The Nika Riots
The Nika Riots of 532 AD were an urban rebellion in Constantinople, against Emperor Justinian. They began as sports riots by fans of competing chariot racing teams, but took on political overtones and became an outlet for expressing class and political resentments. By the time they were over, tens of thousands had been killed, and half of Constantinople had been burned to the ground.
Chariot racing was the biggest sporting spectacle in the Roman world, and in Constantinople, the biggest chariot racing teams were the Blues and the Greens. Rooting for a particular team often went beyond simple sporting preference, and became a stand in for expressing class and political identity. Emperor Justinian was a fan of the Blues, so opponents rooted for the Greens.
The teams had associations, or fan clubs, which often became vessels for airing political and social issues for which no other outlet existed. The fan clubs became a combination of sports hooligans, street gangs, and political parties. They frequently sought to influence policy by shouting their views during chariot races, letting the emperor know the popular mood.
In early 532, the Byzantine Empire was seething with resentment over high taxes. Amidst that tension, two members of the Blues and Greens, arrested for murders in a previous riot, escaped and sought sanctuary in a church, where they were protected by a mob. Seeking to diffuse the situation, Emperor Justinian commuted their sentences to imprisonment, but the restive mob demanded an outright pardon.
At the next races held in the 100,000 seat capacity Hippodrome, next to the imperial palace, the crowd began hurling insults at Justinian. Halfway through the race, their cheers changed from the competing “GREENS!“, or “BLUES!” to a unified “NIKA!” – Greek for “victory”, hence the uprising’s name. The crowd then broke out and attacked the imperial palace, besieging it for the next five days.
The rioters went on a rampage in which hundreds were killed, and started fires that grew out of control, and coalesced into a conflagration that burned half the city. Political elites opposed to the emperor steered the rioters into demanding an abdication. Amidst the anarchy, Emperor Justinian prepared to abdicate, but was shamed by his strong-willed wife, Theodora, into manning up, and a plan was hatched to restore the situation.
A eunuch employed by the emperor braved the crowds to enter the Hippodrome, epicenter of the uprising, with a bag of gold. There, he met the leaders of the Blues, reminded them that Justinian was a Blues fan, and bribed them. The Greens were soon stunned when, at a signal from their leaders, the Blues stormed out of the Hippodrome. Before the Greens realized what was happening, thousands of soldiers stormed into the Hippodrome, and began massacring its occupants. By the time they were done, over 30,000 had been killed, and the flames of riot were doused with a river of blood.