Nika riots


The Nika Sedition was a popular uprising in Constantinople that toppled the throne of Emperor Justinian in 532. Although we have the crucial accounts of John Malalas, Procopius of Caesarea, the Chronicon Paschale and Theophanes the Confessor, there are still many grey areas as to the course of this major event. In Greek, Nika can mean “victory”, “Be victorious” or “Let us bring back the Victory” because of its rallying cry.

The causes of this revolt are multiple and partly uncertain. It was surely provoked by the aristocracy of the capital, generally hostile to an emperor from a modest background, especially since his wife, the empress Theodora, came from the world of entertainment, particularly despised at the time. Procopius of Caesarea goes so far as to assert that she would have been a prostitute, but there is no evidence to support this idea, as the theatrical milieu in which she was immersed was often considered to be on the same level as prostitution for the Byzantine elite. Moreover, the tax policy of the emperor, particularly heavy, contributes to the growing discontent and is judged responsible for the sedition by Procopius of Caesarea, John the Lydian or Zacharias the Rhetorician. However, the measures incriminated by these chroniclers seem sometimes posterior to the revolt. Finally, the role of factions or demes is inescapable. These are central elements of the urban life of the early Byzantine Empire. They designated the teams competing in chariot races, the most popular sporting events of the time. There are four of them (the blue, the red, the white and the green), each with a team, but two colors dominate: the blue and the green. Moreover, these demes are also the reflection of the socio-economic rivalries between the various categories of the urban populations. In this sense, their opposition, which often takes violent turns, is not only sporting and they are sometimes at the origin of riots, in Constantinople or elsewhere. More still, the emperors often take the party to support one or the other of these demes, judged closer to the policy which they carry out. In the case of Justinian, it seems that it is the blue ones which are privileged whereas the excesses of the green ones are often hard repressed.

It was during the annual January races that the revolt broke out. The exact course of events is not precisely known because the chroniclers differ among themselves. From the beginning of the week of horse races, the greens showed their discontent through the grievances they presented to the emperor. The emperor remained insensitive to their demands and the greens left the racecourse in protest. However, these tensions remain relatively traditional in the urban life of Constantinople. The turning point came on January 1 when the municipal administration seized three members of the factions, accused of disturbing the peace. Two of them were green, but one was blue, and all three were sentenced to be hanged. However, the execution of two of them (one green and one blue) failed because the rope gave way twice. The crowd, already dissatisfied with these sentences, took up the cause of the two miraculous men and decided to support them. They managed to take refuge in the nearby church of Saint-Conon but the prefect of Constantinople sent soldiers to get them back. It does not take more for the crowd to get in the way and kill the soldiers. From then on, a de facto alliance united the blue and the green against an imperial power perceived as excessively repressive.

On January 13, the horse races continued at the racetrack but the factions decided to express their anger. At first, they asked for the two convicts to be pardoned, without obtaining satisfaction. Finally, at the twenty-second race of the day, they began to shout “Nika” (“Be victorious” or “Let”s win again”), the term that gave its name to the sedition. Their action was not political and did not expressly seek to overthrow the emperor, but the situation quickly degenerated. The demonstration turned into a riot when some individuals started fires in the city, especially in the forum of Constantine. The flames spread quickly through different districts. Justinian tried to react by offering a new day of shopping but this concession was not enough to calm the rioters who set fire to the baths of Zeuxippe or the palace of the prefect. It is the center of the city, near the imperial Palace, which is the theater of this revolt. The blue and the green direct their anger towards members of the government as Eudémon, the prefect of Constantinople, Jean of Cappadocia or the lawyer Tribonien. Justinian sends several emissaries (Constantiolus, Mundus and Basilides) to collect the requirements of the rioters. When it takes note of it, it agrees to dismiss the personalities aimed and to replace them by the same emissaries. However, this concession does not manage, there still, to restore calm in the city.

From revolt to revolution

On January 15, Justinian is literally surrounded within the Imperial Palace, in a very precarious situation. He appealed to General Belisarius to send troops to break the circle of rioters. However, their attack intervenes while a group of priests acts as mediator. However, the imperial forces jostle them violently and arouse the anger of the crowd. Soon, the soldiers had to retreat as the violence of the rioters increased in intensity. The fires started again, reaching the church of Sainte-Sophie and the Augusteon square. Looters took advantage of the situation and a real climate of anarchy reigned in the streets. According to John the Lydian, “The city was no more than a mass of blackish hills, like Lipari or Vesuvius. It was full of smoke and ashes; the smell of burning spread everywhere made it uninhabitable, and its sight inspired to the spectator a terror mixed with pity”.

Justinian is in a critical position whereas he is surrounded only by a handful of faithful. To regain control, he had to call upon the forces located near Constantinople, in particular the garrisons of Hebdomon, less than thirty kilometers from the imperial capital. They arrived on the spot on January 17 and started to subdue the factious ones, without managing to join the imperial Palace. Moreover, he asks the two nephews of Anastase, Hypatios and Pompey, to return at home. These represent potential candidates to the imperial throne and Justinian probably hopes to move them away from the imperial Palace where they could foment a coup. In the meantime, the emperor presented himself at the hippodrome where he promised amnesty to the rioters and assured them that he took full responsibility for the events that had occurred since the beginning of the sedition. Once again, he did not manage to convince of his good faith and underwent the booing of the crowd.

On January 18, while Hypatios was on his way home, he was quickly intercepted by the rebels. They now want to overthrow the emperor and are looking for a pretender to the imperial throne. Hypatios” kinship with Anastasius and his military experience make him a credible candidate. It is difficult to know if Hypatios accepts of his own free will to take the head of this political uprising but Procopius of Caesarea assures that he seizes this occasion to carry out old ambitions. In any case, it is proclaimed emperor on the forum of Constantine. The rebels are then divided on the way to follow. Some wanted to go to the imperial palace to depose Justinian, but others advised caution and counted on a peaceful outcome, hoping that Justinian would face the facts and give up his throne. Hypatios wishes to act quickly and takes side for the first solution. He goes then to the hippodrome where he sits down on the imperial seat. However, a direct passage exists between the hippodrome and the imperial Palace. It is thus a first stage before an effective seizure of the power.

Justinian: from flight to victory

In the Imperial Palace, Justinian is faced with a dilemma. He knows that the course of events is deeply unfavorable to him and he fears at all times that elements of the imperial Palace will turn away from him, judging this cause to be hopeless. It seems that the palace guards are more in favor of the rebellion. However, he still retains control over most of the imperial troops, notably those of Belisarius, while reinforcements can still come to Constantinople. Faced with this choice which must determine the continuation of its reign, Justinian seems a time to opt for the flight. He gathered his treasure on a dromon which was about to set sail, probably for Heraclea. This is not necessarily an abandonment of power, as Justinian surely hopes to receive support from troops outside Constantinople. However, such a flight would constitute a statement of failure capable of strongly weakening the legitimacy of Justinian. According to many accounts of the events, often taken up by modern historians, it is there that intervenes the empress Theodora whose influence on her husband is important (although sometimes exaggerated).

It is Procopius of Caesarea who reports the speech of Theodora, in which she blames any idea of flight which would mean the abandonment of the legitimacy to sit on the imperial throne and an eternal shame:

“My Lords, the present situation is too serious for us to follow that convention that a woman should not speak during a council of men. Those whose interests are threatened by a danger of the utmost gravity should think only of holding to the wisest course of action and not to conventions. When there is no other way of salvation than to flee, I would not want to flee. Are we not all doomed to death from the moment of our birth? Those who have worn the crown must not survive its loss. I pray to God that I may not be seen a single day without the purple. May the light go out for me when they stop greeting me with the name of Empress! You, autokrator, if you want to flee, you have treasures, the ship is ready and the sea is free; But fear that the love of life will expose you to a miserable exile and a shameful death. Me, it pleases me, this ancient word: that the purple is a beautiful shroud! “

It is difficult to know if this speech was really pronounced by Theodora or if it is an embellishment of the history by Procopius of Caesarea. The last sentence, the most famous, is a reference to Denys of Syracuse. According to Pierre Maraval, this is a stylistic effect of Procopius of Caesarea who was not present on the scene. He largely takes up Averil Cameron”s thesis in his study on Procopius of Caesarea. On the other hand, George Tate considers that this intervention could be authentic, relying on the fact that Justinian was indeed thinking of fleeing and that it required the action of someone likely to influence him to dissuade him from doing so. In any case, the choice to remain is essential because the possession of Constantinople is essential for any candidate to the imperial purple, so much the power is associated with the imperial city.

In addition, on the ground, the events tip in a direction favorable to the emperor. Belisarius gathers his troops while Narses, another general, rallies the blues to the imperial cause, offering them gifts and reminding them of the emperor”s support for them. Whereas the power of the sedition was based on the union of the two factions, it is now divided. Belisarius and Mundus can encircle the hippodrome, in which the rebels are massed around Hypatios. Mundus penetrates in this place by the door kokhleias and Belisarius by the door of the dead, located opposite. Other generals as Basilides also intervene and the loyalist troops quickly take the top in this space more easily controllable than the maze of the constantinopolitan streets. Soon, the intervention turns to the massacre of the rebels. The number of the victims is very important, often exaggerated by the authors of the time but it could have amounted to 30.000 deaths, in all the empire of the East, and with the continuations of many notables and military, which will be executed for the reason of high treason. Hypatios is captured and brought before the emperor. He tries to convince him that he was crowned by force and that he hoped to deliver the rebels to the soldiers of Justinian by gathering them in the racecourse. However, Justinian does not grant him any credit and makes him execute the following day. Pompey seems to have suffered the same fate, although his participation in the riots is not obvious. Probus, another nephew of Anastasius who had fled the city during the revolt, was exiled for some time, but was eventually rehabilitated and his property returned to him.

Comic books


  1. Sédition Nika
  2. Nika riots
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