Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The Blues and the Greens: Three Vignettes of Byzantine Life

‘Partisanship is our great curse. We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other’

James Harvey Robinson

In the early years of the reign of Emperor Justinian: Armed bands of hooligans, the ‘Blue’ and 'Green' Partisans, are terrorising the Capital. It is unsafe to go out at night, or at any time wearing expensive ornaments or gold buttons. Those who escape with a beating after an encounter with either group count themselves fortunate, since robbery is frequently accompanied by rape and murder. These young thugs ransack and set fire to houses with apparent impunity. They boast that they can kill with a single dagger blow, and they murder at will, even within the sacred precincts of churches. There is, moreover, implacable hostility between the rival factions. Whenever gangs of Blues and Greens meet there are violent running battles, in which the lives and property of innocent citizens are completely disregarded. The Partisans are easily recognised, each side adopting highly distinctive styles of dress, both quite different from the conventional. They wear short coats, with wide sleeves that are drawn tightly at the wrists, over trousers, rather than the full-length tunics worn by ordinary citizens. Their styles, in fact, are loosely based on those of barbarian tribes, particularly of the Huns. Their hairstyles are similarly outlandish, left to grow long at the back and shaved at the front. All attempts by the hard-pressed authorities to control these lawless gangs are met with violent resistance. On the rare occasions that they are brought to justice, pressures are brought to bear from influential sources within the party of their allegiance, and they are almost always released without being brought to trial, or punished in any way. The release of their members from prison is a common cause for rioting, as is the cancellation of a race-meeting. Faction riots are almost accompanied by gratuitous acts of arson. It is well known that the gangs of both sides will pillage or murder to order. For most citizens the situation is intolerable; for much of the time it is almost impossible to carry on an ordinary life. Those who able are tempted to move - but there is little point, since a similar state of affairs in most other cities of the Empire.

At the Hippodrome: The roar from the race-meeting can be heard all over the deserted city. The streets are empty, businesses are closed. The only sign of life are the foot-patrols of those civil troops unfortunate enough to have been detailed to keep an eye on the abandoned town centre. For days now it has seemed that the only topic of conversation has concerned the forthcoming races. There have been the usual, passionate arguments about the skills of the various charioteers, and the quality of their teams of horses. Betting odds have fluctuated as wildly as the rumours of bribery and fixes. Today the vast U-shaped stadium is packed with upward of a 100,000 spectators; many have been there since dawn. The events of the day began well enough with the Triumph parade of a General and his leading officers, fresh from their victories on the distant borders of the Empire. But the crowd, as ever, were impatient for the races to begin; there is more interest these days in the outcome of a chariot race than in the outcome of remote foreign wars. As the day progresses there are the usual exchanges of massed chants between the supporters of the respective Demes and the usual cheers of victory on one side and the booing and jeering from the other. Some have won fortunes, others have lost everything, including their freedom; this is Hippomania in full swing. But by now it is late in the afternoon, more than twenty chariot races have been run and the Greens have had a bad day. Passions are running high and fights are continually breaking out between rival groups of supporters. The rhythmical chanting of the triumphant Blue faction, with their taunting references to past humiliations, is needling the Greens to the very limit of their patience. One of the final races of the day is about to begin; the white handkerchief is dropped, the roar can again be heard all over the city. But on this occasion there is a collision at the first turn, the wheels of two chariots become locked and are ploughed into by several others. One charioteer is dragged by the traces; others are thrown out and disappear beneath the confusion of hooves and wheels. A rider wearing a blue tunic manages to avoid the melée and clears the six further circuits without serious challenge. There is uproar among the crowd. The triumphal, rhythmical jeering from the claques of Blues is met with angry responses from Green supporters who are egged on by their own cheer-leaders. The fracas carries on through the final events. As sunset approaches, with the races finished, the crowds pour out of the stadium, but the Greens are in a riotous mood. Many make their way to a Blue section of town; stones are thrown, there are attempts at arson. A contingent of civil guard races to the scene, and is stretched to contain the mob. Reinforcements soon arrive, however, and the situation is finally brought under control. A few hotheads are arrested; there are confrontations and a few casualties, some serious. As night falls the crowd gradually disperse and tension eases. The troops joke among themselves, 'Just a typical day at the races - and there's another in a couple of week’s time...’

“It amazes me that thousands and thousands of grown men should be like children, wanting to look at horses running and men standing on chariots over and over again. If it was the speed of the horses or the skill of the drivers that attracted them there would be some sense in it – but in fact it is simply the colour. That is what they back and that is what fascinates them. Suppose half way through the race the drivers were to change their colours, then the supporters backing would change too, and in a second they will abandon the drivers and horses whose names they shout as they recognise them from afar. Such is the overpowering influence of a single worthless shirt.”

Extract from a letter by the younger Pliny

In the court of Constantine Porphyrogenitus on the occasion of the annual ceremony of the Emperors Name-day: It is a banquet, but one conducted in the manner of all Byzantine ceremonials, like a slow, orderly ballet. The role of every guest is predetermined. Every gesture, every speech and acclamation, and every pause between these are prescribed, as in some solemn drama. By long tradition the ritual begins once the sovereigns have taken their place at the table. When the food has been served the Demarch of the Blues and his party are called for. As they enter the doorway they acclaim the Emperor, wishing him long life. They are wearing blue garments, touched with white, with short sleeves and gold bands. They carry ceremonial torches and wear anklets that clang as they glide around. They make a formal presentation of the Book of Permissions. The Prefect of the Table steps down and passes it to the Chamberlain in charge of the Water. The party murmur a prayer. The Prefect of the Table then slowly turns and stretches out his right hand. He opens his fingers in the form of rays, and then closes them to form a bunch. The Blue party then begin a slow, interweaving dance around the table, making three complete turns. They then stand at the foot of the Emperor's table. The singers sing 'Lord strengthen the Empire for ever', this is then taken up by the Blues who, sing the hymn a further three times, after which they retire. There then enters the party of the Greens, identical in number, wearing similar short-sleeved tunics, but of green touched with red. They, too, are carrying torches and wearing anklets that clang as they move. They also pray and praise the Emperor, and dance around the table, and sing 'Lord strengthen the Empire for ever'. In fact the entire elaborate procedure is duplicated in every respect. The ceremony is concluded with the appropriate gestures and bows, and both groups file majestically out of the great dining hall. The Emperor has been confirmed in his role as God's vice-regent on earth. The ceremony, as rigidly prescribed by tradition as all of the activities of the court, has reflected the harmony and order of the Universe, as ordained by the Creator.

Perpetual rivalry

The first of the above sketches dates from the Byzantium of the 6th century, the last from the 10th; the second could have occurred at any time between these, or indeed from some time earlier, or indeed later. But the institutions of the Venetoi (the Blues) and the Prasinoi (the Greens), and the endless struggle between them, go back many centuries before this. In fact these factiones, who between them affected almost every social and political aspect of life in the Empire, originated as 'supporters clubs', not in Byzantium itself, but in the remote past, in the Roman Circus of the Republic of the 2nd century B.C.

The history of the factiones is obscure, but the earliest references are to two, the Red and White teams of the Circus in its very early days. The number was increased to four (with the addition of the Blues and Greens) when Julius Caesar introduced the British sport of chariot racing to Rome. The races very soon became immensely popular and were officially encouraged. Indeed the sport of charioteering, together with the contests of the gladiatorial arena, was quite deliberately (and cynically) promoted to replace the democratic rights that had been lost with the passing of the Republic. Under the new Imperial dispensation Roman citizens lost their political say, but were given the excitement of the Games plus handouts of food when times got tough. 'Bread and Circuses' was no mere slogan; it was the reality of life in Imperial Rome.

Chariot racing very soon became a positive obsession among the citizens. Successful drivers became popular heroes and could become extremely wealthy. Partisan feelings among supporters, who were a very high proportion of the population, ran unbelievably high. By channelling the emotions of the ever-growing Roman population in a politically harmless direction the Races proved to be a very effective method of social control. Never, in their entire history, did the factions develop any clear-cut political or religious programme of their own - other than the defence of their own status and privileges. Eventually there were games on no less than ninety days of the year, all provided at public expense. The stadium where they were held, the Circus Maximus, had constantly to be enlarged, until, under Augustus, it could accomodate up to a quarter of a million spectators. The factiones, who promoted and ran the races, came to command the fanatical loyalty of supporters. Inevitably, fierce, almost tribal, rivalries grew up between the groups. However, the races themselves and the factiones who now organised them, both became thoroughly institutionalised. Each was to become a permanent fixture of Roman life, through both peaceable and more turbulent periods, for centuries to come.

When the Empire was Christianised under Constantine, and the new capital was established at Byzantium, chariot racing was transplanted there as naturally as all other Roman institutions. But along the line certain changes were introduced. In the new setting the four established factiones were reduced to two; the Reds were subsumed into the Blues, the Whites into the Greens - and a new phenomenon was making its appearance, that of mass, organised claques. There had long been officially sponsored groups at the chariot races, which were used to shout formal acclamations to the Emperor on his appearance at these and other occasions, but this institution began to be taken over by the partisans themselves. The mass chants that in the past had declared loyalty to the Emperor and his family were now expressing loyalty to the Blue or the Green parties (and, of course, their hostility towards each other). In addition, the opposing factiones were adopting public, and overtly political, roles. Their leaders were now appointed by the government and as Demes they were given social responsibilities, such as the maintenance of the city walls. These newly acquired powers led them increasingly to be taken into account in governmental matters.

At about this time the parties began to adopt distinct and (naturally) opposing political and religious stances; broadly speaking they aligned along the familiar conservative/liberal polarity. The Blues identified with the aristocratic landowners and the provinces, and always supported the orthodox line in religious matters. The Greens represented traders and artisans and the City, and tended to hold more liberal (and occasionally heretical) religious views. In reality, both parties absorbed older quarrels and feuds from other sources.

The public focus of the Demes activities, however, remained the chariot races. A contemporary historian described how the passion for this sport 'gives rise to madness rather than pleasure', and goes on to observe that 'for the factions a man will squander his property, endure martyrdom and death, and commit crime. Party interest takes precedence over family, house, country and law. Men, and women, suffer from a sort of mental disorder, and a general insanity prevails'. We get some indication here of the extent to which the struggle between the Demes came to affect every aspect of life in the Empire. Practically everyone was allied to one or other party, whether they liked it or not. By virtue of family connection, or occupation, or ethnic origin you were either a Blue or a Green; you were loyal to one side and loathed the other.

The Demes soon became so powerful that the Imperial government came to depend on the support of one or other to retain their hold on power. When this occurred their rival would inevitably become a focus for opposition. The party that had the upper hand naturally used its position to promote its own causes and to restrict those of its rival. In general the parties vied with each other for the Emperor's favour, but when, on the rare occasions they combined to make common cause against Imperial rule, the Emperor was almost always overthrown. The more usual relationship however, and one that was sustained for nearly five centuries, was of implacable mutual suspicion and hostility. This frequently found expression in physical conflict, not only in the Capital but also in all the main cities of the Empire. The period of the Partisans, during which the social equilibrium was permanently disrupted by inter-factional violence, was by no means unique. In the 7th century the clashes between the parties became so bitter and widespread that they began to assume the scale of a civil war.

The heyday of the Blues and the Greens was between the 5th and 7th centuries, but they endured as a power within Byzantium as long as the Races and the Hippodrome itself, that is to say until the 12th century. But long before this they had ascended to respectability. As they drew closer to the Emperor's Court, where they came to play an important role in its elaborate ceremony, they became less and less factious. When chariot racing finally fell into decline the factiones themselves disappeared from history...

There are various aspects of this saga that are worth commenting on here. Firstly it provides an extraordinary example of the capacity for societies to survive serious internal tensions and contradictions, often, as in this case, for very long periods. It also confirms that institutions within societies (and the symbolic structures that they represent) can themselves be extremely resilient. It is also clear that such institutions create a momentum all of their own. In the Byzantine setting the factions and the sustained conflict between them must have appeared a perfectly normal part of the scene, however strange it all seems in retrospect, because ultimately there was no real point to this perpetual struggle. As the contemporary historian Procopius lamented, ‘They fight against their opponents, not knowing for what end’.

There is one final point to make about this enduring vendetta, which, from the point of view of the Byzantine rulers, was the most important of all – namely, that the conflict enabled them to maintain their hold on power for centuries. In effect the eternal wrangling between the factions institutionalised the old Roman principle of divide et impera, divide and rule. So long as the feud between the factions continued the Emperor and the Court were able to maintain the pretence of their divinely appointed role, despite the many dubious (and frequently murderous) methods used to procure the throne. Only when the Demes put their differences to one side and combined their forces, only on these very rare occasions were Emperors toppled.