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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

RIOT!

I would say the odds were that young “Rocky” Sabbatius was destined to die unknown, within 50 miles of his birth place, in the village of Tauresium on the banks of the Varda River, in what is today Macedonia. He was a very smart lad, and handsome, in a shy sort of way, a bit small by all accounts, but, his biggest failing was that Rocky was not overly ambitous. See, when Rocky was born the world still answered to bloodlines, brawn and ambition. But he was to be blessed by two strokes of luck in his life, which saved him from anonimity and failure. The first one was that he had an uncle who was very ambitous.
Flavis Iustinus arrived in Constantinople sometime around 470 A.D. barefoot and hungry, an ignorant adolescent. His only posession was his ambition. He joined the army because soldiers were fed, and he rose in the ranks because war favors compentancy over blood lines. Iustinus was eventualy made commander of the palace guards. That made him wealthy, by normal standards, which enabled him to bring his sister’s boy to the capital of the Byzintine Empire, and adopt him under the name of Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus - Rocky. It turned out this may have been the smartist thing Iustinus ever did, because when the emperior, Anastasius I, died in 519 A.D, the precousus lad advised Iustinus to take on the purple himself. And he did, becoming the Emperior Justin I.
Now, palace politics being what they are, being the adopted son of the emperor made Rocky as likely to be posioned as he was to be the next emperior. But this was when Rocky had his second stroke of luck.
One night at the theatre he met a lovely comedian, talented, gorgous, and just about his size. Her name was Theo, and Rocky was smart enough to recognize that she was as smart as he was, and twice as ambitous.
Her father had been an animal keeper for the Greens. These were one of what were the strongest most influencial social groups in the Roman Empire, sports fans. Although Christianity was the offical religion of the Empire, and since politics was off limits for everybody except the upper classes, the real religion and the real politcs in Constantinople had become the choice of supporting etiher the Venti – the Blue - or the Pasini – the Green.
Each of these “clubs”, supported charriot races held in Constantinople’s Hippidrome, and were a sort of NASCAR, roller derby, ice hockey and Russian roulette all rolled into one, and with soccer hooligans thrown in for spice.
The drivers dressed in their club colors: leather helmets, knee and shin pads, and a leather corset. They were all young, and one of the most famous lived to the ripe old age of 27, before he died in a crackup. The horses had even shorter life spans.
Each of the 24 races held each day of the season (which lasted only 66 days) pitted up to six Greens and Blues against each other for five crash filled laps. The Christian emperiors found this crash ‘em, smash ‘em preferable to old gladiatoral games because they were slightly less gory.
Everybody in town wore their team colors, usually a stripe along the legging or the hem of a dress or tunic. This started out as friendly rivalry, but the partisianship turned increasinly bitter until the fights between Venti and Pasini in the stands required that each group be given their own cheering sections. These fights were then morphed into gangs of Greens and Blues roaming the streets after dark, mugging and killing each other and random passerbys. The politicans got involved for the votes, and used the thugs to intimidate their political opponents. Screaming at the opposing side, and even at the Emperior in the Hippidrome became the only chance the common folk had to make their voices heard.
The Greens were the largest and strongest club, and when Theo’s father died, her mother begged the Greens for a job or at lest a pension to support herself and her three daughters. The Greens turned her down. And that was why Theo had gone to work as an actress.
Rocky was smart enough to want to marry Theo, but he was prohibited by the law from marrying any woman below his social station. As an actress, Theo was a half step above being a prostitute, a recognized profession but you wouldn’t want your son to marry one. So, Rocky pushed his uncle to change the law. In 525 A.D. the happy couple became a happy couple, legally. This infuriated the nobility politicians, who spread false rumors about Theo’s shamless behavior, and noted that the Greens had tossed her out. Over night Rocky and Theo became rabid fans of the Blues. This may have been a mistake, because on August 1, 527 A.D., Rocky’s uncle died, and the shy kid from a backwater of the Empire, and an actress from nowhere, became joint rulers of a big chunk of the known world, the Emperor Justinian and the Emperous Theodoria..
Rocky had big plans to rebuild the empire, but to do that he had to increase taxes, and that again offended the nobilit, who were the only ones who paid taxes. Things came to a head on Saturday, January 10, 532 A.D., when seven gang members, both Blues and Greens, were hanged for the murder of a minor city official. What brought things to a head was that only five of them died. Somehow two survived, one Green and one Blue. They took santuary in a monestary, which was quickly surrounded by soldiers, waiting to arrest them when they came out. Of course there was always the chance the entire thing was a set up, a little public play staged by the nobility to manipulate the masses. What we know for a fact is that the masses of people wanted those two men, one Green and one Blue, pardoned and freed.
All day long, on Tuesday, January 13th , the crowd at the Hippidrome glowered at Rocky, sitting up in the royal box. As the 22nd race of the day was run, the Blues and Greens began to chant in ominous unison, “Win! Win! Win!” ("Nika", in Latin). Rocky thought it was a good idea to remove himself as an irritant and sneaked back into the palace, which was adjacent to the stadium.
As soon as that happened the crowds exploded out of the stands and filled the nearby streets, in a full riot, burning, looting and killing. Almost half the city went up in flames. With nightfall, the gangs occupied the Hippidrome, which allowed them to keep an eye on the palace.
As if it had been planned in advance, bright and early Wednesday morning, Senators appeared at the palace to offer their advice. It seemed to them, said the politicians, that what would calm the crowds would be to pardon the two surviving thugs. Rocky agreed. Well, suggested the politicians, how about also dismissing the tax collector?  Rocky agreed, again. And that was clearly a mistake. The Senators now decided they were in contol, and on Thursday the mob from the Hippidrome marched through the streets to the home of Hypatius, who was a nephew of old Anastasius, and proclaimed him Emperor.
In the palace, Rocky was contemplating a safe retreat by boat, urged on by some of his adivsors. And then Theo stood to up. She may not have been much over five feet tall, but it was instantly clear she was the tallest person in that room.
Legend gives several versions of what Theo said, but in essence they all boil down to this, “Purple makes a fine burial shroud.” I guess you had to be there. But however she said it, Rocky and his advisors were embolden. Being powerful is a risky existence. And sometimes staying in power requires that you un a little more risk. Rocky and Theo decided to stay and fight it out with the nobility, and to fight smart.
On Friday morning, a royal advisor (a eunuch named Narses), slipped into the Hippidrome. Quietly he met with the leaders of the Blues, not their poltical masters, the nobility, but the gang leaders on the spot. He revealed his presence and displayed his badge of office, a ring with the royal seal. Then he reminded the Blue leaders hat the Emperor had long supported them over the Greens. He reminded them that their “new” emperior, Hypatius, was a Green. And then he handed out the gold, and retreated. Within a few hours, after talking the situation over amongst themselves, the Blues, en masse, filed out of the Hippidrome. There was no confrontration, and no arguement. The Greens were stunned.
And while they remained stunned, two masses of soldiers stormed into the Hippidrone from both ends and slaughtered the Greens, all of them. The soldiers then tracked down Hypatius and hacked him to death as well. Those helpful noble Senators who had offered their advice to the Emperior were arrested, their wealth was siezed and they were exiled. And then, of course, the leading Blue leaders were slaughtered as well. In all some 30,000 people were butchered. No one dared to oppose Rocky again.
Rocky became known as “the Emperior who never sleeps.” He was constantly in motion, and seemed to  be everywhere, paying attention to everything. And he trusted Theo so much he offically made her his co-Emperor. He got his higher taxes. He rebuilt the city of Constantinople, building perhaps the most magnificent church in all of Chistindom, the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), which still stands to this day. He rebuilt much of the Roman Empire as well, but the only parts of that which remain, are the ruins.
His lady love, Theo, died on June 28, 548 A.D., not yet 50 years old. She was made a saint in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Rocky lived for another 17 years, dieing on November 14, 565 A.D. So succesful was his reign, that he was also made a saint. And in a very odd way, his greatness was estabished by the riot that almost dethroned him. And by the woman who loved him. A little ambition at the right moment, can be a very good thing.
 - 30 -

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