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Oct. 19, 2019

Bread and Circuses for the Masses–Not Just Ancient Rome (EP.173)

Bread and Circuses for the Masses–Not Just Ancient Rome (EP.173)


Are we reliving history? Are we recreating and reliving a part of Roman history that led to its downfall?

That is the subject of today’s 10-minute episode.


Does anyone remember the above phrase, Bread and Circuses, from high school history class? Or from a movie, perhaps “Gladiator”? When people refer to this today, they are criticizing ancient Rome for the way its Emperors, in the later stages of the Empire, used both free bread (and other food) and free entertainment to placate the large number of people who were otherwise poorly served by their government. They literally bought off “the masses” with free bread and entertainment at the Coliseum; entertainment that was called the circus.

The  criticism points out that the Roman government paid for short-term satisfaction while intentionally ignoring the long-term needs and best interests of its citizens. Why would a government do that? Simple; it is cheap, easy, results in applause and adulation, and works long enough for those currently in power not to have to deal with the more difficult, long-term solutions. (Does anyone know how to translate “kicking the can down the road” into Latin?)

Juvenal, a Roman satirical poet somewhere around 100 AD, identifies the Latin, panem et circenses (bread and circuses) as being effective with large numbers of the populace who had forgotten (perhaps never had?) both pride in being Romans and the need for non self-serving political involvement. 

Okay, we have to ask:  

  1. How did those large numbers of citizens end up losing both of those key characteristics? 
  2. How did they put themselves in a position where obvious bribes would work? 
  3. Did they get soft when life got easier as Rome prospered? 
  4. Did the government aid the softening with earlier, less grand versions of free bread and lavish, also free, entertainment? 

As time went along, the government noticed that it had to do things like give away more bread to more people. And the circuses had to become more spectacular and more bloody. Bigger loaves of bread along with more types of more food, and more gory deaths to keep the masses in line. And to keep cheering the government. 

History shows that as the Roman Empire grew softer, the enemies on her borders grew bolder. Rome eventually collapsed as much from the weight of its own indolence as from the might of her enemies.

Let’s come back from history to today. 

Both the history part and the today part are important. If we do not understand and learn from history, we are going to make the same mistakes again and again. And if we stay focused on history and don’t apply the lessons learned to the world of today around us, it still won’t matter. “Knowing is not enough; we must apply.  Willing is not enough; we must do.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Are there any parallels today? Are we on a similar slippery slope? Is our government buying off its citizens, with its own version of bread and entertainment? 

Bread is as necessary to sustain life today as it was then. Entertainment, the Coliseum and Netflix, adds a lot to the quality of life–and to one’s ability to be productive if indulged in a disciplined way. What is the proper role of government in supplying those needs? And how do we know when government exceeds that proper role purely in pursuit of the support of the populace? Support, which in Rome was applause and cheering; today it is applause and voting.

Are we being humane and compassionate when we as citizens encourage our government to provide food and entertainment (and other more modern benefits–benefits the Romans could not have imagined) for our neighbors and fellow citizens? Are we being enablers? Are we being shortsighted and selfish if we want those very benefits at least as much for ourselves as for others? 

At some point in our conversation, someone will point out that we and our government have an obligation to help “those who deserve it” as argued in FDR’s New Deal. Have we now moved to giving help to everyone because it is their right, deserving or not?

Decades ago, the American government provided nothing but protection and infrastructure – and precious little of that. Social Security was introduced under President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935. United States Government-backed student loans were first offered in the 1950s under the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). Food Stamps in 1964. Assistance to single-parent families, supplemental nutrition programs, rent assistance (including some free housing), healthcare, and other benefits were added at different times. And they are all growing faster than the population.

Today, there is almost a race amongst the presidential primary candidates to see who can offer more than the other. The first speaker does not stand much of a chance. For example, “I love the planet so much that I want to spend $3 trillion to save it.” The next candidate responds, “I love the planet more than you do. I want to spend $5 trillion to save it.” And so forth, and so on. Perhaps the debate moderator should be replaced with an auctioneer.

Are we on the right path, with our governments at all levels being content with their proper roles, staying in their lanes? Try this on for a way to answer: Governments should be asked to do only what they are uniquely well qualified to do. Anything else should be left to those entities that are better qualified for the task at hand. 

We have gone from a de minimis government about a hundred years ago, to one that is talking about providing just about everything; telling us what we need, and providing it, and telling us what we don’t need, and banning it. Are we paying attention? Or are we like the frog in the boiling water? Remember that experiment? If you drop a frog into boiling water, he jumps out to save himself. If you put a frog into a pot of cool water and heat it slowly to the boiling point, the frog will just sit there and die.

Are we on the right path, a path that we recognize and support, or are we the frog?


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Will Luden, coming to you from 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.