While Gangs of New York may be a more famous title, the Gangs of Constantinople would make an even more exciting film. While much of history focuses on the architecture and sieges of the city, less often discussed is the fact that the city was home to numerous gangs connected to chariot racing. Political influence and rampant street violence were tied to the groups, in a manner reasonably similar to modern soccer hooliganism.
Two major factions of chariot racing hooligans had developed by the 6th century A.D.: the blues and greens. Much like the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry in baseball, these two factions vehemently opposed each other with feuds often spilling over into violence. However, harsh actions against both gangs by the Emperor Justinian led to a brief truce that united the blues and greens against the empire.
The brief collaboration of the Blues and Greens led to, you guessed it, a sports riot! After some prominent Blues and Greens were executed at Emperor Justinian’s command, the next chariot race saw the two gangs unite to create a disturbance out of the audience in attendance. Senators, unhappy with Justinian, used the chaos as an opportunity to make demands of Justinian, with many hoping to see him toppled as Emperor. The riots are called the Nika Riots due to the chant of “Nika” used by the crowds, which meant victory.
During the height of the Nika Riots, Emperor Justinian was preparing to flee the city to save himself. He knew the mob (and many of the Senators) wanted his head. He may well have escaped, ceding the city and perhaps the empire itself, to an upstart had it not been for his strong and commanding wife, Empress Theodora. She reported told Justinian, “Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress.” These words caused Justinian to stay strong and keep control of the city.
The final challenge to the Byzantine Empire and Christian control of Constantinople came in 1453, at the hands of Sultan Mehmed II. He led a vast army of over 200,000 soldiers and a fleet of at least 100 ships with cannons to besiege the city. Constantinople was greatly outnumbered and lacked the firepower of the Ottoman army.
Despite the superior numbers and firepower, Constantinople was not quick to fall. The city had survived the siege for two months when discontent began to spread among the Ottomans, with Mehmed’s Grand Vizier publicly criticizing the cost of the war effort. Then, a miracle (for the Ottomans) happened: someone left a gate open into the city, allowing the soldiers to walk right in, literally. To this day, historians aren’t sure how or why the gate was left open; if it was a raiding party returning to the city or a repair crew attempting to shore up a door. Regardless of the cause, it was the moment of fatal error that led to the fall of Constantinople.
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