By Matthew Gagnon
Pine Tree Politics
The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a fascinating moment in world history. Yet, the Roman Empire did not cease to exist in 476 as most people believe. Rome had long before been split into two administrative divisions — a Western, Latin Empire and an Eastern, Greek Empire.
Rome’s obliteration as we think of it today was, in reality, an event that occurred only in the west. The Eastern Empire lived on, and became what we today call the Byzantine Empire, though its government and citizens continued to call themselves Romans. That empire survived in some form for another thousand years.
The greatest Byzantine Emperor was Justinian I, who undertook a mission to reconstitute the full Roman Empire once more. He succeeded in recapturing much of Rome’s former territory, which had been lost in the preceding decades.
Justinian’s time — particularly his early reign — was an interesting one. The Empire he led could not be called a democracy, yet in the capital city of Constantinople — today known as Istanbul — an interesting brand of factional mass politics had developed, which organized citizens of the city into powerful mobs that stood in opposition to one another.
These factions, however, were not organized around politics, but around sporting events, particularly the Roman passion that was chariot racing.
I won’t bore you with the particulars of Byzantine sport fandom, but essentially, competitors in sporting events were organized into four teams represented by the color uniform they wore: Green, Blue, Red and White.
These teams each had mass support from major portions of Constantinople’s citizenry, creating large factions. The supporters of each of these teams would themselves wear the same colors.
By Justinian’s time, the Reds and the Whites had lost nearly all of their influence, and sport was dominated by Greens and Blues, creating a bipolar universe of tribal affiliation.
The Greens and Blues became, however, an expression of more than sports fandom. Lacking any kind of democratic power or outlet for mass opinion, these factions grew to dominate civic life as well, organizing around social and political issues. They exerted control over local governance of neighborhoods, religious disputes, and the distribution of food. They even involved themselves in disputes over claimants to the throne.