Rome: Bread and Circuses

For over 400 years Rome was the world's greatest republic and then, in a matter of decades it was gone, replaced by an empire. Instead of representative leaders elected by citizens, an emperor ruled with supreme executive power. What happened in between the two periods is a mess of political wrangling for power and influence.

After Rome vanquished Carthage and Greece to consolidate power in the Mediterranean around 130 B.C., she was threatened by internal unrest. Noble plebeian and patrician families allied to consolidate power in the Senate and to exclude all others. At the same time, large numbers of indebted farmers lost their land and flocked to Rome. They became a mob with the right to vote and little interest in politics. The ground was laid for a class-based struggle for power and the collapse of the Republic.

Soon, conflict flared between the aristocracy, lead by Sulla, and Marius, leader of the popular party. Sulla marched on Rome, bringing legionaries into Rome for the first time. It was a turning point. From then on, Rome's republic was at the mercy of the leader with the strongest army. As these leaders vied for political control, they bought off public approval through welfare provisions of bread and occasional wine as well as huge gladiatorial competitions. The policy has since become known as "Bread and Circuses." Despite the speeches of Cicero and others, over time the people of Rome lost interest in governing themselves and were content to slip quietly into their role as subjects of an emperor.

This section explores some of the cultural decay of Rome that allowed for the rise of bread and circuses policies. It also looks at modern examples of bread and circuses in America and hopes to remind readers of the dangers of government largess corrupting the soul of a nation.

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Bonta examines how the pursuit of self gratification, which formed the foundation of the "bread and circuses" policy, weakened the civic values that formed the foundation of the Roman Republic. Building upon this point, he argues that entertainment in the modern world poses a similar...

Connor focuses on the larger impact of modern news coverage which often overemphasizes entertainment news and celebrity gossip (think Michael Jackson), while ignoring weightier issues of policy. Connor writes that, like the Romans, Americans have been distracted by entertainment and...

Borders describes how "[t]he UNC School of the Arts is costing taxpayers a lot of money while serving mostly special interests." He describes how the school's chancellor's plans to get more money from the state's legislature, i.e. from taxpayers, instead of raising private donations from alumni. The chancellor argues that the cost of the school is only "pennies a...

Moreell writes in 1956 of the dangerous direction America's elected representatives, Republican and Democrats, are taking and how it resembles the direction Rome took, which resulted in the fall of the Republic and eventually the fall of the Empire.

He concludes that there are four steps...

Analysis Report White Paper

"La Boétie's essay against dictators makes stirring reading. A clear analysis of how tyrants get power and maintain it, its simple assumption is that real power always lies in the hands of the people and that they can free themselves from a despot by an act of will unaccompanied by any gesture of violence. The astounding fact about this tract is that in 1948 it will be four hundred years old....

This lecture is one of four that Kirk delivered on the "Varieties of the Conservative Impulse." Kirk considered four main strands of conservatism united in their stand against the Leviathan state: cultural conservative, libertarian, neo-conservative, and general conservatism of the...

Although perhaps the best known, bread and circuses was only one of many social welfare policies introduced in Rome. Hazlitt summarizes these changing policies and examines how their unintended economic effects weakened Rome.

America had a Great Depression. Rome suffered complete economic collapse. Reed examines the steps that led to Rome's fall as the world's foremost economic power.

Paige explores modern sports in America and its comparisons to Ancient Rome.

J. Rufus Fears lectures on the greatness of the Roman Empire and the lessons the Romans continue to teach to this day.

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"Ever since the celebrated 18th century historian, Edward Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, people have looked to his work for signs of decay in their own age.

In the first of a new three-part Sunday Supplement series, 'The Gibbon Test...

Primary Document

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? Do not the nightly guards placed on the Palatine Hill—do not the watches posted throughout the...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"If, O Vatinius, I had chosen to regard merely what the unworthiness of your character deserved, I should have treated you in a way that would have been very pleasing to these men, and, as your evidence could not, on account of the infamy of your life and the scandal of your private conduct, be possibly...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"That which was above all things to be desired, O judges, and which above all things was calculated to have the greatest influence towards allaying the unpopularity of your order, and putting an end to the discredit into which your judicial decisions have fallen, appears to have...

This excerpt includes the famous scene of Caesar's murder in the Senate, continuing to describe how the senators worked to placate the populace immediately afterwards by hosting...

Appian was a Greek historian writing about the civil war which ended with the fall of the Republic. This excerpt recounts the political corruption present in Rome around 50 B.C....

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"If any one of you, O judges, or of these who are present here, marvels perhaps at me, that I, who have for so many years been occupied in public causes and trials in such a manner that I have defended many men but have prosecuted no one could now on a sudden change my usual purpose, and descend to act as...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"...It was desirable above all things for Marcus Scaurus, O judges, to return (as he has always been most especially anxious and attentive to do) the dignity of his race, and family, and name, without incurring the hatred of any one, and without either giving offence to or receiving annoyance from
***...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"If there is any natural ability in me, O judges,—and I know how slight that is; or if I have any practice as a speaker,—and in that line I do not deny that I have some experience; or if I have any method in my oratory, drawn from my study of the liberal sciences, and from that careful training to which I...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"If shameless impudence had as much power in the forum and in the courts of law, as audacity has in the country and in desolate places, then Aulus Caecina would now, in this trial, yield to the impudence of Sextus Aebutius as much as he has already yielded to his audacity in committing deeds of violence. But...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"I have observed, O judges, that the whole speech of the accuser is divided into two parts, one of which appeared to me to rely upon, and to put its main trust in, the inveterate unpopularity of the trial before Junius; ... the other, just for the sake of usage, to touch very lightly and diffidently On the...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic.

"If the authority of those who are advocates in a person's defence be of any weight, the cause of Lucius Cornelius has been defended by the most honourable men; if their experience is to be regarded, it has been defended by the most skillful lawyers; if we look to their ability, by the most eloquent of orators; or if it is their...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic.

"In all causes of more than ordinary importance, O Caius Caesar, I am accustomed, at the beginning of my speech, to be more vehemently affected than either common custom or my own age appears to require. And in this particular cause I am agitated by so many considerations, that in proportion as my fidelity to my friend inspires me with...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic.

"It is a new crime, and one never heard of before this day, O Caius Caesar, which my relation Quintus Tubero has brought before you, when he accuses Quintus Ligarius with having been in Africa; and that charge Caius Pansa, a man of eminent genius, relying perhaps on that intimacy with you which he enjoys, has ventured to confess....

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"What I entreated of the immortal gods, O judges, according to the manners and institutions of our ancestors, on that day when, after taking the auspices in the comitia centuriata, ... I declared Lucius Murena to have been elected consul,—namely, that that fact might turn out gloriously and happily for me and...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"...For I defend Marcus Fonteius, O judges, on this ground, and I assert that after the passing of the Valerian law, from the time that Marcus Fonteius was quaestor till the time when Titus Crispinus was quaestor, no one paid it otherwise. I say that he followed the example of all his predecessors, and that...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"Formerly, O judges, I had determined to conduct this cause in a different manner, thinking that our adversaries would deny that their household was implicated in such a violent and atrocious murder. Accordingly, I came with a mind free from care and anxiety, because I was aware that I could easily prove that...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"Although I am afraid, O judges, that it is a base thing for one who is beginning to speak for a very brave man to be alarmed, and though it is far from becoming, when Titus Annius Milo himself is more disturbed for the safety of the republic than for his own, that I should not be able to bring to the cause a...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"When, O judges, I saw that on account of the eminent and singular good faith of Cnaeus Plancius, shown in taking care of my safety, so many excellent men were favourers of his cause, I felt no ordinary pleasure, because I saw that the recollection of what happened at the time of my necessities was pleading...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"The two things which have the greatest influence in a state,—namely, the greatest interest, and eloquence, are both making against us at the present moment; and while I am awed ... by the one, O Caius Aquillius, I am in fear of the other:—I am somewhat awed, apprehending that the eloquence of Quinctius...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"... He, forsooth, excellent man, and of singular integrity, endeavours in his own cause to bring forward his account-books as witnesses. Men are accustomed to say.... Did I endeavour to corrupt such a man as that, so as to induce him to make a false entrance for my sake? I am waiting till Chaerea uses this...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"I imagine that you, O judges, are marvelling why it is that when so many most eminent orators and most noble men are sitting still, I above all others should get up, who neither for age, nor for ability, nor for influence, am to be compared to those who are sitting still. For all these men whom you see...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"I should have been very glad, O judges, if Publius Sulla had been able formerly to retain the honour of the dignity to which he was appointed, and had been allowed, after the misfortune which befell him, to derive some reward from his moderation in adversity. But since his unfriendly fortune has brought it...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"If, O conscript fathers, I return you thanks in a very inadequate manner for your kindness to me, and to my brother, and to my children, (which shall never be forgotten by us,) I beg and entreat you not to attribute it so much to any coldness of my disposition, as to the magnitude of the service which you...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"Many things, O priests, have been devised and established with divine wisdom by our ancestors; but no action of theirs was ever more wise than their determination that the same men should superintend both what relates to the religious worship due to the immortal gods, and also what concerns the highest...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"1. Although, O Romans, your numerous assembly has always seemed to me the most agreeable body that any one can address, and this place, which is most honourable to plead in, has also seemed always the most distinguished place for...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"In beardless youth
****
[The whole of the Propontis and of the Hellespont will therefore come under the power of the praetor; the whole coast of the Lycians and Cilicians will be advertised for sale; Mysia and Phrygia will be subjected to the same conditions ...]
The decemviri will sell the...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"1. Yesterday, O conscript fathers, when I was greatly moved by the thoughts of your dignity, and of the great attendance of the Roman knights to whom a senate was given, I thought myself bound to check the shameless impudence of Publius Clodius, when he was hindering the cause of the...

[Bread and circuses reference in bold.]

The Vanity of Human Wishes

In all the lands that stretch from Gades to the Ganges and the Morn, there are but few who can distinguish true blessings from their opposites, putting aside the mists of error. For when does Reason direct our desires or our fears? What project do we form so auspiciously that...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded. "Before, O conscript fathers, I say those things concerning the republic which I think myself bound to say at the present time, I will explain to you briefly the cause of my departure from, and of my return to the city. When I hoped that the republic was at last recalled to a proper respect for your wisdom and for...

The link will take you to an excellent digital copy of Gibbon's work. It is broken down by volume and chapter. Very digestible.

"Marcus Claudius Marcellus was descended from the most illustrious families at Rome, and had been consul with Servius Sulpicius Rufus; in which office he had given great offence to Cæsar by making a motion in the senate to deprive him of his command; and in the civil war he espoused the side of Pompeius, and had been present at the battle of Pharsalia, after which he...

"Marcus Cœlius was a young man of the equestrian order, and had been a sort of pupil of Cicero himself; and was a man of very considerable abilities. When a very young man, he had distinguished himself by prosecuting Caius Antonius, who had been Cicero's colleague in his consulship; and after that, by prosecuting Lucius Atratinus for bribery and corruption. Out of revenge for this last...

"Publius Sextius, when tribune of the people, had been one of those who had exerted themselves most strenuously to promote Cicero's recal, and had shown himself most devoted to his interest, though some coolness had sprung up between them afterwards, owing to Sextius's thinking that Cicero was not sufficiently sensible of his obligations to him. Having, however, become very obnoxious to all...

"This speech was delivered about the middle of the year of the consulship of Cnæus Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, and Lucius Marcius Philippus, a.u.c. 698. Before the new consuls were elected, the senate assembled to deliberate on what provinces should be allotted to them on the expiration of their year of office. The provinces about which the question really was were the two Gauls which...

Cicero was critical of moves against the Republic. His warnings went unheeded.

"That which I requested in my prayers of the all-good and all-powerful Jupiter, and the rest of the immortal gods, O Romans, at the time when I devoted myself and my fortunes in defence of your safety, and tranquillity, and concord,—namely, that if I had at any time preferred my own interests to your safety,...

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