All day long, all I could think about was horse racing. One of the nicest things about being retired is that I no longer read anything because “I have to”. I used to "have to" reread the books I assigned my students, or read books written by my colleagues or read the new publications in my fields of study, so there was little time left for pleasure reading. Happily, now I can read anything without that guilty feeling that I am wasting time, which means I am catching up on a few favorite authors I have lost track of, one of whom is Dick Francis.
Francis had something of a varied career: he trained horses during the depression, flew Spitfires during the war, became a famous jockey—riding for the Queen Mother, all of these before settling down as a prolific author. Francis was the only mystery writer to win an “Edgar” three times and all of his novels revolve around some aspect of the racing world.
Race tracks are large and complicated enterprises, with much of the operation all but invisible to the fans. Francis took some little-known corner of the racing world, such as the track bar or the horse transport service, and made it the central core of one of his mysteries. In every book, a curtain is drawn back to reveal a world the reader has never known even existed.
While Francis passed away in 2010, luckily, his son Felix (who had co-authored several novels with his father) has continued to write books still centered around the racing world. His latest, Triple Crown, reminds me of another racing story from long, long ago.
Fifteen hundred years ago, the people of Constantinople were obsessed with chariot racing. This sport was far from a new, as both the Greeks and Romans had built costly race tracks to enjoy the spectacle of quadrigas—open back chariots—racing around a long oval track pulled by four powerful horses. Racing fans wagered huge sums on the outcomes of the races.
On a race day in Constantinople, as many as 100,000 people—including the emperor and most of the royal court—would pack the stands to watch a full day of races. Unlike the gladiatorial combats that had fallen out of favor due to high costs, the races were encouraged by the emperor and could be attended by women as well as men. The fact that the races were incredibly dangerous, with frequent fatal accidents, helped make the sport popular, too.
Over time, four teams came to dominate the races and each had its own group of fans. The Reds, Greens, Blues, and Whites had distinctive clothing, members wore their hair differently, and they had the kind of rowdy fans one normally associates with British football. A winning team frequently had to win both on and off the field, with the latter contest involving thousands of fans.
Emperor Justinian was an open supporter of the Blues, while his wife, Theodora, was rumored to despise the Greens. (It will help in this story if you don’t think of this as chariot racing, but of baseball. The Blues are the Boston Red Sox and the Greens are the New York Yankees. The Reds and Whites were still around, but they were too few in number to actually matter, so think of them as the Cubs and the Mets.)
Over time, two teams, the Blues and the Greens, began to dominate the sport, with their influence growing to include both political and social spheres. The Hippodrome, Constantinople’s enormous racetrack, became a place where people of all social classes—even those wearing the royal purple—could air their grievances. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the track was a free speech zone, since the emperor came to the races with his soldiers, but people could give public voice to their concerns—albeit politely.
In the closing days of the year 531, the factions of the Blues and Greens quarreled over the results of a race. The quarrel quickly turned into a riot that resulted in the murder of several people and the soldiers arrested the instigators, both Blue and Green. Quickly tried and condemned, the guilty were to be hanged. Mass executions were almost as popular as races back then, and attracted large crowds.
At the executions, two of the accused escaped when their nooses broke. One Blue and one Green fell from the scaffold, bound and injured but still alive. The gathered crowd protected them while they ran to a nearby church, where they claimed sanctuary, even as the emperor’s soldiers surrounded the church.
Now, the rioters demanded that the last two survivors be pardoned and, surprisingly, the Blue and Green factions were united on this issue. Justinian, nervous because he knew the people had been unhappy about the high taxes he had imposed to finance his war against the Persians, sought to placate everyone by commuting the penalties of the condemned to lengthy imprisonment and by declaring a full day of races.
The day started well, but by race 22, the crowd had stopped cheering for either team and had begun demanding that the two prisoners be released, shouting, “Nika! Nika!” (meaning victory). Their anger turned into a full-fledged riot, as the 100,000 Blues and Greens banded together and began burning the city. One of the first buildings to be burned was the church where the men had taken refuge (after the men had been freed...so they could join the riot!).
The Blues and Greens were united, but united as an angry mob. There is a simple mathematical formula for calculating the I.Q. of a mob. Take the I.Q. of the dumbest member present and divide it by the number of people in the mob and this mob was no exception. In one bizarre case, the rioters went to the house of one of Justinian's political rivals, hoping that he would become their leader. Upon discovering that he was out of town on business, they burned down his house.
For five days, the riot continued, destroying over half the town and killing tens of thousands of people. Eventually, the mob selected its emperor—a Green—and assembled back at the Hippodrome. With fewer than 2,000 mercenaries who remained loyal as long as they were paid, Justinian thought about fleeing to safety but his wife, who was made of sterner stuff, ignored the protocol against a woman's speaking at council:
“If you wish safety, my Lord, this is an easy matter. We are rich, and there is the sea, and yonder our ships. But consider whether if you reach safety you may not desire to exchange that safety for death. As for me, I like the old saying that the purple is the noblest shroud.”
Consider that phrase, “yonder our ships.” Theodora might have been a Texan. She definitely had bigger stones than her husband, Justinian.
His spine suitably stiffened, Justinian tried subterfuge. First, he sent what few loyal troops he had left to surround the Hippodrome. Then he sent the diminutive court eunuch into the Hippodrome, armed not with a weapon, but with a bag of gold.
The mob that had killed thousands and had looted and burned over half the city, spared the pitiful eunuch, believing him to be no threat. But, once the eunuch was allowed entrance, he went to speak with the Blues, who were gathered at their traditional places in the stands. The eunuch reminded them that Justinian was a Red Sox—I mean Blue—fan and the man pretending to be the new emperor was a Green. Then the emperor’s eunuch began handing out the gold....but only to the Blues.
As you have probably guessed, the Blues accepted the money and promptly left the stands. As soon as they were gone, the soldiers rushed in and began the systematic slaughter of the Greens, who'd stayed behind. The soldiers finally stopped when they were too exhausted to slit another throat, having slaughtered 30,000 Greens.
In Texas, there is a famous saying, “One riot, one Ranger.” This is a reference to Captain MacDonald of the Texas Rangers, who supposedly stopped a riot in Dallas singlehandedly. I guess the Constantinople version would be, "One riot, one eunuch."
The result of all of this was that Justinian got to stay in power. He rebuilt Constantinople, including that church. Today it is known as the Hagia Sophia.
As for chariot racing, it never really made a comeback. It turns out that if one side has a complete victory and literally kills off the competition, the games stop being any fun—something the Boston Red Sox need to remember. And they should change their mascot to a eunuch.