The Roman poet Juvenal, who lived about a century after the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, coined the famous expression “Panem et Circenses,” in current language, Bread and Circuses. Actually, a more accurate rendition of the Roman meaning would be “bread and horse races” which
is a metaphor 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 or public policy, but through 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).
To students of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire it also represents the turning point in the decline of this great empire. Having conquered countries and all of value upon which they could lay their armed hands, the Romans fell victims to their own success, thereby becoming arrogant, lazy, corrupted and degenerate, abandoning themselves to all sorts of vile practices. Juvenal, a keen observer of his times, saw what was coming, but, alas, could not offer any valid escape other than his books of satires through which he criticized the manners and customs of his contemporaries, just as his compatriot Cicero, the Roman statesman, philosopher and orator whose works and most famous descriptive phrase “O Tempora O Mores” (Oh what times! Oh what customs!) are still in use to this day.
In the specific phrase, “Bread and Circuses,” Juvenal was pointing to the authorities ruse in furnishing Rome’s populace with free bread and free spectacles in the arenas and circuses. In Rome, the Circus Maximus was a huge construction which could contain about 200,000 people and was used mainly for chariot races, the most popular sport of ancient Rome. Giving people free and cheap food while keeping them busy with year-round entertainment served the roman authorities well: .
1) it kept the populace acquiesced and numbed out, and therefore easily controllable. Once food was sufficiently handed out and people’s time was constantly occupied by the spectacles, the game was complete, as most people, once their basic needs are satisfied, don’t seem to care about much else (I said most not all people, thank God).
2) it promoted political and personal favor. Certainly, people would hardly revolt against those who fed and entertained them. All things being equal, this was a near perfect way to manipulate the hearts and minds of a subtly enslaved populace.
Of course, this situation could not go on forever. Apart from the cost of maintaining such programs running, this state of things was sapping at the very core of the roman society, transforming its once strong and martial, stoic, and for many verses heroic character into a weak, demotivated and lascivious one.
So, Rome, caput mundi, having lost its spirit and drive moved from superpower status to decadence and oblivion in a relatively short time.
But Rome is simply the best example we probably have of causes of the rise and fall of nations and empires. History repeating itself and the template never changes. What is amazing in all of this is the clockwork precision within which these events follow each other: a spark, then conquest, victory, empire, and after some time at-the-top, decline kicks in, slowly and inevitably, and always originated from within, leading in a matter of time to a final collapse and conquest at the hands of the barbarians of the hour.
In modern usage, the phrase has become an adjective to describe a populace that no longer values civic virtues and the public life. To many across the political spectrum, left and right, it connotes the triviality and frivolity that characterized the Roman Empire prior to its decline.
That was ancient Rome. Now let’s fast forward to the year of our Lord 2011.
We have a carbon copy situation happening live in modern Rome: the United States of America. It is neither secret nor news that in the last decades the U.S.A. has been running the show on planet earth, especially after the fall and dismemberment of the only contender for top status, the U.S.S.R., another interesting case study in its own right. America the beautiful has turned into America the harlot, who spins and spreads her artful witchcraft far and wide, while blissfully ignoring the sword posed on its head.
PART TWO – Coming up in a few days