Friday, January 13, 2012


One thousand four hundred and eighty years ago today, on January 13th 532, Emperor Justinian I went to the Hippodrome in Constantinople (now Istanbul) for an exciting day of chariot races. This would prove such an exciting day of racing that the riots that followed it would claim as many as thirty thousand lives, and leave much of Constantinople in rubble.

There were two big “teams” competing; the “Blue” team and the “Green” team. Justinian was a “Blue” team supporter.

By the end of race 22 for the day the normally passionately divided fans had stopped yelling “Win Blue” or “Win Green”, and had started shouting one word: “NIKA” (victory).

Nika stems from the same root as Nike the name the Greeks gave to their goddess of victory (Roman Victoria). She was often portrayed as a divine charioteer in Greek art.

They Hippodrome race fans also decided it would be nice to crown a new Emperor and so began burning looting, killing, and generally acting badly.

The riots took most of a week, and Justinian held up in his palace and made plans to flee. This gave his wife, Empress Theodora, the opportunity to utter two of the great lines recorded by history:

On her husband’s desire to flee for his life:

Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss.”

On her own risk of untimely death should she stay:

Royalty is a fine burial shroud.”

Justinian hatched a plan. He ordered a eunuch to deliver, and distribute, a bag of gold and a message to the “Blue” team captains. The message pointed out that he was a “Blue” supporter, and the man they would crown emperor was a green supporter. The "Blue" supporters laid down their arms, and went home. The disserted “Green” supporters were no match for the emperor’s guards who slaughtered them with impunity.

I suspect that the “Greens” did not do as well at the next chariot races.

Behold, he shall come up as clouds, and his chariots shall be as a whirlwind: his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe unto us! for we are ruined.” – Jeremiah 4:13

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