The Nika riots, Nika revolt or Nika sedition took place against Emperor Justinian I in Constantinople over the course of a week in 532 CE. They were the most violent riots in the city's history, with nearly half of Constantinople being burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.
I came across the story of these riots while watching a series of lectures by Ryan Reeves on Early and Medieval Church History. The mirror to our time is uncanny.
First, the repeating part: the Roman and Byzantine Empires had associations based on suburbs or subdivisions of the community, each supporting its own sports teams – particularly chariot racing. In Constantinople there were four major factions, each team known by their colors. The two strongest were the Blues and the Greens.
These associations were not merely focused on the sport; they became a focal point for various social and political issues, the team association providing an outlet for the people where none otherwise existed.
In 531 some members of the Blues and Greens had been arrested for murder in connection with deaths that occurred during rioting after a recent chariot race. Relatively limited riots were not unknown at chariot races, similar to the football hooliganism that occasionally erupts after association football matches in modern times. The murderers were to be executed, and most of them were.
Two escaped, one Blue and one Green. Justinian, facing external pressure from the Persians, wanted to keep things calm in the city. He decided to restart the games and to commute the sentences to imprisonment. The people, however, wanted a full pardon.
In addition to being unpopular with the masses, Justinian was also unpopular with the nobles – having been removed from the civil service, they lost their power. Further, Justinian’s legal reforms made it difficult for the nobles to hide their dirty deeds via obscure laws and rulings.
In any case, Justinian refused to pardon the two offenders. The riots began on January 13, 532. Justinian’s palace was next to the Hippodrome, and the crowds broke out:
For the next five days, the palace was under siege. The fires that started during the tumult resulted in the destruction of much of the city, including the city's foremost church, the Hagia Sophia (which Justinian would later rebuild).
The senators saw this as an opportunity to overthrow Justinian; the rioters were likely controlled by members of the senate. A new emperor was declared; Justinian was ready to throw in the towel, with an escape route prepared.
This is where the repeating of history stops…certainly so far. His wife, Theodora, talked him out of escaping, saying:
"Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress." She is also credited with adding, "[W]ho is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how could an Emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive."
Justinian responded, killing about 30,000 rioters. He executed the replacement emperor and exiled the senators behind the riots.
It should be pretty clear – just change a couple of names, and we see the headlines from the last four years and specifically the last six months. It even has sports right in the middle of it.