Upon the death of his uncle and adopted guardian, Justin, in AD 527, Justinian I came into power as emperor and sole sovereign of the Eastern Roman Empire at the age of 45. Justinian was well-known for his grand ambitious as emperor, some popular within the empire and some less so. Historically, he was well-known for campaigns to reclaim former Roman territory in the reaches of the Mediterranean Sea and re-establish the borders of the Roman empire to its former glory. He also championed ambitious architectural projects that revitalized passion for the Byzantine arts, and he was responsible for the commission of the cathedral known as the Hagia Sophia. Above all that, however, Justinian was most historically famed for his revision and complete reform of Roman law and the formation of the Corpus juris civilis, a compilation of his body of legislature that stands as the basis for many modern states. Some of these laws that were exercised even went as far as to protect women from abuse and exploitation and gave them some greater influence in Byzantine society.
However, despite all of this innovation and reform that came to the Byzantine empire, there were many of those that were skeptical or outright opposed to Justinian’s rule. Justinian was known to have originally come from poor parentage, which led many in the Byzantine aristocracy to believe they had a stronger claim to the throne than he did. Compounded with the fact that several of Justinian’s top advisors, counsel and military generals weren’t well-liked by the general public, there were many who sought to overthrow Justinian as well as these men in power.
During Justinian’s reign, many citizens associated their political and social points of view with various factions of chariot racing, as they had no other outlet by which to do so. Prominently known in circles were two such factions known simple as the Blues and the Greens. When rioting broke out in AD 531, some members of these factions had become connected to murders and were set to be executed. However, when they escaped and sought refuge in a church, mobs broke out and surrounded the building. At the same time, Justinian was conflicted with resentment over taxes as well as attempting to make peace with the Persians and put an end to the Iberian War. In order to calm the hordes, he ordered another chariot race in early 532 and ordered that the two escapees be imprisoned instead of executed. This led supporters of Blues and Greens alike to demand from Justinian their complete pardon. As the races were ready to begin in the Hippodrome, tensions increased dramatically and hostility began to brew toward Justinian. By the end of the 22 races in the Hippodrome, crowds began chanting “Nika!” (“Win” or “Conquer”) instead of the typical support of their respective chariot factions. More riots broke out and fires swept the city, leaving a wake of destruction in Constantinople that lasted for nearly a full week.
Senators who opposed Justinian for his tax revisions and his lack of support for the nobility decided to act in an attempt to overthrow him by influencing the mob to demand the dismissal of several of Justinian’s advisors and that a new emperor be crowned. Justinian eventually carried out a plan that, in the midst of the death and destruction within the Hippodrome, effectively bribed leaders of the Blue supporters into abandoning their cause. The Blues left wealthier for their desertion, and Justinian’s generals and Imperial troops stormed into the Hippodrome and slaughtered the remaining Greens.
Historians estimate 30,000 rioters killed at the end of the Nika revolts. In the wake of the destruction and the rebuilding process to follow, Justinian set to erecting great monuments. One of them was the rebuilt and completely renovated Hagia Sophia that would stand as the largest Christian cathedral for near the next 1,000 years.