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Nika riots

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Nika riots
DateJanuary 532 CE
Caused bySee causes
GoalsFree demes' leaders, overthrow Justinian
MethodsWidespread rioting, property damage, murder, arson
Resulted inMilitary action by imperial government leading to the escalation and militarization of the riots
Blue and Green demes
Lead figures
Death(s)30,000 rioters killed[1]

The Nika riots (Greek: Στάσις τοῦ Νίκα, romanizedStásis toû Níka), Nika revolt or Nika sedition took place against Byzantine emperor Justinian I in Constantinople over the course of a week in 532 CE. They are often regarded as the most violent riots in the city's history, with nearly half of Constantinople being burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.


The Roman empire had well-developed associations, known as demes,[2] which supported the different factions (or teams) to which competitors in certain sporting events belonged, especially in chariot racing. There were initially four major factions in chariot racing, differentiated by the colour of the uniform in which they competed; the colours were also worn by their supporters. These were the Blues (Veneti), the Greens (Prasini), the Reds (Russati), and the Whites (Albati),[3] although by the 6th century the only teams with any influence were the Blues and Greens. Emperor Justinian I was a supporter of the Blues, although his support for the faction abated as he entered the early years of his reign, taking a more neutral stance as he looked to limit the power of the factions.[4] With rising tensions, one could even argue that striving for impartiality was a more dangerous policy to try and adopt.[4] However, Justinian's previous ardent support of the Blues made him seem less unbiased and contributed to his waning control of the capital leading up to 532.[5]

The demes had become a focus for various social and political issues for which the general Byzantine population lacked other forms of outlet.[6] They combined aspects of street gangs and political parties, taking positions on current issues, including theological problems and claimants to the throne. They frequently tried to affect imperial policy by shouting political demands between races. The imperial forces and guards in the city could not keep order without the cooperation of the factions, which were in turn backed by the aristocratic families of the city; these included some families who believed they had a more rightful claim to the throne than Justinian.[citation needed]

In 531 some members of the Blues and Greens were arrested for murder in connection with deaths during rioting after a chariot race.[7] Relatively limited riots were not unknown at chariot races, similar to the football hooliganism that occasionally erupts after association football matches in modern times. The murderers were to be executed, and most of them were.[8] However, on January 10, 532, two of them, a Blue and a Green, survived execution, escaped and sought sanctuary in a church surrounded by an angry mob.

Justinian was nervous: he was in the midst of negotiating with the Persians over peace in the east at the end of the Iberian War, and now he faced a potential crisis in his city. Therefore, he declared that a chariot race would be held on January 13 and commuted the sentences to imprisonment. The Blues and the Greens responded by demanding that the two men be pardoned. When Justinian refused to listen to their pleas, both factions united under the phrase "Nika" or "conquer" and took to rioting (see Riots for more detail).[9]


A 6th-century head of an emperor at the Getty Villa, thought to represent Justinian
A 6th-century head of an empress at the Castello Sforzesco, thought to represent Theodora

Justinian, along with his prominent officials John the Cappadocian and Tribonian, faced significant public disapproval due to the implementation of high tax rates,[10] allegations of corruption against the latter two officials,[10] and John's reported harsh treatment of debtors.[10][11] Justinian and John also reduced expenditure on the civil service and took steps to combat corruption within the civil service.[11] John was particularly unfavourable among the senatorial elites, who were hit hard by John's new taxation policy which targeted the wealthiest in society, likely leading to senatorial influence within the riots.[12][4] Numerous nobles, who had suffered a loss of power and wealth as a result of the downsizing and reform of the civil service, joined the ranks of the Greens.[11] Justinian also took steps to diminish the influence of both teams. This was perceived by the Greens as an oppressive action akin to the reforms implemented in the civil service, while the Blues felt a sense of betrayal.[11] The Roman legal code was widely perceived as a marker that distinguished the civilised Romans from "barbarians". (Latin: barbari).[13] The law code was also religiously important as the Romans were believed to be "chosen by God", it being a symbol of justice.[13] As a result, the successful implementation of significant legal reforms by an emperor was viewed as lending legitimacy to their reign, while a lack of progress in this area was interpreted as a sign of divine displeasure.[13] What had taken nine years for the Theodosian code took Justinian just thirteen months.[13]

However, prior to the Nika riots of January 532, the pace of legal reforms had significantly slowed.[13] Concurrently, Justinian was engaged in an unsuccessful war against the Persian Empire. While initial Byzantine victories at Dara in the spring of 530 and Satala in the summer of 530 had temporarily enhanced his legitimacy, the defeat at Callinicum in 531 and the deteriorating strategic situation had a detrimental effect on the emperor's reputation.[13] The legal reforms were met with resistance from the aristocracy from their inception, as they eliminated the ability to utilize obscure laws and jurisprudence to evade unfavorable judgments.[13] Further, both Justinian and his wife Theodora were of low birth - Byzantine society was not as class driven as the feudal-dominated society of the west.[clarification needed][13] The Greens were a Monophysite group and represented the interest of the moneyed non-landowners, Justinian being neither of those.[14] As a result, Justinian's refusal to grant amnesty to the two individuals arrested in connection with the riots further exacerbated the anger and resentment towards the emperor, causing the factions to become more violent in their methods, setting fires and indiscriminately attacking imperial guards. Another cause that might have added to the intensity of the riots was the fact that the power of these factions had gone unchecked for a long time under Justin, with Justinian then strengthening their rivalries by supporting a specific faction. Furthermore, the fact that activity towards the factions had largely been unrestricted for three decades prior during Justin’s reign, meant the likelihood of them working together in common cause was far greater.[4] Their almost unrestrained force, combined with any resentment they held against the Emperor, is believed to have led to the Nika riots of 532 C.E.[15] Similarly, it was rare for the two factions to begin working together in this manner and for them to militarise, both of which added to the severity of the uprising.[16]


A map of the palace quarter, with the Hippodrome and the Hagia Sophia

The timeline provided for these riots is not exact, and it is derived from different sources, including one by John Malalas, and one by Procopius.[17] Initially, the riots were unlikely to have had the end goal of deposing Justinian, with the early days of the riots being a more extreme show of typical factional vandalism and hooliganism that was exacerbated by the emotional response to the escaped Blue and Green criminals, with the aim to have the arrested rioters released. Usually, riots were more "conservative in nature" and were used to keep the emperor accountable and make him aware of the will of the people. However, in the case of the Nika riots, the populace was not mollified by Justinian's empty promises of change and were likely fueled by opportunistic senatorial intervention to shift focus to Justinian's deposition.[5][12][4] These riots shared common characteristics with others during this period. However, it stands out due the extent of militarisation. Common behaviour prior to this riot included the throwing of stones, which had been banned by Justinian in his anti-rioting decree of 527.[18]

On January 13, 532, an angry crowd arrived at the Hippodrome for the races.[citation needed] The Hippodrome was next to the palace complex, so Justinian could preside over the races from the safety of his box in the palace. From the start, the crowd hurled insults at Justinian. By the end of the day, at race 22, the partisan chants had changed from "Blue" or "Green" to a unified Nίκα ("Nika", meaning "Win!", "Victory!" or "Conquer!"), and the crowds broke out and began to assault the palace. For the next five days, the palace was under siege.[citation needed] Fires started during the tumult destroyed much of the city, including the city's foremost church, the Hagia Sophia (which Justinian would later rebuild).

It is believed that on January 14, the second day of the riots, Justinian, rather than negotiating political concessions, offered to host more races and games in an attempt to appease the rioters.[12] This did little to halt the violence however, with the crowd ignoring his pleas for a suspension of the hostilities.[17] In the past, emperors had cancelled races on account of them exacerbating tensions and worsening factional violence.[4]

Some of the senators saw this as an opportunity to overthrow Justinian, as they were opposed to his new taxes and his lack of support for the nobility.[citation needed] The rioters, now armed and probably controlled by their allies in the Senate, also demanded that Justinian dismiss the prefect John the Cappadocian and the quaestor Tribonian. They then declared a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.[19] It is the view of Mischa Meir that Justinian may have intentionally provoked the riots so that his political rivals within the senate, like Hypatius may reveal themselves to him.[18] This is however a view that was considered radical and was rejected by Pfeilschifter.[18]

Justinian considered fleeing, but his wife Theodora is said to have dissuaded him, saying, "Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress."[20] She is also credited, by Procopius, with adding, "[W]ho is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how could an Emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive."[8] Although an escape route across the sea lay open for the emperor, Theodora insisted that she would stay in the city, quoting an ancient saying, "Royalty is a fine burial shroud," or perhaps, "[the royal colour] Purple makes a fine winding sheet.".[21] However, Theodora's speech as quoted by Procopius can be viewed as representative of the discussions which took place in the palace rather than literal.[22] Recent scholarship suggests that Justinian not only considered fleeing, but may have left the Palace for a period of time. Several sources allude to this conclusion, such as the Chronicon Paschale, which states Hypatius was told by a doctor within the palace that Justinian had left.[18] The reason for his alleged departure is contested; Theophanes believes it was due to panic, whereas Westbrook suggests Justinian hoped to get fresh troops garrisoned in Thrace.[18]

Justinian created a plan that involved Narses, a popular eunuch, and the generals Belisarius and Mundus. Carrying a bag of gold given to him by Justinian, the slightly built eunuch entered the Hippodrome alone and unarmed. Narses went directly to the Blues' section, where he approached the important Blues and reminded them that Justinian supported them over the Greens. He also reminded them that Hypatius, the man they crowned, was a Green. He distributed the gold and the Blue leaders spoke quietly with each other and then addressed their followers. In the middle of Hypatius' coronation, many Blues left the Hippodrome, while the Greens remained. Then, Imperial troops led by Belisarius and Mundus stormed into the Hippodrome, killing any remaining people indiscriminately, whether they were Blues or Greens.[8]


According to the account of Procopius, around 30,000 people were killed, although many likely died as result of trampling in the chaos of the riot rather than at the hands of Imperial soldiers.[1][12] Justinian had Hypatius executed and exiled the senators who had supported the riot.[23] However, some of the officials Justinian dismissed in response to the demands of the rioters, like John the Cappadocian were reinstated to their prior positions.[15] He then rebuilt Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia and was free to establish his rule without facing further uprising until the very end of his reign. In the end, Justinian's indecisiveness surrounding the circus factions allowed the mob to incite riots, but it has been posited that had his predecessors shown the same lack of consistency, they too could have been subjected to a "Nika" riot.[5]


  1. ^ a b This is the number given by Procopius, Wars (Internet Medieval Sourcebook Archived 2006-02-12 at the Wayback Machine.)
  2. ^ Joseph Henry Dahmus (1968). The Middle Ages: A Popular History. Doubleday. p. 86. ISBN 9780575003156.
  3. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1867). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Bell & Daldy. p. 301.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Greatrex, Geoffrey (November 1997). "The Nika riot: a reappraisal". The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 117: 60–86. doi:10.2307/632550. ISSN 0075-4269. JSTOR 632550.
  5. ^ a b c Greatrex, Geoffrey (1997). "The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal". The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 117: 60–86. doi:10.2307/632550. JSTOR 632550. Retrieved 27 October 2023.
  6. ^ Hugh Chisholm; James Louis Garvin (1926). The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature & General Information. Encyclopædia Britannica Company, Limited. p. 121.
  7. ^ "CLIO History Journal – Justinian and the nike riots". Cliojournal.wikispaces.com. Archived from the original on 2012-06-19. Retrieved 2013-09-25.
  8. ^ a b c Norwich, John Julius (1999). A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. p. 64. ISBN 0-679-77269-3.
  9. ^ Greatrex, Geoffrey (1997). "The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal". The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 117: 60–86. doi:10.2307/632550. JSTOR 632550. Retrieved 27 October 2023.
  10. ^ a b c Charles River Editors (2014). The Dark Ages 476–918 these taxes were levied against the rich. Justinian the Great: The Life and Legacy of the Byzantine Emperor. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 9781503190375.
  11. ^ a b c d Hughes, Ian (Historian) (2009). Belisarius : the last Roman general. Yardley, Pa.: Westholme. ISBN 978-1-59416-085-1. OCLC 294885267.
  12. ^ a b c d Cameron, Alan (1976). Circus factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium. Clarendon Press. pp. 192–279. ISBN 0198148046.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Heather, P. J. (Peter J.) (2018). Rome resurgent : war and empire in the age of Justinian. New York. ISBN 978-0-19-936274-5. OCLC 1007044617.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  14. ^ Charles River Editors (2023). Justinian the Great: The Life and Legacy of the Byzantine Emperor. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 9781503190375.
  15. ^ a b Greatrex, ‘The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 117 (1997), pp. 60–86.
  16. ^ Koehn, 'Stasiôtai into stratiôtai: The Nika Riot Revisited', Byzantine Zeitschrift 116 (2023), pp. 77–104.
  17. ^ a b J. B. Bury, ‘The Nika Riot’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 17 (1897), pp. 92–119.
  18. ^ a b c d e Koehn (2023). "Stasiôtai into stratiôtai: The Nika Riot Revisited'". Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 116 (1): 77–103. doi:10.1515/bz-2023-0004.
  19. ^ Greatrex, Geoffrey (1997). "The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal". The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 117 (1): 74. doi:10.2307/632550. JSTOR 632550 – via JSTOR.
  20. ^ Diehl, Charles. Theodora, Empress of Byzantium (1972). Frederick Ungar Publishing (translated by S. R. Rosenbaum from the original French Theodora, Imperatice de Byzance), p. 87.
  21. ^ Procopius, Wars 1.24.32–37. For the possibility of Theodora's stirring remarks being an invention by Procopius (otherwise an unflattering chronicler of Theodora's life), see John Moorhead, Justinian (London/NY 1994), pp. 46–47, with a reference to J. Evans, "The 'Nika' rebellion and the empress Theodora", in: Byzantion 54 (1984), pp. 380–382.
  22. ^ Koehn, ‘Stasiôtai into stratiôtai: The Nika Riot Revisited’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift 116.1 (2023), pp. 77–104.
  23. ^ Prokopios (2014). The Wars of Justinian. Translated by Dewing, H. B. Kaldellis, Anthony (contributor) (1 ed.). Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company. p. 109. ISBN 9781624661723.

General and cited sources[edit]

  • Diehl, Charles (1972). Theodora, Empress of Byzantium. Frederick Ungar Publishing, Inc. ISBN 0-8044-1230-8. Popular account based on the author's extensive scholarly research.
  • Weir, William (2004). 50 Battles That Changed the World: The Conflicts That Most Influenced the Course of History. Savage, Md: Barnes and Noble Books. ISBN 0-7607-6609-6.

Further reading[edit]

  • Meier, William N. (2003). "Die Inszenierung einer Katastrophe: Justinian und der Nika-Aufstand". Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (in German). 142 (142): 273–300. JSTOR 20191600.

External links[edit]