Nika riots

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The Nika Revolt

The Nika Revolt was a devastating event in Constantinople that threatened the life of and reign of Emperor Justinian. The event killed over a tenth of the population of Constantinople and destroyed half of the Great City. The Nika Revolt, the cause of all the death and destruction, is also called the Nika Riots and the Nika Uprising. The Nika Revolt was an attempt to overthrow Justinian, however, despite the name, which means victory, they did not succeed, and it ended in many tragic deaths and the destruction of Constantinople.

The Nika revolt started in the Hippodrome of Constantinople in January 532 AD. The term Nika is derived from the Greek word Nike, meaning victory. The rioters used the term Nika as a slogan during the rebellion. It began when members of the Blue and Green groups "caused a disturbance after a chariot race and were sentenced to execution and arrested for murder"(Cyril). Another direct cause was public discontent over the policies enacted under Justinian I.

The Nika Revolt was a response to the policies enacted under Emperor Justinian I, which caused public discontent. Justinian was criticized for his continuous taxation of the people and for allowing his appointees to enforce their will on the population without consequences. Vedran states, "These factors played a significant role in the uprising of the Blues and Greens, who allied with each other to overthrow the emperor." The policies enacted under Emperor Justinian I caused public discontent among the people, which played a significant role in the uprising of the Blues and Greens. They allied with each other to overthrow the emperor during the Nika Revolt.

Emperor Justinian had more pressing matters, negotiating peace terms with Rome’s nemesis, Sassanian Persia. He was also preparing for the grand event - the chariot races at the Hippodrome. But the factions, too, "were responsible for ensuring that the emperor was duly honored"(Cyril). Even though the Blues and Greens have been constantly clashing, they have allied. The mob first attacked the Praetorium, where the prison was located, freeing the prisoners and burning the building down.

The next day Justinian returned to the Hippodrome in his last attempt to make peace with the rioters. He accepted new demands and got rid of the unpopular high officials. But this was not enough, as the riot continued. Some senators saw this as an opportunity to overthrow Justinian, "as they opposed his new taxes and his lack of support for the people of high rank"(Vedran). The rioters, now armed and probably controlled by their allies in the Senate, also demanded that Emperor Justinian dismiss the prefect John the Cappadocian, who was responsible for collecting the taxes, and the quaestor Tribonian, who was responsible for rewriting the legal code.  

Trapped in the Great Palace, Emperor Justinian was powerless to stop the revolt as the mob ran psycho, causing widespread destruction. Some of the most magnificent buildings were destroyed in the great fire that occurred as a result of the Nika Revolt, "including the Senate House and the church of Hagia Sophia, built by Emperor Theodosius"(All About Turkey). On the fifth day of the riot, in the late afternoon, Emperor Justinian gave orders to Hypatius and Pompeius, nephews of the late emperor, Anastasius, to go home as quickly as possible, either because circumstances brought them to this or he feared that the people would force them to the throne. They said that they would be doing wrong if they should abandon their Emperor when he found himself in such danger. When Emperor Justinian heard this, he inclined more to his suspicion and made them depart the palace instantly.  

As Justinian and his counselors contemplated over whether to leave the capital, Empress Theodora counseled resolve, although the speech is likely a rhetorical set-piece. Her speech changed Justinian’s mind so he did not leave the capital but stayed to defend his reign. Because of her speech, Justinian and Theodora did not lose their purple (royalty) but saved their reign over the Byzantine Empire for another 33 years. Theodora’s speech at one of Justinian’s council meetings concluded:

"My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it brings safety. For a while, it is impossible for a man who has seen the light not also to die for one who has been an emperor, it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress."

After the soldiers sealed all the exits, trapping the mob, a lengthy slaughter transpired. Justinian then dealt with the ringleaders, including his challenger Hypatius, who was executed.  The Nika Revolt caused lots of death: "By the end of the day, some 30,000 people lay dead" (Robert). The Nika Riot represented a week-long rebellion in Constantinople in response to the rule of Justinian I. The Nika Riot was a devastating event that threatened the life and reign of Justinian.

After the failure of the Nika Riots, the power of circus factions was crushed for good. The Greens and Blues retained only the ceremonial function. Justinian finally removed the threat "of the great and devastating Nika Revolt"(Britannica). Now that his position was secure, Justinian directed his attention to the rebuilding of Constantinople, and the realization of his dream to reconquer the West Roman Empire. The Nika Revolt was one of the most violent incidents in the history of Istanbul.

The results of the Nika Revolt were devastating. Over 30,000 people lay dead in the Hippodrome and throughout Constantinople, and the capital lay in ruins. There were a few causes of so much death and destruction. First, an emperor who taxed his people continuously and allowed his appointees to enforce their will on the population without consequences. Second, a population who no longer wished to see such a ruler in office. Finally, an empress whose words and ambitions had an impactful effect on her husband that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands.