It was a mild week in January. Winter in Constantinople is usually cold and rainy with an occasional light snowfall. There had been none this season so the angry factions took to the streets. The fair weather was no blessing to Justinian for many of the Blues and Greens soon gathered in the open air Hippodrome to vent their grievance. It had been in a fit of justice that the emperor had executed leaders of both factions but the result was that the Blues and Greens could no longer be played off against each other. They formed an alliance and demanded both reparation from the emperor and the head of the judge who had sentenced the men.

Justinian refused.

Without anyone giving an order parts of the city were fired. The old cathedral church of Hagia Sophia and a part of the palace complex were in flames. Many “uncooperative” businesses and the homes of “stuck-up” senators were destroyed. “Nike, Nike (victory)” the mobs of outright gangsters and Constantinople’s lowlife yelled as they assaulted the city’s prisons to free inmates of whichever party, They swore to toss Justinian into the sea and make a new emperor, one who understood the reality of the world. Was it not the factions who organized entertainments, helped widows, and protected shopkeepers from corrupt guardsmen and the foreigners who came to Constantinople only to line their pockets and avoid the authorities in their homelands? “All Justinian can see is some roughness; that’s life… Would he have us all be monks? The world is a rough place… So we skim a little off rich tradesmen. Don’t we keep them safe?” .

Justinian panicked. His own guards might be reluctant to defend him. When he appeared at the Hippodrome in an effort to appease the factions with promises he was nearly mobbed and he retreated. Icons were displayed and attempts to organize a holy procession made. But these too failed. The wealthy of the city as well as many senators from old and distinguished families fled to the Asian shore. The emperor hid in his inner palace which remained untouched by the fires. In the Boucoleon harbor a warship was prepared to evacuate him and the empress, its crew growing more nervous by the hour.

Outside the hippodrome riots went on for a full week hardly checked by the efforts of troops with whips that the city prefect sent into the streets. Constantinople had no real police force; the factions themselves had years before taken over much of that task. It was a bit as though the Mafia or a Chicago mob was policing the city and providing order. The city prefect and his troops were usually wary of interfering with their day-to-day operations and the gang enforcers were generally careful not to invade each others’ turf. Businessmen bought protection. It was the emperor’s attempt to restore his authority on the street that had resulted in the riot and now sections of the city were ablaze with no-one to put out the fires, another task usually handled by the gangs for a price.

Belisarius and Antonina were at a villa outside the walls, the guests of a longtime friend of the general, when they heard the news of the riot in the city, At first they thought it a minor disturbance and Belisarius’ host simply sent an aide to gather news each day. But on the fourth day the aide brought word that the rioting had become widespread. Clearly the riot was now beyond the strength of the city authorities alone to control. Civil discord was not his responsibility but Belisarius felt that he must return to the palace in case the life of the emperor himself was jeopardized. Antonina should come too; she might be of some use in council for she knew the factions’ leaders well. She had screwed one or two of them.

Antonina volunteered that Constantinople would be safer after the affair was put down; if it could be put down: “The hoods are very stupid to gather in the Hippodrome. Crooks should know enough to be secretive but these have gathered publicly in one stadium with only two exits where soldiers can get at all of them at once. Justinian should send in troops. Innocents also would die of course, but they’d be lowlifes. They might be innocent of crimes but they’re still hangers on. I know their type.” For a moment Antonina lost her new-found delicacy. “They’re shits who haven’t the guts to actually knife someone themselves but who like to hang around those who will. Shits who think only of a little bit of gain and nothing of cheating others and are a pain in the ass. It’s too bad for them but they’d not be missed.” … Hell! She thought, I’ve only been in the palace for a few months and already I’m thinking like a noble bitch.

Even as they prepared to return to the palace an imperial messenger arrived instructing, actually imploring, Belisarius to present himself as soon as possible before Justinian and Theodora. He made it plain that Justinian was frightened although he dared not say as much. No sooner had he left than Belisarius and Antonina followed after him. They just threw on some riding clothes, disdained a carriage, and hopped upon two polo ponies which had been quickly saddled by servants of their worried host. With them was a small bodyguard of their friend’s bucellarii; just a few dozen but enough to cut their way through any scattered rabble that they might encounter.

It only took an hour to reach the landward walls. Once inside Belisarius considered that without passing dangerously near to the hippodrome it would not be possible to approach the palace by land. It was located on the opposite side of the city. Rioting in the streets continued to ebb and flow between different districts but the orgy of looting and burning had tired the rioters as any orgy eventually must. Many of the rabble were falling back in small groups to the epicenter of the rebellion. Belisarius’ borrowed bucellarii could easily have slaughtered the tired criminals and criminal wannabes before them in the streets but would be no match for the thousands inside the stadium if they should sally in force. Besides, Antonina might be taken by the rebels. That could not be risked. At the harbor of Kontoskali within the land walls, Belisarius requisitioned a skiff. He and Antonina skirted the hippodrome and docked without incident at the palace water gate of Boucoleon, their guards following soon after in larger boats.

By then it was evening and they were too late to hear much of the discussion that had split imperial advisers into two camps. The larger of the two advised the emperor to flee by night and rally loyal regiments across the Bosporus. The far smaller understood that whoever held the capital was emperor in the minds of most citizens, civilians and soldiers alike. For Justinian to flee would be near suicidal. The factions would crown their own emperor. Justinian would be tracked down and assassinated wherever he might go within the empire, or be betrayed in a foreign land. Already the rioters had set about forcing Senator Hypatius to assume the imperial dignity. He was aged and he and his brother Pompeius wanted nothing so much as to live out their lives undisturbed. Though it was said that he was truly reluctant, the citizenry respected Hypatius and the factions thought him malleable. The emperor would go to bed that night not knowing whether in the morning he would still be ruler of the civilized world or dead. Neither did Hypatius who had so far been able to put off assuming the imperial symbols but was under great pressure to do so. He was being pressured not only by the rabble but also by men of wealth and position who saw that their riches would be taxed away by the emperor and his finance minister to pay for the glorious achievements with which Justinian meant to immortalize his reign. It was not clear to Hypatius where duty lay. He only knew that if the rebellion was not successful he and his brother would be held responsible if he assumed the throne; and that if he did not accept it the rioters themselves might kill them for their loyalty to Justinian.

On the morning of the fifth day even the palace guard was becoming restless. They weren’t afraid of a mob but they did disdain an indecisive leader, and Justinian seemed unable to come to any decision to end the rebellion. Yet Belisarius, the hero of Daras, was there with them and he had a large number of his bucellarii available; for they had made their way in groups to the palace barracks. His friend the strategos Mundus, commander of the Illyrian divisions was also there with his retainers. Their bucellarii were few compared to the rebels but they were excellent troops, well armed and armored and, of course, trained and disciplined.

There too were Theodora and Antonina. Antonina was not waiting demurely aside like a proper wife but instead stood at her husband’s side like a shield.

Justinian had another fear. These bucellarii had sworn loyalty to Belisarius and Mundus, not to him. Justinian hated that and feared it. His uncle, Justin, had constantly been concerned that a general who was strong enough to put down a rebellion with his personal troops might also be popular enough to raise one himself. Might his largely ceremonial palace guard find itself fighting touch bucellarii as well as street thugs? What if the rioters raised Belisarius on a shield instead of Hypatius? Escape by sea began to look the more attractive option.

While the men debated, the empress took Antonina aside. “You alone don’t seem frightened, Antonina. Have you a pact with those scum?”

“Mi-lady, no! But I am not afraid of them either. If one of them had a brain he’d be terrified…. Belisarius is here. He came not because of the emperor’s summons; we were leaving for the city when the messenger arrived. If my husband were disloyal he could as easily have gone to the hippodrome and become emperor. In fact, it would have been easier. He would have had his cataphracts and the people behind him. And you? Just Mundus and your guards.” Antonina was speaking boldly but now was certainly not a time for discretion and surely Theodora would value a straightforward defense that made such perfect sense. Going to the hippodrome had obviously occurred to Antonina if not to her husband. Yet they had not. Theodora made a mental note.

Procopius was also in the room and although he could not overhear their discussion it was plain to him that Theodora listened carefully to her cubicularia. It confirmed what he had already concluded: that the flirty Antonina was far more than a mere pretty to decorate a husband’s bed. When they had married she had seemed a simple if tarnished woman, one he’d assumed was overwhelmed at what the fates had provided her. Quickly he had realized that she had become much more to both Belisarius and Theodora. She not only understood the world outside the Great Palace, she was strong and ready to give advice; probably good advice. Somewhere in the back of his mind he resented that. Procopius had thought he’d be the general’s right hand but with so strong a wife beside him that position was jeopardized.

Procopius watched as Theodora turned from Antonina to Justinian. Her back was straight and there was anger in her face. The anger was not at Antonina’s frank words but at her husband’s timidity. Theodora summoned the best Attic phrases she had heard from educated men and put them together in a monologue not unworthy of the ancient authors: “My opinion is that it is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety. For one who has been an empress 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 Basilia. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, there the boats. However consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. As for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that the purple is a good burial-shroud.”

Procopius made some more mental notes for the book he would one day write.

The decision was made and on the sixth day of the rebellion Belisarius led his bucellarii to one end of the hippodrome. Mundus led his own bucellarii and the imperial guard through a passage connecting the palace to the race track. Belisarius forced the entrance in person and his men arrayed themselves in battle order within. The one-sided butchery began. Thirty thousand were killed

In truth though, it was not the troops who did most of the slaughter. It was the rebels and criminals themselves. Even while those inside the palace were debating what to do, Narses had been spreading bribes and promises among the Blues. That had added to the rebel’s disorder and mutual suspicion. Most died in the panic when they found themselves facing armed and disciplined soldiers. Thousands were trampled or had their heads smashed into brick walls by comrades. Others used the knives which all of them carried in attempts to cut a way out through their friends and enemies. They failed; but before the troops could cut them down they had stabbed and slashed at each other in a brawl such as has never been seen before or since.

The factions had not anticipated their massacre and neither had the troops who carried it out. Somehow the thought of thoroughly excising this cancer had never occurred to any emperor before; or if it had, none had possessed the courage to try surgery on such a scale. Until that day Justinian hadn’t either. The rebels had felt secure in their numbers, especially when word leaked out of the palace that Justinian was considering flight. But Theodora proved herself a tougher fighter than her husband and Belisarius and Mundus did what had to be done. No mercy was shown. These were not enemy soldiers serving their country and king. They were not even honest rebels intent upon replacing a bad emperor with a better. They were murderers and thieves, so the city’s criminal element was largely eliminated at one cut. The city prefect could be assured that the few who survived would henceforth dwell in the shadows for some years to come. Citizens could walk the streets at night with far less fear than had been possible almost since the founding of the city. Prayers were offered that Christ would have pity and pardon the dead, but in that brutal age, when even the best of men and women and children died of the slightest disease or accident, there was little mourning and no condemnation of the slaughter.