How Justinian the Great almost lost his throne

Constantinople Imperial District by Cplakidas

Justinian the Great was an energetic and ambitious ruler. He worked hard for what he believed to be the good of his empire. He also ensured that his people were entertained and readily dispensed financial aid to the poor and needy. But despite his efforts, he failed to win the hearts of his people. Instead, in his efforts at reform, he made many powerful enemies and nearly lost his throne in the process.

The beginning of Justinian’s reign

As the adopted son of the emperor Justin, Justinian had years of experience in statecraft. When the old emperor became seriously ill towards the end of his reign, Justinian was the de facto ruler of the empire. Given his familiarity with the government, Justinian began his own reign with gusto. He quickly appointed his own men to important positions based on merit. This ensured that they owed their loyalty and positions to him, strengthening his hold over his newly formed government. 1

Seeking to win the support of the people, Justinian’s second consulship in 528 was even more extravagant than his first. Unfortunately, Justinian was also cold and aloof by nature. He may have dazzled the people, but ultimately he failed to win their hearts. The citizens of Constantinople never warmed up to him. Meanwhile, Theodora courted popular support as well. She distributed large sums of money to churches, poorhouses and monasteries on her way to the hot springs of Pythion in Bythinia. These measures were prudent since the stability of Justinian’s reign depended on popular support. 2

The expenses of Justinian

As Justinian’s reign progressed, it soon became obvious to all that his expenditure exceeded those of Justin and Anastasius. Justinian thought nothing of spending money to fund the multiple projects he engaged in at any one time. Firstly, the ongoing war with Persia which he had inherited from Justin cost money. Then the Persian peace he concluded in 532 cost him another 11,000 pounds of gold a year. Then, there was the financial aid to earthquake-stricken cities like Antioch and Laodicea. Furthermore, Justinian had already begun an ambitious building project during the reign of Justin. Now that he was emperor, he carried out new building projects as he wished. 3

The most hated men in the empire

All of Justinian’s expenditure required a massive amount of money. His solution was simple. He entrusted the financial matters of the empire to his appointed Praetorian Prefect, John the Cappadocian. John was a talented administrator who streamlined the administration to cut cost, tackled corruption and introduced new taxes for the poor and the rich. He was also a highly efficient tax collector. Exceeding the boundaries of his duties, he frequently tortured people whom he suspected of having undeclared assets. Naturally, Justinian valued his abilities at raising money. But John’s efficiency and unsavoury lifestyle as a hedonist made him many enemies throughout the empire. 4

Coming in a close second behind John in terms of unpopularity was Tribonian. A skilful lawyer by profession, Tribonian was one of the most learned and charming men of his day. But he was also mercenary and unscrupulous. For the right price, he was willing to twist the law to help his clients. Due to this miscarriage of justice, he earned many enemies. Worsening matters, he was an open pagan in a predominantly Christian empire. Justinian however, recognized the abilities of Tribonian. He made him the head of a commission whose task was to codify, simplify and harmonize the Roman laws with Christian values. It was a massive undertaking, but Tribonian and his team discharged their duties quickly and efficiently. The result was the Codex Justinianus, the Digests and the Institutes. Despite Tribonian’s contributions to the empire, the common people remembered and hated him for his mercenary ways. Both John and Tribonian would soon be the target of public anger. 5

Hippodrome of Constantinople today by Adam Carr

The Greens and the Blues

During the reign of Justinian, the population of Constantinople numbered a few hundred thousand people. To keep the people happy, there were heated bathhouses, bookshops, churches and the Hippodrome which hosted chariot races and other forms of entertainment. Despite these measures, Constantinople was prone to civil unrest. The size of the population and the free time they had were probably contributing factors. But the usual perpetuators of unrest were usually the rival factions of the Hippodrome; the Greens and the Blues. 6

The Greens and Blues were a familiar sight at the Hippodrome. They managed the entertainment by employing the performers and cheered on their teams during the races. They drew their strength from the citizens of Constantinople who tended to support either faction. This gave the Greens and Blues some political influence as they could voice their unhappiness with the emperor’s policies in the Hippodrome. Generally, both factions tended to be unruly. Due to their bitter rivalry, they frequently committed arson, vandalism and got into fights after the chariot races. 7

During the early years of his reign as he was establishing his power, Justinian courted the favour of the Blues. But, by 532, he felt confident enough to disregard both factions. On January 10, when the Greens and Blues got into yet another fight after the races, Justinian acted swiftly. He sent in his troops to break them up. In the process, he arrested and sentenced the seven ringleaders to death. Of the seven, five died by hanging. But two managed to survive and escaped across the Bosporus to the monastery of St Lawrence to seek sanctuary. Hot on their heels was Eudaimon, the city prefect of Constantinople. He ordered his troops to surround the monastery in a bid to starve them out. As fate would have it, one was a Green, the other was a Blue. Meanwhile, demonstrations by their followers demanding their release fell on deaf ears. The mood in Constantinople was tense. 8

The Nika Riots

During the races, the Greens and Blues normally cheered on their teams by shouting its name followed by “Nika,” which means win. But on January 13, when Justinian appeared in the Hippodrome to watch the ongoing races, he got a shock. The Greens and Blues began directing their united chants of “Nika” at him. Quickly losing interest in the races, the mob broke out of the Hippodrome and went on a rampage. They headed straight for the palace of the City Prefect where they murdered the guards, freed the prisoners and torched the building. Next, they proceeded to burn the buildings along the Mese, the main road of Constantinople. A dark cloud of smoke hung over Constantinople. 9

On the second day, the mob assembled in the Hippodrome to make their demands known to Justinian. They demanded the sacking of Eudaimon, John of Cappadocia and Tribonian. Intimidated by the destruction the mob had caused, Justinian quickly complied. On the third day, the mob assembled once again in the Hippodrome. This time they demanded a new emperor, Probus, the nephew of Anastasius. But when they failed to find him at his home, the mob burnt it to the ground and carried on their wanton burning and destruction of Constantinople. Finally, on January 18, Justinian mustered up the courage to address the mob in the Hippodrome in a bid to end their rampage. He blamed himself for the chaos and offered a full pardon if the mob dispersed. But they were not appeased and Justinian retired to the Great Palace humiliated. 10

Determined to replace Justinian, the mob recalled another of Anastasius’s nephews; Hypatius. Hypatius had a distinguished career as a military commander. Now in his old age, he served as one of the senators in Constantinople. Despite his lack of imperial ambitions, the mob carried a reluctant Hypatius to the Hippodrome where they crowned him with a gold necklace. There they placed him in the emperor’s seat in defiance of Justinian. Meanwhile, Justinian conferred with his advisors and they agreed that it was best to flee the capital. But at this moment, Theodora spoke up. Reminding them of all that they would lose if they fled, she voiced her decision to stay even if it meant certain death. Chastened by Theodora, everyone decided to stand their ground and fight. 11

Justinian strikes back

As fate would have it, two of the empire’s best generals, Belisarius and Mundus, were present in the palace. The latter also had a band of Scandinavian mercenaries under him. Now that Justinian resolved to fight, he immediately ordered them to end the riots. To do so, Belisarius and Mundus slipped out of the palace, mobilized their troops and stealthily approached the Hippodrome. Meanwhile Narses, the commander of the eunuch bodyguard, bribed some elements of the mob to cause dissension. Then, at the arranged timing, the imperial troops burst in through different entrances and fell upon the unsuspecting mob. It was a massacre. 30,000 unarmed civilians died in the process. The imperial troops also captured Hypatius, his brother Pompeius and the senators who encouraged the riots. Initially, Justinian was inclined to spare the lives of Hypatius and Pompeius. But Theodora insisted on their execution to prevent future unrest. And so, the brothers met their ends on January 19. As for the captive senators, they went into exile as punishment. Meanwhile, Justinian seized the assets of these men to provide the necessary funds for the rebuilding of Constantinople. 12

Aftermath of the Nika Riots

The Nika Riots was a wake up call for Justinian. By demanding the dismissal of John and Tribonian, the people and the senators behind them voiced their displeasure over Justinian’s policies. It didn’t help that John and Tribonian alienated many people in high places with their conduct. John and Tribonian returned to their offices a few weeks later. But this time, Justinian was careful that they did not go too far. 13

But the people also learnt an important lesson. They could not make their emperor do as they pleased. In the past, they were successful with Anastasius. But with 30,000 rioters dead, Justinian had demonstrated that he could be firm and ruthless if necessary. 14

Then, there was the participation of the senators in the riots as well. Many of these senators came from old aristocratic families. And so it was clear that Justinian’s attempts to win over the senators had ultimately failed. He and his wife Theodora would always be upstarts in their eyes because of their low birth. Unsurprisingly, Justinian began to take measures that limited their powers and drained their wealth. 15

Reflections of the Vizier

Surviving the riots was a triumph and a turning point for Justinian. It was a triumph because merit and ability had prevailed over noble birth and privilege. Quick to learn from his mistakes, Justinian took measures to curb the power and influence of the senators. This left him free to direct the empire as he wished for another 30 years. The Nika riots also allowed him to rebuild and create architectural masterpieces like the Hagia Sophia that exists even till this day.

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Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. California: Stanford University Press, 1997.

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  1. John Moorhead, Justinian (New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited), 22, 30-31; John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (England: Penguin Books, 1990), 194-197; Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California: Stanford University Press, 1997), 178. []
  2. Moorhead, Justinian, 31; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 194. []
  3. Moorhead, Justinian, 22-24; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 194-195; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 178-181. []
  4. Moorhead, Justinian, 44-45; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 195-196; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 179-180. []
  5. Moorhead, Justinian, 45; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 196-197; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 179. []
  6. Moorhead, Justinian, 40-43; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 185; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 165. []
  7. Moorhead, Justinian, 43; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 185; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 165. []
  8. Moorhead, Justinian, 44; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 197-198; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 181. []
  9. Moorhead, Justinian, 44; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 198; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 181. []
  10. Moorhead, Justinian, 44-46; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 198-199; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 181. []
  11. Moorhead, Justinian, 46-47; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 199; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 181. []
  12. Moorhead, Justinian, 47; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 199-200; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 181. []
  13. Moorhead, Justinian, 48; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 200; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 182. []
  14. Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 200. []
  15. Moorhead, Justinian, 48-49, 62; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 200; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 182. []
One Comments Post a Comment
  1. San Blas says:

    Your site is excellent I will have to read it all, thank you for the diversion from my homework!

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