Bread and Circuses for the Masses – Not Just Ancient Rome


Are we reliving history? Let’s talk about that.

Anyone remember the above phrase from high school history? Or from a movie, perhaps “Gladiator”? When people refer to this today, they are criticizing ancient Rome for the way its Emperors, in the later stages of the Empire, used both free bread (and other food) and free entertainment to placate the larger number of people who were otherwise poorly served by their government. They literally bought off “the masses” with free bread and entertainment at the Coliseum; entertainment that was called the circus.

The  criticism points out that the Roman government paid for short-term satisfaction while intentionally ignoring the long-term needs and best interests of its citizens. Why would the government do that? Simple; it is cheap, easy, results in applause and adulation, and works long enough for those currently in power not to have to deal with more difficult, long-term solutions. (Does anyone know how to translate “kicking the can down the road” into Latin?)

Juvenal, a Roman satirical poet somewhere around 100 AD, identifies the Latin, panem et circenses (bread and circuses) as being effective with the large numbers of the populace who had forgotten (perhaps never had?) both pride in being Romans and the need for non self-serving political involvement.

Okay, we have to ask –  

How did those large numbers end up losing both of those key characteristics?

How did they put themselves in a position where obvious and cheap bribes would work?

Did they get soft when life got easier as Rome prospered?

Did the government aid the softening with earlier, less grand versions of free bread and lavish, also free, entertainment?

As time went along, the government noticed that it had to do things like give away more bread to more people. And the circuses had to become more spectacular and more bloody. Bigger loaves of bread along with more types of more food, and more gory deaths to keep the masses in line. And to keep cheering the government.

History shows that as the Roman Empire grew softer, the enemies on her borders grew bolder. Rome eventually collapsed as much from the weight of its own indolence as from the might of her enemies.

Let’s come back from history to today.

Both the history part and the today part are important. If we do not understand and learn from history, we are going to make the same mistakes again. And if we stay focused on history and don’t apply the lesson learned to the world of today around us, it still won’t matter. “Knowing is not enough; we must apply.  Willing is not enough; we must do.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Are there any parallels today? Are we on a similar slippery slope? Is our government buying off its citizens with its own version of bread and entertainment?

Bread (food) is as necessary to sustain life today as it was then. Entertainment, the Coliseum and Netflix, adds a lot to the quality of life – and to one’s ability to be productive if indulged in a disciplined way. What is the the proper role for government in supplying those needs? And how do we know when government exceeds that proper role purely in pursuit of the support of the populace? Support, which in Rome was applause and cheering, today is applause and voting.

Are we being humane and compassionate when we as citizens encourage our government to provide food and entertainment (and other more modern benefits – benefits the Romans could not have imagined) for our neighbors and fellow citizens? Are we being enablers? Or are we being shortsighted and selfish if we want those supplied benefits at least as much for ourselves as for others?

At some point in our conversation, someone will point out that we and our government have an obligation to help “those who deserve it.” That’s not what this blog is about. (Some of my other blogs will take that on.) This blog asks the question: Are we recreating and reliving a part of Roman history that led to its downfall?

Decades ago, the American government provided little but protection and infrastructure – and precious little of that. Social Security was introduced under President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935. United States Government-backed student loans were first offered in the 1950s under the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). Food Stamps in 1964. Assistance to single-parent families, supplemental nutrition programs, rent assistance (including some free housing), healthcare, and other benefits were added at different times. And they are all growing faster than the population.

Are we on the right path, with our governments at all levels meeting their proper roles?

Or are we like the frog in the boiling water? Remember that experiment? If you drop a frog into boiling water, he jumps out to save himself. If you put a frog into a pot of cool water and heat it slowly to the boiling point, the frog will stay in and die.

Are we on the right path, or are we the frog?

Will Luden, writing from my home office at 7,200 feet in Colorado Springs.

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3 Responses

  1. Charles Reply

    We’re repeating not just Roman history but Biblical history as well. The Israelites were blessed but soon thought they, instead of God, were in charge, relying on their military might and economic power while focusing on the idols of physical pleasure. The question is whether America’s “70 years of exile” will come through military defeat, economic collapse, environmental disaster, famine or epidemic.
    Your comment about the entertainment having to become more gory is reflected in what we see today. The most obvious is in movies and TV (and music) having to be more violent or sexually graphic to draw audiences. And, of course, the entertainment industry does its best to normalize promiscuity and self-serving activity so they can push the envelope even farther. Of course religious faith is sneered at since it implies that we must humbly serve others.
    This is also reflected in the sports scene. It used to be that we would be satisfied with two-and-a-half hours of entertainment even if it ended in a tie. Now, in the ESPN era, there must be blood! We must continue the football or hockey match until a winner and loser are declared, even though the means of declaring victory/defeat bear little resemblance to the game being played.
    Rant over for now.

    • Will Luden Reply

      Charles, you clearly described the rollercoaster ancient Israel was on with God. Nicely done. I resonated with your comment about many not wanting to follow a path that calls for serving others rather than being served. Isn’t that at the heart of so much of what is going on around us?

  2. Victor Reply

    Interesting reading! Personal responsibility is not exactly Flavour of the Month, with most people eager to blame someone else (e.g. politicians, immigrants, corporations) for their woes. One topical example here in the UK is the recent introduction of mandatory 20 mph speed limits on many roads other than motorways and ‘A’ roads away from residential areas). There has been a huge outcry by professional drivers and others, against the compulsory element of this, making the point that a competent and considerate driver can choose to drive at 20 mph (or less) if and when they encounter conditions where this would be sensible and appropriate. Which seems true enough, until you start counting the number of careless, incompetent and inconsiderate drivers there are on our roads. Their moral compass seems to start and end with their own convenience.
    Interestingly, the government of Wales is left wing, while that of England is right wing; both are behind the 20 mph restriction.

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