Justinian and the Nike Riots

Sam Vancea, Dickson College 2008

In 532 AD the Emperor Justinian saw the outbreak, in Constantinople itself, of the first and last popular challenge to his leadership. The unrest, known as the nikeriots, began as a minor disturbance between rival factions at a chariot race in the Hippodrome. Aggravated by political undertones, the disturbance escalated when rival supporters took to the streets, attacking each other and destroying public structures. Although Justinian is generally regarded as a highly effective emperor, the violence of 532 seems to have been largely the result of his mismanaged administration, which left many of his citizens and senators looking to revolt. It was no surprise that a revolt would begin at the legendary hippodrome of Constantinople, as the influence and power of its Green and Blue factions went far beyond chariot racing and the area had become a focal point for political opinion. In the weeks leading up to the riots the factions united, demanding mercy for two of their own who had been sentenced to death. Justinian, who had always favoured the Blues in his uncle’s reign, acted with a ruthless policy of impartial discipline which merely fueled the riots. As the riots spread, the demands of the rioters increased, revealing aristocratic influence. Beginning as simply mercy for the two men the riots quickly turned into a call for the replacement of Justinian himself. Justinian’s attempts to restore order were fruitless at best and at worse inflammatory. Finally, after at first considering flight, Justinian was convinced to remain in his capital and orders were given to crush the riot by force.

The government of Justinian, particularly his selection of unpopular administrators, had essentially created unrest among both poorer Romans and aristocrats. Justinian’s war with Persia had been costly, and these expenses had been handed to his subjects in the form of heavy taxation. In response, many of the disenfranchised victims of the taxes had flocked to the capital (Bury, p 42). During the riots it was revealed that public blame for the taxes was generally levelled at Justinian’s administrators. The first such administrator was the highly efficient Tribonian, credited with the first draft of the famed Justinian Code. Among the discontented people of Constantinople, however, he was perceived to be corrupt and therefore extremely unpopular. The second was John the Cappadocian, a man regarded as the 'taxman of the empire', and therefore responsible for the high taxes. Justinian had also made enemies among the aristocrats and senators. The emperor had begun a gradual shift to autonomy that had stripped power from the senate, and this, coupled by his illegitimacy as being the son of a peasant, sparked discontent. Through his poor management, Justinian can be seen as responsible for the long-term causes of the unrest in Byzantium. The emperor’s strategies for governing the Roman empire - heavy taxation, despised administrators, and the shift to autonomy - had negatively affected the empire’s internal stability, and eager therefore to voice this unrest, citizens would meet at their single outlet for political dissention - the Hippodrome.

The spectacles and chariot races held frequently at the Hippodrome had become the sole medium for the city’s masses to voice political opinions, and in the case of the Nike revolt, act on them. In fact the Hippodrome, since the previous emperor, Anastasius, had abolished all theatre spectacles, now provided the people of Constantinople as the only opportunity to voice criticism directly to the emperor and expect a response. All events in the giant Hippodrome were dominated by two powerful and influential factions, the Greens and the Blues, with all participants, rich or poor, belonging to either party. The influence of these factions went far beyond chariot racing. Backed by powerful nobles, the factions took on the role of political parties and were unafraid to voice religious and political opinions. The extent of the influence of the aristocrats who funded the races, many of whom disliked Justinian, is unknown, though the events of the riots reveal a high level of control. Procopius wrote of the factional loyalty in Constantinople: "The population in every city has for a long been divided into two groups, the Greens and the Blues…the members [of each faction] fight with their opponents…respecting neither marriage nor kinship nor bonds of friendship, even if those who support different colors might be brothers or some other kind of relatives." (Procopius) Despite their considerable influence, the Hippodrome factions kept each other in check through their strong rivalry. The Blues were supported by Justinian and sat opposite his imperial box, and the Greens, supported by a greater number of aristocrats, opposite them. The faction-dominated Hippodrome provided a place for anonymous citizens to voice their grievances, though it was also a place ripe for aristocratic manipulation, and days before the revolt broke out the Hippodrome unsurprisingly became very politically active.

The turbulent events shortly before the riots were a clear cause, though the actions of Justinian and his subordinates served only to inflame the situation. In the weeks before the main riots began, several smaller riots marked the beginning of the violent unrest of the weeks to follow. Constantinople’s Prefect Eudaemon made arrests and held an inquiry, finding seven rioters guilty of murder and sentenced them to death. When the day of the executions came, the hangman blundered and two of the men, a Green and a Blue managed to escape and take refuge in the Church of St. Laurentius. Then Eudaemon, showing no mercy to either the men or their numerous sympathises, sent soldiers to surround the church. As per custom, the Ides of January fell on Tuesday three days later and races were held at the Hippodrome with Justinian present. Here, both factions, "declaring a truce with each other" (Procopius), offered loud appeals and prayers to the emperor to show mercy to their fellow faction members. Justinian gave no response and by the twenty-second race someone called out "long live the humane Greens and Blues!" (Bury p 40) Now instead of Greens opposing Blues the two were one mob and, "now the watch-word of which the populace passed to one another was Nike" which meant 'conquer'. Next, the rioters took to the streets and, "Fire was applied to the city as if it had fallen under the hand of an enemy" (Procopius). Justinian and Eudaemon’s failure to agree to the peoples’ demand for mercy saw the riot escalating into a full scale revolt which directly threatened the emperor, his people, and the city itself.

As the violence raged and many buildings put to the torch, Justinian, though at first taking refuge in his palace, made attempts to end the violence by bowing to the crowd’s wishes, though it became clear the revolt had changed form and that approach would no longer be effective. In accordance with their original grounds for dissent, the united Green-Blues gathered at the Praetorium on the first evening and demanded the prisoners be released. Eudaemon offered no answer so the angry mob attacked the garrison and released the prisoners themselves, burning several buildings as they did. Here, according to Procopius, the riot took on a new form. With their initial objectives completed the mob had more demands: three unpopular officials were to be dismissed. After a failed attempt to renew the races the day after the riots, Justinian heard the demands and agreed to replace Tribonian, Eudaemon and John the Cappadocian. It would seem these actions should have satisfied the factions but the riots continued. Reasons for this were that country folk, ruined by Justinian’s administration, had flocked to the capital city seeking justice. But also, and far more dangerously for the emperor, it was a sign that the revolt was now firmly in the hands of powerful discontented senators seeking to overthrow Justinian (Bury, p 42). The emperor’s attempts to restore order by force were futile, though this was because his palace guards and other peacekeeping forces felt no personal loyalty to him and were largely unwilling to offer support, deciding instead to await events in the palace. On the first Sunday since the outbreak of violence, Justinian came before the mobs with a copy of the Gospels. He swore upon the holy book that he would listen to his people’s demands. But the crowd responded with “long live Hypatius” (Bury, p 44) the former emperor’s nephew. This demand threatened Justinian’s throne. Once he saw the extent of the rioting, Justinian made anxious attempts to cede to the rioters demands and this would have probably brought and end to the violence had it not been hijacked by powerful aristocrats bent on Justinian’s destruction. This being said, however, Justinian’s actions during the riots could also be seen as inflammatory.

Justinian’s attempts to please the factions were unfortunately fruitless, but this can be at least partially explained by some of his poor decisions during the revolt. Possibly on Thursday Justinian sent forth a small force of Goths to suppress the riots. After a pitched battle with the rioters, it was clear the Goths were too few to defeat the factions and withdrew, leaving the crowd even more hostile to Justinian (Gout). Later, on the night before Justinian appealed to the crowd with the Gospels, the emperor became very suspicious of the senators who were taking sanctuary with him. Fearing internal treachery, Justinian ‘bade them to quit the palace instantly’ (Procopius). Then when several questioned his decision he made the grave mistake of dismissing them,. Many then went to bolster the rebel’s ranks. Among the dismissed was Anastasius’ nephew, Hypatius, whom the mob rushed to and hailed as the new emperor. The next day the situation had become so desperate, the factions held council to discuss whether or not to attack the palace immediately, and Justinian had so far failed to do little but exasperate the revolt.

Faced with a burning capital, and the futility of his previous actions, Justinian opted to subdue the rebellion with his battle-hardened military, but to remain in the capital and not flee was famously not his idea. As the largely senatorial council of the rioters deliberated about whether to attack the palace, Justinian and many of his advisers, including John the Cappadocian and Belisarius, considered flight by sea. This course may have been adopted if it was not for the Empress Theodora, who proclaimed in a famous speech; "My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight…consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. For as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud." (Theodora, recorded by Procopius) This could well have been what convinced the emperor and his men to remain and face the rioters as Procopius, the contemporary writer on the Revolt, writes of the influence Theodora held over Justinian in another work of his, Secret History.

Resolved to crush the riot by force, Justinian ordered a two-part plan. Narses, a loyal eunuch, was sent to sow dissention among the rioters, using bribes to remind the Blues of their rivalry with the Greens and of their former support of the emperor (Bury p 47). Next, Belisarius and Mundus moved into the Hippodrome with a force of battle-hardened soldiers and attacked the rioters, who offered little resistance. In his history, Procopius gives an approximation of the number of rioters killed by Belisarius as thirty thousand. Possibly explaining this high number is first, the legendary size of the Hippodrome: over four hundred metres long and capable of holding thirty thousand people in its stands alone (Sultanahmet). Second, Constantinople was the most populated city of the era; with an estimated population in Justinian’s time of somewhere between /"160000 and 192000" (JSTOR). After hearing Theodora’s appeal, and failing all his attempts to end the revolt bloodlessly, Justinian ordered his generals to coordinate an attack that met little resistance.

The Nike revolt that left half the Imperial City in ruin was a popular uprising that eventually aimed to overthrow the reigning emperor Justinian. The emperor, as a result of his management; high taxes, unpopular ministers and movement toward autocracy, suffered unrest among his subjects and senators. Since all other political outlets were abolished, people would meet at the aristocrat influenced Hippodrome and, aligned to either the Green or the Blue faction, voice dissentions. As tensions grew and minor rioting began, Justinian showed no mercy to the arrested, and this brought about the beginning of the Revolt. During the riots, Justinian’s actions were a mixture of fruitlessly ceding to the crowds wishes, a crowd clearly hijacked by aristocratic enemies, and making things worse through ineffective violence and dismissals. In the end it was Theodora that convinced him to crush the riots, which he did ruthlessly and effectively. Overall, Justinian was responsible for the causes of the riots, and though he made genuine attempts to end the violence once they were underway, this was unsuccessful as the revolt was in the hands of rival senators that largely disliked Justinian - as a direct result of his polices that sapped them of power. Instead, his decisions during the violence largely made things worse. Ultimately, Justinian’s mistakes before and during the Nike Revolt could have easily cost him his throne, and would have had it not been for Theodora and his loyal generals and assistants.



Bury, J. B., History of the Later Roman Empire Vol. II

Loverance, Rowena 1988 Byzantium, British Museum, Great Britain

Procopius 1966 (translated in 1966, written in about A.D. 500), The Secret History, Penguin Classics, Great Britain

Sherrard, Philip 1967, Byzantium, Great Ages of Man, Time Life Books, United States


Gout, James, 'The Nike Revolt', Encyclopædia Romana, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/circusmaximus/nike.html

JSTOR, 'Constantinople in the Age of Justinian', http://www.jstor.org/pss/3038988

Procopius, JUSTINIAN SUPPRESSES THE NIKE REVOLT, 532, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/procop-wars1.html

Sultanahmet, Byzantine Empire Hippodrome of Constantinople (video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjrnvDn2tcA