1985: Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, progressive Islamic theologian Feast Day of St. Sebastian

532: Hypatius and Pompeius, for Byzantine sports riots

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.

Early in Justinian‘s reign, chariot-racing factions comprised mobs unruly enough to put any modern football hooligan into traction. Riots were a periodic feature of the sport.

The historian Procopius, who is our guide to this day’s events, describes a type the modern reader will recognize:

The Empress Theodora‘s cool head famously saved the day — and the empire — when her husband was ready to bolt. “May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty … as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.”

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:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

… and in gripping detail by the History of Byzantium podcast.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Early Middle Ages,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Rioting,Summary Executions,Treason,Turkey

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4 thoughts on “532: Hypatius and Pompeius, for Byzantine sports riots”

  1. Hi, i’m not sure if it was someone from this blog or an avid reader of yours who recommended this post to me, but this is a note to let you know that i linked you in the latest carnivalesque:
    http://highlyeccentric.livejournal.com/242435.html

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