Thursday, November 15, 2012

The origins of political parties and “partisanship”: The Blues and The Greens

The Roman poet and author Juvenal complained in one of his famous satires that he wrote in early 2nd century that, the Romans had given up their political freedom for “bread and circuses” (“panem et circenses”). What Juvenal meant by “bread and circuses” was that, instead of solving the real problems the emperors distributed free bread to the Romans and organized entertainment at hippodrome in a populist way to create the public approval and  prevent riots.  The entertainment at hippodrome had been organized by the emperors since the foundation of the Roman Empire to keep the public busy and pleased just like the television and football clubs do today. These activities mainly consisted of gladiatorial combats at first, but with conversion to Christianity from Paganism and the Church’s prohibition of the gladiatorial combats, chariot races took their place. In Emperor Augustus’s period in the 1st century, entertainments lasted for 77 days in a year. Though they were rather costly for the government, in Emperor Markus Aurelius’s period in early 2nd century, they were extended to 135 days in a year. Entertainment activities had been organized at hippodrome until Constantinople was invaded by the Latin in the 13th Century.

Chariot Races in Ancient Times – Alexander Von Wagner - 1913
The teams racing in chariot races held at hippodrome used to wear red, blue, green and white jerseys and paint their chariots in order to be distinguished from each other. Each team gained their own supporters in time, the teams began to be called as “The Blues”, “The Greens”, “The Reds” and “The Whites” and their fans began to carry flags and wear cloaks in the colors of their teams, just like today’s uniforms. “The Whites” and “The Reds” disappeared in time and as of the 4th century there were only “The Blues” and “The Greens”.  The emperors watched the races from private loge designated for them which were called ‘kathisma’.  Hippodrome was the only place where the public met the emperors. Eventually, the supporters who  cheered for their teams began to shout about   daily issues such as taxes or military services etc inbetween.  This became a good chance for the emperors to keep finger on the pulse. The hippodrome turned into a place where the public supported or critised the emperors. . Unsurprisingly, in time, political factions among the public became materialized in teams and supporters.
Conservative, elite: rightist Blues / Rebellious, poor: leftist Greens
The Empress Theodora –
San Vitale Basilica – Mosaic –
6th Century
Whereas The Blues formed the elite class that had the Diophysite Orthodox belief which was the official religious sect of the state upon the Chalcedon Ecumenical Council decisions, The Greens represented the lower and relatively poor classes mostly coming from the eastern parts of the empire. In this sense, according to today’s definition, The Blues and The Greens can be considered as the first political parties in history, including the Roman Republic era, where “the man in the street” was represented. The emperors heard about the demands and complaints of these two factions which had two opposite views and socio-economic conditions, and this gave them the chance to adjust their policies and practices according to these or at least take their feedbacks. Thus the hippodrome was not only a place where chariot races took place, but also a place where political parties met the government.
The emperors supported a team in accordance with their political and religious views. For instance, Emperor Justinian who was strictly bound to the Dyophysite religious sect, supported The Blues (It should be noted that, the Byzantine Empire was not ruled by a single dynasty as the Ottoman Empire. Many emperors came into power by a military coup while they weresoldiers in the army. This was the reason for the change of the religious sect or party from one emperor to another On the other hand; his wife, Empress Theodora was bound to the Monophysite religious sect and came from a rather poor family, and she supported The Greens. In this way, the emperor and the empress were able to keep finger on the pulse of both factions. The everlasting dispute between these two groups often helped the emperor sustain the balance, until the “Nika Riot” that broke out in Constantinople in 532.

The Nika Riot
On the day of Nika Riot, a first in history was experienced at hippodrome. The Greens and The Blues, which had totally opposite views and were fierce opponents of each other,  united against the Emperor Justinian about an unfair practice which both groups suffered from yet the emperor didn’t take a step back, and they shouted “Nika! (which meant ‘victory’)” all together. The emperor realized that there was a serious trouble and left the hippodrome, then The Greens and The Blues left the hippodrome as well and started a big fire in the city, which would last for days, they sieged the palace and demanded Justinian’s head. Justinian tried  to suppress the riot for days but  since he was unable , he decided to escape to save his life. The ships that would take him and his wife Theodora were waiting in the harbor. Theodora, who had started life as a belly-dancer and had never been considered to deserve the palace  since she had come from the lowest and poorest class of the public and who was even accused of prostitution by the historian Prokopius in his book named as “The Secret History of the Byzantium”, convinced Justinian to stay and keep trying to suppress the riot.  The rumor had it that: Theodora said this  historical quote to Justinian, who was  preparing to run away; “I would rather die than run away, there cannot be a cerement more beautiful than the royal clothing!” Justinian took courage from his wife and decided to stay. That night, he made a plan with his commander Belisarius to kill the rioters the next day while they gathered together at the hippodrome and they shut around forty thousand rioters at the hippodrome and slaughtered them all. Constantinople experienced one of the bloodiest days in its history. The riot was suppressed at the evening of that day and Justinian kept ruling the empire for many years until he died a natural death. The Empress Theodora, who had withheld Justinian from running away thanks to her calmness and courage that night, and came to be remembered as one of the most powerful women in history together with the British Queen Victoria and the Russian Czarina Catherina , changed the flow of history.  Back to the subject, we can say that the Nika Riot became a turning point for The Blues and The Greens, i.e., for the first political parties. Despite the fact that the riot was suppressed gorily, it underlined that it would create serious troubles for the emperors when the supporters of both political parties were unpleased, and also it was the first event as a result of which political parties formed an opinion about their powers.

Riot in Byzantium - Schnorr von Carolsfeld – 1835
“ Supporting”  a political party since The Blues and The Greens
Today, many people support their political views and political parties (if any) like a football team fan. Instead of getting proud of its trues and criticizing their faults, they support their parties to death in a blindfolded way and criticize the opponent view and party with impunity. They shout out slogans instead of talking with sense and logic. But this is not surprising when one knows the truth that today’s political parties arose from the stadiums and sports team fans of the Ancient Byzantium.

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