In Constantinople, chariot races were the most popular source of entertainment. The teams raced with four horses, and each team had its own color that was worn by the horses. Originally there were blue, white, red and green teams but red and white gradually lost their popularity and were absorbed into the green and blue teams. In those times each team was supported by different associations which were similar to today’s political parties. They took positions on topics of debate and when the time was right they hoped to be claimants to the throne.
After Justinian I took the throne, he supported the blue team called Prasinoi which was favored by all the wealthy people of Constantinople. In contrast the green team, known as Venetoi, was supported by the lower classes. The young supporters of the two opposing teams had already been fighting on the streets from time to time but Prasinoi supporters started to behave more freely on the streets once the began to recieve the protection of Justinian. This only increased the tension in the city which had started with local uproar over Justinian’s fiscal policies. Of course the aristocrats had a hand in all those things. The hostility between aristocrats and Theodora, the beloved wife of Justinian I, was never-ending. Theodora was a daughter of a bear trainer who worked at the Hippodrome. Theodora had worked at the hippodrome as a mime and as an actress before she married Justinian I. Being an actress was seen as synonymous to being a prostitute at that time. It was also known that Theodora travelled to northern Africa as a companion of an officer. All this is why the aristocrats never approved of the marriage, but she was an intelligent, beautiful, witty and amusing woman that Justinian couldn’t help but fall in love with. He broke the old Roman law and ignored the aristocrats by marrying her.
The actual riots were triggered by the execution of two supporters of Prasinoi and Venetoi. They had been arrested for participating in an earlier riot that had ended with some fatalities. On the 10th of January, the day of execution, the executioner blundered and the hanging failed twice. During this tragedy, the monks of St. Canon who had been watching intervened. They took the two criminals, one of whom was a blue and the other a green, put them in a boat across the Golden Horn and gave them asylum in the church of St. Laurentius.
On January 13th, the residents of the city gathered in the Hippodrome and asked Justinian to acquit the two young men. Justinian didn’t respond to this request. The crowd began hurling insults at Justinian. They began to shout “Nika” which means “Victory” in Greek. Their shared sense of injustice united the green and the blue teams and they rebelled together. They occupied the Hippodrome and later all of the city. They plundered, burned and destroyed parts of Constantinople. The brave rebels even elected ex-emperor Anastasius’s youngest nephew as the new emperor. Justinian I tried to pacify the crowds but none of his attempts were successful. In time he lost his nerve. Justinian I, in his despair, considered fleeing from the city. In these dark moments Theodora made an great speech to inspire him and renew his confidence. Justinian I understood that leaving was not an option. He had to face the rioters to save his throne. Justinian I and his wife Theodora stayed in their bedroom for a few days and constructed a bloody plan which would leave an indelible mark on Istanbul.
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Photo Credits: De Ludis Circensibus