Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Riotous History.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Nika Riots in Constantinople. Yawn. Kings and dates and battles, right?

Anyhow, in the early 6th Century Constantinople was the center of the Roman world. Big guys with mustaches, German-sounding names, and poor table manners were running the show in Italy but the Eastern Empire continued on with running water and thriving trade and throngs of bureaucrats... you know, all the trappings of civilization.

The center of social life in Constantinople was the Hippodrome, a massive stadium where chariot races were held. Chariot racing was wildly popular with all strata of society, and everybody was a fan of one team or another; the Blues, the Greens, the Whites, and the Reds. Although as time went on, hardly anybody paid attention to anybody other than the Blues and the Greens. Kinda like Dale Jr. fans and Jeff Gordon fans and who cares about Kurt Busch anymore 'cause he's a tool.

So, everybody who was anybody was a fan of the Blues or the Greens. You only hung out with fellow Dale fans, all the Jeff Gordon fans voted the same way, you beat the crap out of rival fans in bar fights when you could. Trouble really erupted, however, when some popular ringleaders from each faction were imprisoned on murder raps after a bit of friendly head-busting got out of hand after a contested race.

Dale fans and Jeff Gordon fans united and went wild in the streets, burning and looting and actually laying siege to the palace in a mob scene. The emperor Justinian (via someone expendable, no doubt) announced his willingness to accede to their demands, even to the point of agreeing to abdicate in favor of their choice for a new ruler. Fortunately for Justinian, his wife Theodora and a senior eunuch in the palace bureaucracy named Narses had the stones the emperor lacked. They put their heads together with Belisarius and Mundus, two great Byzantine generals, and hatched a plan.

As the tens of thousands of rioters thronged in the vast Hippodrome, waiting for the new emperor's coronation, Belisarius and his bodyguard of no more than a couple hundred steppe archers took the passageway under the street from the palace to the imperial box in the stadium. With the crowd focused on the impending ceremony, nobody noticed the archers fanning out in the skybox until they started volleying into the crowd. Panic ensued and, leaving a litter of 24 flags and 88 mesh-back ball caps and shot-up, trampled bodies, the crowd stampeded for the big main gates off the racetrack.

Unfortunately, Mundus and his bodyguard were drawn up in ranks blocking the exit, and they opened fire into the front rows of the fleeing mob. Needless to say, when all was said and done, the backbone of the rioters was broken. Thousands had been shot, and many thousands more were crushed in the press. Justinian held onto his crown, no thanks to his own dithering.

If this story sounds familiar, it may be because you've read Falkenberg's Legion, by Jerry Pournelle or Counting the Cost, by David Drake, both of which masterfully retell the tale in a different setting, substituting lasers for Hunnic bows and space mercenaries for Byzantine ones. If you haven't read them, I recommend them both highly.


Popgun said...

Falkenberg's Legion was great! Thanks for the historical reference; I didn't pick it up when reading the book. Now I'll have to go read Counting the Cost.


Ed Foster said...

I was thinking of something similar when the New Orleans Superdome bit was going on. By the by, did you read the last in the Belisarius series by Flint and Drake?

Tam said...

I never read that series, actually.

the pawnbroker said...
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Mark Alger said...

Yeah. I was thinking just that, for that very reason.

I've used the Falkenberg story as a model for a more general curettement. For the stadium, metaphor the West Bank and Gaza.

Of course, the reason Falkenberg had to do it the way he did applies in spades.


Ted said...

Donald Kagan would be spinning in his grave, if he were in his grave. But that's be a good thing. Or he'd be laughing himself silly.

Jeff Gordon. Heh.

DaddyBear said...

"Counting the Cost" was the first Hammer's Slammers story I ever read, and it hooked me by the end of the first chapter. Drake tries to weave ancient history and legends into his work, and it makes it a lot easier for me to get my teenager interested in the Odyssee when he's already read "Cross the Stars".

A lot of Drake's and other authors' work is available for download from Baen books at It makes a long boring shift easier when you can read a book in your text editor and not look like you're reading a novel.

CastoCreations said...

I LOVE your telling of history. =)

BryanP said...

Both of the books you mention sit on shelves at home right now, among other books by the same authors.

Drake's a pretty nice guy and will talk your ear off about which obscure bit of history he mined for a certain story.

D.W. Drang said...

Belisarius has my vote for greatest general ever.
Read Robert Graves' Count Belisarius.
Procopius was a tool.

kishnevi said...

Better yet, go to the master:
Justinian was lost, if the prostitute whom he raised from the theatre had not renounced the timidity, as well as the virtues, of her sex. In the midst of a council, where Belisarius was present, Theodora alone displayed the spirit of a hero; and she alone, without apprehending his future hatred, could save the emperor from the imminent danger, and his unworthy fears. "If flight," said the consort of Justinian, "were the only means of safety, yet I should disdain to fly. Death is the condition of our birth; but they who have reigned should never survive the loss of dignity and dominion. I implore Heaven, that I may never be seen, not a day, without my diadem and purple; that I may no longer behold the light, when I cease to be saluted with the name of queen. If you resolve, O Caesar! to fly, you have treasures; behold the sea, you have ships; but tremble lest the desire of life should expose you to wretched exile and ignominious death. For my own part, I adhere to the maxim of antiquity, that the throne is a glorious sepulchre.

Graves is only so-so; but Hollywood did rip off his ideas--the storyline in Gladiator is actually the core idea of I,Claudius and Claudius the God, with Russell Crowe reprising Derek Jacobi.

Anonymous said...

Lima, Peru 1964. Cause still suspect, but it was in Readers' Digest and everything.

Noah D said...

To catch up on that area and era of history, I highly recommend John Julius Norwich's 'History of Byzantium'. If you don't have time for all 3 1000-page volumes (er, like me), the 'Short History' is still an amazing read.

I remember finishing it with enormous melancholy at the real end of the Roman Empire (Tuesday, May 29, 1453 - none of this 476 business), and the elation of discovering that almost every good scifi plotline I'd read was in those pages.

staghounds said...

Constantinople / Istanbul is great for sudden extirpations of the troublesome- the massacre of the Janissaries is a classic.

I was in Bimbidirek all alone once- thinking of that hand to hand fight, in the utter darkness, in a yard of icy water- ugh!

(Although the dog deportation marked a retreat from direct action in the capital, the sturdy Anatolians roared back with the Armenian, British prisoner of war, and Smyrna cleanups. )

I too recommend Graves, he's well worth reading in all his historical fictionalisations. Including his own.

Don Gwinn said...

I learned the story of Justinian losing his nerve and almost abdicating in the face of riots until Theodora brought him up short, but nothing about the immediate reason for the riots. Figures.

I'll say this for the roundy-roundy fans, though: I usually feel a lot safer in a room with my NASCAR-loving in-laws than I would with the same number of, say, Manchester United fans (at least if they were from Manchester.)

alpineman said...

"... a senior eunuch ... had the stones the emperor lacked."


Hee hee!

Rick said...

An interesting (and excellent) fictionalization of this story can be found in Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic diptych: _Sailing to Sarantium_ and _Lord of Emperors_. Nothing he writes disappoints.