Posted by: ken98 | June 2, 2011

Flagging Your Colors In Ancient Constantinople, Chanting at the Racetrack, and More Women-Hating

Day 629 – Ken here (Th)(6-2-2011)
(DEF II, v.4 Ch.40 pp.570-580)(pages read: 1630)

A Day at the Races for Us  (poster from the 1937 Marx Bros film)

A Day at the Races for Us (poster from the 1937 Marx Bros film)

Well, a short(er) day, but I managed to make it long(er) somehow.
We look at Circus factions and their fights (and we don’t mean Clowns versus Trapeze Artists – think Roman Circus, and Circus Maximus),
and at the colors that used to MEAN SOMETHING – I mean really mean something, like life-or-death-mean-something – we’ll look at the gang colors of the Late Roman world – Blue, Green, White, and Red, and see what happens when you’re on the losing side of a turf war in ancient Constantinople (a common occurrence, in case your wondering, turf wars that is),
and at the famous Nika riot that brought Constantinople and Justinian to its knees, and was Theodora’s (Earliest) Finest Moment,
and at some miscellaneous economic facts, and a strange tangent onto the subject of the Silk Trade (which has me wondering where Gibbon got all his information, and more importantly, why?).

And then we’re done. Except for some observations on Gibbon’s women-hating comments, and the SIMILARITY between Circus Faction riots and Oakland Raiders brawls.

The Story
Circus Factions
  • Gibbon compares the Olympic Games of Greece (nobles competed) to Roman Games (slaves/freedmen competed)
  • Talks of the 4 colors of the factions/TEAMS in each city – Blues, Greens, Whites, Reds – eventually the Whites and Reds melted away and we’re left with only Blues and Greens by the time of Justinian
  • Emperors took sides too, all the populace of the cities took sides – Procopius (the disgruntled historian) makes a great deal of Justinian being a Blue, and Theodora a Green – but it seems to me a remarkable way to govern such an ungovernable city such as Constantinople – divide and conquer – Anastasius apparently was a Green
  • The parties in each city were often very well organized, inclined to riot and kill, and often escaped punishment – kind of like a combination of the Mafia and British Soccer fans – wildly partisan, but involved powerfully and indirectly with the power-struggles of the city – you needed to be a party/color member to get elected to church (bishop) or civil posts
  • Often the Color that had the magistrates of emperors in power held themselves above the law – ex. 3000 people killed by Greens in color/religious rioting under Anastasius, under Justinian (a Blue) the Blues had the upper hand
  • The Blues, like modern-day gangs, would dress in ways to inspire terror – in their case, like Huns – long hair, narrow sleeves, flowing garments, loud voices and double-edged knives – things we wouldn’t at all be
  • Prefects of the City, Governors of Provinces, and even Counts of the East (Regional Imperial Uber-Governors) were not immune to violence and even death at the hands of gangs – and often without remedy (as the *official* magistrates were the same *color* as the rioters and killers)
  • ALL THIS SOUNDS HORRIFIC to Gibbon – but sounds pretty natural – lets say to a 21st cent. fan of the Denver Broncos attending a Home game of the Oakland Raiders in Oakland

    Nika Revolt
  • January 532 – One defining moment of Justinian’s early career – 5th year of his reign, where he almost loses the empire (revolution and disgrace became a typical event in the careers of emperors in the Later Empire)
  • The Greens discontented, interrupt the Races with chanting – this is a common way in Byzantium of the emperor and the people to directly interact – actually the Byzantines prided themselves (even tho they actually were under an autocratic emperor) on being democratic and living in a kind of Republic – where citizens could chant at emperors – UNLIKE the – as the Byzantines thought them – despotic Persians -who behaved like slaves in the presence of their shahs – that last part was pure KEN, not Gibbon)
  • Gibbon is FASCINATED by the chanting – a sign that he was at the very BEGINNING of Byzantine scholarship and did not recognize a common social phenomenon – chanting – but thought it odd and kind of miraculous
  • At this point, Blue and Green prisoners – murderers etc – are being led to execution, the Blues and Greens join forces and liberate some of them, starting a riot with the troops (imp troops = police) and a 6 day free-for-all, with a vast fire which levels central Constantinople
  • They kidnap the former Emperor (Anastasius’s) nephews Hypatius and Pompey – and force Hypatius to be an emperor for the Greens
  • THIS IS THE POINT OF THE FAMOUS Theodora quote – “that the throne is a glorious sepulchre – or imperial robes are glorious winding sheets (clothes you wear in your coffin) – Justinian feels that Hypatius has taken over, and wants to flee – Theodora stops him, saying she’d rather die an empress, than live as a refugee – Justinian stays and we have the next 25 years of his remarkable reign – otherwise he would have been one of those insign 5 year emperors
  • The crowds in the hippodrome now, acclaiming their kidnapped “green” emperor Hypatius, are surrounded by guards, and slaughtered – to the tune of 30 or 40 thousand citizens – Hypatius, Pompey, and 18 other Illustrious (noble) officials are executed
  • Justinian learns to be careful and devious – and doesn’t make this mistake again

    Economy – Trade, Manafacturing
  • Justinian starts his reign with over 64 provinces and 935 cities
  • Constantinople gets it grain from Egypt – requiring about 3300 Metric Tons of grain per year – which is a lot of grain
  • Gibbon also mentions silk and purple dies – and not a lot else

    An Odd, Long Digression on Silk (Part 1)
  • This is the beginning of the story of Silk – which Gibbon dearly loves – it must not have been very commonly known – why would he otherwise ahve devoted 6 pages to it?
  • Silk is the spun from the cocoons of silk worms that live on the white Mulberry tree in China
  • It was a closely guarded secret of the Chinese – and was thought to be harvested from the “wool of trees” per Vergil – 500 years before
  • He goes thru all the different grades of silk – and takes the time to engage in a little gratuitous bashing of gay folk again – – silk was of old only worn by women, but the emperor Elegabulus (a famous homosexual emperor) made it fashionable to wear it – and so the Romans, degraded by his example, indulged in their shameful desires and started wearing it all the time – till it became a sign of royalty and nobility
  • Gibbon ends by informing us that the Europeans had previously a form of silk, made from shellfish, and that some gloves made for Pope Benedict XIV were made of these – there’s a Trivial Pursuit question if I ever heard one


    An older, wiser, but still very determined Theodora - from the mosaics in the church of San Vitale Ravenna

    An older, wiser, but still very determined Theodora - from the mosaics in the church of San Vitale Ravenna - Just look at those eyes - No One Messes With Theodora!

    The Famous Theodora-Nika Story

    Its amazing that both Procopius and Gibbon choose to tell this story, considering how much Proc. hated Just. and how little Gibbon cared for Theodora. But they do. And it quite the story for raising Theodora’s PR approval rating, lo these many (15) centuries later.


    Firmness of Theodora.
    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.” The firmness of a woman restored the courage to deliberate and act, and courage soon discovers the resources of the most desperate situation.


    Ah, Women!  How They Bewitch and Misguide Scholars - one would think esp historians - like Gibbon - based upon his unending anti-female speechifying he maintains consistently thru the Decline and Fall - and of course, esp. the Empress Theodora.  Etching by Andriaen Matham - The Temptress

    Ah, Women! How They Bewitch and Misguide Scholars - one would think esp historians - like Gibbon - based upon his unending anti-female speechifying he maintains consistently thru the Decline and Fall - and of course, esp. the Empress Theodora. Etching by Andriaen Matham - The Temptress

    More Gibbon Women-baiting

    Gibbon certainly did not entertain a high view of the female sex. He takes every advantage of pointing out their crafty, improper deviousness at every possible opportunity.

    Here he writes a kind of “epitaph” of the Empress Theodora (on her death from cancer) – he describes the Emperor Justinian’s (her husband) grief – and notes in a footnote how another historian could not think of enough devilish names to call her:

    and the irreparable loss was deplored by her husband, who, in the room of a theatrical prostitute, might have selected the purest and most noble virgin of the East. (40)
    Note 040
    As she persecuted the popes, and rejected a council, Baronius exhausts the names of Eve, Dalila, Herodias, &c.; after which he has recourse to his infernal dictionary: civis inferni – alumna daemonum satanico agitata spiritu – oestro percita diabolico, &c., &c., (A.D. 548, No. 24.)]

    (DEF ii, vol.4, ch.40, p.570, fn.40)

    and, speaking of Circus factions, the factions tempted women to weakly and tragically agree with their boyfriends, or equally (or even more so) tragically disagree with their husbands

    The popular dissensions, founded on the most serious interest, or holy pretence, have scarcely equalled the obstinacy of this wanton discord, which invaded the peace of families, divided friends and brothers, and tempted the female sex, though seldom seen in the circus, to espouse the inclinations of their lovers, or to contradict the wishes of their husbands

    (DEF ii, vol.4, ch.40, p.572)

    and, again, he just can’t help digging into Theodora, even during her moments of triumph, like the famous Nika speech (see above) (prostitute from the theater?, renounced timidity AND virtue?) – I think that’s what’s called a back-handed compliment – a quick compliment, followed (or preceded in this case) by a couple of dextrously-applied BACKSLAPS to the FACE.

    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;

    (DEF ii, vol.4, ch.40, p.576)


    Last Word…


    Why We Are More Like 6th cent. Byzantines than 18th cent. Gibbonian Englishmen
    *OR *
    The Ancient and Modern Role of Professional Sports Competitions And the RIOTS that Generally Ensue


    Anyone who has had American History – and had to study the colonies and the American Revolution and the early years of the Republic, has insensibly absorbed the ideals of the Enlightenment. We, the U.S., are very, very much children of the Enlightnment – in terms of the outward structure of our government and laws, but definitely no longer of the Enlightenment in our society and culture (which is probably a very good thing).

    You remember George Washington’s famous speech on factions and party spirit (Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796 – see here at the Avalon Project Online Yale Law School). It was a real and feared symptom of a diseased state in the early years of the Republic to have “party spirit” – that is, NOT to put the needs of your country above your party (which is why, partially, originally – much to our own surprise in the 21st century – the president and the vice president could/would be of different “parties” after a presidential election). However, despite their best efforts, the Republic quickly dissolved into a 2 party system and has remained one ever since.

    Why were they so afraid? Because of the Nika riot, because they knew their Byzantine history and the Blues and Greens, and did NOT want the infant U.S. to go the way of the Roman Empire and the Greek Republics – WHO ALL SUCCUMBED SO OBVIOUSLY (in their eyes) TO PARTY SPIRIT.

    Here is George Washington in his Farewell Address (1796 – after 2 terms as the 1st President of the U.S. – talk about an infant country):

    In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated.

    (Yale Law School, Avalon Project –

    We ARE NO LONGER that people – we are NOTHING if NOT imbued with PARTY SPIRIT. Yet we survive.

    And we obviously (in the modern world) have our own Blues and Greens in the forms of Professional Sports – Soccer (Football), Baseball, Football (American Football), Rugby, Basketball, etc etc etc.

    We have more in common now (in the 20th, 21st centuries) with ancient Byzantium and Rome than we do with our own immediate predecessors – the men of the Enlightenment who designed/dreamed up our country out of thin air in a rebellion against a king back in the late 18th cent – at least, in my opinion.

    Gibbon lived in a world where the Olympics hadn’t even been re-instituted yet (in modern times they were revived in 1896, a century after Gibbon), let alone any professional sports. The first team-town sport – Baseball – became popular right around the time following Gibbon’s death (very early 19th cent.) (arguably the 1st geographical, team-sport associated with a group of fans and played in competition with other groups on a regular basis in modern times – LIKE the chariot races in the Circus, and the colors of the Circus factions). That explains why Gibbon finds the whole Circus faction/chariot racing/team-crazy atmosphere of Late Roman life so DISQUIETING. What would he have thought of a Brazilian or Manchester United Football game?

    And while I remain, I suppose, intellectually a child of the Enlightenment – and am proud and happy to be just that – I have to admit that I feel much more at home with Justinian in Byzantium (and probly even more so, with Julian in Gaul), than with Candide in this, the most perfect of all possible worlds.

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