting, leaving the Greens at the mercy of the imperial troops. Needless to say, very little mercy was given and it is estimated that approximately 30,000 people were executed. In addition to the loss of life, nearly half of the city was burned to the ground, including the Hagia Sophia.
While the riots were the largest in the city’s history, the results on the architectural legacy of the city have been longer lasting. With half of the city destroyed, Justinian took advantage of the opportunity to rebuild the city in his own image, especially with the newly rebuilt Hagia Sophia which would a fitting monument not just to the glory of God, but an eternal testament to the power of the state which only a few years earlier had nearly been toppled by a sports riot.