The Nika Riots, Theodora and Belisarius

Beware the Ides of January.

On this date in 532CE the Nika Riots ignited in Constantinople and almost toppled “The Last Roman”, Justinian the Great.   He was the last Roman Emperor to speak Latin as his native tongue, the man that resurrected the Western Empire (ever so briefly), the last who could count the original city of Rome amongst his dominions, and the man that codified and preserved the Roman law that underpins Western democracies.   For all these reasons and more, and with all his flaws, Justinian deserves to be remembered.

Yet he was not the “last Roman”, the moniker given to him by his own contemporaries.  The Roman state would last another thousand years.  Nor was he the only truly exceptional Roman of his age as the events of the Nika Riots, some fourteen centuries ago, remind us.

(As an aside, the Romans were always ready to name ‘the last’ of them, perhaps understandable given the remarkable durability of their line – on more than one occasion naming the ‘last’ must have seemed like a safe bet yet that honor, in my opinion, really belongs to the last Emperor of all, Constantine Palaiologos who died during the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 and who will figure prominently in the next book I will write once I finish the “Legend of Africanus” series, please stay tuned).

The Riots began as a just protest in Constantinople against an Imperial bureacracy that was riddled with corruption.  Constantine the Great had reformed the sclerotic Roman administration two hundred years before after eliminating his co-Caesars, but subsequent emperors had let it deteriorate- none had Constantine’s ability.  When the Western Empire was lost, the mandarins in Constantinople did little to adapt the kleptocratic state in the surviving East.  The average Roman was crushed under high and arbitrary taxes, private property was amassed by the select few, and the concept of citizenship itself suffered greatly.

Justinian I came to power scant years before Nika.  Aware of the corruption and rot in his inherited government, he embarked upon an ambitious program of reform, raising taxes and reducing privileges for the senatorial class.  Because he was born to a peasant family in Thrace, and despite the fact that his uncle Justin had preceded him on the throne, Justnian was never accepted by blue-blooded Rome.  Yet his humble origins also allowed Justinian to empathize with his citizens in a way that few Caesars of the latter Empire had.

In that cauldron of inequity and uncertainty, the Riots erupted.  But what had started spontaneously soon turned into something more sinister – an organized attempt by a cabal of senators and major landholders to overthrow the upstart Justinian.

The details of what happened during the Riots, that reduced much of Constantinople to ashes in one terrifying week, are contained in my book, “From Africanus” and I won’t repeat them here.  The book is a work of historical fiction but I spent years researching that stunning moment in time and tried to represent it faithfully in the book.  But as we celebrate the anniversary of that event, I would like to acknowledge the two people that saved Justinian from certain death during the Riots – Theodora, his Empress and wife, and Belisarius, one of the greatest generals that ever lived.

When his attempts to reason with the rioters failed, and the city burned, Justinian lost heart and loaded ships with treasure in Bucoleon Harbor, preparing to flee the city.  Yet when he called his final cabinet meeting to announce his decision, the Empress Theodora refused to follow him into exile! This extraordinary woman stood her ground and told all present that she preferred to die in the purple than flee in shame. Her conviction changed his mind, and Justinian remained in the palace (a move that might well have ended in both their deaths had it not been for the General).

The General, Flavius Belisarius, was an unknown when Nika exploded. A young commander, in his mid twenties, Belisarius had a single notable victory to his credit before January 532, a recent triumph against the Persians “Immortals” at a frontier fortress at Dara (in modern Syria). Since long before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the Romans had prohibited army officers from bringing their soldiers into the capital. Coincidentally, the young general was in Constantinople that week on leave, and outside the city walls he had left a clutch of his knights to camp and await his return. When called upon by his Emperor, Belisarius brought his men into the city and in a bold, brilliant, bloody strike he fell upon the rebels that had massed in the Hippodrome to proclaim a new emperor, and he killed them to a man.  The riots ended there.

So what?  Why does Nika matter?  Few of us have ever heard of one of the most pivotal events in the last days of the ancient world. Justinian’s survival would keep the onset of the Dark Ages at bay for another generation or two, during which time he would consolidate, and insulate enough of Rome and Greece’s intellectual legacy to help spark a Renaissance still one thousand years distant.

And for me, this is about a debt we all owe to two exceptional people that we get our first important glimpse of on this day, January 13, 532.

Theodora, whose steel kept Justinian in the Palace that day and whose brilliant mind played apart in every decision he would make until her early death.

And Belisarius, whose armored knights – the first of their kind in the history of the world (they rode like Persians, they fired bows like Huns, they organized and endured like the ancient Roman legions) ended the rebellion and would go on to win back the Western Empire.

Justinian I was a remarkable sovereign, remarkable in his achievements and in his flaws. Yet his most incredible was his ability to attract the truly exceptional to his court. Among those exceptional individuals that helped to write his story, which is ultimately the story of ROME on the verge of the dark ages, the last chapter of the ancient world, none were more exceptional than Theodora his queen and Belisarius, his general.

Tonight I drink a scotch for you both.

(A brief postscript.  This was just the beginning of Belisarius’ almost fantastical life, a life distinguished by brilliance on the battle field, honorable treatment of his foes, dedication to his wife (who did everything she could not to deserve him), and loyalty to his Emperor.  Above all, this great man was humble, his most remarkable trait.  To learn more about him, please read the sequel to “From Africanus”, “Avenging Africanus”, available on this Summer 2015.)