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"Bread and circuses" (or bread and games; from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metonymic phrase critiquing superficial appeasement. It is attributed to Juvenal, 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, who originated the phrase, 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 RomeEdit

This phrase originates from Rome in Satire X of the Roman satirical poet Juvenal (c. AD 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 BC 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 BC; it remained an object of political contention until it was taken under the control of the autocratic Roman emperors.

The Frankfurt SchoolEdit

In 1944 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer released the book Dialectic of Enlightenment with the chapter The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, which would go on to become hugely influential and a key chapter in what is today known as the bibliography of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. The book echoed the themes of Juvenal in the modern context America's 1940's media landscape. The key argument Horkheimer and Adorno made was that of the culture industry [8]. The argument was that entertainment is business and that culture had been commodified. The media audience, which consists of the people, would get accustomed to a certain type of content and demand more of the same, influence over the consumers would thus be established by entertainment industry. The effect of these cultural products being distributed would be a mass culture designed to preserve the status quo of society.[9] This refers to back to the thoughts Juvenal had on bread and circuses being an entertainment industry preserving the status quo of Roman society by distracting the common people.

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ "Culture Industry - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics".
  9. ^ "Frankfurt School: The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception".


  • 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 readingEdit