Wednesday, February 24, 2021


Urban Violence

Cyril Mango (1928-2021), Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1981), pp. 67-68, with notes on p. 289:
Another symptom of disintegration was urban violence. It may be argued, of course, that riots were nothing new and that in the previous two centuries there had been no lack of food riots, religious riots and theatre riots. There was, however, from the reign of Anastasius onwards an escalation of violence which centred more and more on the hippodrome. The two main factions, the Blues and the Greens, regularly came to blows and then went on to commit arson. The list of these disturbances is very long and some of them resulted in enormous damage, like the great pogrom at Antioch in 507 and the famous Nika riot at Constantinople (532) which is said to have left thirty thousand corpses and reduced the centre of the city to ashes. When Antioch had been almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 526 with an alleged death-toll of 250,000, the warring factions became reconciled, but only for a short time.17 Especially chilling (if, doubtless, somewhat exaggerated) is the account given by Procopius of the hippodrome thugs who, he alleges, were given complete licence by the Emperor Justinian to rob and kill, rape women and extort money, with the result that respectable citizens no longer dared to go out after dark.18 In the light of our own experience we have no trouble in visualizing those bands of youths with long beards and moustaches, with dangling hair, dressed in deliberately barbaric fashion, who engaged in gang warfare when they were not waylaying innocent people. We also have no difficulty in believing what all the Byzantine sources tell us, namely that this was mindless hooliganism and nothing more. As has recently been demonstrated,19 the Blues and the Greens had no political objectives, no explicit class grievances or religious identification. But while hooliganism has no philosophy, no one will deny that it is a symptom — be it of urban decay or a loss of values or an overly dull and regimented society.

17 Malalas, Chronographia, CSHB, 422.

18 Procopius, Secret History, vii.

19 A. Cameron, Circus Factions (Oxford, 1976).

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