In this excerpt from The End of Protest, the author compares the tactics of rioting and ambushing and argues in favor of the ambush when confronting the police.
“Rather than trying to overcome police repression in a series of successful protests, activists should aspire to a dramatic victory in a single encounter. A video of a stunning victory against paramilitary police could mobilize the world. This victory does not need to be violent. In fact, a spectacular and humiliating non-violent defeat of riot police would be far more effective.”
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The closest a spontaneous riot has come to a successful revolution against an empire occurred in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, in AD 532. During the spectacular people’s riot, known as the Nika Revolt, a large portion of the capital city was burned and a new emperor declared by the people. The riots nearly forced Emperor Justinian I to flee and almost toppled the Byzantine Empire. The Nika Revolt is significant in the history of protest because it demonstrates that revolutionary moments happen when the people break the pattern.
In 532, two hundred years after Constantine transferred the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople, the life of the people was oriented around the chariot races that took place in the hippodrome. The chariot races were bloody entertainment dominated by two competing teams, or factions: the Blues and the Greens. There were also two minor factions—the Reds, who aligned with the Greens, and the Whites, supporters of the Blues. Historians disagree about the political nature of these circus factions. Some historians argue that the Blues and Greens were akin to contemporary football hooligans whose team loyalty was non-political. It is true that the factions often engaged in rioting, violence against each other and attacks on civilians. From one perspective the factions were similar to gangs. On the other hand, some historians believe that the factions represented differing political and theological tendencies. From this perspective, the Greens were the faction of the landed aristocracy, and the Blues were the team favoured by the mercantile class. The chariot races then became a proxy for a culture war. What is clear is that each emperor favoured one faction, most often the Greens, over the others and encouraged the factions to fight and never unite.
The chariot races served to distract the people, but they also played an important political role. The emperor had a special royal box, known as the kathisma, in the hippodrome that was connected to the royal palace by a guarded tunnel. One way the people could make their political will known was to request the emperor’s attendance at the chariot races and to chant their demands in unison. The tactic was known as a circus petition. Imagine up to 250,000 people chanting in unison, making a clamour the emperor could not deny hearing. The emperor would then have the choice of agreeing to the demands, ignoring the chants or sending soldiers to silence the crowd. Similarly, the emperor could summon the people to the hippodrome by entering the kathisma. As one scholar observes, “The hippodrome was the focal point in relations between the emperor and the people.” In fact, during the first century, it was common for the Roman emperor to concede to demands that were chanted by the people during the races. By the sixth century, however, the circus petition became less effective in the Byzantine Empire and the people’s demands during the games were increasingly ignored. The breakdown of the petition laid the foundation for the Nika Revolt.
The immediate trigger for the Nika Revolt occurred on January 10, 532, when seven partisans of the Blue and Green factions were arrested and found guilty of murder. The partisans were taken to be executed when a large crowd gathered to protest. Five of the partisans were executed and then, in one of those chance occurrences that trigger historical moments, the scaffolding broke and the final two—a Green and a Blue—were saved by the crowd and given sanctuary at the nearby church of St. Laurence.
For hundreds of years, the Blue and Green factions had detested each other and delighted in fighting. Now, however, there was an incentive to join forces: each faction desired the freedom of their man. Three days later, at the next chariot races, the crowd shouted and petitioned the emperor to grant the two partisans their freedom. Justinian ignored their demands and refused to acknowledge their petition. The shouting continued for twenty-two chariot races. Still Justinian made no reply. With only two races remaining in the day, the Greens and Blues suddenly shouted, “Long life to the merciful Blues and Greens!” and began chanting, “Nika!” (“Conquer!”), a common cheer of the factions. The choice of Nika as a watchword for the spontaneous movement may have also been a tactical decision as it helped distinguish the people, who spoke Greek, from the Latin-speaking soldiers who would have tried to infiltrate the protest. Acting together, the factions began rioting and setting fire to Constantinople. Justinian retreated through the kathisma and locked himself in the palace.
At this point, it is crucial to understand that faction riots involving incendiarism were common—hence the association of the factions with violent hooliganism. The historian Alan Cameron, who wrote the definitive account of the circus factions, observes that riots combined with arson were recorded in 491, 493, 498, 507, 532, 548, 560, and 571. In other words, it was a frequent occurrence. The difference is, as Cameron points out, that the typical faction riot was not a political protest. Instead, a normal faction riot was “a battle between the two colours.” With the factions united, the rioting was far more severe than usual. Still, it was not yet a political protest.
On the evening of January 13, the rioters set fire to the residence of the city prefect Eudaemon, who had condemned the seven faction members to death, and freed the two partisans. Through direct action, the people had achieved their initial demand. Now events began to spiral out of control even more quickly.
The next day, Justinian attempted to pacify the rioters by continuing the chariot races. The gesture failed and the people set fire to the hippodrome before issuing a new set of demands. This time, the people demanded the dismissal of the three highest-ranking officials resident in the capital, including Eudaemon. Justinian, who had earlier ignored the people’s petition and the ongoing rioting, capitulated to the new set of demands. He dismissed the named officials but the rioting only grew in intensity. Justinian responded by sending his soldiers into the city to end the rioting with deadly force. This effort failed. And at this point, the rioting broke away from the usual script and became a political revolution: the people surrounded the home of Probus, a nephew of a previous emperor named Anastasius, and acclaimed him as the new emperor. Probus was either not home, or he was avoiding the mob, and the rioters set fire to his residence.
The riots continued for days. Much of the city, including government archives, was burned. Meanwhile, additional soldiers began arriving from Thrace, prepared for battle. On Saturday, January 18, Justinian called the people to the hippodrome and, holding the Gospels, “acknowledged his own error in not assenting to the demands of the factions at the start of the riot” and also “offered to pardon the rioters.” His efforts to calm the protesters through conciliation did not work.
Justinian returned to the palace and dismissed Hypatius and Pompey, brothers of Probus and nephews of Anastasius. This move has puzzled historians because it supplied the people with another opportunity to hail a new emperor. And they did. Hypatius was acclaimed emperor, given makeshift imperial regalia and led to the hippodrome. He sat in the royal kathisma and was cheered by the assembled people. This was the defining moment of the Nika Revolt. The people had transformed a typical faction riot into a political revolution that attempted to transfer sovereignty to a new leader. As one historian observes, “the behaviour of both Justinian and the rioters in 532 went along a well-worn course already familiar from previous disturbances, until a new emperor was hailed in the hippodrome.”
A terrified Justinian contemplated fleeing the city. In fact, a rumour reached Hypatius that Justinian had already fled, emboldening the people’s choice of emperor. But the Empress Theodora had interrupted Justinian’s council on whether to run for safety with a rousing speech that changed the course of events:
My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive…. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty…. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.
In preferring death over flight, Empress Theodora persuaded Justinian to stay and fight. Justinian sent the soldiers from Thrace against the people assembled in the hippodrome. The surprise attack quickly escalated into a slaughter: over thirty thousand people were indiscriminately killed.
Reflecting on why the faction riot became a revolution, the historian Geoffrey Greatrex finds evidence for one of the core truths that has underpinned our theory of revolution: it was unexpected occurrences that broke the usual pattern. “The chain of events which made the Nika riot unique was for the most part accidental,” he writes.
The overwhelming defeat of the Nika Revolt had lasting political and tactical consequences. The factions did not ever reunite. And although faction rioting became frequent within a decade, the riot was never again deployed as a revolutionary tactic.
First lesson: break the script. Apolitical faction riots were common, but the Nika Revolt spiralled into a revolution when it swerved in an unexpected direction. Second lesson: unite. The Nika Revolt nearly succeeded because the two factions found common cause and joined together to achieve a shared goal, freeing their comrades and toppling Justinian. The revolt was crushed when the unity was broken. The division between the left and right today is akin to the separation of Blue and Green in 532. Third lesson: don’t celebrate until you’ve won. The fatal mistake of the rebels was to assume that acclaiming a new sovereign in the hippodrome was sufficient to topple the old leader. If the people had swarmed Justianian’s residence to complete the revolution instead of flocking to the hippodrome to prematurely celebrate victory, the history of the Western world would have been irrevocably altered.
The greatest activist in the history of protest is Arminius (c. 18 BC–AD 21). His epic protest against Roman expansion into Germanic territory changed the destiny of the empire for four hundred years. Arminius was a twenty-six-year-old prince from the Cherusci tribe of ancient Germany when he united the decentralized Germanic tribes and ambushed the world’s superpower. The barbarians’ decisive victory was so complete that it enshrined the people’s sovereignty over their homeland and restrained imperial Roman expansion until the end of the empire. After two thousand years, recent archaeological evidence reveals the secret behind Arminius’s protest triumph.
No civilization had ever reached the overwhelming supremacy that Rome exerted in AD 9. The Germanic people faced an omnipotent adversary who saw the entire world as its domain. Until then no people had successfully halted Roman expansion and expropriation of their homelands. Here’s how one historian describes the perception of Rome in the months prior to Arminius’s coordinated protest: “The power of Rome appeared so firmly established; no people which had resisted it had ever prospered…. There was such a superstitious faith in the star of Rome’s ascendancy, that numbers believed that the dominion of the world had been decreed to her from the beginning of time.” It was commonly believed that the borders of Rome would always expand and never recede. Rome anticipated it would subjugate the world to its order. Political protest, social resistance and revolution against Rome were crushed by the most efficient military in existence.
The tribes of Germany embodied the opposite spirit to Rome’s linear rationality. Unlike Rome, the people were decentralized and lived in homesteads dispersed throughout forests without roads. Julius Caesar initiated Rome’s invasion of Gaul, which western Germany was a part of, between 58 and 51 BC. After sixty years, by the time of Arminius, social and economic exchange existed between the tribes and Rome, whose expansionist strategy hinged on subjugation through assimilation. The tribe’s warriors were recruited into the Roman military hierarchy, for example. In fact, this cultural intermingling played a decisive role in the outcome of events. The archaeologist Peter Wells recounts that Arminius “gained firsthand experience in Roman military tactics while helping Tiberius suppress the great rebellion that broke out in Pannonia in AD 6.” Three years later, Arminius had become a trusted confidant of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the Roman general in command of three legions of occupying forces.
In September of AD 9, Varus and his legions were marching from their summer camp to their winter headquarters when Arminius sent word of a nearby tribal rebellion and offered to assist Varus in putting down the protest. Against the counsel of his advisers, Varus decided to act on Arminius’s information and marched his massive power straight into a trap. Recent historians estimate that Varus had a force of “20,000 infantry and cavalry, accompanied by some 10,000 slaves, women, children, armorers, medical personnel, and civilian tradesmen.” The ancient historian Velleius attests that the Roman legions Varus commanded were among the best fighters in the Roman Empire. Varus must have been confident that his army could deal with any people’s rebellion.
Arminius led Varus into an ambush. Squeezed between a hill and a marsh, the Romans were clad in heavy armour and unable to escape. The barbarians surrounded the soldiers, hurling spears from a distance; then they approached for the kill. Three legions were wiped out in a singular victory for the tribes of the Rhine.
Until the twentieth century, the exact location of the ambush site was unknown and therefore a crucial part of the story was missing. Now we know that in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest the four-mile-long column of soldiers was ambushed as they passed the base of Kalkriese Hill in Osnabrück, Lower Saxony. Recent archaeological evidence reveals that the tribes constructed a hidden sod wall that was about fifteen feet wide, five feet high and two thousand feet long. The wall had a wooden fence on top and limestone blocks in front. The existence of the wall gives a sense of the depth of Arminius’s planning and the time involved. Wells estimates construction of the wall must have involved hundreds of people, working dawn till dusk, for several weeks. Was the wall used to kettle the soldiers? Or was it instead a defensive barricade? We can only speculate how Arminius’s wall was used by the people to defeat twenty thousand of the most highly trained occupying soldiers.
Following the tribe’s victorious ambush, Varus committed suicide and his head was sent to Rome. The shock of defeat was so tremendous that the panicked citizens of the world’s capital city believed a barbarian invasion was imminent. Rome responded with punitive actions, but during the next four centuries the Roman military never tried to re-establish an encampment east of the lower Rhine.
According to the ancient historian Tacitus, Arminius was killed by his own people, who feared he was becoming a king. Tacitus writes, “Arminius … began to aim at kingship, and found himself in conflict with the independent temper of his countrymen. He was attacked by arms, and, while defending himself with chequered results, fell by the treachery of his relatives.”
A single decisive victory can change the course of history. Contemporary activists can reverse the behaviour of strong adversaries by orchestrating singular events that surprise and demoralize. The example set by Arminius is especially important for protesters who face heavily armoured police. Rather than trying to overcome police repression in a series of successful protests, activists should aspire to a dramatic victory in a single encounter. A video of a stunning victory against paramilitary police could mobilize the world. This victory does not need to be violent. In fact, a spectacular and humiliating non-violent defeat of riot police would be far more effective. On the value of winning with as few victories as possible, the great Chinese military strategist Wu Ch’i, who lived roughly four hundred years before Arminius, gives excellent advice: “Those that garner five victories will meet with disaster; those with four victories will be exhausted; those with three victories will become hegemons, those with two victories will be kings; and those with one victory will become emperors. For this reason those who have conquered the world through numerous victories are extremely rare, while those who thereby perished are many.”