Bread and Circuses,
Panem et Circenses


Poking around the internet I came across the book Bread & Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay, which set me on a path towards the origin of its namesake idiom. 
The phrase “bread and circuses” hails from a line in Satire X, a poem by Roman poet Juvenal, who was writing at around 100 AD.

He said:

“...if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously
Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed 
Their new Augustus. 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.
‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt,

The furnace is huge.'”

ecce panis, unearthed from Pompeii

Juvenal claimed that the only hopes or desires left for the tattered Romans, who’d lost their freedoms to an oligarchy, were bread and circuses (the latter referencing gladiatorial games, which were free to view for citizens).

There’s no doubting the value of bread in ancient Roman culture. Coins bore the effigy of Annona, the goddess of harvests and grain. Commerce and bread were tied- the authority in charge of the grain supply (the cura annonae) had remarkable control over the population. Roman farmland wasn’t suited for grain growing- it catered to vegetables and fruits, but the local supply had to be supplemented with imported grain from Italy, North Africa, and Egypt in order to feed the city, concentrating public control in an unlikely place.

Grain prices were often used as platforms for populist politicians, as the free market meant prices were unpredictable and gave the advantage to the merchants. Later in Rome’s history the inequity led emperors to supply free or subsidized grain in order to feed the population, inspiring the poem that prompted this whole conversation.
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*Grain was also collected as tax, a fact that reminded me of an argument made by John Lanchester in the New Yorker last week, in regards to why the cultivation of grain really was the bearer of the “civilized age” as we know it. Excerpted for you:
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