147 out of 410 days: What’s wrong with “Bread and Circuses”?


Nearly every one knows the Juvenal quote about Bread and Circuses, or thinks they do, especially after the Hunger Games.  First let’s have a bit more context from Juvenal himself:

 if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously

Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed

Their new Augustus. They shed their sense of responsibility

Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob

That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,

Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only,

Bread and circuses. ‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt,

The furnace is huge.’

If you’d like to check the Latin, click here. In case you’ve landed on this page and aren’t quite sure who Juvenal is exactly, in short: he’s a poetic satirist living under the Roman empire. Think a potential guest contributor on both Howard Stern and the Daily Show.  This passage finds a dark humor is some ‘facts of life’:

A brutal dictatorship is in power. The citizen body, especially the poor are disenfranchised. They reconcile themselves to their powerlessness in any significant political decision-making and demand only food and … what?  Entertainment?  Spectacle?  Is that what circuses are?

Circuses are part of Ludi specifically the chariot races, but the circus space could be used for other public spectacles as well.  Circuses are part of religious ritual.  They were either part of regular annual festivals honoring a specific divinity or set of divinities, or they were one-off affairs given in thanksgiving to the gods for some benefit to the community as a whole, including military victories, protection from disease, the ascension of a new leader, major anniversaries, or the life of a recently deceased individual. The sacrifices made to put on the ‘games’ (i.e. expenditure of resources) and the participation of the whole community ensured the continuing relationship between the state as a whole and the gods.  The well-being of the city and the empire depended on maintaining divine protection and blessings.

Juvenal seems to be trivializing the common concerns of the man in the street, but are they so trivial? Government is responsible for the basic infrastructure that makes living possible.  Bread is a good start, a fine synecdoche.  Let’s add in clean water, protection of the food supply more generally, perhaps some sanitation and even, if we want to get really radical, building codes and fire brigades to avert urban disasters.   A decent agrarian policy, market regulations, and open shipping lines don’t make great poetry, but they do bake bread!

Circuses, Juvenal’s other synecdoche, or “part for the whole”, stands for the pleasure of the spectator to be sure.  However, that individual pleasure isn’t a choice; it’s an obligation, a civic duty.  After other forms of civic engagement are suppressed, only the ‘circus’ remains a space for political expression.  Moreover, the gods do not take kindly to being shunned.  The well-being of the whole is dependent on complete communal participation.  Atheists, Epicureans, and Monotheists were a dangerous breed.  That type of thinking endangered the stability of state by threatening divine relations through non-participation in the state cult.  The leaders of the state protected the well-being of the city and empire by ensuring divine favor.  “Circuses” and other ritual acts where the means by which such favor was maintained.  How else could natural disaster, plague, or the barbarian hordes be averted?

Life under a brutal regime concentrates the minds of the people on the essentials. Moreover, a savvy autocrat or oligarch knows as much.  He can give “the part for the whole”, cheap grain to mask the inadequacies of the socio economic system.  Hungry people take what they can get.  The Roman with a loaf of bread still wanted access to the means of production and a functioning market place.

Pulling the Juvenal quote into modern discourse out of context has despicable consequences. It trivializes poverty, suggesting gluttony rather than hunger drives the demand for “bread”. Moreover, it obliterates the ways in which all public infrastructure is our common “bread”.  Our private economic resources do not make us independent from the system of government.  We gained those resources within the system of public works and regulations provided by the state, from roads and schools to public defense and the farm bill.  Like it or not, there is no opt-out option, any more than there was for the religious rites of the ancient city.

Within academic discourse the “bread and circus” view of Roman history tends to portray spectacles and food distribution as means of social control or self-aggrandizement on the part of patron.  This is not unrelated to the trivialization just discussed.  Should not the ordinary Roman care about the government’s ability to provide for the needs of the community?  Would not a good leader be judged by his capacity to improve the public infrastructure and to actively seek divine blessings?

Today, I am sitting down to write about ‘popular politics’ in the last 100 years of the republic as presented on coins. I will be trying to escape “Bread and Circuses” thinking.

– Signed a Grateful and Unashamed Childhood Food Stamp and Welfare Recipient

Afterword on Translation.

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