The Hippodrome of Constantinople was a horse-racing track that was the sporting and social centre of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire and the largest city in Europe. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydani in the Turkish city of Istanbul, with only a few fragments of the original structure surviving. The word hippodrome comes from the Greek hippos ('ιππος), horse, and dromos (δρομος), path or way. Horse racing and chariot racing were popular pastimes in the ancient world and hippodromes were common features of Greek cities in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras.
Although the Hippodrome is usually associated with Constantinople's days of glory as an imperial capital, it actually predates that era. The first Hippdrome was built when the city was called Byzantium (Byzantion in Greek), and was a provincial town of moderate importance.
In 203 the Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the city and expanded its walls, endowing it with a hippodrome, an arena for chariot races and other entertainments. The race-track at the Hippodrome was U-shaped, and the Emperor's box, with four bronze statues of horses on its roof, was located at the eastern end of the track. These horses, which were cast in the 5th century BC and brought from Greece, were looted during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and installed on the façade of St Mark's Basilica in Venice. The track was lined with other bronze statues of famous horses and chariot drivers, none of which survive.
Throughout the Byzantine period, the Hippodrome was the centre of the city's social life. Huge amounts were bet on chariot races, and the whole city was divided between fans of the Blue (Venetii) and Green (Prasinoi) chariot racing teams. The two other racing teams, the Reds (Rousioi) and the Whites (Leukoi), gradually weakened and were absorbed by the two major factions. Frequently rivalry between Blues and Greens became mingled with political or religious factions, and riots which sometimes amounted to civil wars broke out in the city between them. The most severe of these was the Nika riots of 532, in which 30 000 people were said to have been killed.
Constantinople never really recovered from its sack during the Fourth Crusade and even though the Byzantine Empire survived until 1453, the Hippodrome was not rebuilt and did not regain its former glory. The Ottoman Turks, who captured the city in 1453 and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire, were not interested in racing and the Hippodrome was gradually forgotten, although the site was never actually built over.
The Hippodrome ( A Hippodrome was a Greek stadium for horse racing and chariot racing, Greek hippos ('ιππος), horse, and dromos (δρομος), path or way ) of Constantinople ( built between AD 203 and 330 ) The whole system of the chariot races between the teams that represented the " factions " of the Circus was reproduced at Byzantium with an energy that even surpassed the devotion of the Romans to horse racing.
From the first foundation, of the city the rivalry of the factions (demes) " Blues " and the '' Greens " was one of the most striking features of the life of the place. It was carried far beyond the circus, and spread into all branches of life. We often hear of the " Green " faction identifying itself with Arianism, or of the " Blue " supporting a pretender to the throne. Not merely men of sporting interests, but persons of all ranks and professions, chose their colour and backed their faction. The system was a positive danger to the public peace, and constantly led to riots, culminating in the great sedition of A.D. 523.
In the Hippodrome the " Greens " always entered by the north-eastern gate, and sat on the east side ; the " Blues " approached by the north-western gate and stretched along the western side. The emperor's box, called the Kathisma, occupied the whole of the snort northern side, and contained many hundreds of sears for the imperial retinue. The great central throne of the Kathisma was the place in which the monarch showed himself most frequently to his subjects, and around it many strange scenes were enacted. It was on this throne that the rebel Hypatius was crowned emperor by the mob, with his own wife's necklace for an impromptu diadem.
Down the centre of the Hippodrome ran the " spina," or division wall. It is estimated that the Hippodrome of Constantine was about 450 m (1,476 ft) long and 130 m (427 ft) wide. Its stands were capable of holding 100,000 spectators. Gladiatorial games were banned by Constantine the Great in 325 AD, yet were held from time to time. In 393 Theodosius, the last emperor of the Eastern and Western Empire adopted Christianity as the Roman state religion and banned pagan festivals
The Nika Riot of 532
'The purple is the noblest winding-sheet'
To be a " Green " in 530 meant to be a partisan of the house of the late Emperor Anastasius, and a Monophysite.* The "Blues" posed as partisans of the house of Justinus, and as strictly orthodox in matters ecclesiastical From mere Circus factions they had almost grown into political parties ; but they still retained at the bottom many traces of their low sporting origin. The rougher elements pre- dominated in them ; they were prone to riot and mischief, and, as the events of 532 were to show, they were a serious danger to the State.
In January of that year there was serious rioting in the streets. Justinian, though ordinarily he favoured the Blue faction, impartially ordered the leaders of the rioters on both sides to be put to death. Seven were selected for execution, and four of them were duly beheaded in the presence of a great and angry mob, in front of the monastery of St Conon. The last three rioters were to be hung, but the hang- man so bungled his task that two of the criminals, one a Blue the other a Green, fell to the ground alive. The guards seized them and they were again suspended ; but once more — owing no doubt to the terror of the executioners at the menaces of the mob— the rope slipped. Then the multitude broke loose, the guards were swept away, and the half-hung criminals were thrust into sanctuary at the adjacent monastery.
ruins of the Hippodrome
This exciting incident proved the commencement of six days of desperate rioting. The Blues and Greens united, and taking as their watchword, Nika " conquer," swept through the city, crying for the deposition of John of Cappadocia, the unpopular finance minister, and of Eudemius, Praefect of the city, who was immediately responsible for the executions. The ordinary police of the capital were quite unable to master them, and Justinfan was weak enough to pro- mise to dismiss the officials. But the mob was now quite out of hand, and refused to disperse : the trouble was fomented by the partisans of the house of the late emperor, who began to shout for the deposition of Justinian, and wished to make Hypatius, nephew of Anastasius, Caesar in his stead. The city , was almost empty of troops, owing to the garrison having been sent to the Persian War. , The Emperor could only count on 4,000 men of the Imperial Guard, a few German auxiliaries, and a regiment of 500 " Cataphracti," mailed horsemen, under Belisarius, who had just returned from the seat of war.
Belisanus was placed in command of the whole, and sallied out to clear the streets, but the rioters, showing the same pluck that the Byzantine mob displayed against the soldiers of Gainas a hundred and twenty-five years before, offered a stout resistance. The main fighting took place around the great square of the Augustaeum, between the Imperial palace and the Hippodrome. In the heat of the fight the rebels set fire to the Brazen Porch by the Senate House. The Senate House caught fire, and then the conflagration spread east and north, till it was wafted across the square to St. Sophia.
On the third day of the riot the great cathedral was burnt to the ground, and from thence the flames issued out to burn the hospital of Sampson and the church of St. Irene. The fire checked the fighting, and the insurgents were now in possession of most of the city. But they could not find their chosen leader, for the unfortunate Hypatius, who had no desire to risk his neck, had taken refuge with the Emperor in the palace. It was not till he was actually driven out by Justinian, who feared to have him about his person, that this rebel in spite of himself, fell into the hands of his own adherents. But on the sixth day of the riots they led him to the Hippodrome, installed him in the royal seat of the Kathisma, and crowned him there with a gold chain of his wife's, for want of a proper diadem. councils in the Palace. John of Cappadocia and many other ministers strove to persuade the Emperor to fly by sea, and gather additional troops at Heraclea. There was nothing left in his power save the palace, and they insisted that if he remained there longer he would be surrounded by the rebels and cut off from escape. It was then that the Empress Theodora rose to the level of the occasion, refused to fly, and urged her husband to make one final assault on the enemy. Her words are preserved by Procopius. " This is no occasion to keep to the old rule that a woman must not speak in the council. Those who are most concerned have most right to dictate the course of action. Now every man must die once, and for a king death is better than dethronement and exile. May I never see the day when my purple robe is stripped from me, and when I am no more called Lady and Mistress ! If you wish, O Emperor, to save your life, nothing is easier : there are your ships and the sea. But I agree with the old saying that " the purple is the noblest winding-sheet.' Purple was the color reserved for emperors, the meaning was it was better to die an emperor than flee.
Spurred on by his wife's bold words, Justinian ordered a last assault on the rebels, and Belisarius led out his full force. The factions were now in the Hip- podrome, saluting their newly-crowned leader with shouts of Hypatie Auguste, tu vincas*' preparatory to a final attack on the palace.
Belisarius attacked at once all three gates of the Hippodrome: that directed against the door of the Kathisma failed, but the soldiery forced both the side entrances, and after a hard struggle the rebels were entirely routed. Crowded into the enormous building with only five exits, they fell in thousands by the swords of the victorious Imperialists. It is said that 3S,ooo men were slain in the six days of this great " Sedition of Nika." It is curious to learn that not even this awful slaughter succeeded in crushing the factions. We hear of the Blues and Greens still rioting on various occasions during the next fifty years. But they never came again so near to changing the course of history as in the famous rising of 532.
From THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE C. OMAN