What was the Nika Rebellion and what caused it?

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The Nika Rebellion, or rather the Nika Riots as it is more often called, started off as a disagreement over chariot racing. However, this was no ordinary sports-related hooliganism. In the sixth Century, chariot racing and political issues were closely tied together. Emperor Justinian was often in attendance at the...

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The Nika Rebellion, or rather the Nika Riots as it is more often called, started off as a disagreement over chariot racing. However, this was no ordinary sports-related hooliganism. In the sixth Century, chariot racing and political issues were closely tied together. Emperor Justinian was often in attendance at the races, and spectators frequently took the opportunity to shout political demands at him between the matches.

Emperor Justinian was a supporter of the Blues. When a supporter of the Blues and one of the rival Greens escaped execution (they were to be killed for their part in a separate but smaller riot) and took refuge in a nearby church, a large mob gathered at the racetrack (hippodrome). Unified under the common cry of "nika" (victory), angry members of both the Blues and the Greens began assaulting the neighboring palace complex.

Over the next five days, the resulting fires caused extensive damage throughout the city and reflected terribly on Justinian, who was seen as too weak to put a stop to the violence. A number of senators, upset over Justinian's new tax and social reforms, took this as an opportunity to galvanize popular support for the emperor's overthrow. They went as far as to crown a new emperor.

Justinian was eventually able to regain control by bribing members of the Blues to turn on the new would-be emperor. Justinian then sent his royal guard into the hippodrome, who went about slaughtering as many as 30,000 of the rioters, essentially putting a bloody end to the whole affair.

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I assume that you are referring to the events of the year 532 in the Byzantine Empire that are more commonly called the Nika Riots (rather than the Nika Rebellion).  If so, the Nika Riots were riots that almost overthrew the Emperor Justinian in 532.  While the immediate cause of the riots had to do with chariot racing, their root cause had more to do with popular anger about some of Justinian’s policies.

In the Roman Empire, and after that in its successor, the Byzantine Empire, chariot racing was a major form of entertainment.  By 532, there were two chariot racing teams, the Blues and the Greens (there had once been four).  Most people (including Emperor Justinian) supported one team or the other and many were fanatical in their devotion.  Not long before the Nika Riots, there had been relatively major riots between the Greens and the Blues.  Justinian had reacted to that by sending in troops and condemning seven ringleaders of the riots to death. 

The Nika Riots were touched off when the seven were to be hung.  Five of them died, but two (a Green and a Blue) survived when the scaffold broke.  The crowd grabbed them and took them to a church where they took refuge.  Since one of the men was from each chariot team, the Greens and Blues united to demand that Justinian give the men a reprieve.  At the next chariot races, the crowd continually chanted for the men to be spared.  When Justinian did not respond, riots broke out.  The riots lasted for five days and caused a great deal of destruction.  Justinian gave in to many of the rioters’ demands, but they continued to riot and were calling for him to step down.  He eventually decided to fight back and crushed the riots, killing (by some accounts) 30,000 people in the process.

The riots were not really about chariot racing, even though that is what set them off.  Instead, they were about taxes.  Many in the empire felt that taxes were much too high.  They were angry at various officials in the government who they blamed for the taxes.  Their anger boiled over when set off by the chariot racing and the issue of the men who had survived the hanging.   

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