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, a Roman poet active in the late first and early second century CE — 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, who originated the phrase, used it to downcry 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. CE 100). In context, the Latin panem et circenses (bread and circuses) identifies the only remaining interest of a Roman populace which 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] Roman politicians passed laws in 140 BCE to keep the votes of poorer citizens, by introducing a grain dole: giving out cheap food and entertainment, "bread and circuses", became the most effective way to rise to power.

[...] iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli / uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim / imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se / continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, / panem et circenses. [...]

... Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.[7]

—Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81

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 popularis politician Gaius Sempronius Gracchus in 123 BCE; it remained an object of political contention until it was taken under the control of the autocratic Roman emperors.

Contemporary manifestations[edit]

Apart from media, Juvenal's themes echo in the present-day West in terms of the prominence of (for example) consumerism[8] and sport.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary".
  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. 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.
  8. ^ Turner, Bryan S. (2008). The body & society: explorations in social theory. Theory, culture & society (3 ed.). SAGE. p. 29. ISBN 9781412929875. Retrieved 12 December 2019. One position is to see that new culture as essentially an ideological incorporation of the working class into capitalism; the new consumerism is simply the old 'bread and circus' approach to domination.
  9. ^ Sugden, John; Bairner, Alan (January 1995). Sport, Sectarianism and Society. Sport, politics and culture (revised ed.). A&C Black. p. 94. ISBN 9780718500184. Retrieved 12 December 2019. Within modern Britain it is suggested that, through the government's complicity in the sports entertainment industry and high public investment in popular sport and recreation, this strategy of 'bread and circuses' has been resurrected as an ideological support to the state's increasing involvement in the coordination and control of areas of popular culture which were formerly in the realm of civil society.


  • 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]