Games of Distraction: Bread and Circuses in the Roman Empire

This is the story of how subsidized grain and violent gladiatorial games were part of a Machiavellian political strategy by the Roman elite to keep the masses under control.

In the first century AD, the Roman poet and satirist, Juvenal, used an expression that would live on for millennia: bread and circuses. On one level, Juvenal’s use of bread and circuses referred to the fact that the Roman mob was primarily interested in only two things: state subsidized grain and various kinds of entertainment. On another, more Machiavellian level, Juvenal was referring to a conscious political strategy of the imperial clique to appease, satisfy and distract the masses from more profound issues such as enhancing their political and social liberties or reducing corruption.

The political dimension of bread and circuses was well understood by Roman emperors and other members of high Roman society. Cornelius Fronto, famed for being a notable lawyer and teacher of the philosopher-ruler, Marcus Aurelius, wrote that the Emperor Trajan understood perfectly well that two elements were imperative at keeping the Roman masses under control: subsidized corn and visceral shows of entertainment. Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, was crucial in advancing the imperial strategy of providing the plebs with cheap grain and loud shows, with approximately 66 days a year being devoted to games under the first Emperor. By providing the masses with perennial fields of subsidized grain and endless variations of blood-soaked gladiatorial games, the emperors of Rome could keep the masses content and distracted, whilst also portraying themselves in a positive light.

Bread

To be more specific, the element of bread referred to a long tradition that made Rome a very unique case in the ancient Mediterranean. In the second century BC, a reformist Roman politician, Gaius Gracchus, proposed a bill that would become law that required the Roman government to sell state-subsidized grain to a portion of its citizens. Gracchus’ proposal was in part driven by altruistic concerns for the public. as Mediterranean harvests often fluctuated year to year, with the poorest being left in dire conditions in years of low yield, as grain prices skyrocketed in times of relative scarcity. Although Gracchus’ grain reform was often modified and in some extreme instances, temporarily suspended, the core concept of a form of grain welfare lasted for centuries in one form or another, an arrangement that was unheard-of in the ancient Mediterranean.

Circuses

The circuses Juvenal wrote about referred to the vast array of entertainment shows in ancient Rome. The most famous form of the mass spectacle in ancient Rome was a variety of bloody gladiatorial games, with this spectacle being elevated in the modern public consciousness by Ridley Scott’s masterpiece released in 2000. The most frequent form of gladiatorial games came in the form of combat between two or more men, with the gladiators being either freemen or slaves. Managers would rent or sell the gladiators to individuals who were organizing games – who were usually officials but sometimes private citizens who would host games to impress their friends. The Colosseum became the home of gladiatorial games, although gladiatorial bouts existed prior to the iconic structure being built. The Colosseum was a brain-child of the Emperor Vespasian, a notable commander of the Roman invasion of the British Isles in AD 43. Originally named the Flavian Amphitheatre, the construction of the Colosseum was completed in AD 80 by Vespasian’s son, Titus.

One hundred days of violent and visceral games were held to mark the opening of what would become the most iconic symbol of the mass spectacle. Emperors often organised a series of games to celebrate their triumphs on the battlefield, with Trajan hosting more than twenty weeks of combat sports over a two- and half-year period to mark the conquering of Dacia (modern Romania), with over 11,000 animals killed during these games. Perhaps surprisingly, the death toll at the average gladiatorial bout is estimated to only be around 5 percent, as although a certain amount of violence and blood energised the crowd, it was in the financial interests of those who hosted games to keep the gladiators alive, as they could then return the warriors back to their managers without any additional fees.

Other public events did indeed spill far more blood however. One version of entertainment took the form of criminals being executed in public games. Criminals, often unprotected and sometimes with their hands bound, were forced into the arena to be slaughtered by fierce wild animals such as bears or lions, in what was known as exposure to beasts. Mock sea battles were another version of combat sport. This form of spectacle originated with Julius Caesar in 46 BC, who put on an opening display fit for an Emperor.

Aside from combat games, another important source of circuses in Rome came in the form of exhilarating chariot racing. This consisted of a maximum of 12 teams – which were powered by two-or-four horses – competing in a series of races around the Circus Maximus, the home of chariot racing in ancient Rome. The Circus Maximus had a capacity of approximately 250,000 people – five times what the Colosseum held – with the bustling crowds at the Circus Maximus being the largest crowds in sporting history. Four professional clubs dominated these races, with the names of these clubs deriving from the colours that the team members sported on their caps and tunics – the Reds, the Whites, the Blues and the Greens.

The Roman people supported their clubs in a similar way to how people today support their football, basketball or baseball teams. The stars of these chariot teams earned fame and fortune, with many ordinary Romans critical of how much these icons earned – in a similar vein to the regular digs made against the wages of present-day athletic stars. Trajan, an Emperor we already noted was explicitly aware of the political dimension of bread and circuses, he embarked on an elaborate reconstruction of the Circus Maximus, the home of Roman chariot racing, by ordering that marble seating should be a fixture of the entire structure.

The races also became a major source of conversation among regular Romans, in part due to fear of talking about politics. As the atmosphere under many Roman emperors was one of fear and anxiety, with imperial informants and spies lurking behind every corner, talking about the races was a safe topic of conversation, along with the old tried and trusted conversation piece: the weather. On a different note, theatrical shows were another important source of entertainment in ancient Rome, with these events often inspired by the Greeks. These shows included readings and performances of famous plays of the day, in addition to elaborate pantomimes.

Irrespective of the overall state of the economy, how efficiently the government ran, or the level of corruption in Roman society, the mob was only interested in, and the emperors only had to provide, a daily dose of bread and circuses.

“I therefore conclude that a prince need not worry unduly about conspiracies when the people are well disposed toward him. But if they are his enemies and hate him, he must fear everything and everybody. Well-ordered states and wise princes have been careful … to keep the populace content, because this is one of the most important tasks that falls on a prince” Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince.

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Sources Consulted:

Beard, M. (2015) SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (London: Profile Books).

Brantlinger, P. (1983) Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

Fox, R.L. (2006) The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome (London: Penguin Books).

Killeen, F. (1953/54) ‘Bread and Circuses,’ Journal of Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, 25:3/4, 67-77.

Machiavelli, N. (Translation Constantine, P.) (2009) The Prince (London: Vintage Books) quote p.69.

Potter, D. (2013) The Emperors of Rome: The Story of Imperial Rome from Julius Caesar to the Last Emperor (London: Quercus Editions Ltd).

Note: the sources consulted to construct this narrative do not necessarily endorse the narrative constructed.

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