The natives were restless.
John of Cappadocia had imposed a slate of new taxes on the Roman Empire, many of them affecting Byzantium’s wealthiest citizens, and the masses were understandably pissed. Emperor Justinian was only slight more popular. He had married Theodora — the prostitute daughter of a bearkeeper who was “unusually intelligent” and refused to abide by gender norms, frequently interjecting herself in government affairs — and her role as empress was viewed as a disgrace on the once-proud empire.
Needless to say, tensions were already high when the Greens and Blues met on January 10, 532 A.D. for a chariot race in Constantinople, the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. And that day’s events would ignite the largest, most destructive sports riot in human history.
The Blues were the faction of the moneyed elites — Justinian and Theodora were Blue partisans, for example — while the Greens were the party of the plebeians. And the Greens were a particularly bloodthirsty lot. Several decades earlier, the Greens ambushed the Blues in a Constantinople amphitheater, killing 3,000 of them. The parties would riot against one another again just four years later, after skilled a charioteer named Porphyrius defected to the Greens from the Blues.
The January 10 chariot races took place in the Hippodrome, a horseshoe-shaped stadium believed to have held between 100,000 and 150,000 people. It was the largest chariot racing venue outside of the Circus Maximus in Rome.
Naturally, a fight erupted at the races, and Justinian sent in his troops to squelch the violence. Seven men were arrested for inciting the short-lived riot and sentenced to death by hanging. But the scaffolding broke during the mass execution and two of the men survived — one of them a Blue, the other a Green.
Blue and Green partisans returned to the Hippodrome for the next chariot race and demanded the two survivors be spared — God had obviously intended them to live, they said. For once, the two warring factions were united together against a common enemy: the government. The groups joined together in chanting, “Nika,” the Greek word for victory. As in, the victory of the people over the empire.
Sensing the growing resentment, the government shut down the races. But rather than quell the insurrection, it further agitated the citizens. The crowd dispersed throughout the city and burnt it down. “Fire was applied to the city as if it had fallen under the hand of an enemy,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius.
The rioting continued for five days, with Justinian holing up in his palace and contemplating retreat. It was Theodora who eventually convinced him to stay, essentially saying history would remember him as a massive coward if he fled:
If you, my lord, wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. We are rich, there is the sea, there too are our ships. But consider first whether, when you reach safety, you will regret that you did not choose death in preference. As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: The purple is the noblest winding-sheet.
On the fifth day of rioting, the Greens and Blues assembled in the Hippodrome to appoint their hand-chosen pick for emperor and mark the official overthrow of the existing government. But Justinian, learning from his past mistake, locked the Greens and Blues in the stadium. Troops then descended on the rioters, slaughtering them. By the end of the ordeal, the city was in smoldering ruins and more than 30,000 people were dead.
All of which is to say, we tend to think about sports riots as a distinctly American phenomenon. But what happened at the Hippodrome is a good reminder that organized sports have been making people act like hooligans for as long as there have been organized sports.