Bread and Circuses

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“… the mob / That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything, / Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only, / Bread and circuses.”

Juvenal, Satire 10.78-81

Juvenal’s Satire 10 is a cutting critique of Rome’s social and political decay since the late 2nd Century B.C. He rebukes the Romans’ fickleness and political apathy, as well as the general decadence endemic to Roman politics that had spread to the rest of society.

In 123 B.C., Gaius Gracchus, a member of the populares (a politician who appealed to the people as opposed to the senate-supporting optimates) instigated the ‘Annona’ – the distribution of free or subsidised grain to poorer citizens. Many rural Romans had been forced into debt by wealthy landholders acquiring their subsistence farmland, and were seeking to escape by moving to the city for employment. This was untenable, and so the grain was offered to ease the depths of this poverty and reduce migration to urban areas, particularly Rome. This started as, and remained, a powerful political tool to consolidate the support of the people.

Such appeasement of the public to gain their favour, even when not in Rome’s best interests, became an increasingly normalized modus operandi for politicians. Bribery, both explicitly and more subtly, in forms such as grain-doles, public games and entertainment, became commonplace. Juvenal describes this bought allegiance:

and the citizens in white who march at his bridle, / Transformed into friends by the hand-outs tucked in their purses.

The population, he claims, had been reduced to sycophants. The people disregarded what was best for them and Rome for fleeting material gain. This marked the shift in decadence from the politicians to the general Roman populace too. Juvenal mentions how the most popular prayer, as noted in all the temples, is for cash:

May my wealth increase, may my family treasure-chest hold the / Highest value of anyone’s in the Forum.

Not only, then, was wealth itself desired, but wealth greater than others – greed for the sake of status, not for material benefit. This seems to have been accompanied by an increase in theft, since Juvenal mentions the fear of “sticks” and “swords” when one is walking around Rome at night, “though you might only be carrying a few items of plain silver.”

Juvenal questions whether such wealth is truly to the benefit of the population. He cites Democritus, the pre-Socratic philosopher, as an example.

Democritus’ sides used to shake with perpetual laughter, despite / The fact that the cities of his day lacked togas with purple borders, / And togas with purple stripes, rods of office, litters, and tribunals.

The ostentatious wealth and ceremony that had infiltrated Rome created no tangible increase in the satisfaction of the people.

Furthermore, Juvenal charges the people with voluntarily relinquishing their rights. He scrutinises the death of the Republic in 27 B.C., criticising the lack of popular resistance to the Senate’s loss of power, and therefore the people’s influence over politics. Rome’s citizens, he argues, were too preoccupied with superficialities to concern themselves with the political freedom and prosperity of Rome.

But what of the Roman / Mob? […] They shed their sense of responsibility / Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob / That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything, / Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only, / Bread and circuses.

He contrasts their former power over governance with their current apathy; they were indifferent so long as their base desires — “bread and circuses”, sustenance and distraction — were satisfied. This was not a state of affairs that had been forced upon them; they had “shed” their autonomy willingly.

Such political attitudes are reflected in the legal system as well. Juvenal draws on the execution of Sejanus, a former prefect of the Praetorian Guard and acquaintance of the Emperor Tiberius who had plotted to seize absolute power, as evidence of their apathy. Sejanus’ actual guilt is presented as irrelevant to the public, who only care for his punishment. Juvenal thus accuses them of fickleness and a lack of interest in justice.

They follow Fortune, as always, and hate whoever she / Condemns. If Nortia, as the Etruscans called her, had favoured / Etruscan Sejanus; if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously / Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed / Their new Augustus.

Juvenal argues that the people mindlessly follow the prevailing force; had Sejanus been successful, they would have favoured the man they now despise.

Therefore, it is ultimately the uninterested people, not the political officials, who are to blame for the Rome’s instability. The deadly apathy of the citizenry in public affairs allowed the political ills of Rome in Juvenal’s time, of greed, corruption and constant power struggles, to fester.

The satiric genre should not be treated as factual historic documentation, but Juvenal’s Satire 10 nonetheless offers a valuable insight into the political atmosphere of 2nd Century A.D. Rome, and expresses a perspective, doubtless widespread at the time, about the populace’s decadence and indifference to political affairs.

Juvenal., The Satires.