Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

gladiator 4
Games are hell

W.J. Astore

Back in June 2013, I wrote the following article on “Bread and Circuses in Rome and America.”  It flashed through my mind this morning because of Robert Lipsyte’s post today at on Trump, the NFL, violence, race, brain injuries, and patriotism.  I urge you to read it as well as Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, which cites the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire.

A key insight in my article below came from a correspondent, Amy Scanlon, who keenly observed that the Roman Imperium saw compassion, not violence, as a vice.  The gladiatorial games were meant to keep Romans at a fever pitch for war (with the bloody, murderous games being the next best thing to war).  It’s not much of a stretch to think of NFL violence as keeping Americans at a similar feverish pitch; and, not just the NFL, but the commercials during the games, which are often saturated with guns and violence and war.

Here’s my article, unchanged from 2013:

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

The expression “bread and circuses“ captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.

There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.

In her words:

Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…

Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”

I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.

Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.

Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.

At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”

All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”

At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?

15 thoughts on “Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

  1. San Antonio Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich said, “This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others. This has of course been a common practice of his.”

    I stopped watching Football and Basketball pro and college a number of years ago. A few reasons were the use of public tax dollars to build these sports palaces for Mega-Billionaires. Coaches in college were paid more than University Professors. We have all the excuses: We had no idea that “Coach” was a pedophile, or “Coach” hired pedophiles or “Coach” ignored the behavior of the pedophiles he hired. “Coach” had no clue wine, woman and money were used to lure star athletes into the program.

    A local radio station here has some shock-jocks. They have all the intellect of some drunk frat-rats, he who shouts the loudest wins. The advertisements are heavy on the erectile dysfunction clinics, hair implants, jewelry for that special person and some Sports Bar. The shock-jocks and their couch potato audience are all in lather about athletes taking a knee.

    People connected with sports have long known of the condition boxers are susceptible to commonly known as punch drunk. Why would someone who has their head encased in a helmet be immune from head trauma??

    The warrior cult of the military is glorified beyond reason by our society and finds a comfortable home in stadiums across the country. The chicken-hawks sitting in the stands can get a feel good moment of patriotic pride when some soldier returning from Waristan is united with his family.

    You have to say one thing for the Ancient Romans they did not pretend about the purpose of their intentions: Carthage must be destroyed!!!!!!


  2. Sometime in 2004, my younger brother, the high school history and English teacher (and football coach), challenged me to write an anti-war poem in the particular stanza format that he provided as a guide. A Vietnam era U. S. Army veteran himself (military police, Okinawa), he said that the teachers at his school didn’t like the prospect of the U. S. government turning their working-class students into disposable cannon fodder for reasons having nothing to do with America’s actual security or the prospects of its citizens for a decent life. These teachers wanted to do whatever they could to undermine the military recruiters who never seemed interested in Ivy League colleges or upper-middle-class high schools but who instead concentrated on working-class neighborhood schools like theirs. My brother thought that perhaps I could help by writing something that he could show to his students and fellow teachers as an example of what one Vietnam veteran thought of military life and the abject servitude, if not servility — “kiss up, kick down” — that such “service” requires. I told my brother that I would do my best and so I sat down to write one of my first verse compositions, one that only opened the floodgates of memory:

    Bread and Circuses
    (in the Gaelic Bardic verse style)

    Mired in heat and dust and sand
    Gallant band of brothers true
    Country’s service is their aim
    Death and maiming is their due

    In where angels fear to tread
    Foolish, dreaded leaders rush
    Bringing power’s fearsome groan
    Leaving only graveyard’s hush

    “By the pricking of my thumbs”
    This way comes the wicked pawn
    Drunk with drinking conquest’s draught
    Juggernaut goes crushing on

    Won with honest trifles’ lure
    Still so sure in dwindling light
    Now betrayed in consequence
    Of the senseless, needless fight

    Can this be the path they chose?
    How can those who serve inquire?
    Why has this rough beast come ’round,
    To be drowned and born in fire?

    Stillborn monster, undead thing!
    How we sing your praises high!
    Those whom we’ve made destitute
    Still salute and fight and die

    Hear the crowd’s roar! Feel the heat:
    Sizzling meat now roasting slow
    Do they die for reasons known?
    Or for only pomp and show?

    Who has wavered; who stands fast
    ‘Till the last good soul goes free?
    Who says “he” and who says “she”?
    Who but thee and who but me

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2004


    1. Not long after writing my first verse composition, I found that I suddenly could not stop. I started hearing voices from poems or fragments of poems that I remembered reading long ago in school literature courses. I thought of the wounded veterans from our many presidential-military misadventures and the family members who found their lives consumed with caring for the fragmented remnants of formerly whole men and women. The last line of the blind John Milton’s famous sonnet, in particular, had stuck with me over the years and seemed ripe for re-evaluation in present contexts..

      When I Consider How My Light is Spent
      by John Milton

      When I consider When I consider how my light is spent
      Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
      And that one talent which is death to hide
      Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
      To serve therewith my Maker, and present
      My true account, lest he returning chide;
      “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
      I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
      That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
      Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
      Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
      Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
      And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
      They also serve who only stand and wait.”

      Leaving aside Milton’s protestant religious metaphors, which meant nothing to me, I nevertheless found the image of the blinded man still in command of his poetic talents something of an inspiration. Thus inspired, I set out to compose my own tribute to the often unsung care-givers:

      They Also Serve
      (in the Gaelic Bardic verse style)

      Gone to soldiers every one
      Mother’s son so brave and true
      Looked his duty in the eye
      Saying, “I will serve for you.”

      Father’s daughter: joy and pride
      Did not hide from duty’s due
      Serving in this grievous time
      Saying, “I’m a soldier, too.”

      Not for them to choose the fight
      Others might who stay behind
      Handing out the new bank notes
      To the votes that never mind

      Country’s man and woman strong
      Right or wrong prepared to serve
      Told to go and save the cause
      Not the laws that they deserve

      Flung into the grinding maw
      What they saw no words describe
      Still, Valhalla’s maids rejoice
      At the choice blood they imbibe

      Shocked and hurt and staring blank
      Missing ankles, wrists, and knees
      Howling moans from Cruelty’s whelp
      Help him! Help her! Help me! Please!

      Reeling, falling souls set free
      What they see no song can sing
      Reaping not what they have sown
      Giving only everything

      Stinging Furies! Noisome hags!
      Penance gags the prideful throat
      Tried to dam the River Styx
      Wound up fixing Charon’s boat

      Patient Death in silence waits
      Near the gates of Fear and Dread
      Judging not; forgiving none
      Merely one who greets the dead

      Having watched the short parade
      Summer’s shade to winter’s frost
      Comes now time to pack and close
      Tasks for those who count the cost

      Adding up the fearful sum
      Heavy numbers weighted down
      No reprieve; no second chance
      No romance; just war’s grim clown

      Fading glory; fleeting fame
      Once the game of battle ends
      Left to shattered lives of care
      Lovers, parents, wives, and friends

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2004

      And now, back to our regularly scheduled entertainment …


    2. Mike: you’re right about recruiters targeting working-class neighborhoods and schools (including high schools). And your point about the military not serving true national security interests and furthering prospects for a better life is also sharp.

      More than $600 billion a year for “defense,” another $200 billion or so for wars, nukes, and Homeland Security, and yet we can’t find money for health care or to help people in Puerto Rico, etc., etc.

      And what, exactly, are we doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Niger … and 100+ other countries? At least the Romans were honest — they were all about conquest — and had a fairly coherent strategy.


    1. Thank you for the kind words, RS. I very much appreciate them. In return, I offer one of my many takes on that “coming home” thing that veterans of America’s foreign “wars” — i.e., desultory, depressing, demoralizing, pointless, ruinous “fighing for fighting’s sake” — often experience.

      From the dictionary: Jaundice: a state or attitude characterized by satiety, distaste, or hostility (synonyms: animosity, animus, antagonism, antipathy, bad blood, bitterness, gall, grudge, enmity, rancor)

      “Charles Oman, in his classic study of war, spoke of the veterans of the battles of the Middle Ages as ‘the best of soldiers while the war lasted … [but] a most dangerous and unruly race in times of truce or peace.'”– Robert Jay Lifton, Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans, neither victims nor executioners (1973)

      When Jaundice Comes Marching Home
      (after the popular Civil War song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”)

      When Jaundice comes marching home once more,
      Guffaw! Guffaw!
      We’ll know what its masters have in store,
      Guffaw! Guffaw!
      A shiver of terror to run up the spine,
      At the thought of what’s next if we don’t fall in line
      Oh they’d like us scared when
      Jaundice comes marching home

      When Jaundice comes snarling home this time
      Guffaw! Guffaw!
      We’ll spit in its face with a jeering rhyme
      Guffaw! Guffaw!
      Our leaders who screwed up and shot our wad
      Will tell us they did it for country and GAWD
      But we’ll know they lie when
      Jaundice comes snarling home

      When Jaundice comes limping home to hate
      Guffaw! Guffaw!
      The wars that it lost and the shit on its plate
      Guffaw! Guffaw!
      The ones who deployed it to bomb and kill
      Now find that they’ve used up the easy thrill
      So they’ll have to hide when
      Jaundice comes limping home

      When Jaundice comes sneaking home to hide
      Guffaw! Guffaw!
      The failure and waste and our wounded pride
      Guffaw! Guffaw!
      Of no further use is the man in pain
      Who can’t be recruited to do it again
      So avert your eyes when
      Jaundice comes sneaking home

      When Jaundice has marched in its last parade
      Guffaw! Guffaw!
      And laid down to sleep in the endless shade
      Guffaw! Guffaw!
      We’ll have us a wake for the late deceased
      From whose awful clutches we’re now released
      How we’ll all breathe free when
      Jaundice has died at home

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2012


      1. Thank you! It is sad indeed that when the veterans return, not only the ordinary citizens forget about them and their needs…. the worst culprit is the govt that sent them to kill and get killed. It forgets, responsibility for the COMPLETE well being of the veterans and their families rests solely on its shoulders. I am not sure if those declaring wars have any idea what “moral injury” to veterans is which is a leading cause of suicide.


  3. I read an article in The Intercept – It Didn’t Just Start Now: John Kelly Has Always Been a Hard-Right Bully –

    As I read this article, I was astounded that Kelly could have made these statements. It sounds like an updated version of Dr. Strangelove, with Kelly playing the part of General Jack Ripper.

    As a Boomer I grew up with the back ground of the Willie and Joe cartoons by Bill Mauldin and the GI “Dog Face”. From Wiki > After a Mauldin cartoon ridiculed General George Patton’s decree that all soldiers be clean-shaven at all times, even in combat, Patton called Mauldin an “unpatriotic anarchist” and threatened to “throw [his] ass in jail” and ban Stars and Stripes from his Third Army jurisdiction. General Dwight Eisenhower, Patton’s superior, told Patton to leave Mauldin alone.

    White House press secretary Sarah Sanders defended White House chief of staff John Kelly Friday. “If you want to go after General Kelly, that is up to you,” she said. “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that is something highly inappropriate.”

    The press just momentarily broke their usual subservient boot licking of the Warrior Cult to protest Sanders statement.


  4. The comment you made about using drones and taking military action in other countries being, sort of, ‘OK’ for the US to do, but not for anyone else (?) can be viewed simply, if shorn of ornamentation, if issues are presented without reference to which country is taking action against another. Present as a question similar to this: ‘Can my put troops into an independent country, without local popular support, and then proceed to take aggressive military action against groups there; sometimes for years?’ Are there countries where this should be allowed/not allowed? WHY??


    1. The USA has a huge empathy gap. We do things unto others without ever imagining that these same things could be done unto us. This is certainly one reason why 9/11 came as a huge shock to Americans. We are not supposed to be on the receiving end of “guided” missiles that strike terror in our hearts. We are supposed to be the senders of such missiles.

      To your question: I never suggested it was “OK” for the US to be killing, whether by drones or bombing or missiles or whatever. And, if you read the articles at this site, you’ll see I’m generally opposed to US troops being send as “liberators” to foreign countries, because we’ve seen the results in places like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan …


  5. When I was a kid I tried football. We had a bunch of guys together. Yeah, let’s do it! I was on the line and a short very powerfully built guy was facing me. We went at each other and I was slammed down on my back. I asked myself if this was fun. I asked myself if this was a game I wanted to play. No and no and ever since I have had zero interest in football and marvel that guys who stuff themselves with food to gain great muscle mass and gigantic bodies can have any enjoyment in a violent sport where anyone is liable to be injured, no matter how huge he may be and almost certainly in the long run. Meanwhile, out of shape fans scream for victory as guys from poor neighborhoods earn big money at the cost of their health. Then, after the game come the interviews that are terribly predictable (as are all sports interviews).

    It’s bizarre, no other country in the world has been seduced by it and yet here it is wildly popular with basketball far behind in second place. War kills or disables immediately, football appears to do it over many years. I live literally across the street from a big 10 stadium. Fortunately, I can close the windows and sit back with a good book on game day but as I do, up to 30,000 people are across the street, having spent great amounts of money suiting themselves up in fan gear, driving long distances to get to the game and not least of all forking over for the tickets all to reach the height of emotion with the movement of a ball. Statistics pour from every play providing endless and meaningless palaver for talking heads.

    Once I was on an ABC-TV crew for a Bears game at Soldier Field. I had the lowly job of hauling cable behind a cameraman (this was many years ago before wireless cams). It wasn’t bad work primarily because the cameraman had the assignment of following the actions of the cheerleaders so I wasn’t bored, but the thing that really sticks in my mind, or rather my nostrils, was the sea of spilled beer that made the whole place stink after the game. Every rank of flooring in the stands was awash.

    I am not from Mars but I could easily understand a Martian wondering, what is going on here? Football is alien to me…but then long ago I realized I should be a European.


    1. I was recently reading about an NFL player. He was an aggressive kid who liked to hit others, and the sport gave him an outlet for his aggression. Of course, other sports also involve physical contact, such as boxing or ice hockey. But the routine of being bashed about the head and body often comes at great cost to players, as we’re finding out with all the concussion studies …

      A few prominent former NFL players and coaches have come out against the sport due to health concerns. Yet the sport still attracts roughly one million players in high school and roughly 100,000 in college. And the amount of money devoted to it is staggering.

      Slamming an opponent into the ground is seen as the American way. To suggest the sport is too violent and dangerous is to run afoul of men like Trump, who accuse others of being wimps (and worse) for criticizing the sport.

      Football is all about kinetic action; so too, in a way, is the U.S. military, which is a reflection of American society. Winning is the only thing …


      1. Yes, I agree. As a footnote (haha!) as I ride around town I notice very small boys running around in uniform on city fields whose heads with football helmets look gigantic over tiny bodiesn. It appears there is no problem finding kids to play the game and the local high school has a full schedule for 5 football teams, notably two for freshman to handle the demand: F(A), F(B), Soph, JV and varsity. Societies do change in what they accept – look at smoking and the demise of school playground equipment that makes me shudder when I think of how dangerous it was.


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