How team loyalty burned down the Hagia Sophia
By Greg Waldock, Staff Writer
Though everyone in Vancouver is tired of hearing about our infamous 2011 hockey riots, we can all rest easy in the knowledge that it isn’t the worst sports riot in history. In 532 AD, a riot broke out between chariot racing teams and half of Constantinople burned down, killing tens of thousands and igniting a colossal political revolt. It puts flipping a cop car and lighting a bus on fire into perspective a bit.
In mid-6th century Byzantium, politics were dominated by the demes, all-encompassing groups that handled everything from gang warfare to semi-democratic elections to the sports games. And like all common folk across time, it was the sports games that really drew their attention. Chariot racing was especially massive, and the racing tracks in Istanbul (Constantinople) today are some of its most spectacular ruins. These demes, despite impacting much of Byzantine life and governance, had incredibly simple branding: they were uncreatively named Red, Blue, White, and Green.
North America has no equivalent for the dedication people would have to these teams. The closest comparison in the modern world would be football clubs cranked up to a thousand, with people being born into the teams and violently defending them to the death. Riots were common, and even the emperor often got involved. Justinian I for example—Emperor of the Byzantium Empire at the time—along with his whole family, was firmly a Blue supporter.
With a city famed for dangerous political intrigue, a sport constantly erupting into violence, and Constantinople just coming down from the high of fighting two wars at once, it’s no surprise someone would somehow make it all go horribly south. It turns out that “someone” would be a lot of people, most notably a group of scheming politicians and two drunk chariot fans. The two fans had been part of an earlier riot but escaped the hangings, claiming sanctuary in the Hagia Sophia. Great crowds of supporters, Green and Blue demes, appeared to support them and demanded they be pardoned for their past crimes. In classical Roman fashion, some Senators saw this as an opportunity get rid of the Emperor, armed the rioters, and pointed them in the right direction.
Much of the city was destroyed in the ensuing chaos, and fires spread quickly across the mostly wooden buildings. The Hagia Sophia itself was nearly destroyed. When the army took control of the situation, tens of thousands of rioters were killed, on top of many killed by the mobs. Conspiring Senators were killed, the situation gradually came under control, and Justinian I continued to run his empire—but the chariot races were never quite that popular again.