The new imperial couple could hardly have been more different from the old regime. They were both young—he in his forties and she in her twenties—and if they were never exactly popular, they at least seemed like a breath of fresh air to the populace. The coronation had been an extravagant affair, unlike anything seen during the stingy days of Anastasius, and there were those who hoped it was a sign that a glorious new age was dawning.

Justinian certainly wasn’t like other men who had held the imperial throne. Alone of the Byzantine emperors, he dreamed on a truly imperial scale, unable to abide the abomination of a Roman Empire that didn’t include Rome. He had been steeped since youth in the classical view that just as there was one God in heaven, there was only one empire here on earth. His authority as the sole Christian emperor was absolute, and his duty was to mirror the heavenly order. This was a sacred trust, and the fact that half of the empire lay in heretical barbarian hands was an insult he couldn’t let pass. It must be made whole again, and be filled with monumental public works that would endure through all the ages as a testament to the splendor of his reign.

Of course, ambitions as grand as these needed to be paid for somehow, and though his two penny-pinching predecessors had left the treasury bursting at the seams, Justinian had already proven how quickly he could burn through state funds. Six years earlier, he had managed to disperse more than thirty-seven hundred pounds of gold to pay for the decorations of the lavish games in honor of his consulship, and by the second year of his reign, he had already begun a monumental building program that had started construction on no fewer than eight churches. He had many virtues, but clearly restraint and frugality were not among them.

The money for all these projects inevitably came from taxes, and Justinian was fortunate to have on hand a ruthless individual named John the Cappadocian who seemed capable of squeezing money out of a stone. Uneducated and devoid of any charm, John streamlined the tax system, closed loopholes, and attacked corruption with a dog-like tenacity. His favorite targets were the rich, who had long escaped their due with privileges and exemptions, and he was perfectly willing to torture those he thought were trying to dodge their responsibilities. The provoked nobility raised an outcry, but the emperor was distinctly unsympathetic.

An upstart himself, Justinian had no patience for the patricians who looked down their long noses at him, and he had no intention of sparing their delicate sensibilities. As far as he was concerned, the aristocracy had been a plague on imperial history, forever battling the power of the emperor and clogging up the bureaucracy with their constant attempts to maintain the status quo. This was a time to try new ideas, not to be weighed down with the outmoded thinking of worn-out tradition. The way into his favor was to have impressive merits, not names, and he was determined to surround himself with pragmatic figures who would sweep aside the clutter of the stuffy imperial court. John the Cappadocian was admirably reforming the bureaucracy, and if the nobility were squirming in the process, so much the better.

The emperor was, in any case, already onto his next project. He had met an extraordinary lawyer named Tribonian who seemed to be a walking encyclopedia of Roman law. This was all the more impressive because Roman law was a confusing mess of nearly a thousand years of often-contradictory precedent, special exemptions, and conflicting interpretations, none of which were written down in any one place. In a typically ambitious move, Justinian decided to bring much-needed order to the situation by removing all the inconsistencies and repetitions, making the first comprehensive legal code in imperial history. The brilliant Tribonian was clearly the man for the job, and he attacked it with relish and an astonishing speed. In a mere fourteen months, he published the newCodex—the supreme authority for every court in the land, and the basis of most European legal systems today* Law schools sprang up from Alexandria to Beirut, and the University of Constantinople soon produced legal scholars who exported the code throughout the Mediterranean world.

These glittering achievements, however, came with a cost. Tribonian and John were among the most hated men in the empire, and the fact that Tribonian was famously corrupt—and a pagan into the bargain—didn’t help matters. Had the emperor been listening, he would have heard an ominous rumbling of dissent. The bruised egos of the powerful aristocracy demanded retribution, and the common man suffering under the cruel hands of the imperial tax collectors began to wonder if life wouldn’t be a whole lot easier with another man on the throne.

Justinian was far too busy with foreign affairs to notice storm clouds on the domestic horizon. In 528, war had finally broken out with Persia, and he had been busy reorganizing the eastern army. The aging Persian king sent a huge army to flatten the Romans, but Belisarius defeated it with his characteristic flair, and he even managed to conquer part of Persian Armenia. It was the first clear victory on the Persian frontier in living memory, and it sounded the clarion call of imperial revival.

It also resulted in the fall of the Vandal king of Africa. He’d been maintaining an increasingly difficult balancing act for years, and this latest triumph of Byzantine arms had made his position nearly untenable. On the one hand, he had to placate Justinian to keep the imperial armies away, but too much of an effort to keep the Byzantines happy would inevitably invite charges of betrayal by his own subjects. Most Vandals feared for their independence and wanted a tough stance from their leader, but the king chose this moment to unveil a new series of coins with the emperor’s portrait on them. The ill-timed attempt to ingratiate himself with the eastern court cost him his crown. Aided by the outraged Vandal nobility, the king’s cousin Gelimer easily overthrew him and seized the throne of Carthage.

From the start, Gelimer made it clear that he didn’t intend to be intimidated by any bullying from Constantinople. When Justinian sent a letter protesting his usurpation, Gelimer told him to mind his own business, subtly reminding him that the last Byzantine military expedition against his kingdom had ended in a complete fiasco. If these blustering Byzantines wanted their land back, Gelimer announced, let them come and get it. They would find Vandal swords ready for them.

Justinian was slightly disappointed by the change in Vandal kings, since he was quite sure the right diplomatic pressure would have delivered North Africa back into the Roman fold without the loss of a single soldier, but Gelimer’s warlike stance would do almost as well. The contemptuous letter provided an insult to be avenged, a useful bit of propaganda for the emperor and the perfect pretext to invade. The Vandal occupiers had plundered Roman land and thumbed their noses at Constantinople for long enough. Now they would find out what it meant to taunt the Roman wolf.

There was only one man who could be entrusted with the African campaign, but Belisarius was busy fighting on the Persian frontier. In 531, he managed to fight a much larger Persian army to a standstill, and, with his customary good luck, this proved to be the decisive conflict of the war. A few days later, the demoralized Persian king unexpectedly died, leaving a young but shrewd son named Chosroes to take his place. The new king desperately needed peace to consolidate his power, and hastily agreed to an “Everlasting Peace,” leaving Justinian’s favorite general free.* Nothing, it seemed, could now stop the reconquest of North Africa.

But Belisarius had barely arrived in Constantinople when a very different sort of war erupted. While Justinian was dreaming of glory in Africa, tensions in the capital had built to a fever pitch. Upset by the rising taxes and increasing corruption, the population had reached its boiling point when the emperor severely restricted the privileges of the Blues and the Greens in order to cope with a rise in factional violence. Not only had Justinian allowed his surrogates to fleece the citizens with cruel taxes, but now he was interfering in their sports as well. Games celebrating the ides of January were held to defuse the situation, but when the spectators caught sight of Justinian taking his usual seat, things began to get ugly. The anonymity of the crowd gave someone the courage to taunt the emperor, shouting out that he wished Justinian’s father had never been born, and the stadium shook with the roar of approval. When Justinian furiously asked if they had gone mad to address him so, the mob exploded in a rage, bursting out of the Hippodrome intent on destruction.

Justinian beat a hasty retreat to the Great Palace, and, after a few hours of rioting, his imperial police managed to get control of the situation. Seven of the ringleaders were arrested and sentenced to death, but the large crowd that soon gathered seemed to unnerve the executioners, and they managed to botch the final two hangings. The first attempt was embarrassing enough, as the rope broke and both men were found to be still breathing, but when the hangmen tried again, the entire scaffold collapsed. Naturally, such excitement drew a larger crowd, and in the uproar that followed, several monks from the nearby monastery of Saint Conon managed to spirit the condemned men to safety.

The commander of the imperial guard was hesitant to pursue them, fearful that forcing his way into a sacred building would touch off a riot, so he elected to starve them out instead. If this plan was meant to ease tension, however, it backfired badly as a large mob quickly surrounded the soldiers and loudly demanded that the two men—one Blue and one Green—be pardoned immediately. The sight of heavily armed soldiers besieging a monastery seemed the very embodiment of tyranny to the populace, a bitter betrayal of everything they had been promised. Justinian’s coronation had hinted of imperial largesse, of bread and circuses and enlightened rule by a supporter of the Blues who was one of them and understood their passions. Now, however, they found their emperor as austere as any of his predecessors, and his heavy-handed threatening of unarmed monks revealed him as the worst sort of tyrant.

Justinian tried to defuse the situation by announcing new games, but when the Hippodrome opened for the races three days later, tempers were even worse. When the emperor arrived to take his place in the imperial loggia, the normal babble of the crowd swelled to a deafening roar. The traditional practice of the Blues and the Greens was to try to drown each other out by shouting “Níka!” (“Conquer!”), followed by the name of their favorite charioteer, but by the end of the races they were united against the emperor. Thirty thousand throats screamed the single word in unison, unleashing their pent-up rage at Justinian in a horrifying crescendo. For a moment, the emperor tried to brave the terrifying sound as the very ground beneath him seemed to tremble, but the palpable fury threatened to sweep him off his feet. He was but a single man, a lone figure against the rage of the crowd, and he prudently turned and fled into the recesses of the imperial palace, slamming the doors shut behind him.

The crowd spilled out into the streets, looking for ways to vent their frustration. Finding the palace impregnable, they stormed the city prisons, swelling their numbers with freed convicts. Justinian once again sent out the imperial police, but by now things were slipping completely out of control. Women flung roof tiles and pottery from upstairs windows onto the heads of guards, and the mob erected barricades in the streets. Hooligans set fire to shops, and before long the wind had spread it, burning a nearby hospital to the ground with all its patients inside. Order might have been restored if the powerful aristocratic families had rallied behind the throne, but they had always considered Justinian a pretentious upstart and in any case hated him for the policies of John the Cappadocian. As far as they were concerned, the emperor had sowed every bit of what he was about to reap. This was the perfect opportunity to replace him with one of their number.

Providing the rioters with weapons, the patricians joined the looters in the streets, watching as half the city went up in flames. The next day, the mob returned to the Hippodrome and demanded the immediate dismissal of the hated Tribonian and John the Cappadocian. A severely alarmed Justinian acceded to their demands on the spot, but the aristocracy was now in control, and they would accept nothing less than his abdication.

In the excitement of the moment, neither the patricians nor the mob were quite certain of exactly how to proceed. Half of them wanted to wait to see if Justinian gave up the crown, while the other half wanted to force his hand by storming the palace. Finally, a senator got up and urged immediate violent action. If the emperor was allowed to escape, he warned, he would sooner or later return at the head of an army. The only thing to do was to overwhelm and kill him before he could slip away. This advice carried the day, and the crowd began eagerly heaving against the walls of the imperial palace.

The noise was deafening, and, inside the palace, Justinian’s advisers were trying to make themselves heard over the terrifying din. They still had access to the harbor, and most were shouting for the panicked emperor to flee the city while there was still time. Justinian was just about to order the ships prepared when Theodora, who had held back while the men argued, rose and silenced them with perhaps the most eloquent speech in Byzantine history. “I do not care,” she said, “whether or not it is proper for a woman to give brave counsel to frightened men; but in moments of extreme danger, conscience is the only guide. Every man who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how can an Emperor ever allow himself to become a fugitive? If you, my Lord, wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. We are rich, there is the sea, there too are our ships. But consider first whether, when you reach safety, you will not regret that you did not choose death in preference. As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: royalty makes the best shroud.”*

With those words ringing above the muted roar of the crowds outside, there could obviously be no thought of retreat, and Justinian and his advisers were infused with some much-needed spine. If his throne were to be saved, he clearly needed to go on the offensive, but the troops in the city had already proven untrustworthy. There were other options, however. A large group of Scandinavian mercenaries had recently arrived, and, as luck would have it, Belisarius, the greatest general in Byzantine history, just happened to be in the city awaiting his deployment to Africa.

Quickly taking command of the situation, Belisarius gathered his men and slipped out into the streets. Most of the rioters were still in the Hippodrome howling for Justinian’s death, unaware of the changing mood in the palace or of the danger of congregating in one place. An elderly eunuch named Narses, who was the commander of the imperial bodyguard, blocked the exits of the Hippodrome while Belisarius and his men burst in, catching the infuriated crowd completely by surprise. At first, the mob hurled themselves at the heavily armed soldiers in a frenzy, but they stood no chance against the swords and armor of Belisarius’s men, and the angry shouts were soon replaced by the screams of dying men. When the killing finally stopped, the Hippodrome resembled a ghastly charnel house, with the bodies of thirty thousand citizens lying where they had fallen. The Nika revolt was over, and as looters carefully stripped the bodies of valuables, an eerie quiet descended on Constantinople, broken only by the occasional crash of a burning building.

Justinian was shaken by the riots, and though he soon felt secure enough to reinstate the hated ministers of finance and law, he kept a careful grip on their excesses with the common man. The nobility, however, were another matter entirely. Their arrogance and staunch belief that one of their own members should be sitting on the throne was unforgivable, and he was determined that in the wake of the riots, his victory over them would be complete. Nineteen senators were executed, their sprawling palaces were torn down, and their bodies were thrown into the sea. The nobility who escaped were hardly any luckier. John the Cappadocian was unleashed on them, harassing them mercilessly to tap their fortunes for the state, and, for the rest of Justinian’s reign, they were too busy trying to save themselves to cause him any further trouble.

This victory over the nobility marked another break with the West that would prove important in the centuries to come. In those decentralized, shifting kingdoms, there was no one to stand against the encroaching power of the aristocracy, and the gains of strong individual kings vanished as soon as they vacated the stage. The great landowning nobility sapped the strength of numerous kings over the centuries, drowning any potential unity in a sea of petty squabbles. Caught between the warring sides as always were the poor, crushed in the grip of feudal lords and bound ever more tightly to their land. Constantinople, by contrast, to its great benefit, managed largely to keep its aristocracy in check, ensuring a surprising degree of social and economic mobility for its citizens that added immeasurably to the prosperity and strength of the empire.

Whether they knew it or not, the people of Constantinople had reason enough to thank their emperor, and, in the aftermath of the riots, they found that they had learned another lesson as well. A wise ruler would court his people, but this didn’t mean that he sat on his throne by the grace of his subjects. Emperors could apparently not be made and unmade as easily as they had thought, and the corpses in the Hippodrome attested to the dangers of trying to push Justinian around. The building itself remained closed to games for several years, sitting in mournful silence as a testament to a chastened people. Never again would the fury of the Hippodrome haunt Justinian’s reign.

*It’s also, interestingly enough, the basis of the law practiced in the state of Louisiana.

*It was called the Everlasting Peace because, unlike most treaties with Persia, it was open-ended and didn’t provide a time limit when hostilities could resume. Unfortunately, “eternity” turned out to be only eight years.

*Theodora, or perhaps Procopius (the historian writing it down), is misquoting here a famous maxim once given to the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius the Elder: “Tyranny makes the best shroud.” Considering how it turned out, though, most citizens of Constantinople would probably consider the distinction unnecessary. Procopius, History of the Wars: The Persian War Books I & II (New York: Cosimo, 2007).

Eunuchs had a valued place in Byzantine society. Their condition disbarred them from the throne, and they could therefore be uniquely trusted for high office. In a world of constantly shifting alliances and unceasing intrigue, eunuchs were loyal, distinguished, and wielded a considerable amount of power. Although the practice was officially frowned upon, fathers would often castrate younger sons to ensure them a lucrative career in the civil service.

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