The Deadliest Sports Riots of All Time Almost Brought Down an Empire

The Deadliest Sports Riots of All Time Almost Brought Down an Empire

William McLaughlin - October 3, 2017

Imagine the Byzantine Empire, one of the most powerful empires in world history at the time, being brought down by a riot. Not just any riot either, the Nika riots weren’t about race or class or poverty; they were about a chariot race. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed and a huge portion of the great city of Constantinople was destroyed.

It is easy to look back and see the Byzantine Empire as weak at times, especially given that a Crusader army made a sort of improvised assault and took their capital, they were a weak and sad state when the Ottomans finally ended their empire, and they frequently had to pay off invaders or hide behind their walls.

But the Byzantines were among the most powerful and stable empires of the middle ages if we look over their whole history and account for their position as an economic powerhouse. So when we look at the Nika riots, it is important to note that they happened during the reign of Justinian the Great, the Emperor who, with the help of Belisarius, would bring the empire to its greatest extent. This makes the Nika riots more impressive, as the course of history would have been radically different had the riots ended differently.

Chariot Races: The World Cup, Super Bowl, and Stanley Cup Rolled Into One

The Deadliest Sports Riots of All Time Almost Brought Down an Empire
With gladiator bouts out of style, the hippodrome became the dominant feature of the city, loved by commoners and royalty alike. Pinterest

People are passionate about sports, occasionally that passion spills out in the form of violence, even with the home team’s victory. It’s bizarre to the non-fan and occasionally ends in senseless tragedy. Just in the last decade, there have been several riots where the death tolls have ranged from about ten to as many as eighty.

The Byzantines in the 6th century CE were no different. Chariot racing was the only sport people really cared about and there were only four teams. Though they operated a little differently than “teams” in the modern sense, the Yellow, Red, Blue, and Green factions were the standard of the day, but at the time almost all the fans were devoted to either Blue or Green. More than just teams, they were almost like political parties mixed with gangs, affecting policy in the empire and holding huge sway with the common people, doling out charity and murder where it suited their interests.

The Deadliest Sports Riots of All Time Almost Brought Down an Empire
With room for 100,000 people, Chariot races practically made the rest of the capital city a ghost town. Pinterest

Cheating, mainly sabotaging an opponent’s chariot, was fairly common and not despised as long as the cheater didn’t get caught. This led to spectacular chariot failures during the races and deaths occasionally occurred. It’s easy to see how such a violent and exciting sport could incite a riot in the fans. And indeed, small riots often occurred, with the occasional death and the execution of those deemed responsible.

The Deadliest Sports Riots of All Time Almost Brought Down an Empire
Mosaic of Justinian. Wikipedia

Young Emperor and an Empire Full of Troubles

While the Byzantine Empire was still one of the more powerful empires of the day, it still had problems. Justinian had bold plans to reclaim the fallen Western Empire, including Italy and Africa. He was also an ambitious builder, starting construction on numerous forts around the Empire and within Constantinople. Lastly, Justinian combined multiple aging and struggling law systems into one unified body of civil law.

While we remember Justinian as one of the greatest Emperors the Byzantines had, his plans nearly bankrupted the empire early on. his focus on western conquests led to losses in the east and a humiliating peace that had the Empire paying tribute to the Persians. While being codified, the new law system was quite chaotic, needing several years to become implemented.

A Day at the Races and a Population Ready to Erupt

While Justinian had always been a fan of the Blues, he made attempt to distance himself when he became emperor. In previous races, there had been murders as part of a smaller riot. Members of both the Blues and the Greens were found guilty of using the riots as cover for some of the murders.

The men were sentenced to be hanged, absolutely normal for the period, but the public rose up and demanded that the men of the popular teams be pardoned. Justinian had three choices; pardon the men and seem weak, but placate the mob for the moment, go forward with the executions and solidify his authority early in his reign, or delay any action and create a restless and angry mob. Justinian chose the third option and postponed any action.

The Deadliest Sports Riots of All Time Almost Brought Down an Empire
This map shows how the palace complex was directly connected to the hippodrome. Wikipedia

As plans went ahead for a new race, something unusual happened; fans and members of the staunchest of rivals, the Blues and Greens, united in hatred of Justinian. During the races, the excitement and anger grew until shots of “Nika!”, meaning conquer or win, filled the air as a signal to essentially overthrow Justinian. Close to 100,000 people in the massive stadium turned into a violent mob and suddenly the palace, connected to the Hippodrome, was under siege.

A Defining Moment and Theodora’s Empire-saving Words

Seeing practically his whole capital revolt against him, Justinian was understandably shaken. Members of the nobility were also on the side of the rioters, hoping to usurp Justinian and place Hypatius on the throne, a nephew of a former emperor. Fires quickly ravaged the city, even burning down the main church in the city. Palace guards were on high alert trying to keep hastily armed and foolishly brave citizens from invading the palace.

The Deadliest Sports Riots of All Time Almost Brought Down an Empire
Theodora was perhaps the most impressive empress in the history of the Byzantine Empire. Wikipedia

Justinian and his closest advisors made plans to flee the city simply to survive. Justinian’s wife, Theodora, seemed to be able to see the whole picture and urged her husband to stay. She reportedly said “Royalty is a fine burial shroud”, or something to that effect, likely the words were really added by a later writer, but the general message stayed the same.

Such comments and bravery from Justinian’s younger and passionate wife spurred him to action. Justinian sought the help of his eunuch aide, Narses, and two of his still-loyal generals, Belisarius and Mundus, who would both continue on to amazing battlefield careers.

The Deadliest Sports Riots of All Time Almost Brought Down an Empire
Belisarius was almost entirely responsible for the expanded map at the beginning of this article. Wikipedia

Political Cunning and Ruthless Violence: Crushing the Riots

Narses, as a eunuch, had few ties outside of the royal family, and so could be trusted to enact Justinian’s plans; this trust was a reason why eunuchs often rose to advisory positions throughout antiquity. Narses was given money to bribe the leaders of the Blues. On meeting with the Blue leaders, Narses reminded them that Justinian had always been a fan of their team, and the proposed usurper, Hypatius, was a member of the greens. The Blues were swayed by sound reasoning, not to mention the copious amounts of gold.

The next day, as riots continued and the leaders gathered in the Hippodrome to discuss plans, Belisarius and Mundus secretly marched the most loyal men they could assemble from the army around the massive arena. Suddenly, in the middle of discussions, the members of the Blues marched out of the stadium.

The Deadliest Sports Riots of All Time Almost Brought Down an Empire
The beginnings of the massacre. Pinterest

The members of the Greens and the other rioters barely had time to be confused by this before Belisarius and Mundus swarmed through every possible entrance. The rioters were given no chance to negotiate or prepare for battle. Though many did have weapons of some sort after days of riots, they were no match for armored soldiers with iron discipline.

Tens of thousands were killed in the slaughter. The rebels could only run up the stairs to escape the swords but those who did could only leap to their deaths from the top of the stadium. The royal family surely heard the slaughter and Justinian would have to live with those sounds for the rest of his reign.

30,000 civilians, and likely a few soldiers, were killed and the riots were completely stopped. Hypatius was captured and initially, Justinian had wanted to pardon or simply exile him especially as Hypatius seems to have been an unwilling claimant and simply the crowd’s choice. Again, Theodora stepped in and urged Justinian to execute him. A violent move, it would be a bold statement to the people and officially close the matter of rebellion in the eyes of the surviving populace.

The Deadliest Sports Riots of All Time Almost Brought Down an Empire
The architectural marvel that is the Hagia Sophia rose from the ashes of the Nika Riots. Pinterest

After the riots, Justinian could focus on achieving his goals. While he did nearly bankrupt the empire between his buildings, conquests in the west and tributes to the east, he set the Byzantine Empire up to be a fixture of the middle ages. The iconic Hagia Sophia, still a marvel in modern Istanbul, was built from the ashes of the Nika fires. Theodora also made her mark on history, an uncommon feat for a medieval woman, and the riots were far from the only time she appears in the histories.


Sources For Further Reading:

WBUR – Violence, Sex and Chariot Racing: The Story of The Nika Riots

World History Volume – Belisarius and Mundus: The Great Justinian A.D. 532-565

History Collection – Under Siege! 10 Little Known Battles of the Byzantine Empire

History Collection – The Glorious Rise and Brutal Fall of Constantinople

History Collection – Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History