4 comments January 19th, 2008 Headsman
On this date in 532, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had two nephews of a former emperor executed for participating, however unwillingly, in the Nika riots.
They care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitution are violated by friend or by foe; nay even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering unjustly, they pay no heed if only it is likely to go well with their “faction” …
When the clubs were pitted against each other, the civic disturbance rated a mere annoyance. But early in 532, they came into an unexpected alliance — around, it should be said in this venue, hangings meted out to their respective partisans — and outright revolt erupted at a race on January 13. Instead of chanting their respective factional slogans, a common cry of Nika! — “Victory!” — heralded a week of mayhem that nearly ended the great Byzantine prince’s era when it had hardly begun.
This day’s victims were nephews of a former Byzantine emperor, and their lot in the affair was an unlucky one. The suspicious Justinian cast them out of the palace quite against their will, for they feared exactly what in fact came to pass: the mob proclaimed Hypatius emperor and thrust him involuntarily — he had to be physically pried from the desperate resistance of his wife — into treason.
It was an old vintage in the Roman tradition, as Edward Gibbon reflected in reviewing the perverse structural logic of civil war during an earlier era of the western empire:
[I]f we examine with candour the conduct of these usurpers, it will appear that they were much oftener driven into rebellion by their fears than urged to it by their ambition … If the dangerous favour of the army had imprudently declared them deserving of the purple, they were marked for sure destruction; and even prudence would counsel them to secure a short enjoyment of the empire, and rather to try the fortune of war than to expect the hand of an executioner.
For a few hours, the throne stood in danger. Justinian mulled flight; his remarkable wife held him steady — and on January 18, their generals trapped the rioters in the Hippodrome and slaughtered some 30,000 of them.
Back to Procopius:
[T]he populace, who were standing in a mass and not in order, at the sight of armoured soldiers who had a great reputation for bravery and experience in war, and seeing that they struck out with their swords unsparingly, beat a hasty retreat … the partisans of Hypatius were assailed with might and main and destroyed.
Hypatius and his brother were taken alive but disposed of on this day, by which time their deaths were but a drop in a bloodbath.
[T]he emperor commanded the two prisoners to be kept in severe confinement. Then, while Pompeius was weeping and uttering pitiable words (for the man was wholly inexperienced in such misfortunes), Hypatius reproached him at length and said that those who were about to die unjustly should not lament. For in the beginning they had been forced by the people against their will, and afterwards they had come to the hippodrome with no thought of harming the emperor. And the soldiers killed both of them on the following day and threw their bodies into the sea. The emperor confiscated all their property for the public treasury, and also that of all the other members of the senate who had sided with them. Later, however, he restored to the children of Hypatius and Pompeius and to all others the titles which they had formerly held, and as much of their property as he had not happened to bestow upon his friends. This was the end of the insurrection in Byzantium.
Bad luck for Hypatius and Pompeius proved a blessing for posterity (and Turkey’s contemporary tourist trade): riot-devastated space near the Hippodrome was appropriated by Justinian to build the magnificent Hagia Sophia basilica.
This gripping affair is narrated in greater depth in an installment of Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast series:
… and in gripping detail by the History of Byzantium podcast.
On this day..
- 1735: Alice Riley, Savannah ghost - 2017
- 1894: John Hardy, desperate little man - 2016
- 1476: Israel, the last execution of the Trent blood libel trial - 2015
- 1891: James Eubanks - 2014
- 1894: Albert F. Bomberger, for the Kreider family murders - 2013
- 1880: Prevost, predatory Parisian policeman - 2012
- Daily Triple: 1880 and death - 2012
- 1866: Martha Grinder, the Pittsburgh Borgia - 2011
- 1661: Thomas Venner and the Fifth Monarchy Men - 2010
- 1870: Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, mass murderer - 2009