Bread and circuses

Bread and circuses

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"Bread and Circuses" (from Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

: panem et circenses) is a metaphor
Metaphor
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...

 for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service
Public services
Public services is a term usually used to mean services provided by government to its citizens, either directly or by financing private provision of services. The term is associated with a social consensus that certain services should be available to all, regardless of income...

 or public policy
Public policy
Public policy as government action is generally the principled guide to action taken by the administrative or executive branches of the state with regard to a class of issues in a manner consistent with law and institutional customs. In general, the foundation is the pertinent national and...

, but through diversion, distraction, and/or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace. The phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the common man (l'homme moyen sensuel).

In modern usage, the phrase has also become an adjective to describe a populace that no longer values civic virtues and the public life. Or as famous American author Robert Heinlein said, "Once the monkeys learn they can vote themselves bananas, they'll never climb another tree." To many across the political spectrum, left and right, it connotes a supposed triviality and frivolity that characterized the ancient democratic Roman Republic
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

 prior to its decline into the autocratic monarchy characteristic of the later Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

's transformation about 44 BC.

History


This phrase originates from Rome in Satire X of the Roman satirist and poet Juvenal
Juvenal
The Satires are a collection of satirical poems by the Latin author Juvenal written in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD.Juvenal is credited with sixteen known poems divided among five books; all are in the Roman genre of satire, which, at its most basic in the time of the author, comprised a...

 (circa
Circa
Circa , usually abbreviated c. or ca. , means "approximately" in the English language, usually referring to a date...

 100 AD ). In context, the Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 metaphore panem et circenses (bread and circuses) identifies the only remaining cares of a new Roman populace which cares not for its historical birthright of political involvement. Here Juvenal displays his contempt for the declining heroism of his contemporary Romans. Roman politicians devised a plan in 140 B.C. to win the votes of these new citizens: giving out cheap food and entertainment, "bread and circuses", would be the most effective way to rise to power.
… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses

[...] iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli / uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim / imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se / continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, / panem et circenses. [...]
Juvenal here makes reference to the Roman practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games
Ludi
Ludi were public games held for the benefit and entertainment of the Roman people . Ludi were held in conjunction with, or sometimes as the major feature of, Roman religious festivals, and were also presented as part of the cult of state.The earliest ludi were horse races in the circus...

 and other forms of entertainment
Entertainment
Entertainment consists of any activity which provides a diversion or permits people to amuse themselves in their leisure time. Entertainment is generally passive, such as watching opera or a movie. Active forms of amusement, such as sports, are more often considered to be recreation...

 as a means of gaining political power. The Annona
Grain supply to the city of Rome
In classical antiquity, the grain supply to the city of Rome could not be met entirely from the surrounding countryside, which was taken up by the villas and parks of the aristocracy and which produced mainly fruit, vegetables and other perishable goods...

 (grain dole) was begun under the instigation of the popularis politician Gaius Sempronius Gracchus in 123 BC; it remained an object of political contention until it was taken under the control of the autocratic Roman emperors.

Indeed, Spanish intellectuals between the 19th and 20th centuries complained about the similar pan y toros ("bread and bullfights"). It appears similarly in Russian as хлеба и зрелищ ("bread and spectacle").

The film Gladiator
Gladiator (2000 film)
Gladiator is a 2000 historical epic film directed by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Ralf Möller, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou, Derek Jacobi, John Shrapnel and Richard Harris. Crowe portrays the loyal Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius, who is betrayed...

 includes a scene where the crowds are showered with loaves of bread just as the gladiators enter the ring.

Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley
Aldous Leonard Huxley was an English writer and one of the most prominent members of the famous Huxley family. Best known for his novels including Brave New World and a wide-ranging output of essays, Huxley also edited the magazine Oxford Poetry, and published short stories, poetry, travel...

 used the phrase in Brave New World Revisited as an example of one of the ideas he used as a theme in Brave New World
Brave New World
Brave New World is Aldous Huxley's fifth novel, written in 1931 and published in 1932. Set in London of AD 2540 , the novel anticipates developments in reproductive technology and sleep-learning that combine to change society. The future society is an embodiment of the ideals that form the basis of...

.

Suzanne Collins
Suzanne Collins
Suzanne Collins is an American television writer and novelist.-Early life:Suzanne Collins is the daughter of an Air Force officer. She graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts and earned her M.F.A. from New York University in Dramatic Writing....

 also used it in her trilogy The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games is a first person young-adult science fiction novel written by Suzanne Collins. It was originally published on September 14, 2008, by Scholastic. It is the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy. It introduces sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a post-apocalyptic world...

as the name of the nation where the characters lived. This is also a reference to the plot of the book, in which the government keeps the general populace of the Capitol City from knowing the slave-like lives of the citizens throughout the country by keeping them content with a once-yearly fight to the death on live television.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Kent Eugenides is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer. Eugenides is most known for his first two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex . His novel The Marriage Plot was published in October, 2011.-Life and career:Eugenides was born in Detroit, Michigan,...

 used the phrase in The Marriage Plot
The Marriage Plot
The Marriage Plot is a 2011 novel by American writer Jeffrey Eugenides.-Summary:The story concerns three college friends from Brown University—Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell—beginning in their senior year, 1982, and follows them during their first year post-graduation.-Reception:The novel was...

in the line her behavior that night had been the erotic equivalent of bread and circus, with just the circus. Implying a pandering to the lowest denominator, and insufficient at that.

See also

  • List of Latin phrases
  • Prolefeed
    Prolefeed
    Prolefeed is a Newspeak term in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It was used to describe the deliberately superficial literature, movies and music that were produced by Prolesec, a section of the Ministry of Truth, to keep the "proles" content and to prevent them from becoming too...

  • Roman circus
    Circus (building)
    The Roman circus was a large open-air venue used for public events in the ancient Roman Empire. The circuses were similar to the ancient Greek hippodromes, although serving varying purposes. Along with theatres and amphitheatres, Circuses were one of the main entertainment sites of the time...

  • Colosseum
    Colosseum
    The Colosseum, or the Coliseum, originally the Flavian Amphitheatre , is an elliptical amphitheatre in the centre of the city of Rome, Italy, the largest ever built in the Roman Empire...

  • Plebeian
    Plebs
    The plebs was the general body of free land-owning Roman citizens in Ancient Rome. They were distinct from the higher order of the patricians. A member of the plebs was known as a plebeian...

  • Idiot/Idiocy (Athenian Democracy)
  • The Hunger Games
    The Hunger Games
    The Hunger Games is a first person young-adult science fiction novel written by Suzanne Collins. It was originally published on September 14, 2008, by Scholastic. It is the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy. It introduces sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a post-apocalyptic world...


Sources and notes


  • Potter, D. and D. Mattingly, Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. Ann Arbor (1999).
  • Rickman, G., The Corn Supply of Ancient Rome Oxford (1980).

Further reading