The Byzantine Emperor Justinian was adept at pilfering money from his subjects. His creative methods in garnering tax revenue for his administration led to resentment. This resentment spilled over into the sporting arena. During a chariot race, fans began hurling invectives at the emperor as opposed to each other. The heckling turned violent and the crowd chased the emperor out of his palace and onto the docks. As Justinian prepared for exile, his wife Theodora intervened. She convinced Justinian to face down the rioters saving his throne and leading to one of history’s most consequential reigns.
The Nika Riots were the culmination of Byzantine anger over taxation. Emperor Justinian squeezed every dime possible out of his subjects. When that proved insufficient, he got creative. For example, when a noble was being held for ransom, Justinian refused to allow payment. Instead, he produced a letter from the noble claiming that the captive agreed with the emperor’s decision to block payment and then donating the ransom to the state. When rich citizens passed away, Justinian often claimed they donated their fortunes to him. Most dangerously, he confiscated military bonuses following campaigns. He argued the army should be happy that Justinian secured the peace and this was a way for the soldiers to give thanks.
Popular resentment over Justinian’s tactics spilled over into the sporting arena in 532. Chariot races were as popular as soccer in Europe or football in America. In Justinian’s day, there were four major teams distinguished by their colors. Fans chose their favorites and the races became an outlet for political and social frustrations. Unlike today, sports combined politics with a brutal street gang mentality. Fans would take positions on issues at the races and let the politicians know exactly how they felt. At times, this bizarre mixture led to an early form of soccer hooliganism.
On January 13, 532, fans stopped arguing amongst themselves and concentrated their anger on the emperor. They began shouting “Nika” at Justinian instead of at the track. Nika meant “conquer” and the meaning was clear. They were threatening the emperor. The resentment over taxation and some other lesser issues united social classes and bitter rivals alike. A modern equivalent would be if Michigan and Ohio State fans united to threaten the president.
Justinian’s palace overlooked the Hippodrome race track which afforded protection from the mob for a time. They charged his palace, laid siege, and looted and burned Constantinople. Justinian’s political opponents sided with the mob, replaced unpopular officials, and even crowned a new emperor. At this point, Justinian fled to the docks and prepared for exile.
Although Justinian resigned himself to exile, his wife refused to surrender. As he prepared to leave, Theodora convinced him to stay. She refused to abdicate power claiming that “purple is a fine burial shroud.” Purple was the color of royalty. Her stubborn refusal to leave and bravery in the face of an angry mob restored Justinian’s backbone.
Justinian hatched a brilliant plan to quell the rebellion. He played the sports fans off each other. His emissary reminded the Greens that they counted Justinian as one of their own. He also mentioned the new emperor supported the Greens. The Blues felt betrayed and broke ranks. At this point, the army moved in and slaughtered 30,000 rioters. Afterward, Justinian executed his political rivals to remove any threat to his rule.
As a result of Theodora’s intervention, Justinian remained on the throne until his death in 565. He rebuilt Constantinople and oversaw construction of the Hagia Sophia. He finished the Justinian Code which summarized Roman Law and became the basis of western law. Additionally, the emperor reincorporated the west into his emperor. Without his wife, Justinian would have been a footnote in history.