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Blues and Greens: 532

The chariot races in the Hippodrome are the centre of popular culture in Constantinople, and the teams of charioteers - identified by their colours as the Blues and the Greens - inspire fanatical enthusiasm. Fights between their supporters are commonplace in the stadium, to cries of nika ('conquer') followed by the name of the favoured group.

In the early years of his reign, Justinian's reforms make him unpopular with the people - a situation aggravated in532 when he punishes with death the ringleaders of both Blue and Green factions after violent clashes between the two sides in the Hippodrome. His action, for the first time in history, unites Blue and Green in a common cause.

When the emperor takes his place in the stadium for the next games (they are frequent events), the entire crowd ominously chants the single word nika. The races begin but are soon cancelled. For five days rioters surge through the city, burning churches and public buildings. Each day they return to the Hippodrome with new demands, which soon include a change of emperor.

Justinian, if the reports are true, makes plans to flee from Constantinople. Theodora stiffens his resolve. They must stay and fight, she says. Her voice prevails, with gruesome but effective results.

The next time the rioters assemble in the stadium, they are followed in by Scandinavian mercenaries - members of the imperial army who have no local attachments. Other soldiers are stationed at the gates to cut down anyone who tries to escape from the Hippodrome. Within its walls some 30,000 citizens of Constantinople are massacred.

The incident echoes uncannily the earlier massacre for which the emperor Theodosius was denied holy communion by the bishop of Milan. But there is no one to rebuke Justinian. In the developing Byzantine tradition, bishops know their place in the royal retinue. One of them, Maximian, can be seen playing second fiddle to Justinian in one of the famous mosaics of Ravenna.

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