13 January 532: Constantinople’s chariot-race riots spark a bloodbath

The timorous Byzantine emperor Justinian finally finds the resolve to confront a rampaging mob head-on


Constantinople lived for chariot racing. By the mid-sixth century, there were only two teams that mattered: the Blues and the Greens. “For the sake of these names and the seats which the rival factions occupy in watching the games,” wrote the historian Procopius, “they spend their money... and even do not think it unworthy to die a most shameful death.”

But these circus factions were not merely medieval hooligans. They were important political groups, with strong links to aristocratic cliques and fierce views on the issues of the day.

On the morning of 13 January 532, when the emperor Justinian arrived in his imperial box overlooking the Hippodrome, tension was already simmering. Resentment at heavy taxes and administrative corruption was running high, while his handling of a previous circus riot had enraged the faction leaders. Even as he took his seat, some spectators openly jeered. And as the day wore on, the mood of the crowd became increasingly aggressive. Now the terraces took up a new chant: “Nika! Nika!” (“Conquer! Conquer!”) And then the fighting started: the most violent riots in the city’s history.

For five days, while Justinian and his courtiers huddled in the Great Palace, the city burned. Justinian mooted the idea of fleeing. But his wife, the former brothel dancer Theodora, stiffened his spine. “If now it is your wish to save yourself, my emperor, there is no difficulty,” she said witheringly. “For myself, I have always agreed with the old saying: imperial purple makes the best burial shroud.” That did the trick. Justinian regained his nerve and sent in the army. Thousands died, slaughtered in the Hippodrome. But his throne was safe. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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13 January 1404: Henry IV cracks down on alchemy

Philosophers are banned from turning base metals into gold with this nervous proclamation

In all the years of English political history, few acts of parliament look odder than the Act Against Multipliers, signed into law by Henry IV on 13 January 1404. Instead of liberating the nation’s schoolchildren from the tyranny of times tables, this was actually an attempt to deal with a much more unsettling threat: the rise of alchemy.

Although the idea of alchemy – the belief that, with the right formula, a philosopher could turn base metals into gold – now seems absurd, it was one of the foundations of what became modern chemistry. Early scientists, from the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe to Sir Isaac Newton, were often fascinated by alchemy. To many national governments, however, it seemed a threat to the natural order. For if an alchemist managed to make gold at will, he would not only undermine the entire economic system, he would become the most powerful man in the land.

So in early 1404, Henry IV – a man who knew a thing or two about overthrowing an established regime – decided to crack down on the alchemical threat. The Act Against Multipliers ordered that “none from hereafter should use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication; and if any the same do, they incur the pain of felony”. From this point onwards, prospective alchemists needed an expensive licence to pursue their experiments. Only in 1689 was the ban lifted, thanks to lobbying from one of the greatest scientists of the day – Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, who was himself a keen but sadly unsuccessful alchemist. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

13 January 1562

Jane Suarez de Figueroa, Duchess of Feria, died in Spain, aged 74. In 1558 she had married the Count of Feria, a leading Spanish courtier who had accompanied Philip II to England.

13 January 1658

Edward Sexby, would-be assassin of Oliver Cromwell, dies in the Tower of London before he can be brought to trial. A former Roundhead officer, he had turned against Cromwell following the latter's expulsion of the Rump Parliament in 1653.

13 January 1793

Having alienated the local populace by his outspoken displays of republicanism, French diplomat Nicolas de Basseville was murdered by a mob in Rome.

13 January 1898: Zola attacks France’s anti-Semitism

In an open letter headlined “J’accuse”, he highlights the injustice of the Dreyfus affair

As the people of Paris trudged to work on 13 January 1898, one title on the newsstands caught their attention. On the front page of the socialist newspaper L’Aurore (‘The Dawn’), the headline read simply: “J’Accuse …!” In smaller print were the words: “Letter to the president of the Republic. By Emile Zola.”

In 1898, Zola was one of the best-known writers in Europe, famous for his series of groundbreaking realist novels. Like many fellow Frenchmen, he had been shocked by the Dreyfus case, which had seen a Jewish artillery officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of passing secrets to the Germans and imprisoned on Devil’s Island (a notorious penal colony in French Guiana) on the flimsiest evidence imaginable. In the meantime, documents had emerged implicating another officer, one Major Esterhazy. But thanks to a military cover-up, Esterhazy was acquitted, while Dreyfus languished in prison.

To Zola, this was intolerable. His open letter, splashed across the front page of the paper, smouldered with anger. The fate of Dreyfus was the “most shameful and indelible of stains… a supreme insult to all truth and justice. And now the image of France is sullied by this filth”. With blistering frankness repeating again and again the words “I accuse” he indicted the generals, the court martial, the handwriting experts and the war office itself. “Let them dare, then, to bring me before a court of law and let the enquiry take place in broad daylight!” he ended. “I am waiting.”

As Zola had expected, the war minister promptly filed suit. The trial opened amid an atmosphere of extraordinary political bitterness, and the writer was sentenced to a year in prison. In July, while the legal battle dragged on, he fled to England. But thanks to Zola’s courage, the Dreyfus case had become an international scandal. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

13 January 1939

In what will become known as Black Friday, 71 people are killed and two million hectares of land burnt as bush fires sweep across the Australian state of Victoria.

13 January 1941

Irish novelist and poet James Joyce died in Zurich after undergoing surgery for a perforated ulcer.

13 January 1953: Stalin orchestrates the Doctors’ Plot

The dictator stokes up an anti-Semitic fantasy to fever pitch

It was 13 January 1953, and the Soviet paper Pravda led with a bombshell. “Today,” it declared grimly, “the [state] TASS news agency reported the arrest of a group of saboteur-doctors. This terrorist group, uncovered some time ago by organs of state security, had as their goal shortening the lives of leaders of the Soviet Union by means of medical sabotage.”

According to the authorities, a group of Kremlin doctors had murdered several senior Soviet officials, among them Josef Stalin’s close comrade Andrei Zhdanov. “Whom did these monsters serve?” asked the paper. “Who directed the criminal, terrorist, and harmful activity of these vicious traitors?”

The answer, apparently, was an unholy alliance of “corrupt Jewish bourgeois nationalists” and foreign spies. The paper alleged that the majority had been “recruited by a branch-office of American intelligence – the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organisation called ‘Joint’. The filthy face of this Zionist spy organisation, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of kindness, is now completely revealed.”

So began the saga of the so-called Doctors’ Plot, an anti-Semitic fantasy of Stalin’s own imagining. Over the next few weeks, hundreds of doctors, many of them Jewish, were arrested. Why Stalin did it remains uncertain. Anti-Semitism had deep roots in the Soviet Union, and he seems to have considered mass deportations of Jews to camps in the Soviet east. But it also conformed to a pattern. Stalin was always on the lookout for international conspiracies, and he regularly liked to purge the Communist party of supposed traitors.


But fate was on the doctors’ side. In March the dictator unexpectedly died, and the charges quickly disappeared. As his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, told the party congress three years later, the whole thing had been “fabricated... set up by Stalin”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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