The Nika riots of A.D. 532 did more damage to the city of Constantinople than any other event had yet. The riots were caused by tensions between Emperor Justinian I (483-565) and two politically influential sporting teams known as the Blues and the Greens. Justinian was a well known supporter of the Blues.
Several members of both teams were arrested during late 531 after the deaths of several people during a riot after a chariot race. The men were all sentenced to death. One member of each team managed to escape and both claimed sanctuary in a nearby church. Supporters of each team gathered outside and demanded that Justinian grant them a full pardon.
At that time, many people, including many aristocrats, were displeased with Justinian. After a long war with the Sassanid Empire, Justinian agreed to, literally, buy peace by giving 11,000 pounds of gold to Khosarus I (501-579). In order to save his own empire from ruin, Justinian was forced to drastically raise the taxes. The senators as well as the general populous were outraged. When Justinian refused to pardon the two escaped prisoners, the Blues and the Greens united against him. The chariot race which took place on January 13, 532 ended with both factions chanting “Nika” or “conquer” against Justinian.
The crowd laid siege to the palace and the rest of Constantinople was soon enveloped in flames. The fire eventually destroyed the Hagia Sophia basilica. Justinian despaired when the senators announced their intention to replace him with a man named Hypatius.
It is almost certain that Justinian would have rescinded his throne and sent his empire to a chaotic end if it had not been for the persuasion of Empress Theodora of Byzantium (500-548). Theodora reminded him of the pride he should take in his empire and in himself. She also clearly stated that she had no intention of leaving the palace.
With his courage restored, Justinian sent a eunuch named Narses (478-573) to bribe the Blues and remind them of his past support. After Narses reminded them that Hypatius was a Green, they agreed to protect Justinian.
Meanwhile, two of Justinian’s generals rallied the Imperial Army. In the middle of Hypatius’ coronation, the Blues and the Imperial troops ended the rebellion.
The Nika riots claimed the lives of an estimated 30,000 people. Although this is a rather shocking number, it should be remembered that it would be much higher if Empress Theodora of Byzantium had not kept Justinian from rescinding his throne.
Source: Kaldellis, Anthony “The Secret History”