Humans are social animals, and one of the ways we bond with each other is by playing games. When an adult plays games and takes it seriously, it is a sport.

The competitive nature of sport has given it a crucial role in history—as nation competes with nation and individuals struggle to be the best. It is no wonder then that sports have changed the course of history more than once.

10Nika Riots

Photo credit: Smithsonian Magazine

We’re all familiar with the riots that can follow a big sports match. Some people riot when their team loses and some when their team wins.

But what we think of as riots are nothing compared to those in the ancient world.

For the Romans, horse racing was big business. The richest sportsman who ever lived was Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a Roman charioteer of the second century AD who amassed a fortune equivalent to billions of dollars today.

There was also big money to be made from betting on the outcome of a race, and people became heavily invested in their teams.

The Romans had teams of charioteers: the Reds, Whites, Greens, and Blues. By the time the capital moved to Constantinople, there were just two: Green and Blue.

With only two choices, the support of each team became more than a passing fancy. It was a political statement and a life choice.

In AD 501, the Greens attacked the Blues and killed 3,000 people.

In AD 532, a tense situation exploded into revolt when Emperor Justinian cracked down on this violence.

Soon, both sides were united in anger. They rioted, chanting, “Nika!” (“Win!”)—the usual cry in the hippodrome.

They began to burn the capital city to the ground. They even crowned a rival emperor.

The riot was only suppressed when troops surrounded the hippodrome and massacred those inside.

Maybe 30,000 people were killed, 1 in 10 of the population at the time.


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