This phrase came about during the height of ancient Rome when , most likely due to the extreme wealth of the Roman Empire, fully one-half of the Roman populus was unemployed. This was such a problem that, in order to spread the available jobs around, every other day was a declared a state holiday.

This underclass lived purely on handouts of food from the state -- the 'bread' part -- and 'circuses', meaning entertainment; the nobles of Rome as well as Rome herself would hold 'duties', which was a fancy name for lowest common denominator entertainment. This entertainment was usually took the form of combat or death sports, such as Gladiators.

And so, this saying comes from the fact that, at the time, the only thing keeping these huge, unwashed masses from revolting was 'bread and circuses'. It illustrated the fact that a noticable part of the proletariat are willing to accept apalling conditions as long as they have enough to keep themselves occupied and don't have to do much work for it.

This was first 'coined' by Decimus Junius Juvenalis who wrote the full comentary as "The people who have conquered the world have only two interests - bread and circuses!"

So, in modern translation, if would mean 'food and entertainment'. A current, and unbelievably un-PC, version would be "Government Cheese and Monster Truck Rallies".


We have art to save ourselves from the truth.
--Friedrich Nietzsche--

Inferior, small, ugly, Black, poor, communist, and anti-democratic people would like to create a conspicuous and, at the same time naive, state-of-opinion whose infantile aim should be demolish the marvellous American ideal. In such a way, they -the awful subhuman beings- disseminate baseless reasons like the following:

1) Companies that have workers who die on the job continue to be met with fines. Criminal prosecutions are rare.

2) This is the price paid for living in corporate-dominated society: Wealth disparity, megamergers and the resulting consolidation of corporate power, commercialism run amok, rampant corporate crime, death without justice, pollution, cancer and an unrelenting attack on democracy.

3) From union-busting to food irradiation, from faulty air bags that kill but are kept on the market anyway to judges who take bribes, from the IMF to oil companies, from GM food -- wherever the corporate predators strike, argumentatative people are there, reporting from a relentlessly human perspective, sounding the alarm and calling people to learn.

Lies. Just manichean lies. And what a stupidity! Do superior people need be taught? No. Roundly no! They are the knowledge itself! They are of course the life motor. Governments have been -long time before- trained by corporations, and they now understand that people, subhuman species included, deserve only two things: bread and circuses.

The multinational corporations are the most powerful institutions of our time, fortunately dominating not only global economics, but politics and culture as well. The enormous influence of the corporations notwithstanding, the mechanisms of corporate control and the details of corporate power sources remain largely hidden from public perception. And so because of impervious public perception. Enough. People is busy enough eating the transgenic corporate bread, and enjoying the spilt blood on the corporation arena.

A translation from the latin - panem et circenses. In ancient rome at the time of the Emperor Claudius, more than half the yearly calendar was taken up with holidays. On a majority of these holidays public games were held. Along with the public distribution of food, these games served to deter the masses from revolting.

"Duas tantum rex anxius optat, panem et circensus."
( "The people long eagerly for two things - bread and circuses.")
-- Juvénal


Something to think about: when I went to see The Gladiator in a theater in Alabama there is a scene where they are throwing bread from a cart trundling around the ring of a colosseum. The voice-over during this part is describing how all the public wants in food and games, that the emporer will destroy rome by giving it to them. I started laughing, looking around at all the families eating their popcorn and watching that years summer hit blockbuster. I stopped when I realized I was the only one laughing in a theater of 150+ people...

Some possibly unnecessary further details.

Panem et circenses, more properly "bread and (chariot) races". From Juvenal's tenth satire (line 80).

iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli
vendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim
imperium fasces legiones omnio, nunc se
continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat
panem et circenses1

Long ago, the people cast off its worries,
when we stopped selling our votes. A body that used to confer
commands, legions, rods, and everything else, has now
narrowed its scope, and is eager and anxious for two things only:
bread and races.

(trans. Niall Rudd, 1992)

The theme of the satire as a whole is the danger and futility of ambition2. The argument is that every hope, when realized, brings unexpected trouble. (In the end, it turns out that the only thing worth praying for is another Latin cliche, mens sana in corpore sano -- "a healthy mind in a healthy body")3.

The immediate context of the quote is a description of the fall of Sejanus, a man who had everything a Roman could wish for but whose very success carried him to a messy end. According to Juvenal, the people of the city were not much interested -- and should not be counted on to preserve anyone, however virtuous, from Sejanus's fate -- because they happily supported whoever happened to come out on top, being concerned exclusively with the supplies of grain and amusements.

Apart from the need to support his argument, Juvenal may have wanted to moan about the degeneracy of the Romans of his day (a favourite theme of Latin writers for generations before him); or he may have written it as a muted and roundabout criticism (the kind it was safe to make) of the imperial system, for corrupting the citizens of the city by removing their political power. He was not referring directly to the role of the games and the grain dole in keeping the Roman mob under control. The phrase is handy shorthand for the importance of keeping the urban poor fed and occupied4, though, and it's probably not a big deal that it's slightly misunderstood. All famous quotes are.

The English phrase "bread and circuses" seems to have entered common usage only in the 20th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used by H.P. Eden in 1914 and then by Kipling (who seems more likely to have popularized it) in Debits and Credits (1926). I don't think there are any indications that the phrase or sentiment were well known in Juvenal's day.


1 The Latin text here is from the Loeb, originally published 1918. The translation's a more modern one than Ramsay's (crucially, it includes all the dirty bits).
2 Rudd's title is The Futility of Aspirations; Ramsay's is The Vanity of Human Wishes, which was also the title of Samuel Johnson's 1749 rewrite.
3 I apologize if knowing this in advance spoils the satire for you.
4 If you're in the position of having to choose, most urban mobs prefer food.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.