( – promoted by buhdydharma )
The truly beautiful thing about history is the way it informs on such a multitude of levels. Depending on the way one reads things, the same story can be anything from a simple, cautionary tale, to an eerily-similar depiction of current events, to a cause for awe and celebration of human achievement, to an inspiration for future generations – and all manner of interpretations in between. But, since the understanding of history is ultimately a personal thing, I’ll leave it to my fellow historiokossians to figure out how we as a community should look at the story of the Nika Riot.
Join me, if you will, in the Cave of the Moonbat, for a look a one of the most divisive times in the history of one of the world’s great civilizations. Now, far be it from me, a lowly historiorantologist, to claim that we as a community might see a bit of ourselves in the story – but I do confess to a hope that (if we have indeed laid waste to a third of our metaphorical city in the recent flamewars) the minds and passions here are capable of raising from the ashes our own Hagia Sofia.
Historiorant: This diary was originally published under the same title in December, 2006.
It’s January, one thousand four hundred ninety-four years ago, and Constantinople, heir to the empire of Rome, lies in ruins. The great city, once secure and forceful from behind the triple-strength Walls of Theodosius, had discovered that its people were their own worst enemy – that what the Huns could not destroy from without, factionalization and rioting would do from within. One had only to look at the pile of smoldering rubble that was once the Church of Divine Wisdom to understand the horrific wrath of the mob – and yet, only five years later, one of the greatest architectural achievements of the Classical Age was standing in its place.
A Little (hah!) Background
By the late 3rd century CE, the Roman Empire was hurting. It was bloated, barbarians were starting to nip at its borders, and its people were obsessed with their own pursuits rather than – as had been the case with earlier generations – the greater glory of Rome. In 284, Diocletian, one of the more decisive men in Roman history (and that’s saying a lot! – u.m.) took the crown of the Caesars and tried to halt the decline. As things turned out, some of his measures were ultimately far-sighted, while others were simply draconian.
The reforms of Diocletian would make for an interesting diary in their own right – to get the empire back on the right track, he did everything from claiming descent from the Roman gods and persecuting Christians to doubling the size of the army to fixing prices in the marketplace – but for our purposes tonight, Diocletian’s most important change in the imperial government came when he split the Empire into eastern and western halves. Though he did not move the capitol to the east, and despite there being a war of succession after his retirement (305) and death (311), it was this move above all others that would result in the rise of the Byzantine Empire.
In 312, Flavius Valerius Constantinus, the future Constantine the Great, was warring for control of the western half of the Empire. He marched his army out of his base at Augusta Treverorum (Trier, in Germany) toward Rome, and at the Pontus Milvius, a bridge on the Tiber just outside the city, encountered the forces his rival (and brother-in-law), Maxentius. According to both legend and the writings of Lactantius, Christian tutor to Constantine’s son Crispus, Constantine saw a cross in the sky along with the words hoc signo victor eris (or in hoc signo vinces; both are variations on “in this sign, conquer”), and – coupled with a visitation from Christ Himself the night before the battle – became convinced that Christianity might be the way to go. His men painted crosses on their shields, and marched into the first of many victorious battles under a banner which came to be known as the labarum.
Though he was not baptized until shortly before his death, and though there’s certainly ample evidence to support the contention that Constantine converted to Christianity as much for reasons of secular power as for faith in the Good News, he made very public his commitment to the new faith after he moved the capitol of the newly-reunified Empire to Byzantium. Under the Edict of Milan, issued in 313, the persecution of Christians as imperial policy came to an end, and religious toleration was the order of the day until 380, when the Emperor Theodosius made it the official religion of the state.
These Were Not Modest Leaders
Byzantium, located on an outrageously strategic confluence of trade routes and invasion paths, had been founded around the 7th century BCE by a guy named (surprise, surprise) Byzas, but Constantine made it his own – literally. He renamed it the “City of Constantine,” but the 1200-year empire that grew from it stuck with the earlier designation – rather than calling itself “Rome II” or something like that – and history has come to know the people of Constantine’s city as Byzantines. When the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was given its still-current moniker of Istanbul.
Like all great civilizations, the Byzantines (and especially their rulers) sought to glorify themselves, and at various times displayed a talent for both military expansion and incredible feats of engineering. To bring water to the spring-less city, they constructed the longest aqueduct in all of antiquity; to defend themselves, the most intricate system of walls and towers outside of China. Constantine himself began construction of the first “Magala Ecclesiastica” (“Great Church”) in the city, and when it was finished during the reign of his son, Constantius, it was renamed Hagia Sofia (“Divine Wisdom”; “Hagia” is pronounced “Ay-yah,” btw) after a popular understanding of the nature of Jesus among 4th-century thinkers. The church twice burned down and was rebuilt; once in 404, and again in 414, with the latter incarnation surviving until 532.
That third and final destruction of the church came during the time of Justinian, one of Byzantium’s more complex and controversial leaders. Not himself of noble blood, Justinian nevertheless rose through the ranks of Byzantine diplomacy (which was, of course, a snake’s nest of epic proportions) to assume the title of Emperor in 527. He promptly began a program of military expansion that had two major effects: first, it returned Byzantium to nearly all the territory around the Mediterranean formerly held by Rome, and second, it nearly bankrupted the Empire.
The Blues and the Greens
If Justinian’s policies won him few fans among the taxpaying hoi-polloi, his choice of wives resulted in even less support from the traditional aristocracy. Theodora was, um, not of the higher castes, which led one of Justinian’s biographers (and guy who hated him with a purple passion), Procopius of Caesarea, to title some of the chapters in his Secret History thusly:
IX. How Theodora, Most Depraved of All Courtesans, Won His Love
X. How Justinian Created a New Law Permitting Him to Marry A Courtesan
XI. How the Defender of the Faith Ruined His Subjects
XII. Proving that Justinian and Theodora Were Actually Fiends in Human Form
…but she was, by all accounts, a strong-willed and forceful woman, to whom Justinian extended the then-unique title of “Co-Empress.” That this would be a matter of concern to the harrumphers in the Curio (the Senate, such as it was) should come as little surprise, given that Byzantine society was pretty patriarchal in nature.
It was also pretty sports-oriented. About 100,000 spectators could fit into the Hippodrome, an enormous U-shaped racetrack for chariots, and it was in this place – far more than any other public forum – that the people of Constantinople could be heard by their leaders. Ostensibly, they were there to root for one of the chariot teams – the four main ones were the Whites, Reds, Greens, and (especially) Blues – but over time, the meaning of “rooting for one’s team” took on serious political and cultural overtones. The fan bases began operating as political machines, and since the people who tended to sit together at the races also tended to be of the same social strata (and increasingly, the same general political aims), which color a person rooted for came to define not only which chariot they found most handsomely bedecked, but also income, profession, religious affiliation, and political persuasion.
(sorry, Francophobes, but the best map I could find showing the relationship between the Hippodrome and the Palace – important later in the story – was in French)
The Greens were the underdogs, and started acting like it. Justinian was openly allied with the Blue faction, which Procopius, for one, found a tad inappropriate:
The people had since long previous time been divided, as I have explained elsewhere, into two factions, the Blues and the Greens. Justinian, by joining the former party, which had already shown favor to him, was able to bring everything into confusion and turmoil, and by its power to sink the Roman state to its knees before him. Not all the Blues were willing to follow his leadership, but there were plenty who were eager for civil war. Yet even these, as the trouble spread, seemed the most prudent of men, for their crimes were less awful than was in their power to commit. Nor did the Green partisans remain quiet, but showed their resentment as violently as they could, though one by one they were continually punished; which, indeed, urged them each time to further recklessness. For men who are wronged are likely to become desperate.
Then it was that Justinian, fanning the flame and openly inciting the Blues to fight, made the whole Roman Empire shake on its foundation, as if an earthquake or a cataclysm had stricken it, or every city within its confines had been taken by the foe. Everything everywhere was uprooted: nothing was left undisturbed by him. Law and order, throughout the State, overwhelmed by distraction, were turned upside down.
He elsewhere reports:
Yet all of this disturbed people less than Justinian’s offenses against the State. For those who suffer the most grievously from evildoers are relieved of the greater part of their anguish by the expectation they will sometime be avenged by law and authority. Men who are confident of the future can bear more easily and less painfully their present troubles; but when they are outraged even by the government what befalls them is naturally all the more grievous, and by the failing of all hope of redress they are turned to utter despair. And Justinian’s crime was that he was not only unwilling to protect the injured, but saw no reason why he should not be the open head of the guilty faction; he gave great sums of money to these young men, and surrounded himself with them: and some he even went so far as to appoint to high office and other posts of honor.
Historiorant: I can’t really stress enough how much Procopius hated Justinian – Secret History reads like a Ann Coulter monologue on the Clinton Administration. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia, which nearly always comes down on the side of the authority figure in any historical dispute, drops this caveat in its review of his work:
It is a bitter, malignant, and often obscene invective against all the powers of the Byzantine Church and State, apparently the tardy revenge of an ill-conditioned man of letters for a lifetime of obsequiousness. The indiscriminate violence of the pamphlet betrays the writer’s passionate indignation, but spoils his case. The authenticity is now generally allowed, after a great deal of not unbiased discussion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
As an historioranter, I, of course, run the risk of someday having my writing described as “bitter, malignant, and often obscene,” but like Procopius; who was certainly aware that he was letting his bias show, I’m of the opinion that it’s a fate worth tempting – so long as the facts as laid out in my arguments compel even detractors to admit that their problems lie not with the authenticity of my research, but are matters of differences over style and presentation.
It had been heading this way for a long time; 30 years before, Emperor Anastasius had shut down the theaters and amphitheaters, which left the Hippodrome as the only place where large crowds gathered to express themselves. It wasn’t democracy by any means – all understood that Justinian was the Emperor, and would remain so, barring the very worst of calamities – but they also knew that loud chanting crowds at the chariot races could affect imperial policy. The cheers and chants thus grew into personal arguments which later grew into vendettas, and the area on the public side of the Hippodrome got pretty seedy:
Now at first they killed only their opponents. But as matters progressed, they also murdered men who had done nothing against them. And there were many who bribed them with money, pointing out personal enemies, whom the Blues straightway dispatched, declaring these victims were Greens, when as a matter of fact they were utter strangers. And all this went on not any longer at dark and by stealth, but in every hour of the day, everywhere in the city: before the eyes of the most notable men of the government, if they happened to be bystanders. For they did not need to conceal their crimes, having no fear of punishment, but considered it rather to the advantage of their reputation, as proving their strength and manhood, to kill with one stroke of the dagger any unarmed man who happened to be passing by.
No one could hope to live very long under this state of affairs, for everybody suspected he would be the next to be killed. No place was safe, no time of day offered any pledge of security, since these murders went on in the holiest of sanctuaries even during divine services. No confidence was left in one’s friends or relatives, for many died by conspiracy of members of their own households. Nor was there any investigation after these deeds, but the blow would fall unexpectedly, and none avenged the victim. No longer was there left any force in law or contract, because of this disorder, but everything was settled by violence. The State might as well have been a tyranny: not one, however, that had been established, but one that was being overturned daily and ever recommencing.
Enough with the 6th-century meta? Okay, finally, then, this excerpt from On the Racing Factions from the History of the Wars:
The members [of each faction] fight with their opponents not knowing for what reason they risk their lives, but realizing full well that even when they vanquish their opponents in brawls, they will be carted off to prison and that, after they have suffered the most extreme tortures, they will be killed. Therefore, there arises in them an endless and unreasoning hatred against their fellow men, respecting neither marriage nor kinship nor bonds of friendship, even if those who support different colors might be brothers or some other kind of relatives. Neither human nor divine affairs matter to them compared to winning these [street] fights. When some impious act is committed by one of them against God, or when the laws and the state are injured by their comrades or opponents, or perhaps when they lack the necessities of life, or their country is suffering dire need, they ignore all this as long as events turn out well for their own “faction.” For this is what they call the bands of rioters. Even women participate in this abomination, not only accompanying the men but, if the occasion arises, even opposing them, although the do not go to the public spectacles nor are they motivated by any other reason. Thus I, for my part, consider [their actions] nothing else than a sickness of the soul. And this is how things are among the people of every city.
The Emperor and the Mob
The Emperor had a private entrance and section of the stadium reserved for his Palace retinue, but this did not prevent people of opposing viewpoints from shouting their opinions at him, and the Greens strength in numbers compelled Justinian to at least hear them out. In order to maintain at least a semblance of fairness, he allowed the justice system to work without a great deal of imperial interference (Justinian, who re-compiled, re-wrote, and re-codified Roman law into his own Code, was no slouch as a legal mind), which allowed him to remain aloof from the day-to-day enforcement of the law and keep his hands unbloodied by executions.
So it was that in early January, 532, a very pissed-off crowd of Greens spoke through one of their officers to Justinian, who spoke through a herald, and started listing specific grievances. The conversation, as recorded later by Theophanes, is a classic of the speaking-truth-to-power genre:
Greens: Long live Emperor Justinian! May he be ever victorious! But, O best of Princes, we are suffering all kinds of injustice. God knows we cannot stand it any longer. Yet we are afraid to name our persecutor, from fear that he may become more angry and that we shall incur still greater dangers.
Herald: I do not know of whom you are speaking.
Greens: Our oppressor, O thrice August! lives in the shoemakers’ quarter.
Herald: No one’s doing you any injury.
Greens: A single man persecutes us. O Mother of God, protect us!
Herald: I do not know this man.
Greens: Oh, yes, you do! You know very well, thrice August, who is our executioner at present.-
Herald: If any one is persecuting you, I do not know who it is
Greens: Well, Master of the World, it is Calopodios.
Herald: Calopodios has nothing to do with you.
Greens: Whoever it is will suffer the fate of Judas, and God will very soon punish him for his injustice.
Herald: Yu didn’t come here to see the show, but only to insult the officials.
Greens: Yes, if any one annoys us he will suffer the fate of Judas.
Herald: Shut up, you Jews, Manicheans, Samaritans!
Greens: You call us Jews and Samaritans; may the Mother of God protect us all equally!
Herald: I want you to get baptized.
Greens: All right, we’ll get baptized.
Herald: I tell you, if you don’t shut up, I’ll have your heads cut off
Greens: Each one seeks to have power, in order to be safe. If our remarks hurt you we hope that you will not be at all irritated. He who is divine ought to bear ought to bear everything patiently. But, while we are talk, we shall call a spade a spade. We no longer know, thrice August, where the palace is or the government; the only way we know the city now is when we pass through it on an ass’s back. And that is unjust, thrice August.
Herald: Every freeman can appear publicly wherever he likes, without danger.
Greens: We know very well we are free, but we are not allowed to use our liberty. And if any freeman is suspected of being a Green, he is always punished by public authority
The Greens spoke this brazenly because they knew they had at least some sympathy from Empress Theodora, who had been the illegitimate daughter of a bear trainer, an entertainer/dancer, and, heretically speaking, a Monophysite long before she became Augusta. This didn’t prevent brawling as the Greens clamored out of the Hippodrome, though, and several people of both the Green and Blue persuasion were arrested and prepared for hasty execution the following day.
Reports are a little sketchy about what happened next – this site says the executions were botched, this one that the gallows scaffold broke, while Edward Gibbon holds that there was a rescue – but the divergent strands re-connect with two men, one Green and one Blue, being hustled to sanctuary in the nearby Church of St. Lawrence. As the imperial guard ringed the church to prevent escape, both Blues and Greens began seeing enemies of enemies as friends, and for different reasons, found themselves united in the face of what was starting to look like Justinian oppression.
There were no races the next day (Monday, the 12th), during which time the leaders of the Blues and Greens slapped together a hasty alliance, based on mutual dislike (again, for differing reasons) of the city’s Prefect, Eudaemon, and when the races resumed on Tuesday, January 13th, their demands to the emperor for his censure grew deafening. During the 22nd of 24 races, both chanting crowds suddenly united and began shouting “Nika!” (“Victory!”) at the imperial box, prompting Justinian to retreat to his palace. The crowd, meanwhile, poured out of the Hippodrome and made its fist-waving way to the Praetorium (the city’s barracks/prison/administrative offices), and set the building aflame when the Prefect refused to allow the asylum-seekers in the Church of St. Lawrence to go free.
Justinian tried to hold races again the next day, but the people were in no mood for bread and circuses. According to Gibbon:
The riot, which had begun with a demand for a reprieve, now develops into an insurrection against the oppression of the administration. The outcry is directed especially against John the Cappadocian, Tribonian, and Eudaemon (Pref. of the City). Justinian yields to the pressure and deposes these ministers. But it is too late; the insurgents are determined to depose him, and the idea is to set in his place a member of the house of Anastasius. As Hypatius and Pompeius were in the Palace the people rush to the house of their brother Probus. But Probus is not found, and they set fire to his house.
By Fire and Sword
When the dismissal of the offending aristocrats failed to mollify the crowd, Justinian dispatched the troops. Gothic mercenaries stormed out of the palace, and there was fierce hand-to-hand fighting in the streets, even as the city burned around the combatants. Over the course of the next few days, the Hagia Sofia collapsed in flames, as did at least two major Baths, the Augusteum Senate House, and many other important buildings and works of art (including – possibly – the Statue of Zeus from Olympus, which may have still been in the palace of Lausus). Rioters set some of the fires; others were set by soldiers trying to smoke rebels out of impromptu strongholds.
Before dawn on the morning of Sunday, the 18th, Justinian appeared in the Hippodrome, which had become a sort of Riot Central, and remained the one place where he could directly address leaders of the factions. He took a solemn oath – Gospels in hand – to do better and to pardon the rioters for their crimes, but the mob was past being assuaged by apologies and promises. Rather than rallying back to Justinian, they proclaimed one of his rivals to be their true emperor, and Justinian once again scurried back into the Palace.
He was ready to abdicate and flee at that point, and likely could have lived a pretty good life in exile, but – if the legends are to be believed – Theodora stepped in and shamed him into staying. She is reported to have said:
“My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety. . . . 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.”
Whether it was his wife who convinced him to stay or not, that’s exactly what Justinian did – and having decided upon that course of action, took steps to ensure that he’d never have to tolerate such defiance again. He ordered his two warhorse generals, Belisarius and Mundus, to enter the Hippodrome through separate gates, lock the doors behind their troops, and slaughter everyone in the stadium. It’s rather telling that Procopius gives one of the lower body counts, placing the number at 30,000; Theophanes adds another 5000. Among those killed was Hypatius, the would-be emperor, and in the aftermath several prominent families found themselves stripped of their possessions and sent into exile.
Rebuilding With A Vision
Justinian was not the sort of Emperor to leave one of these:
in the middle of his city. Within days, he had hired a non-architect, Anthemius of Tralles, and the more reality-based Isidorus of Miletus to design a house of God that would outdo any other on Earth. A scant five weeks later, they were breaking ground on the new, improved Hagia Sofia. Even Justinian’s enemies were moved to admiration by what they built – in De Aedificis, Propocius gushes:
[The Church] is distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church….Thus far I imagine the building is not incapable of being described, even by a weak and feeble tongue…
…No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk….
It was a wonder of engineering, the largest dome constructed in the western world prior to the Italian Renaissance, one thousand years later. What’s more, the priority that the project was given by the Emperor meant that Justinian spared no expense in getting the church built, and built fast: it was consecrated on December 27, 537, less than five years after groundbreaking.
The grand project refocused the energies of the empire; with every arch that vaulted skyward, the Nika Riot faded a little further into the past. It showed the people that their civilization was not on the verge of tearing itself apart, but was instead entering a golden age of engineering and commerce. It was exactly what the people of Constantinople needed, and it – not the violence associated with the time he lost control of his own capitol – became Justinian’s legacy.
As sometimes happens with great projects, its first iterations were not perfect, and there were disasters. In a sense, the weakening of the initial dome by an earthquake in 557, and its subsequent collapse the next year (and again in 563), are a little reminiscent of Apollo 1, for in both cases, the engineers tasked with repairing the faults used the failures to inform their new designs. Just as 10 Apollo missions later saw men walking on the Moon, the redesigned dome became the permanent mark on history that Justinian had intended – it withstood significant earthquakes in 869, 989, 1344, 1766, and 1894. Oddly, it suffered almost no damage in the earthquake of August 17, 1999; it was open for tourists the next morning.
The Hagia Sofia remained the church at the center of the Orthodox Christianity until the sack of Constantinople by the knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204; the occupying Latins used the church as a Catholic cathedral for the next 57 years. With the recapture of the city by Byzantines in 1261, Hagia Sofia reclaimed its Orthodox heritage until it was proclaimed a mosque with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. The Muslims redecorated the place, carpeting it and plastering over a millennia’s worth of Christian mosaics on the walls, and over the next few centuries, other Islamic touches (like the four minarets) were added. Though they enjoyed a pretty good historical run, the Ottomans didn’t really survive the First World War, and in 1934, Kemal Ataturk, as part of his general push toward Turkish secularization, turned it into the Ayasofia Museum – and inadvertently set up some of the fiercest debates currently raging in the field of art restoration.
The Church of Divine Wisdom is a wonder of the world, an achievement that speaks through the ages to the creative and technological genius of the civilization that conceived and constructed it. Like the Temple of Kulkulkan, the Terracotta Army, and yes, even the Manhattan Project, it is something that could only have been produced by the coordinated efforts of a people operating at the highest levels of scientific, technological, and artistic achievement known to their points in history. We don’t admire the Hagia Sofia because it was built by the Byzantines; we admire the Byzantines for having created it.
It would have been easy enough (well, maybe not for me) to make this diary a few paragraphs long, focusing only on the mechanics of civil war and factional strife while making a few vituperative flamewar-related remarks, but I decided not to go that route (there’s plenty in the blockquotes, for those so inclined). So, in the interest of giving all the sides in the current torture/prosecution wars a wholly out-of-left-field target to flame at, I’m going to go ahead and leap past the debate about who’s a Blue and who’s a Green and posit a question about what comes next.
Is it time for a great project? I don’t mean a retooling of the tax code, or a tinkering with Social Security funding, but an honest-to-goodness wonder of the world – something that will inspire awe in a people several cultures and 1500 years removed from us. Something that later generations of our own civilization will point to with pride, and say “My people built that.”
I say the time is right for a project that will instill hope, pride, imagination, and drive in our schoolkids, like the space program once did for a young unitary moonbat. As the story behind the Nika Riot shows, such projects are sometimes pursued of necessity, as a means of uniting a nation in a period of strife. The Eiffel Tower, built only a few years after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, could be viewed in this context, as could our own Transcontinental Railroad, construction of which began during the Civil War.
The point is, sometimes great projects are embarked upon at near-nadirs in a society’s historical course, not only when they are at apexes of power and wealth. For every Panama Canal and Interstate Highway System, there’s Hagia Sofia or a Hoover Dam. The reasons for talking ourselves out of it are persuasive: a grand project would indeed be demanding, long-term, and very, very expensive, and embarking upon one gives no guarantee of ultimate success; but then again, they always are and they never do. That’s part of what makes them resonate through history – the vision, commitment, and sacrifice demanded of those who would truly expand the scope of human capabilities is something that is universally respected, and always has been.
For what will history remember our generations? That we remained mired for decades in seemingly-intractable problems stemming from differences over economic systems, religion, and political philosophy? That ours was one of those time periods that are “difficult” for people of later eras to understand? Maybe asking about why we allowed the abuses of the Bush “administration” to go unchallenged for so long will someday be like a contemporary student asking why people in the 1850s couldn’t stop the Civil War.
I don’t want us – our civilization, at this time in our history – to be remembered like that. I want to be remembered for a Hagia Sofia, not a Nika Riot. If you agree, please drop a comment below, maybe with a suggestion about what you think we ought to be doing. Me, I’m partial to:
And so I ask, in the aftermath of the Great Teabag Revolt of Aught-Nine: Is now a good time to focus our energies on something larger than ourselves?