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 TomDispatch.com 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?

The Cost of Empire

cincinnatus_cincinnatorum
Cincinnatus at his plow in Ohio.

W.J. Astore

With all these generals being called out of retirement to serve as Donald Trump’s “civilian” advisers, whether it’s General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense or General Mike Flynn (the real mad dog) as National Security Adviser, it’s difficult to envision the American empire being shrunk anytime soon.  The U.S. military is overcommitted around the world, attenuating its strength even as the American taxpayer foots the bill to the tune of over $600 billion a year, not including nuclear weapons, veterans affairs, interest on the national debt related to war and defense spending, and so on.

With its endless wars and global adventurism, the U.S. is slowly bankrupting itself even as President-elect Trump promises higher military spending and more toughness abroad.  Imperial over-commitment, for the historically-minded, recalls the fate of the Roman empire.  Many moons ago, the classicist Steven Willett wrote the following words to me, words that America’s militarists and imperialists would be wise to read – and heed:

My personal concern is the misallocation of our resources in futile wars and global military hegemony.  We are acting under the false belief that the military can and should be used as a foreign policy tool.  The end of US militarism is bankruptcy.  I agree with [Andrew] Bacevich’s recommendation that the US cut military spending 6% a year for 10 years.  The result would be a robust defensive military with more freed-up resources for infrastructure, education, research and alternative energy.  Our so-called defense budget is a massive example of what economists call an opportunity cost.

The US is now about where Rome was in the third to fourth centuries.  In his magisterial study “The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey,” A. H. M. Jones shows what a drain the army was on the [economy of Rome].  By the third to fifth centuries, the army numbered about 650,000 scattered along the limes and stationed at central strategic locations.  It took most of the state’s revenues, which had long been declining as the economy in the west declined.  And even that 650,000 was far too small for adequate defense of the [Roman] empire.

General Mattis, described as a “warrior-monk” with a reputation for a close study of military history, perhaps understands some of this.  But can he rein in the American empire and decrease U.S. military spending?  The prospects seem grim.

Trying to be strong everywhere is a recipe for being weak when and where it counts.  Under the five good emperors, Rome was able to balance imperial ambition with domestic vitality.  Any chance Donald Trump is going to be a “good” emperor, a Marcus Aurelius, a man of wisdom?  Early signs are unpromising, to say the least.

Of course, America is supposed to be a democracy.  We’re supposed to look back to the Roman Republic, not its empire.  We’re supposed to be committed to a limited military of citizen-soldiers who are eager to shed their armor and weapons and return to the plow, like Cincinnatus — or George Washington.  We’re not supposed to worship warriors and violence.

Imperial decline and cultural decadence march together in step. Under Trump, it appears they’ll soon be marching in lockstep at double-time.  Grim times, indeed.

 

NFL, NASCAR, and U.S. Foreign Policy: Quick Hits

And another American chariot crashes and burns
And another American chariot crashes and burns

W.J. Astore

During the Roman Empire, chariot races and gladiatorial games served to entertain the people. The U.S. empire’s equivalent, of course, is NASCAR and the NFL. Serve up some bread to go with the circuses and you have a surefire way to keep most people satisfied and distracted.

That’s true enough, but let’s dig deeper.  NASCAR features expensive, high-tech machinery, heavily promoted by corporate sponsors, with an emphasis on high speed and adrenaline rushes and risk-taking — and accidents, often spectacular in nature. Indeed, turn to the news and you see special features devoted to spectacular crashes, almost as if the final result of the race didn’t matter.

Turn to the NFL and you see it’s about kinetic action — big plays and bigger hits, with players often being carted off the field with concussions or season-ending injuries.  The game itself is constant stop and go, go and stop, with plenty of corporate sponsors again.

High-octane violence sponsored by corporations facilitated by high-tech machinery; big hits and repetitive stop-and-go action also sponsored by corporations; spectacular (and predictable) smash-ups and serious injuries, all enfolded in patriotic imagery, with the military along for the ride to do recruitment.  Yes, our leading spectator sports do say a lot about us, and a lot about our foreign policy as well.

It used to be said that the Romans fought as they trained: that their drills were bloodless battles, and their battles bloody drills. We conduct foreign policy as we play sports: lots of violence, driven by high technology, sponsored by corporations, with plenty of repetition and more than a few crash and burn events.

A good friend wrote to me to contrast rugby with American football (the NFL).  In rugby, he explained, the goal is ball control.  Big hits are less important than gaining the ball. The play is hard but is more continuous.  Playing as a team is essential.  In rugby, there’s far less physical specialization of the players (e.g. no lumbering 350-pound linemen as in the NFL); every player has to run long and hard.  There’s far more flow to the game and much less interference by coaches.

We could use more flow and patience to our foreign policy, more “ball control” rather than big hits and kinetic action and quick strikes.  Yet, much like NASCAR and the NFL, we prefer high-octane “shock and awe,” the throwing of “long bombs,” with a surfeit of spectacular crashes and collateral damage.  All brought to you by your corporate sponsors, naturally, where the bottom line –profit– truly is the bottom line.

Perhaps we should look for new sports.  Tennis, anyone?

America’s Military Strategy? Persistent Overreach

A Roman Cavalry Mask found at the presumed site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
A Roman Cavalry Mask found at the presumed site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

W.J. Astore

Reports that President Obama is considering even more troops and bases to fight ISIS in Iraq put me to mind of Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus.  Two millennia ago, Varus committed three Roman legions to the Teutoburg Forest in Germania in terrain that neutralized Roman advantages in firepower and maneuverability.  Ambushed and caught in a vise, his legions were destroyed in detail as Varus took his own life.  To Rome the shock and disgrace of defeat were so great that Emperor Augustus cried, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!”

Ever since 9/11, American presidents and their military advisors have repeatedly committed U.S. troops and prestige to inhospitable regions in terrain that largely neutralizes U.S. advantages in firepower and maneuverability.  Whether it’s the urban jungles of Baghdad or Fallujah or Mosul or the harshly primitive and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, American troops have been committed to campaigns that they can’t win (in any enduring sense), under conditions that facilitate ambushes by an elusive enemy with superior knowledge of the local terrain.  The number of U.S. soldiers killed or seriously wounded in these campaigns is roughly equivalent to those lost by Varus, though unlike Varus no U.S. general has yet to fall on his sword.

Unlike Rome, which did learn from Varus’s catastrophe the perils of imperial overreach, the U.S. persists in learning nothing.  Perhaps that’s because America’s defeat is collective and gradual, rather than singular and quick.  America may lack a Varus or a calamity like Teutoburg Forest, yet the overall result since 9/11 has been no less debilitating to American foreign policy.

Despite setback after setback, American presidents and generals persist in trying to control hostile territory at the end of insecure logistical lines while mounting punitive raids designed to deny Al Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban “safe havens.”  We should have learned the impossibility of doing this from Vietnam, but it seems America’s presidents and generals keep trying to get Vietnam right, even if they have to move the fight to the deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan.

Yet seeking to control territory in inhospitable regions like the Middle East or Afghanistan, whether you use American troops or proxy armies, is an exercise in strategic futility.   It’s also old-fashioned thinking: the idea that, to exert influence and control, you need large numbers of military boots on the ground.  But the world has already moved past such thinking into “borderless” hegemony as demonstrated by the Internet, by global business and finance, and by America’s own practice of drone strikes and cyber-war.

By repeatedly deploying American troops – whether in the tens of hundreds or tens of thousands – to so many equivalents of the Teutoburg Forest, our leaders continue a strategy of overreach that was already proven bankrupt in Vietnam.  Meanwhile, despite our own early revolutionary history, our leaders seem to have forgotten that no country likes to be occupied or interfered with by foreigners, no matter how “generous” and “benevolent” they claim to be.  Let’s also not forget that boots on the ground in faraway foreign lands cost an enormous amount of money, a cost that cannot be sustained indefinitely (just ask the British in 1781).

America simply cannot afford more troop deployments (and commitments of prestige) that set the stage for more military disasters.  When you persist in committing your legions to torturous terrain against an enemy that is well prepared to exact a high price for your personal hubris and strategic stubbornness, you get the fate you deserve.

After Varus’s calamity, the Romans stopped campaigning east of the Rhine.  When will America’s leaders learn that persistence in strategic overreach is nothing but folly?

Update (6/21/15): A friend writing from Germany reports that “new archaeological finds near the Elbe apparently show at least one major battle between Roman and Germanic forces in the second century AD. The documentary film’s claim was that the archaeological finds, combined with a few classical source references, show that the Roman armies did engage in major punitive expeditions deep into the territory across the Rhine in the time after Varus, including the one newly discovered which apparently showed a major Roman victory.”

Difficult to see.  Always in motion the future, Yoda once said.  He might have added that the past too “is always in motion.” Did a punitive raid such as this strengthen the Roman Empire or weaken it?  If the Romans won a victory, was it of the Pyrrhic variety?  Did the Romans attempt to sustain a presence across the Rhine only to abandon the attempt?  It will be interesting to see what new evidence is uncovered by archaeologists working in the area.

The Torture Was the Message

Proud Acolytes of the Roman God of War

W.J. Astore

Leading figures in the Bush Administration — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz — fancied themselves to be the new Vulcans.  As in Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge, armorer for gods and mortals.  In the aftermath of 9/11, they didn’t look to Darth Vader in their journey to “the dark side” — they looked to Ancient Rome. They believed that Rome had prospered because of its willingness to use force with unparalleled ruthlessness.  As the “new Rome,” the new hegemon of the globe, America too would prosper if it proved willing to use brutal force.

Call it “shock and awe.”  In the process, they sowed the dragon’s teeth of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and indeed throughout the world.  In attempting to intimidate the enemies they saw everywhere, they tortured widely as well.

In her book Rome and the Enemy (1990), historian Susan P. Mattern noted that:

Rome’s success, its very safety, ultimately depended less on the force that it could wield, which was not necessarily large or overwhelming, than on the image of the force it could wield and on its apparent willingness to use that force at whatever cost.

The American Vulcans, people like Cheney, concluded the same: they had to be willing to use brutal force at whatever cost.  Image was everything.  They had to be willing to project an image of ruthlessness, because the language of brutality was the only language “they,” the enemy, could and would understand.  It wasn’t necessary to sacrifice democracy to defend democracy, since to the Vulcans, America wasn’t really a democracy anyway.  No: America was the new Rome, the new global hegemon, and it had to act like it.

To the Vulcans, torture was not an aberration.  It was method.  A method of intimidation that sent a message to barbarians about America’s willingness to use whatever force was necessary to defend itself.  Whether torture yielded reliable intelligence was beside the point.  The torture was the message.

That’s why you’ll hear no apology from Dick Cheney or the other Vulcans.  They speak the language of naked power. A fiery power that consumes.  And they’re proud of it.

Two millennia ago, in a riposte to Rome’s utter ruthlessness, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote a critique using Calgacus, a Celtic chieftain, as his mouthpiece.  In Agricola, Tacitus wrote:

The Romans’ tyranny cannot be escaped by any act of reasonable submission.  These brigands of the world have exhausted the land by their rapacity, so they now ransack the sea.  When their enemy is rich, they lust after wealth; when their enemy is poor, they lust after power.  Neither East nor West has satisfied their hunger.  They are unique among humanity insofar as they equally covet the rich and the poor.  Robbery, butchery, and rapine they call ‘Empire.’  They create a desert and call it ‘Peace.’

This may not be quite the self-image that America’s new Vulcans had in mind, but it is the reality when you set yourself up as acolytes of the god of fire.  But fire is an especially capricious and elemental force, impossible to master, raging treacherously as it consumes everything in its path.  Beware when you play with fire, for even the Roman Empire burnt itself out.

(With thanks to the reader below who reminded me of the different roles Vulcan and Mars played in Roman mythology.)

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

Game On!
Game On!

W.J. Astore

Just posted a new article to Huffington Post.  Here’s the link and the article (pasted below):

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?

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.