Saturday, January 13, 2007

January 13

Nearly 1500 years ago, the city of Constantinople was virtually destroyed in five days of ferocious rioting that killed as many as 30,000 people and left half the city in cinders. The riots began on 13 January 532 at the Hippodrome, where two racing teams -- the Blues and the Greens, each of whom was allied with rival political factions and criminal organizations -- set aside their traditional animosities and united in opposition to the Emperor Justinian. Three days prior to the unrest, a botched execution had allowed two condemned men (one from each faction) to escape the hangman's noose; after the two fortunate men had been spirited away by monks to the church of St. Laurentius, leaders of the Blue and Green factions cried angrily for mercy they did not actually believe would be forthcoming. Resentful as well of Justinian's decision to impose new taxes, the grumbling politicos were joined by throngs of impoverished rural-dwellers who had flooded Constantinople, hoping to beg relief from the onerous financial burdens created by the emperor.

Rallying to the cry of nika ("conquer"), the furious Byzantines spilled from the Hippodrome on January 13 and surged toward the Praetorium, the legal center of the city. There, they smashed and burned the prison, freeing scores of criminals; elated with their conquest, the revelers moved on to the Augusteum, the massive square in front of the Hagia Sophia, where they set fire to several buildings. My morning, the city had erupted into scattered fighting and incendiarism. Over the next several days, hundreds of people were killed in the violence, and Justinian's political opponents seized the opportunity to lead an attempted coup against the unpopular emperor. Believing Justinian had fled the city, Hypatius -- nephew of the former emperor Anastasius -- assumed his place at the Hippodrome and briefly enjoyed the adulation of tens of thousands of well-wishers. Justinian's wife Theodora, however, famously persuaded her husband to remain in the city and reclaim his rightful power. Three of his generals sealed off the giant stadium and slaughtered its inhabitants. Hypatius and his brother Pompeius were promptly executed and cast into the sea.