Bread and circuses

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"Bread and circuses" (or bread and games; from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metonymic phrase referring to superficial appeasement. It is attributed to Juvenal (Satires, Satire X), a Roman poet active in the late first and early second century AD, and is used commonly in cultural, particularly political, contexts.

In a political context, the phrase means to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or public policy, but by diversion, distraction, or by satisfying the most immediate or base requirements of a populace,[1] by offering a palliative: for example food (bread) or entertainment (circuses).

Juvenal originally used it to decry the "selfishness" of common people and their neglect of wider concerns.[2][3][4] The phrase implies a population's erosion or ignorance of civic duty as a priority.[5]

Ancient Rome[edit]

This phrase originates from Rome in Satire X of the Roman satirical poet Juvenal (c. 100 AD). In context, the Latin panem et circenses (bread and circuses) identifies the only remaining interest of a Roman populace that no longer cares for its historical birthright of political involvement. Here Juvenal displays his contempt for the declining heroism of contemporary Romans, using a range of different themes, including lust for power and desire for old age to illustrate his argument.[6]

Juvenal here makes reference to the Roman practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games and other forms of entertainment as a means of gaining political power. The Annona (grain dole) was begun under the instigation of the aristocratic popularis politician Gaius Sempronius Gracchus in 123 BC; it remained an object of political contention until it was taken under the control of the autocratic Roman emperors.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Definition of BREAD AND CIRCUSES". October 2023.
  2. ^ Juvenal's literary and cultural influence (Book IV: Satire 10.81)
  3. ^ "American Heritage Dictionary: to placate or distract". Yahoo. Archived from the original on 2012-11-05.
  4. ^ Infoplease Dictionary as pacification or diversion.
  5. ^ "Bread, circuses and our disappearing city". Newcastle Herald. Newcastle NSW Australia. 2017. Archived from the original on 2018-01-09. Retrieved 2017-10-11.
  6. ^ Hirsch, Kett, & Trefil (1993). The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Houghton Mifflin.
  7. ^ By J. P. Toner full quote at p.69. For us in the modern world, leisure is secondary to work, but in ancient Rome leisure was central to social life] and an integral part of its history.


  • Potter, D. and D. Mattingly, Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. Ann Arbor (1999).
  • Rickman, G., The Corn Supply of Ancient Rome Oxford (1980).

Further reading[edit]