To understand fully the social environment in which the eastern Roman empire operated, we must have some grasp of the unique culture surrounding Constantinople’s Hippodrome in the centuries that followed the disappearance of the Roman empire in the west. In Byzantium, sport and politics achieved a strange admixture that has no exact historical parallel anywhere else; sport influenced politics, and politics guided sport. It was a peculiar world, but one that makes sense once we understand the conditions that existed at the time. We begin with the arena itself.
The Hippodrome was located at the site of the modern Atmeidan in Istanbul. Its construction dates to the reign of Septimius Severus (around 203 A.D.), but it was substantially enlarged by Constantine I after he made Constantinople his capital in 324. In shape it was a long racetrack, and the markers of its axis still stand today. The inspiration for this vast arena was almost certainly Rome’s Circus Maximus, but its dimensions seem to have been smaller. Its main entrances were located on its western side, and the entire structure was laid out on an orientation of northeast to southwest.
At the Hippodrome’s northern end could be found stables and storage rooms (carceres) for horses and chariots. Above this was erected a distinctive building called the Kathisma, a sort of special imperial housing from which the emperor and his retinue could watch the games. It was apparently connected to the imperial palace itself. The Kathisma got its name from the special chair upon which the emperor would sit as he observed the proceedings; above this could be found the emperor’s guards, who occupied a perch called the Stama.
The Hippodrome was a vast racetrack. A long, decorated “spine” (spina) in the form of a short wall was built down the center of the track, and at each end of the spine were goals. We are told that the emperor Theodosius the Great erected an Egyptian obelisk from the reign of Thutmosis III at the center of the spine. Chariot drivers had to complete seven circuits around the spine, and there was an artful mechanism for letting the crowds know how many circuits had been completed. Metallic casts of seven dolphins were placed at one end of the spine, and seven eggs at the other end; these symbols were respectively intended to represent the god Neptune and the legendary figures Castor and Pollux.
As the drivers completed a circuit, the Hippodrome workers would remove an egg or a dolphin, thereby letting the crowd know how many circuits remained to be completed. We should note that the Hippodrome’s interior was filled with exotic emblems and works of art, a fact that doubtless contributed to the sense of awe and grandeur imparted by the entire spectacle.
How many spectators did the arena seat? We do not know with certainty, but the figure must have been at least 100,000. The stadium’s main entrance (the “Great Gate”) was probably close to the Kathisma. We are also told that there was another gate, called the “Dead Gate,” that was used for carrying out the corpses of participants who had been slain in the games. This is a sobering reminder of the seriousness with which games in the Hippodrome were treated. But the populace wanted entertainment; and in the era before mass media, television, or radio, the masses hungered for exciting diversions. No amount of cautionary speeches from ecclesiastical figures could satiate the lust for the games; indeed, such clerical fulminations may even have increased their allure.
Yet perhaps the most bizarre feature of Constantinople’s chariot-racing culture was the rise of color-coded political factions that supported different chariot racers. These bore no resemblance to our modern football hooligans or drunken stadium rowdies; they were serious organizations that saw the Hippodrome as a forum in which they could flex political muscle. Byzantium had four factions, each identified with a particular color: the Blues, the Reds, the Greens, and the Whites. To understand how these groups congealed, we must remember that the empire at Constantinople was in no way a representative democracy. It was an absolutist monarchy. Allegiance to one of the factions was one of the few ways that the average denizen of Constantinople could make himself heard by the emperor. In some ways, the Hippodrome can be said to have been a kind of “popular assembly” for those who had no other way to petition the sovereign.
In any case, the factions were serious organizations. They had delineated hierarchies and command structures. They sponsored drivers and their equipment, and their leaders commanded allegiance from those who followed them. Even the emperor would have been allied with one group or another. Hence we hear that Theodosius II was aligned with the Greens, Justinian and Marcian with the Blues, and Zeno with the Greens. It is not clear if the factions represented competing political or religious ideologies, but it is hard to imagine that it was not so. Membership may have been based on what part of the city a person was from, or it may have been hereditary; we do not know with certainty.
These color-coded factions even spread to other cities of the east. As noted earlier, the factions were far more than sporting clubs. They could be mobilized as armed militias, and even at time participated in military activities, or were used for construction projects. The leaders of the factions were headed by “demarchs,” who in turn answered to Constantinople’s Prefect. For centuries, the Hippodrome was one of the main centers of political and social affairs in the Eastern Empire.
It was regularly the scene of riots and revolts; the most serious of these, the so-called “Nika Revolt” of 532 A.D., was a horrific affair that began as a demonstration but quickly changed into an attempt to overthrow the emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora. Justinian called in the army, headed by his favorite general Belisarius, and put down the revolt with brute force; the number of the dead is estimated to have been around 30,000. This, however, is a story to be told at another time. The Hippodrome and the culture that surrounded it are a stark testament to the ability of entertainment to influence political and social affairs. Such influence on a state is never beneficial or positive. For the mob is not guided by considerate rationality or purposeful vision; it is led only by the dictates of tumescent emotion, and the most unreasoning savagery.
Read more in the new annotated, illustrated translation of On Moral Ends: