A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Erdoğan Thinks He Has Problems? He Should Remember the Nika Riots

Justinian I
Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan has been complaining loudly that the protesters in Istanbul are terrorists, "looters," and such. But Erdoğan, a former Mayor of Istanbul who still wants to micromanage the city from Ankara, ought to know enough about his great city's rich history to know that it has seen real protests in its day. Most notably the "Nika Riots" that began January 13, 532 AD and lasted for five days, at the end of which half the city was burned down, including the original Hagia Sophia, the greatest church in Christendom, built by the Emperor Constantine when he founded the city two centuries earlier, and parts of the Imperial Palace, and there were tens of thousands dead, allegedly including 30,000 rioters killed by the Army, not counting more tens of thousands dead at the rioters' hands or in the fires. The numbers may be exaggerated, but the devastation was not. And the Byzantine Emperor almost fled in terror, until his strong-willed Empress gave him a tongue-lashing and put enough backbone in him to fight back. The Emperor in question, who'd been on the throne only five years at the time and almost ran for exile, fought back and survived. And over the next 30 years in power he reconquered Italy and North Africa from assorted Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards and what not, fought Sassanid Persia, and created an enduring codification of Byzantine Law. He also rebuilt Constantinople, including a newer, bigger Hagia Sophia. His name was Justinian.

You've heard of him, most likely, but if he'd cut and run during the Nika riots, you wouldn't have; he'd have been one  more transient general-turned Emperor, deposed and forgotten; the remaining three glorious decades would never have occurred. The Empress Theodora gave him the necessary spine (and maybe a pair of other required body parts) with her famous lecture, and he is said to have always recognized that he owed his throne to his wife's courage and encouragement (see below: she essentially called him and his generals quitters and cowards).

Istanbul was known as Constantinople in those days, of course, But most of this took place only three miles or so from the site of the Taksim Square/Gezi Park demonstrations, in what then was as much the city center as Taksim is now. And what's the point of having a blogger with a doctoral minor in Byzantine history if I can't pull up parallels to the present like this? Of my minor fields, I get to draw on those Byzantine History courses the least by far.

In another parallel to today, when the "Ultras" football support clubs in both Egypt and Turkey have become not just booster clubs but a curious mixture of football fans, soccer hooligans, street gangs, and political movements, and have played key roles in the protests, so too, 1500 years ago, partisan groups supporting various "teams" of chariot racers became surrogate political "parties" of a sort, representing various classes, bodies of opinion, and interests. What had been four such parties or factions in Classical times had become two in Constantinople in Justinian's time, known as the Blues and the Greens. The Blues tended to favor Justinian, the Greens the old Senatorial nobility, with commoners taking sides according to the issue. Justinian, a military man who what risen to the Imperial purple, was still a bit of a newcomer to the throne, and higher taxes created by a war and negotiated peace with Persia had hurt his popularity.

The racing factions became political factions in part because the chariot races were the only time most citizens ever saw their Emperor. The Hippodrome,  the track for horse and chariot races, adjoined the Great Palace south of Hagia Sophia, and from a balcony on the Palace known as the Kathisma, (see the Wikipedia map below), the Emperor would watch the races, visible to his subjects.

The Blues and Greens in 531 AD found common cause when supporters of each were accused of murder in a riot over a race outcome, and condemned to death. Anger over this, higher taxes, and other issues led to rising tensions, which Justinian sought to defuse by commuting the death sentences. But the factions wanted a full pardon. Justinian called for a race on January 13, 532, aimed at calming things down. It did not.

Once the Emperor appeared on the Kathisma, both Blues and Greens began shouting against him and shouting Nika! ("Victory!", or perhaps "Win!" or "Triumph!"), hence the term "Nika Riots" for what followed. (Do you suppose the Nike Shoe folks are aware of this aspect of their sporting ancestry?)
Remnants of the Hippodrome Today

Soon the riots were out of control. The mobs attacked and besieged the Palace, which lay between the Hippodrome to the west, Hagia Sophia to the north, and the Bosporus and Marmara to the east and south. (Later Emperors preferred the Blachernae Palace in the northwest of the city, and the Ottomans would move the palace area to Topkapı).  The surviving remnants of the Hippodrome, a column and an obelisk, are in the Sultanahmet Meydanı, sometimes known as Atmeydanı or in English, as Hippodrome Square.

The city was burning, and Constantine's Hagia Sophia was destroyed. The mobs were besieging the Palace, and the only escape seemed to be by sea. Procopius, the first-hand witness of it all, tells the story of what happened next (The Wars, Vol. I, H.B. Dewing translation):
Now the emperor and his court were deliberating as to whether it would be better for them if they remained or if they took to flight in the ships. And many opinions were expressed favouring either course. And the Empress Theodora also spoke to the following effect: "As to the belief that a woman ought not to be daring among men or to assert herself boldly among those who are holding back from fear, I consider that the present crisis most certainly does not permit us to discuss whether the matter should be regarded in this or in some other way. For in the case of those whose interests have come into the greatest danger nothing else seems best except to settle the issue immediately before them in the best possible way. My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety. For 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. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, here the boats. However consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. For as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud." When the queen had spoken thus, all were filled with boldness, and, turning their thoughts towards resistance, they began to consider how they might be able to defend themselves if any hostile force should come against them.
In modern terms, she shamed the Emperor and his generals and ministers by showing she was the only one with the necessary gonads, and it worked. The phrase about "royalty is a good burial-shroud" is also frequently translated as "the imperial purple is an excellent winding-cloth," and the like.

Procopius, the official historian who makes Theodora look so good here, also wrote a Secret History (not paid for by the Emperor, to be sure) in which he portrayed Theodora (a bear-trainer's daughter who married Justinian when he was a soldier) as a former prostitute and dissolute still even as an Empress. Many feel the portrayals are incompatible. I'm not sure they are, though his Secret History suggestion that the Empress was an actual, real demon seems extreme. (First year Byzantine History grad students read The Secret History, which is full of salacious scandal before they ever look a The Histories, to be sure. For the same reasons Classicists prefer Suetonius to Tacitus.)

Justinian, taking new courage from Theodora's "Go ahead and run if you want to, I'm dying here as an Empress" ultimatum, decided to fight back. He called upon a loyal Imperial eunuch (a literal one, not the figurative ones Theodora had implied the Emperor and his generals were), Narses, to act as his agent with the factions. (Narses, of Armenian origin, would later become Justinian's second most famous general, after Belisarius, though eunuchs rarely had military careers.) Narses won over the Blues and they deserted the Greens; then Belisarius, with another general, Mundus, charged with Imperial troops and massacred (it's said) 30,000 rioters. Justinian turned the tide. The city was devastated and tens of thousands dead, but he rebuilt it with more glory than Constantine's, and his new Hagia Sophia rose again as the greatest church in Christendom. It has been a mosque (adding minarets in the process) and is now a museum, but the basic building is still Justinian's. That, the reconquista in Italy and North Africa, the Justinian Code, and much else associated with is reign, would not have occurred if he had fled during the Nika Riots.

This is why I always listen to my wife's advice. Or at least one of the reasons.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Thanks, Mike. Have passed this along to a few people interested in both Istanbul and Byzantine history, including my wife.