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Justinian's Building Project: Istanbul After Nika Riots

Constantinople, now called Istanbul, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire for more than a millennium. It was a crossroads between West and East and never stopped growing. During the reign of Justinian (from 527 to 565 AD) about 500,000 people lived in Constantinople (Croke, 2006). The needs for food and water were very high. It was a constantly under pressure society, as meeting specific needs had always been a challenge. It was not uncommon for Istanbul to suffer from periods of drought or food shortages, especially grain, something that required infrastructure capable of transporting and storing these goods. In addition, Istanbul suffered a few times from the outbreak of fires in key areas of the city, as informed by Ioannis Malalas and Ioannis Lydos, two Byzantine chronographs. The blows that the Byzantine capital received from earthquakes were also very frequent (Malalas et al., 1986). These disasters resulted in the constant variations of the city's urban fabric, as buildings collapsed and were rebuilt. In addition, the people of the Byzantine capital were constantly called upon to manage crises and were under financial pressure. To these natural disasters can be added the many uprisings and acts of violence that took place in Istanbul (Greatrex, 1997).

Figure 1: View of Constantinople during the reign of Justinian.

The most important and well-known of all is the Nika riots, that took place in 532 AD at the Istanbul Hippodrome. The main source of the time is Procopius' work History of the Wars, in which he describes all the events that took place in January of that year. The chariot races took place in the Hippodrome and the Greens and the Blues were two very popular teams that participated in the races and in fact often expressed their opinion on the various decisions of the emperor. The reason for the uprising was the imprisonment of a member of the Greens and one of the Blues on charges of murder. During the races these two municipalities revolted and were shouting "Nika", meaning victory. They began to demand the removal of Justinian from the throne. The crowds of Constantinople became involved in this revolt because of the very heavy taxation and economic reforms imposed by the emperor. The nobles of the capital, who appointed their own emperor, tried to take advantage of this situation. The siege of the palace lasted five days, during which a lot of damage was done to public buildings.

Procopius in "History of the Wars" analyzes how destructive the crowd acted in this uprising. According to the historian "Fire was applied to the city as if it had fallen under the hand of an enemy. The sanctuary of Sophia and the baths of Zeuxippus, and the portion of the imperial residence from the propylaea as far as the so-called House of Ares were destroyed by fire, and besides these both the great colonnades which extended as far as the market place which bears the name of Constantine, in addition to many houses of wealthy men and a vast amount of treasure" (Procopius & Dewing, 1992, 1.24.7 – 1.24.9) Justinian was ready to flee in the face of this situation. However, his wife Theodora persuaded him to stay on the throne and so his generals Belisarios and Moundos led the suppression of the uprising by slaughtering up to 30,000 insurgents at the Hippodrome.

This uprising left behind great wounds in Istanbul. In addition to the suffering of the people from the looting and killings, the material civilization of the Byzantine capital and its urban fabric suffered a great blow. The fire destroyed many of the existing architectures, as one of the basic materials in most of them was wood. Destruction took place both in the center of Istanbul with buildings such as Hagia Sophia or Agia Irini collapsing, as well as in the suburbs, with damage in the ports and other areas (Bassett, 2006). Therefore, it was not difficult to demolish many of the existing buildings. Justinian was forced to take several measures to be able to suppress the revolts that often broke out in time. In addition, the need arose to rebuild the buildings that were destroyed, to such an extent that the splendor of Istanbul could be perceived. The aim was now to show the power of the Byzantine emperor and to highlight the importance of Orthodoxy, since Justinian and his wife Theodora acted as protectors of Christianity (Louth, 2009). Istanbul during their rule was a capital with many inhabitants and the needs that had to be met were therefore greater. These social conditions played their part in the formation of Constantinople.

After the catastrophes that took place during the Nika riots in 532 AD, the Byzantine emperor tried to repair the damage and make it all brighter with an ambitious plan. Many works were constructed, both religious and secular in order to meet all needs. Interventions were made in architectures that already existed or some buildings were reconstructed. It was aimed to highlight the importance of Orthodoxy and the splendor of Byzantine culture. During the reign of Justinian, Constantinople suffered many hardships, but at the same time, it flourished.

Figure 2: Exterior of Hagia Sophia in its modern form.

The most important building built in the time of Justinian was the Hagia Sophia. This church was rebuilt on the ruins of the old Hagia Sophia, which was and is a symbol of Constantinople. The Byzantine emperor also rebuilt Agia Irini in the same area, while outside the center the church of Agios Apostolos was an architecture equal to the importance that Justinian gave to these Saints. After all, that was the place where his remains were to be placed. Finally, he built Saints Sergio and Bacchus, a project that took place before he even took power. These four churches are the most important of the 32 that Justinian built in Constantinople.

In addition, important projects were carried out in the infrastructure of the city. The Great Palace was reconstructed, as well as the Chalke Gate. These works managed to highlight the wealth of the emperor. Operations were also performed in Augustaion and in the baths of Zeuxippus. A very important project concerning the water supply of Constantinople was the construction of the Royal Cistern, an addition necessary after the continuous increase of the population. In general, interventions were received throughout the center of Istanbul, a center that suffered both from the continuous increase of population with all that it could bring, as well as from catastrophes of various kinds. Finally, Justinian and Empress Theodora took care of the construction of charities and hospitals, such as the Sampson Guesthouse. The urban fabric of Constantinople was reshaped, showing that the Byzantine capital was a living organism that did not stop breathing.

Figure 3: Justinian and his attendants

Justinian was one of the longest-lived emperors of Byzantium. During his reign, Constantinople suffered many calamities, both natural and human. He himself, however, seemed to have found solutions to any problems. His construction work is certainly memorable, since one could say that he made Constantinople reborn from the ashes caused by the Nika Station. The Byzantine emperor left a memorable building project behind him. According to Bassett, what differentiates him from Constantine and Theodosius was the great care he gave to the reconstruction of churches and care projects for the people of Constantinople. His involvement with secular buildings is limited to Augustaion and the Chalke Gate, with additions made to the Great Palace. He used Christianity as his main weapon in his politics, leaving behind a large work of ecclesiastical buildings, at a very difficult time for the Byzantine Empire. He was a Christian emperor, who thanks to his work was sanctified with his death.


Bassett, S. (2006). The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople. Cambridge University Press.

Croke, B. (2006). Justinian’s Constantinople. In M. Maas, The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (pp. 60-86). Cambridge University Press.

Greatrex, G. (1997). The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal. The Journal Of Hellenic Studies, 117, pp. 60-86.

Louth, A. (2009). Justinian and His Legacy (500-600). In J. Shepard, The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c.500-1492 (pp. 97-129). Cambridge University Press.

Malalas, J., Jeffreys, E., Jeffreys, M., & Scott, R. (1986). The Chronicle of John Malalas. Australian Association for Byzantine Studies.

Procopius & Dewing, H. (1992). History of the Wars. Harvard University Press.

Image References:

Figure 1: Anonymous. (n.d.). View of Constantinople During the Reign of Justinian. [Computer constructed model]. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Tezcan, T. (2013). Exterior of Hagia Sophia in its Modern Form. [Photo]. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: Anonymous. (547 AD). Justinian and His Attendants. [Mosaic]. Located in San Vitale (Ravenna). Retrieved from:


Author Photo

Leonidas Michailidis

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