For a week prior, the unholy alliance of “Blue” and “Green” chariot associations occupied the Hippodrome, Constantinople’s massive arena where the races were held. They also besieged the adjacent Emperor’s Palace, a design that allowed the Byzantine Emperor the ability to watch the races from the comfort and safety of a palatial balcony. The chariot associations were more than just fan clubs; they were hired muscle and political organizations for the Byzantine upper class. (Emperor Justinian was a “Blue”, for example). What started as a protest by the Blues and Greens for the clemency of two of their members arrested for murder, turned into a full on riot when both sides stopped chanting their colors, and began chanting “Nika” or “Victory” together.
Stirred up further by Senatorial opponents of Justinian, the Blues and Greens were joined by the Reds and Whites and they all demanded a new emperor, an end to taxes, and the head of the chief tax collector. Eventually the riots spun out of control, and most of Constantinople caught fire. Emperor Justinian decided to flee the capital.
On 17 January 532, his wife, the wily Empress Theodora, admonished the young Emperor for even considering fleeing. She stated flat out that she was not leaving and that royal “purple makes a fine funereal shroud”. Desperately in love with his beautiful, intelligent, and cunning wife, Justinian and his new found backbone came up with a plan to end the riots.
The next day, the Greens were set to crown a new Emperor in the Hippodrome. Justinian’s chief eunuch brazenly walked in amongst the murderous mob and went straight to the Blues with a large bag of gold. He reminded them they were the emperor’s favorites, and paid them to leave the coronation. The Blues departed, and then even greater chaos began, as the Greens retaliated. In the confusion, Justinian’s greatest general, the supremely competent Belisarius, surrounded the Hippodrome with a combination of stratiotai (regular Byzantine legionaries) and their bucellarii (household troops). On his signal they entered the Hippodrome and murdered everyone, Reds, Whites, Greens, and even any remaining Blues. 40,000 were massacred. The Nika Riots ended, and so did all domestic political opposition to Justinian.
Justinian I would rule for 31 more years, reconquer a large part of the old Roman Empire, and be remembered in history as one of the greatest Byzantine Emperors, and Theodora, its greatest empress.