The Blues and the Greens
The population in every city has for a long been divided into two groups, the Greens and the Blues…the members fight with their opponents…respecting neither marriage nor kinship nor bonds of friendship, even if those who support different colors might be brothers or some other kind of relatives.
Procopius, History of the Wars, ca 545 CE
Imagine if the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox fans fight with each other over turf control, set up gambling operations, extort money, and intimidate political opponents. Imagine also that the only time you would be able to see the President of the United States was at a baseball game, and this was the only time you could let them know your displeasure. Welcome to the world of Roman chariot racing.
The sport of chariot racing was adopted in Rome either from the Greeks or the neighboring Etruscans. But it was in Rome that its popularity and importance soared. More so than the familiar gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum, chariot races were part of the Roman identity and became more of an obsession than any modern sport. Races were held at a circus, an outdoor venue for different athletic events. Most major Roman settlements had their own circus. In Rome, this was the Circus Maximus which, by some estimates, held upward of 150,000 spectators. The arena was 2,000 feet long with an oval track barely 150 feet wide. A stone spina or barrier ran down the middle of the track. Twelve four-horse teams, the quadrigae, competed in each race that lasted seven laps. Rules were few. Collisions frequent. Severe injuries and fatalities were commonplace. Spectacular crashes were known as “shipwrecks,” naufragia. There would be 24 races on a given day and some 66 race days in a year. (Think of the chariot race in Ben Hur.)
Charioteers were rock stars. One charioteer, Diocles, earned an estimated 36 million sesterces throughout his career. This amount rivals anything made by today’s sports superstars. Prize winnings for a single race could be lucrative. The poet Martial, in the 1st century CE, remarked that a charioteer could possibly earn up to 15 bags of gold. Despite this, most charioteers were of low status, coming from the ranks of formerly enslaved people or foreigners. Free-born Roman citizens were discouraged from becoming chariot drivers, and those that did were often looked upon with disdain.
Fielding a chariot team was expensive. From the early Roman Republic days, costs were shared by a consortium of wealthy aristocrats, mainly from the Equine class of Roman society. These consortia provided the funding for stables, feed, horses, and chariots, as well as paying the stipends of charioteers and team managers. They also hired the other entertainers associated with race day activities. These developed into well-organized demes - associations similar to modern-day professional sports clubs. If you were an athlete, you competed for a particular faction or team supported by one of the demes. In chariot racing, four factions evolved and were identified by the color worn by the drivers. These were the Blues, the Greens, the Reds, and the Whites. By the end of the Roman Empire, the Blues and Greens were the dominant teams, and the Reds and Whites were relegated to minor league status. The teams commanded fierce loyalty among their supporters. Fans segregated themselves in the arena by factional allegiance. Rivalries were heated, especially between the Blues and the Greens. Tablets etched with spells and curses were often thrown onto the track in an attempt to disable the competition. Race days were marked with gambling, drinking and feasting, and fights among the fans of different factions.
As gladiatorial combat fell from favor with the ascendancy of Christianity, chariot racing grew in popularity and importance. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, the sport developed into a blend of mass entertainment, organized crime, and a political force in the Byzantine Empire. The Hippodrome in Constantinople replaced the Circus Maximus as the center of the chariot racing world. Initially constructed by Emperor Septimius Severus in the 3rd century CE, the arena was renovated by Constantine when he dedicated the city as the new capital of the Roman empire. The Hippodrome rivaled its cousin in Rome in both scale and capacity. The emperor had his own private box called the kathisma, which was directly connected to the royal palace via a passageway. This gave race day an air of political importance. This was often the only time citizens of the city would see the emperor. It allowed him to display his benevolence and let the populous shout out political demands between races. While early Roman emperors had their favorite teams, imperial support increasingly became part of the state finances in Byzantium.
Historians have no clear picture of why people became fans of one team over another. The Blues are generally associated with the ruling class, conservative merchants, and religious orthodoxy, whereas the Greens are felt to be the faction of the masses. But allegiances constantly changed, and support could be due to factors such as class, locality, and religion. By the 6th century CE, the rivalry between Blues and Greens was visceral. Street fights among gangs of Blue and Green supporters were not unheard of throughout the empire. Many members of these gangs relished the image of being street thugs. To live up to this reputation, some resorted to more extreme violence. In 501 CE, fans of the Green team sneaked weapons into the Hippodrome. During one race, they attacked the Blue fans. Contemporary accounts estimate nearly 3,000 spectators were killed in the melee. Often these gangs were recruited by politicians and clergy to assault political and religious opponents. In Antioch, the Greens instigated a pogrom against Jewish residents, and several synagogues were burned. The Blues of the city helped defend the Jewish population though it isn't clear that their motives were anything but an opportunity to oppose the Greens. Procopius, who wrote during the reign of Emperor Justinian, described these men as young, somewhat prosperous, and spent much time and money on fashionable clothes and hairstyles. By 531 CE, the factions were so powerful that even imperial forces could not maintain order without their assistance.
At this time, Emperor Justinian faced a crisis. His war against Persia had drained the state treasury. His tax policies to cover the costs were highly unpopular, and many of the impoverished victims of the tax code had flocked to Constantinople. John the Cappadocian, Justinian’s chief tax collector, became the target of the general population's wrath. Another of Justinian’s administrators, Tribonian, was also unpopular and accused of being corrupt. The emperor also earned the anger of the aristocratic families. He had reduced the power of the Senate and consolidated imperial authority. Added to this were questions of his legitimacy and low birth status. His wife, Empress Theodora, had once been an entertainer in the Hippodrome in the employment of the Blues. Even the chariot racing demes looked at Justinian with suspicion as he sought to rein in the influence of both the Blues and Greens and curb the factional violence. All of this came to a head at the end of 531 CE.
The year ended with more sporadic violence between gangs of Blues and Greens in Constantinople. Several members of both factions were arrested for their roles in the disorder, and many were condemned to death. On the day of the execution, two of the condemned men survived due to a blunder by the hangman. One was a Green and the other a Blue, and with the help of the onlookers, they took refuge in a nearby church. The city prefect, Eudaemon, caring little for individual allegiances, had the city guard surround the church. On January 15, 532 CE, the customary chariot races were held at the Hippodrome three days later. Justinian was present that day to watch the races. As the factions filled the arena, in a rare display of unity, they protested to the emperor to show mercy on the two men. Justinian did not respond, and by the twenty-second race, the usual chants of “Blue” or “Green” had been replaced by a chorus of “Nika” - “victory.” By the end of the race day, the crowd was chanting, “Long life to the merciful Blues and Greens.” The crowd had been agitated into a frenzy. As they poured out of the arena, violence immediately erupted in the streets. Mobs broke into the Praetorium, the prison, and released all the prisoners. The next few days saw a rampage of indiscriminate burning, looting, and killing.
The unrestrained riot slowly turned into political unrest. A group of senators sought out Hypatius, the nephew of the deceased Emperor Anastasius. They convinced him to be crowned emperor in place of Justinian. By tradition, such coronations took place in the Hippodrome, and here Hypatius was to be acclaimed as emperor by a mixed crowd of Greens and Blues. Running out of time, Justinian sent his most trusted official, the eunuch Narses to the Hippodrome. Narses met with the leaders of the Blues and generously handed out cash payments. He reminded them of Justinian and Theodora’s support and pointed out that Hypatius was an ardent supporter of the Greens. Narses was successful in persuading the leaders, and old hatreds were renewed. The Blues abandoned the Hippodrome before the coronation. Justinian sent his army into the Hippodrome while the Imperial Guards blocked the exits. The troops massacred the remaining crowd killing nearly 30,000 regardless of their affiliation. Justinian restored order in the rest of the capital.
The "Nika Riots" had left a scar of destruction across Constantinople. Hypatius was executed, and rebel leaders had their property confiscated. The riots also marked the end of the Blues and Greens. They would no longer have the power and influence they had once had. Chariot racing itself would begin to decline in popularity. It would come to an end during the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE. A set of bronze horses, the Triumphial Quadriga, were taken from the Hippodrome by the Venetians. They were placed on the loggia above the porch in front of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World: Donald Kyle
Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire: Spectacles in Rome and Constantinople: Fik Meijer, Liz Waters (translator)
Sports and Games in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire: Barbara Schrodt (Novo Scriptorium)