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Circus Factions: Rebels or Hooligans?

By Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira, Universidade de São Paulo.



Consul Junius Bassus in a chariot and four knights representing each of the four circus factions. Fourth century mosaic. Rome, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira.

The street demonstrations by fans of rival football teams united in favour of democracy and the clashes with Bolsonaro’s militants and police that followed in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities by the end of May 2020 have resurfaced the traditional reductionism that branded the organised fans as homogeneous groups and essentially violent, ignoring their capacity for mobilisation and criticism. For many commentators, the only relationship football would have with politics would be as an alienating mechanism: football used by politicians to divert attention from more serious and more important problems. This misunderstanding also affects the study of other sports in the past, such as the circus competitions in the Roman Empire.


The horse-drawn chariot races that took place in these arenas elicited an enthusiasm among fans comparable to football in our day. The best charioteers, the drivers of chariots pulled by two or four horses, became even bigger celebrities than our stars, being commemorated in statues and monuments. As in football, however, racing fans identified much more with the teams than with the competitors. Roman race teams or factions, as they were called, were distinguished by the colours used by charioteers: Red, White, Blue and Green. In the first century, Pliny the Younger criticised the fanaticism that these colours aroused: “it is only for a piece of cloth that they cheer [...]. And if, during a race, the charioteers changed colour, the fans who previously supported them would change sides, forgetting the names of the charioteers and the horses that they had been shouting a short time before” (Ep. 9, 6). Pliny, of course, could not understand the meaning of what fans today come to call the "sacred robe."


In Late Antiquity, this enthusiasm for colours did not diminish, but concentrated on just two of them: the Blues and the Greens. In Rome, Constantinople, and throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, most of the population seems to have divided between these two loyalties. This polarisation and the street clashes it so often provoked led historians for a long time to see in the Blues and Greens political or religious parties in disguise: the former bringing together the aristocrats and the faithful of the Orthodox confession and the latter, the poor, peasants, foreigners of Monophysite confession. In his 1976 book Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium, Alan Cameron contributed to demolishing these simplistic associations that have no foundation in the sources. However, in the very effort to combat these aberrant interpretations, he ended up reducing the violence of organised Blues and Greens fans to a senseless and ahistorical vandalism: “hooliganism at theatre or circus had always been rife in the Roman world – it merely got worse under the Blues and Greens”.


More recent studies, such as those by Charlotte Roueché, however, offer a more convincing view of the origins, development, and growing importance of the (somewhat inappropriately) so-called “circus factions” in Late Antiquity. The circus factions themselves were originally professional societies responsible for organising the races in Rome and later in Constantinople. From the reign of Emperor Theodosius II (402-450), however, the imperial administration encouraged these societies to organise all kinds of public entertainment, including theatrical performances, not only in the capital but in many other cities in the provinces. In this process, youth associations and other organised groups that already participated in public performances (such as the Jewish, goldsmith and butcher associations of Aphrodisias) were included, as organised fans, in one of the two main factions, the Greens and Blues.


With the formation of these unique associations that brought together both partisans and performers, the factions of the Late Roman Empire became a phenomenon unlike anything that had existed before. In each city, the members of these new associations now have about a thousand to two thousand people as affiliates, not to mention the rest of the population who could support one or another faction. In addition to their numerical importance, the growing involvement of organised supporters in imperial ceremonial, as pullers of chants and cheering, and the extension of their organisation to various cities in the Empire encouraged the Blues and Greens to behave with far less inhibition than any of their counterparts in the past.


There is no doubt that the main occasions of violence perpetrated by the factions were clashes between fans during or after the races, particularly involving youth. Like the rivalry between football fans, the confrontation with rivals was a way of maintaining an identification with one group and imposing its supremacy over the other. It is also true that the reigning emperor's support for one of the factions encouraged the supported fans to attack their rivals. But these were by no means the only activities of the Blues and Greens, who could use the strength of their organisation for other purposes. Thus, Procopius wrote of the Blues of the city of Tarsus in the 540s that, while other inhabitants silently suffered the abuses committed by a high imperial official, the organised supporters of that faction, confident in their strength and in the emperor's support, provoked the corrupt official in a public square with all sorts of insults, and when the protest was brutally repressed, the Blues of Constantinople, in turn, rose up in solidarity in revolt (Secret History, 29, 29-34).


Blues and Greens could give voice to many other social causes. In 555, in Constantinople, the two factions conducted protest chants at the hippodrome addressed to the emperor himself for the scarcity of bread (Malalas, XVIII, 121). Besides, as devoted as they were to their rival's submission, the two fans could unite for a common cause. In 532, the great Nika Revolt began when the mayor of Constantinople refused to forgive two supporters, one from the Blues and one from the Greens, who had survived public execution by hanging. United in protest, the two factions also gained growing support from the rest of the population who began to voice their grievances against the authorities. After days of protest, with the burning of the mayor's palace, houses and public buildings and an attempt to overthrow the emperor, the protest was repressed by the army in a massacre in which more than 30,000 people perished (Malalas, XVIII, 71; Pascal Chronicle 620-629).


The complexity of the performance of the Blues and Greens makes it difficult to accept Cameron's description of their violence as meaningless vandalism, all the more so as Cameron’s interpretation is based on a no less problematic view of football itself. For Cameron, football, like Roman racing, would only become a political factor as a distraction and focus of patriotism. Writing in 1976, he did not hesitate to mobilize the example of the Brazilian military regime and its association with the champion team in 1970 to show how football still contributes to distracting people from the most pressing social problems. If his book had been written in 1983, at the height of the Democracia Corinthiana [Corinthians’ Democracy], an ideological movement of protest against the military dictatorship and an innovative way to manage a club, he would have had more difficulty in defending his argument.


Corinthians’ team entering the field with the motto of the Democracia Corinthiana. Photo: Irmo Celso.

More recently, supporters of al-Ahli and Zamalek played a decisive role during the Arab Spring revolts in Egypt, putting aside their rivalry and joining forces to attack the regime's police. Political protests in Chile in January 2020 also gained strength after several fans in the country launched a manifesto calling for unity around the common cause against the government of Sebastián Piñera. In fact, as Breiller Pires noted about the recent protests in São Paulo, the incursion of organised fans on the political stage "only surprises those who insist [on affirming] that politics does not mix with football, incapable of recognizing their own alienation".


Tags: #RomanEmpire #LateAntiquity #games #races #circus #football

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