Chariot Racing

Riots at Munera and the Circus

In this section you will learn

  • our only information about a riot at a gladiatorial show
  • the many riots and disturbances that took place in circuses and chariot races

There were very few disturbances at gladiatorial shows. The only one we know about took place at Pompeii in 59 CE; as a result Pompeii was forbidden to have gladiatorial shows for ten years by decree from Rome. The cause of the riot was not gladiatorial supporters fighting over favourites, but disagreements between Pompeii and a neighbouring town.

Fresco showing the riot at a gladiatorial show in Pompeii in 59 CE. From Pompeii; 1st century CE

Around the same date, a trivial incident led to a serious riot between the inhabitants of the colonies of Nuceria and Pompeii, at a gladiatorial show given by Livineius Regulus, whose expulsion from the Senate I have mentioned. During an exchange of insults, typical of the touchiness of country towns, they turned to abuse, then to stones, and finally to swords; the people of Pompeii, where the show was being exhibited, won. As a result, many of the Nucerians were carried maimed and wounded to the capital, while a very large number mourned the deaths of children or of parents. The inquiry into the affair was delegated by the emperor to the Senate and by the Senate to the consuls. When the case was presented once more to the Senate, the Pompeians as a community were banned from holding any similar assembly for ten years, and the associations which they had formed illegally were dissolved. Livineius and the others behind the outbreak were exiled.

Tacitus, Annales 14.17

The theatre and chariot racing were much more prone to riots; in the Circus the stability of the factions and their small number encouraged factionalism; in the theatre the massive star power of the mime artists encouraged factionalism as well (for theatre riots see the chapter on the Mime Riots). In Constantinople the problem was particularly severe, and the Nika riot of 532 CE nearly unseated the Emperor Justinian.

At this same time an insurrection broke out unexpectedly in Byzantium among the people, and, contrary to expectation, it proved to be a very serious affair, and ended in great harm to the people and to the senate, as the following account will show. In every city the population has been divided for a long time past into the Blue and the Green factions; but within comparatively recent times it has come about that, for the sake of these names and the seats which the rival factions occupy in watching the games, they spend their money and abandon their bodies to the most cruel tortures, and even do not think it unworthy to die a most shameful death. And they fight against their opponents knowing not for what end they endanger themselves, but knowing well that, even if they overcome their enemy in the fight, the conclusion of the matter for them will be to be carried off straightway to the prison, and finally, after suffering extreme torture, to be destroyed. So there grows up in them against their fellow men a hostility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or disappear, for it gives place neither to the ties of marriage nor of relationship nor of friendship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with respect to these colours be brothers or any other kin. They care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitution are violated by friend or by foe; nay even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering unjustly, they pay no heed if only it is likely to go well with their “faction”; for so they name the bands of partisans. And even women join with them in this unholy strife, and they not only follow the men, but even resist them if opportunity offers, although they neither go to the public exhibitions at all, nor are they impelled by any other cause; so that I, for my part, am unable to call this anything except a disease of the soul. This, then, is pretty well how matters stand among the people of each and every city.

The imperial district of Byzantine Constantinople, with the Great Palace and the approximate locations of its main buildings (based on literary descriptions).

But at this time the officers of the city administration in Byzantium were leading away to death some of the rioters. But the members of the two factions, conspiring together and declaring a truce with each other, seized the prisoners and then straightway entered the prison and released all those who were in confinement there, whether they had been condemned on a charge of stirring up sedition, or for any other unlawful act. And all the attendants in the service of the city government were killed indiscriminately; meanwhile, all of the citizens who were sane-minded were fleeing to the opposite mainland, and fire was applied to the city as if it had fallen under the hand of an enemy. The sanctuary of Sophia and the baths of Zeuxippus, and the portion of the imperial residence from the propylaea as far as the so-called House of Ares were destroyed by fire, and besides these both the great colonnades which extended as far as the market place which bears the name of Constantine, in addition to many houses of wealthy men and a vast amount of treasure. During this time the emperor and his consort with a few members of the senate shut themselves up in the palace and remained quietly there. Now the watch-word which the populace passed around to one another was Nika, and the insurrection has been called by this name up to the present time.

….On the fifth day of the insurrection in the late afternoon the Emperor Justinian gave orders to Hypatius and Pompeius, nephews of the late emperor, Anastasius, to go home as quickly as possible, either because he suspected that they were readying a  plot against himself, or, perhaps, because destiny brought them to this. But they feared that the people would force them to the throne (as happened), and they said that they would be doing wrong if they abandoned their ruler when he found himself in such danger. When the Emperor Justinian heard this, he was even more suspicious, and he ordered them to leave the palace instantly…

On the following day at sunrise it became known to the people that both men had left the palace where they had been staying. So the whole population ran to them, and they declared Hypatius emperor and prepared to lead him to the market place to assume the power. But the wife of Hypatius, Mary, a discreet woman, who had the greatest reputation for prudence, laid hold of her husband and would not let go, but cried out with loud lamentation and with entreaties to all her kinsmen that the people were leading him on the road to death. But since the mob overpowered her, she unwillingly released her husband, and he by no will of his own came to the Forum of Constantine, where they summoned him to the throne;…

Depiction of Theodora from a contemporary portrait mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The emperor and his court were deliberating about whether it would be better for them if they remained or if they took to flight in the ships. And many opinions were expressed favouring either course. And the Empress Theodora also spoke to the following effect: “My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety…. For one who has been an emperor it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, here the boats. However consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. For as for myself, I approve the ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.” When the empress had spoken thus, all were filled with boldness, and, turning their thoughts towards resistance, they began to consider how they could defend themselves if any hostile force should come against them…. All the hopes of the emperor were centred upon Belisarius and Mundus, of whom the former, Belisarius, had recently returned from the Persian war bringing with him a following which was both powerful and imposing, and in particular had a great number of spearmen and guards who had received their training in battles and the perils of warfare….

When Hypatius reached the hippodrome, he went up immediately to where the emperor usually sits and seated himself on the royal throne from which the emperor was always accustomed to view the equestrian and athletic contests. And from the palace Mundus went out through the gate which, from the circling descent, has been given the name of the Snail…. Belisarius, with difficulty and not without danger and great exertion, made his way over ground covered by ruins and half-burned buildings, and ascended to the stadium…. Concluding that he must attack the people who had taken their stand in the hippodrome-a vast multitude crowding each other in great disorder-he drew his sword from its sheath and, commanding the others to do likewise, with a shout he advanced upon them at a run. But the people, who were standing in a mass and not in order, at the sight of armoured soldiers who had a great reputation for bravery and experience in war, and seeing that they struck out with their swords unsparingly, beat a hasty retreat…. [Mundus] straightway made a sally into the hippodrome through the entrance which they call the Gate of Death. Then indeed from both sides the partisans of Hypatius were assailed with might and main and destroyed…. There perished among the populace on that day more than thirty thousand…. The soldiers killed both [Hypatius and Pompeius] on the following day and threw bodies into the sea…. This was the end of the insurrection in Byzantium.

Procopius, The Persian War, 1.2


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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