If one thinks of horse races one is probably inclined to think of the Grand National in the UK or in America the Kentucky Derby. Both these races are staples of the annual equestrian calendar and certainly something worth seeing for any fan of equestrian sports. One race that is probably less well known, but in my opinion is the greatest horse race of all time led to civil unrest was called the Nika Riots.
It’s not so surprising that these riots—sometimes also referred to as the Nika Revolt—aren’t particularly well known nowadays is because they occurred in 532 CE in Constantinople, better known today by its current name of Istanbul. At that time the city was under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. The Empire was the eastern portion of the Roman Empire that had been split under the reign of Diocletian and covered the Balkans, Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), the Levant and Egypt.
Chariot races were the highlight of the city’s cultural calendar in the same way that gladiatorial fights had been in Roman and—perhaps—the way the Grand National or the Kentucky Derby are today to some people. Although the teams didn’t have the most original of times, they inspired deep devotion and fandom and those who supported the blues would never consider cheering on the greens and those die-hard green fans would never root for the blues.
Not unlike today there were plenty of what we would now call hooligans and after a particularly aggressive couple of fights following one race emperor Justinian had the leaders of the respective hooligans executed in Constantinople’s Hippodrome, as a warning to other would-be hooligans.
As Justinian had enacted several unrelated by wildly unpopular reforms in the Empire his warning to the fans backfired completely.
At the next race the blues and the greens joined together shouting ‘Nika’ (‘conquer’) but instead of saying nika blue or nika green (as we might say go greens or go blues, but obviously in Greek) they united in shouted ‘Nika! Nika! Nika!’ The emperor sensed the threat and fled the stadium, which only emboldened the crowd who chased the emperor.
In the coming five days some 30 000 people were killed in Constantinople and the empire was on the verge of total rebellion until Justinian, as the insistence of his wife, crushed the rebellion to restore order.
So, next time you’re impressed by the devotion of modern fans or even hooligans remember the Nika Riots and be thankful such occurrences are no longer commonplace.