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Bread and Circuses
Author: Thomas James Martin
Published on: August 12, 2003

It is hard NOT to write satire. ~Juvenal , Roman satirist, writing about the Rome of his time)

Every time I turn on the television these days, I cannot help but think of Juvenal. Yes, that's right, Decimus Junius Juvenalis, better known as Juvenal, an ancient Roman writer who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. For those of you who are unfamiliar with him, he wrote some of the most biting, bitter satires of ancient or modern times.

I cannot help but wonder what he would make of the "lamest medium;" television is full of distracting programs that must have the great Roman satirist turning in his grave.

Rare edition of a Juvenal satireIn Juvenal's time (55-127 A.D.), the Roman Republic was but a distant memory as the power of the emperors grew stronger and stronger. The once proud Senate that had witnessed the splendid orations of Cato and Cicero—dominated and weakened year after year by the succession of dictators—atrophied into a figurehead of an institution. However, Juvenal felt that the populace took the duties of citizenship far more seriously during the days of the Republic than in the virtual dictatorships of the Caesars.

He lamented that "the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddle no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses."

Those scornful words "bread and circuses," panem et circenses in Latin, become more meaningful when you understand that Roman citizens became increasingly addicted to free distributions of food and the violent gladiatorial and other contests held in the Coliseum and the chariot races of the Circus Maximus. He felt that Romans had lost the capacity to govern themselves so distracted by mindless self-gratification had they become.

Thus, bread and circuses, is a phrase now used to deplore a population so distracted with entertainment and personal pleasures (sometimes by design of those in power) that they no longer value the civic virtues and bow to civil authority with unquestioned obedience. Bread and Circuses has also become a general term for government policies that seek short-term solutions to public unrest.

Unfortunately, Juvenal's words apply quite strikingly to the United States, certainly a people who at the turn of the 3rd millennium are almost wholly distracted by cheap fast food (relative to other countries) and by the decadence of an entertainment industry that that deals so much in sex, violence and propaganda.

I wonder how our own mass distractions compare with those of Juvenal's era:

bulletIn ancient Rome, muscular men called gladiators (actually slaves from all parts of the empire) fought each other in front of thousands with swords and axes to the death. If they fought savagely and well, the emperor du jour might save the loser with a "thumbs up." Hmm, muscular young men and women (many of whom are the descendants of slaves) contest for our allegiance in a complicated "box" while fighting desperately to overcome opponents and sell beer.

 

bulletWhile the Romans threw Christians to the lions, we watch reality TV and watch young men and women devouring such appetizing concoctions as Pureed Centipede a la Mode or Black Pepper Grilled Scorpion with Grubs and Live Ants on the side.

 

bulletRelated to the prior bullet: Please note that for Romans who had eaten too much but who still wished to indulge themselves, there were "Vomitariums" available, rooms, where those feasting on delicacies superior than the ones mentioned above I am sure, lightly waved a feather against the back of their throats. . . Well, you get the picture.

 

bulletAlso playing on reality TV, more young men and women attempting to survive canoe trips on the Amazon without Off or other insect repellents while fending off hungry piranha and avoiding deadly snakes. Great fun! I sure do enjoy watching all that suffering.

 

bulletWe watch "electrons deify" dubious politicians into hero status while the economy worsens and matters of real nation security (such as our poorly guarded borders and mediocre safeguards for nuclear power stations) are ignored. I seem to recall that while Nero fiddled (actually more of a symbolic legend), no one paid much attention until the capital of the Empire started burning.

 

bulletViewed with a little distance, almost all television commercials are really satires of a low (certainly not high) order. I mean, really, who can watch those clips advertising prescription drugs without snickering. All those "feel good" scenes of couples playing on the beach or rolling around in grass without peeing or collapsing due to allergies are pure comic opera.

 

bulletNow don't get me started on the television news! Ok, if you insist I will say just a few words. . .actually maybe only one: Condit. . .Now I know the man is not particularly likable maybe even somewhat reprehesible, but the media news--all of them but especially the "fair and balanced" one-- crucified the poor man in the court of public opinion. I seem to remember reading that in the United States we are innocent until proven guilty. For those of you not familiar with the "Roman Spectacle" that sometimes passes for TV news in this country, Gary Condit was a Democratic congressman from California who was investigated for the death of a politcal aide.

Disgracefully, the corporate news media gave the U.S. populace saturation coverage of this "non-event." Do you think it was a conspiracy to distract the people from various corporate accounting scandals and downright felonious actions of Enron et al? Who knows? Nevertheless, we were distracted!

Eventually the media feeding frenzy calmed down. Gary Condit was never charged with a in the death of Chandra Levy. Talk about the distraction of "bread and circuses!"

 

bulletWhich brings us to Jerry Springer. I am not sure there is a Roman correspondence here; the times being what they were, full of danger and intrigue, they probably did their best not to air dirty laundry in public (not always successfully, I fear). I just cannot see the Empress, Agrippina, getting up in the Forum and telling all about her adulterous escapades while her husband, the Emperor Claudius, waits offstage to be ushered into her presence where she confronts him and the assembled Patricians with her latest lover from the Praetorian Guard. (Though she did come close!)

Well, enough of this foolishness already! I do fear that Juvenal would probably be out of a job in the 21st century, since in our modern times we do not really need a literary genius of his calibre, only a humble scribe to write down the events of the day--epic or inconsequential--gleaned from the mass media, especially those on the small screen.

Yes, Decimus Junius, it is indeed hard NOT to write [down] satire in these times, in the midst of a civilization, whose people and (seemingly) its government are so consumed with panem et circenses, that it continually satirizes itself.

You probably would have liked Benjamin Franklin—our first great man of letters, and though not in your league as a writer of satire, was no slouch with words. Like you, he served human liberty. As the story goes, this exchange of conversation occurred as the now infirm 81-year old was carried out on a "sedan" from Independence Hall in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787 after he and the other 38 delegates had signed the Constitution:

 

"What kind of government do we have, Mr. Franklin?"


"A republic," the elderly statesman, writer and scientist replied, ". . .if you can keep it. . ."

Copyright 2003, Thomas James Martin, all rights reserved.

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