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Byzantium: Justinian and the Nika Riots

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Byzantium: Overview | Constantine and the Founding of Constantinople | Justinian and the Nika Riots | Heraclius and the Persians | Irene and Iconoclasm | Constantine Porphyrogenitus | Basil the Bulgar-Slayer | Empress Zoe | Romanos Diogenes and the Loss of Anatolia | The Sack of Constantinople | Constantine XI and the Fall of Constantinople | The Walls of Constantinople | Hagia Sophia

Justinian was a successful emperor who reigned for 38 years, from 527 until 565. There were many changes to the Empire during his reign, including the recapturing of much of the Western Empire, which had been invaded by barbarians. He is seen by some as the greatest Emperor of Byzantium. He is also sometimes referred to as the last really Roman emperor, although others reserve that dubious honour for Heraclius.


We must start with the previous emperor, Justin. He was an army man who had seized the throne when it became vacant. He was generally considered a fair ruler, but came down hard on those Christians whose views differed from the orthodox view set out by the bishops, branding such beliefs as heresies. Justin tried to stamp out the heretics, because he wanted a single set of beliefs in the Empire.

Justin was advised throughout his reign by his young nephew, who was clever, capable and very ambitious. That nephew's name was Justinian. Some consider Justin to be a puppet emperor with all the real decisions being made by Justinian, but others allow him credit for much of his work.

It was now almost two centuries since the founding of the city, and the Empire was not the magnificent unit that Constantine had left. The Romans had withdrawn from Britain, and barbarians had invaded the West, taking Gaul, Italy, Spain and Western North Africa. At the same time, there was pressure in the East from the Persians and in the northeast from Slavs who were crossing the Danube and invading the Balkan lands.


Justinian was born in about 483 in Tauresium, Illyria (now Taor, near Skopje, Republic of Macedonia). He was named Flavius Anicius Julianus at birth but later adopted the name Justinian after his uncle Justin. Because Justin had an important position in the army in Byzantium, Justinian came to the city, where he became his uncle's favourite. When Justin seized the throne, Justinian became his adviser. Gradually over the years he took control of the Empire. He was appointed official heir to the throne (Caesar) in 525, and co-emperor (Augustus) in 527. Later that year, Justin died and Justinian became the sole Emperor.


Theodora was the daughter of the 'Master of Bears', a wild animal handler for one of the circuses. Her mother was an acrobat. She was brought up in a family devoted to entertainment - from an early age, she specialised in a form of burlesque acting very similar to that of modern clowns. When she was older, she provided a different sort of entertainment for the men folk, being one of the most notorious prostitutes of the city. Justinian was captivated by her charms and fell in love. Eventually in 523 he married her. On Justinian's accession to co-Emperor, Theodora was crowned Empress.

The War in the East

The Persian Empire was a constant thorn in the side of the Byzantine Empire. One of the reasons for moving the capital to Byzantium in the first place was to offer better protection against the Persians, who were constantly testing the Romans along the frontier.

Justinian imposed very heavy taxes on the people in order to expand the army and defend the Empire. Some very good Byzantine generals, including the young Belisarius, managed to repel a particular Persian advance in the region of Colchis (now Georgia) and things were looking good for a peace settlement, when problems started at home.

The Nika Riots

While Constantinople had circuses, the most important sport for the amusement of the people was chariot-racing. Originally there were four teams, known simply by the colours they wore, the Reds, the Whites, the Blues and the Greens. By the time of Justinian, the Reds and Whites were a spent force and there were just the two teams, the Blues and the Greens. These had gone on from being just racing teams to political parties, running much of the local government of the city. Everybody in the city supported either the Blues or the Greens and each side hated the other intensely. Clashes between the Blues and the Greens were getting more and more serious, with gangs roaming the streets and people being killed in fighting.

Justinian himself was a supporter of the Blues, but as Emperor he had to be impartial, so he started a campaign of strict discipline. In early 531, several murderers were apprehended and executed. But two, a Blue and a Green, escaped and sought sanctuary in a church.

The people now turned against the Emperor. Blaming him personally for the heavy taxation, and each side seeing one of their supporters sentenced to death, they became very restless. Justinian promised chariot races for the people and also promised to reduce the murderers' sentences to life imprisonment. The mob wanted a total pardon.

The chariot races took place on 13 January, with the Emperor attending. As the games progressed, the supporters became more and more unruly, eventually uniting into one group against the Emperor. They chanted 'Nika, Nika!' which means literally, 'Victory' but in this context 'Victory to us'. Justinian fled through his special Imperial passageway to the adjoining palace. The mob erupted onto the streets and ran rampage through the city. For five days they rioted, setting fire to buildings and looting and pillaging.

Meanwhile, other more politically-minded people decided this would be a good opportunity to get rid of Justinian. They appointed Hypatius as Emperor - he was the nephew of a former Emperor. Things were looking bad for Justinian, hiding with his family in the palace. He was considering fleeing the city. But Theodora made an impassioned speech saying that she would rather die as Empress than live as a fugitive, and Justinian was persuaded to stay.

Because the riots had started in the Hippodrome, the mob had made this their centre of operations. On 18 January, at Justinian's command, general Belisarius took control and the army pushed the rioters back into the Hippodrome. The doors were then closed; the army went in and slaughtered every single person in the building. About 30,000 rioters were killed that day. The upstart Hypatius was also captured and executed.

The Rebuilding of Constantinople

Much of the city was damaged by the fires started by the riots, so Justinian started a huge reconstruction project, to make Constantinople the impressive city it should be as capital of the Empire. He never gave in on the issue of taxation - the money was now used to fund the rebuilding program. New churches were built, the most important being the new Hagia Sophia - the old church standing right outside the Hippodrome had been completely destroyed. The palace was also expanded and much of the water supply system for the city was improved and expanded. The underground Yerebatan water cistern, with its hundreds of carved pillars, dates mainly from this time and is still on display to tourists in Istanbul today.

Belisarius and the Reconquest of the West

The war with the Persians was finally settled about eight months later with a peace treaty known as the 'Endless Peace'. Unfortunately for Byzantium, one of the conditions of the peace settlement was an annual payment to the Persians of 16,000 pounds of gold. Justinian reckoned this was worth it for a stable eastern border.

He now set about achieving his ultimate aim: the reconquest of the Western Empire. The West was now controlled by the barbarians known as Goths and Vandals. These people were not as blood-thirsty and ignorant as the name barbarian suggests - they had taken control fairly peacefully, and their people lived interspersed with the Latin-speaking descendants of the Romans. Italy was occupied by the Goths; Rome itself still operated more-or-less as it had before, with a Senate, a Pope and all the other trappings of the Empire, but with a Gothic King instead of an Emperor. North Africa was occupied by the Vandals, with their capital at Carthage.

North Africa

In 533, Justinian sent out Belisarius and an army of 15,000 men to win back North Africa. The Vandals launched a three-pronged attack, but due to bad communications and timing, the three parties attacked at different times and Belisarius won the day. He quickly took control of Carthage, but it was about six months before the Vandal leader finally surrendered. Belisarius returned in triumph to Constantinople in 534, with the king of the Vandals as prisoner. The Vandal king was treated civilly and given a house and lands near Byzantium where he could live peacefully.


The reconquest of Italy was not as straightforward as that of North Africa. It was hampered by the fact that Justinian knew that Belisarius was his best general by far, but if he let him have too much success, he might decide to take the position of Emperor himself, and depose Justinian. This was a reasonable fear, but it meant that Belisarius couldn't always act exactly the way he would have liked.

The reconquest started in 535; Belisarius was sent out, this time with 7,500 troops. He started in Sicily, then proceeded northwards. Naples resisted for three weeks and as a result was pillaged by the Byzantines. Belisarius marched into Rome without a fight, the Goths leaving and retreating to Ravenna. He set about building up the defences of the city; the Goths returned in March 536 and laid siege to Rome. This siege lasted a whole year but was not successful - the Goths were unable to prevent reinforcements from arriving and swelling the Byzantine numbers. Eventually in March 537, the Goths called it off and retreated. In early 538, they laid siege to Milan. The city was one of the biggest in Italy, bigger even than Rome, but had only 300 soldiers to defend it against a host of more than 10,000: the Goths were joined in this by their allies, the Burgundians.

Belisarius was joined at this stage by a senior official from Byzantium called Narses. Narses was not a great general but he was Justinian's most trusted servant, since he was a eunuch with no family, and thus had no ambition to rule the Empire. Narses, being senior to Belisarius, seriously undermined his authority, so that when the general sent reinforcements to help the besieged residents of Milan, they refused to go beyond the River Po and said they only took orders from Narses. The result was that the city was taken in 539 by the barbarians, who for once lived up to their name: they slaughtered every male, took all the females into slavery and demolished every house in the city. It was a disaster for the Empire!

Belisarius, meanwhile, managed to capture Ravenna, which had been the Gothic capital. The Goths surrendered and gave over the whole of peninsular Italy to the Byzantines. At this stage, Belisarius should have consolidated his gain by staying in Italy and building up the army, but he was called back to Constantinople, probably so that Justinian could keep an eye on him. Five mediocre generals were left in charge, with the result that the Goths over the next four years took all of Italy back again.

Belisarius was sent out to Italy again in 544, but with very few troops, and didn't achieve much. It was Narses who eventually, in 552, put paid to the Goths, because he was given an army of 35,000 to achieve this. Two great battles took place between the Byzantines and the Goths: at Taginae in June 552 (somewhere near Gualdo Tadino, about 50km northeast of Perugia) and at Mons Lactarius in October 552 (near Pompeii). These effectively completely destroyed the fighting forces of the Goths, who agreed to withdraw from Italy.

With North Africa and Italy in Byzantine hands, Justinian was now happy to have recovered a sizable and important part of the Western Empire.

Justinian's Laws

By the time of Justinian, the Laws of the Empire had become very complicated, with all sorts of laws being published by different emperors, some of them new, some building on previous laws. Justinian decided that the whole legal system needed an overhaul. While he did make some new laws himself, it is more for the classification of the existing laws he is remembered. The result of all this was four main works:

  • The Codex - A neat compendium of all the laws, arranged in a logical order and without conflict between them.

  • The Digest - A summary of previous decisions by the Courts.

  • The Institutes - A manual for law students.

  • The Novels - A summary of decisions made by Courts under the new system of law.

The whole thing was known as 'Corpus Juris Civilis' or the Complete Civil Law. Most of the laws of Europe and America are based on these works.

Justinian's Failure

Justinian's armies had secured the East and the West. He now turned his attention to the North, and the Danube. This mighty river formed the traditional northern border of the Empire. Central Asia was on the move, and the effect of this was to push people west into Europe. New tribes of people were arriving and looking for lands in which to live. The Slavs were constantly crossing the Danube and trying to settle in Roman lands.

Justinian tried in the later years of his rule to keep the Slavs out of the Empire by building a series of huge fortifications at great expense along the northern frontier. But there wasn't enough cash to man these fortifications, and they were too far apart. The Slavs continued to trickle into the Empire and the later Emperors just had to live with them.

The Death of Justinian

Justinian died on 14 November, 565. He was succeeded by his son, Justin II. He left behind a city that was more impressive than ever, and an Empire that was almost as big as it had ever been, but with only a token control of the Western Empire. Byzantium's hold on the West would slip very rapidly and the Western Empire would soon be in the control of the barbarians for ever.

At times a harsh emperor, Justinian was much loved by the time he died. By his determination he had built up the city and the Empire, and the people of Byzantium would never forget him.

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