Nika Riots

Greek: Σταση του Νικα
What: A violent riot that took place for a week in AD 532.
When: 532 AD
Where: Constantinople
Death Toll: 30,000

The city of Constantinople in 1453 with the Hippodrome in the centre. By De Ludis Circensibus.

The city of Constantinople in 1453 with the Hippodrome
in the centre. By De Ludis Circensibus.

The Nika riots was one of the deadliest riots in human history as tens of thousands of people died and half the city was burned or destroyed. While most riots last a day or two the Nika riots lasted a week long. They look place in 532 AD in Constantinople and centred around the Hippodrome (pictured right). During the fifth century chariot races were very popular pitting teams against each other to become champion. The two popular teams of the time of the riots were the Blues and Greens and the emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian I, favoured the Blues and made this known. The teams had become a focus for various social and political issues and combined aspects of street gangs and political parties. Frequently political demands would be shouted between races to the emperor.

A few days before the Nika riots players from the Blue and Green team was accused of murder in connection with deaths that occurred during rioting after a recent chariot race and were sentenced to death. Most of the team members were hanged but a couple, a Blue and a Green, had managed to escape and went into hiding at a church sanctuary surrounded by an angry mob. Justinian was put in a difficult decision as he was in the midst of negotiating with the Persians over peace in the East and many people were upset over the recent increase in taxes. Justinian decided that the two people would face imprisonment for life and that a chariot race would still be held three days later. The Blues and Greens had demanded that their people be released to no avail and thus people began to set various buildings on fire over the course of the next three days in protest.

Three days later on January 13, 532 the chariot races began and spectators arrived angry and tense. The Hippodrome happened to be next to Justinian’s Palace (Kathisma) and thus he could watch from the safety of his box and preside over the race. During the race the crowd were shouting insults at Justinian and by the end of the races the crowd started to chant Nika (meaning “conquer in Greek). The crowd then began to assault the palace and for the next five days the city was virtually under siege by its people and the city’s foremost church, the Hagia Sophia, would be destroyed (only to later be re-built into one of the greatest architectural wonders of the world).

The riots turned even more out of control when Justinian’s own senators joined the rioting seeing as this was an opportune time to overthrow him, as they did not agree with his new tax laws.Justinian was considering fleeing the city, but his wife Theodora convinced him otherwise 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.” He then had his guards lock up the Hippodrome with many rebels inside and had his guards kill everyone in what would be one of the most gruesome acts of violence in Constantinople’s history. Altogether 30,000 people died from the riots and the city was in ruins. Justinian then had those who opposed him exiled from Constantinople and started to rebuild.

Nika Revolt:

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