ArsenalFanTV in the sixth century? Annie Nisbet looks at how the ancient world of chariot racing laid the foundations for today’s terrace culture.
To a football supporter this image of fans waving banners, which would have read ‘Come on the Greens!’, as they walk to the stadium is a familiar scene of ritual, partisanship and relationships. Yet the setting is one much removed from our own. Instead this is Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), in the year 500 AD, and the people are supporters of the Blues and Greens.
The Blues and Greens, collectively called Circus Factions by most modern historians, existed in multiple cities across the Eastern Mediterranean. They provided competitive forms of entertainment, most prominently but not exclusively chariot racing, in cities from Constantinople to Alexandria in Egypt, and Caesarea in modern Israel. These teams naturally gathered immense support, and the stadiums of the late-ancient world were alive with fans dressed in blue and green.
But like fans today, they also had a dark side. In 532, the Nika Riot burned half of Constantinople and nearly deposed the emperor Justinian. Searching for an explanation, historians have often turned to the football hooliganism of our own times. Writing in the 1970s when English fans made headlines for all the wrong reasons, Alan Cameron noted that those perplexed by the intensity of devotion amongst the Circus Factions need only step onto the terraces for a glimpse of the same passions.
Though Cameron’s comparison is overly simplistic, the trend of linking football and chariot-racing has continued. A fact that might give us pause to consider the ways in which fans over time have shaped their identity, felt the same emotions and fallen foul of the same demons.
Political figures, students, members of the army, tax collectors, senators and even refugees are all described as supporting a colour far away from the context of the stadium.
Charlotte Roueché has argued that there were two celebrities of the late-ancient world: Emperors and Charioteers. It would be hard to disagree. A good charioteer would see his name on banners and chanted across the city. A particularly successful one would see statues and dedications in his honour. Moreover, skilled charioteers could be transferred between the cities, paid for by City elites and more importantly the emperor to bring them prestige. For the supporters of the Blues and Greens, while it would be unheard of for a supporter to change allegiance because of the transfer of a charioteer, dedication to a particular charioteer was an important part of their affiliation to their Colour.
This meant that supporters were particularly invested in who played for their Colour. Around the year 500, members of the Greens were dissatisfied with their team who had been consistently losing for a while. They decided to do something about it. They built a statue of the best charioteer of their day, Porphyrius, and carved into the base a plea to the emperor, begging him to help transfer Porphyrius to their team. As a long-suffering Arsenal fan, I fully understand the sentiment behind their plea. Unfortunately for the Greens the transfer didn’t take place. Nevertheless, this ancient version of Arsenal Fan TV has stood near the Stadium in Constantinople for fifteen hundred years.
The supporters of the Circus Factions, clearly made association with their team an important part of their identity, and looking the part was an important way of achieving this. According to Procopius, a crucial historian living in sixth century Constantinople, they wore baggy tunics which gathered about the wrist and billowed out to the shoulder. This was to impress when they waved their arms in the stadiums supporting their team. This baggy clothing was said to be worn to try and make the men under it look bigger than they were, but Procopius did not seem particularly impressed by the results.
Clothing both unites and divides fans. Looking on from the outside, Procopius saw only a subculture of supporters of the Colours, irrespective of which team they supported. They shared an identity of being a fan which he carefully distanced himself from. However, for the supporters themselves, they used this clothing not to share a supporter culture, but to actively demarcate difference from the other team’s supporters.
This didn’t just happen in the stadiums. Often support for a team would spill into other aspects of their lives. Political figures, students, members of the army, tax collectors, senators and even refugees are all described as supporting a colour far away from the context of the stadium. For the Circus Faction supporters, identification of their Colours was obviously a more permanent aspect of their identity that was outwardly expressed in varied situations.
At the stadiums, supporters would usually enjoy a full day of entertainment. We know this from a papyrus programme which has survived, thanks to the dry Egyptian desert. Through the day races would be interspersed with musicians, dancers and pantomimes. The scene is one we can easily imagine, with supporters chanting in support of their team.
Fortunately, graffiti has preserved some of these chants, such as ‘Fortune to the Greens!’ or ‘Down with the Blues!’. But there are examples when the chanting had a different character, attacking minority groups within late antique society. This included chants such as ‘I’d rather be a Jew than a Blue,’ or calling the Greens ‘Manichaeans and incendiaries’. (Manichaeans were another minority religion).
Football’s authorities today like to describe comparable derogatory chants as the views of a ‘minority’, unrepresentative of the values of clubs, players and fans. That may be true, but it nonetheless ignores the nature of fandom, which can be defined as much by what it is not, as what it is. FIFA may promote football as a non-political space, but a glance back in time makes it clear that such a distinction is illusory. Indeed, more recent explanations of the Nika Riot that shook Constantinople back in the sixth century have looked at the ways in which seemingly non-political environments can shift in times of crisis. The stadium is not a vacuum and its politicisation remains as pressing a question now as it was then.
Scholars continue to ponder what is it about highly charged, often overtly masculine, sporting environments which encourages an atmosphere to express prejudice, and how the prejudice shown in these environments relates to how people feel about these groups in other situations.
The stadium is not a vacuum and its politicisation remains as pressing a question now as it was then.
However, for a modern football fan, the Circus Factions provide a sense of continuity for the rituals and identities that define our lives, at least for two hours every weekend. This can tell us much about our own humanity, but also provides a useful sense of humility. As Manchester City lifted the Premier League trophy this May, it is humbling to remember that fifteen hundred years ago the stadium of Constantinople was also alive with ‘Come on the Blues!’