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Bread and circuses

See also: food - circus - working class culture - low culture - popular culture - Rome

Pollice Verso (1872) - Jean-Léon Gérôme


Bread and circuses is a derogatory phrase which can describe either government policies to pacify the citizenry, or the shallow, decadent desires of that same citizenry. In both cases, it refers to low-cost, low-quality, high-availability food and entertainment, and to the exclusion of things which the speaker considers more important, such as art, public works projects, democracy, or human rights.

It originated as the Latin phrase "panem et circenses" (literally "bread and circuses"), and is thought to have been coined by Juvenal, a Roman satiric poet of the 1st century AD, to describe the practice of Roman Emperors who gave unlimited free wheat to the poor and costly circus games as a means of pacifying the populace with food and entertainment. Juvenal bemoaned that it was a deplorable apathy towards heroism.

In fact, after Juvenal's time, the system of free or heavily subsidized food distribution was limited to a minority of Roman Citizens holding a special token (tessera) entitling them to a monthly supply of grain and olive oil from the reign of Septimus Severus. The rations were probably too small to feed a family and the receivers were not necessarily poor or in need of free food. This does not change the fact that the food supply to a city the size of Rome was of primary concern to the emperors in order to avoid popular unrest. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bread_and_circuses [Mar 2006]


Juvenal (Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis) was a Roman satiric poet of the 1st century AD. Very little is known about his life, the ancient biographies being generally fictitious. He is best known for coining the phrase "panem et circenses" ("bread and circuses") to describe the primary pursuits of the Roman populace. Also the rhetorical question "Who shall guard the guardians?" is attributed to him.

He was known to be from Aquinum, and described himself as middle-aged at the time of publication of his first satire, which was sometime in the 100s AD. The latest known date for his activity is 127. For a time he was very poor and was dependent on the rich people in Rome, and never became well known; the only known contemporary mention is in Martial. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juvenal [Jun 2004]

Dr. Benjamin Wolman writes that “physical violence and sexual license, so widely practiced in the last days of the Roman Empire, are being taken out from the catacombs and distributed by mass media, and glorified as the latest and newest pattern of natural and spontaneous behavior.” (p. 127). In addition, frighteningly close in mimicking both Argentina’s plight and the state of our country, “Roman emperors bowed to the wealthy and fed the slum dwellers with handouts of bread and entertainment-- panem et circenses (bread and circuses).” (Wolman, 1999, p. 145). This cheap, mindnumbing, but also dangerous entertainment is not only viewed today on television, cable television, or in popular films, but also sports, especially those entertainment sports like wrestling, demolition and Monster Truck derbies, which were once thought to be a blight of the lower-middle class, mostly male population. --(c) 2002 lycium7

Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture As Social Decay (1983) - Patrick Brantlinger

Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture As Social Decay (1983) - Patrick Brantlinger [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

See also: popular culture - mass society - Patrick Brantlinger

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