bread and circuses

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From Latin panem et circenses (literally bread and circuses), a reference to Satire 10 of the Roman poet Juvenal’s Satires (early 2nd century C.E.).[1] The relevant passage states: “[...] nam qui dabat olim imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, panem et circenses” (“[F]or that sovereign people that once gave away military command, consulships, legions, and every thing, now bridles its desires, and limits its anxious longings to two things only,—bread, and the games of the circus!”).[2] Juvenal was commenting that the Roman people no longer cared for political involvement, and were satisfied with cheap food and entertainment provided by politicians.



bread and circuses pl (plural only) (idiomatic)

  1. Food and entertainment provided by the state, particularly if intended to placate the people.
    Synonym: bread and games
    • [1873 January 11, “English Gossip”, in Harper’s Bazar. A Repository of Fashion, Pleasure, and Instruction, volume VI, number 2, New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, ISSN 0017-7873, OCLC 1045059264, page 30, column 4:
      The government of William Ewart Gladstone may not supply the people, as the Roman emperors did, with "bread and circuses," but if giving them plenty to talk about can satisfy a nation, we Britishers ought just now to be very happy. A whole week is never permitted to elapse without some piece of political gaucherie being enacted for the public amusement.]
    • 1877, Amelia B[lanford] Edwards, “Cairo and the Mecca Pilgrimage”, in A Thousand Miles up the Nile, London: Longmans, Green, & Co., OCLC 457530235, page 35:
      Take a Mahommedan at his devotions, and he is a model of religious abstraction; [...] but see him in his hours of relaxation, or on the occasion of a public holiday, and he is as garrulous and full of laughter as a big child. Like a child, too, he loves noise and movement for the mere sake of noise and movement, and looks upon swings and fireworks as the height of human felicity. Now swings and fireworks are Arabic for bread and circuses, and our pleb's passion for them is insatiable.
    • 2012 March 22, Scott Tobias, “The Hunger Games”, in The A.V. Club[1], archived from the original on 4 January 2019:
      In movie terms, it suggests Paul Verhoeven in Robocop/Starship Troopers mode, an R-rated bloodbath where the grim spectacle of children murdering each other on television is bread-and-circuses for the age of reality TV, enforced by a totalitarian regime to keep the masses at bay.
  2. (by extension) Grand spectacles staged or statements made to distract and pacify people.
    • 1950, Willford I[sbel] King, “The Something-for-nothing Deception”, in The Right Way to Provide Security against Illness and Old Age, [New York, N.Y.]: Committee for Constitutional Government, OCLC 776594533, page 1:
      One thing which this study makes evident is that the Welfare State fantasy is usually conjured up by some scheming politician posing as a public benefactor and using "bread and circuses", paid for by the people's own money, to buy the support of the populace.
    • 2009 April 30, Jonathan Meades, “Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Militant Modernism, Owen Hatherley, Zero Books, 146pp, £9.99 [book review]”, in New Statesman[2], London: New Statesman Ltd., ISSN 1364-7431, OCLC 185357433, archived from the original on 21 September 2017:
      But is populism actually popular? Or is it simply sedative patronisation, bread and circuses devised by a cynical caste of free marketeers who presumptuously underestimate the collective intellect?
    • 2019 July 10, Henry Deedes, “It felt like seeing the Head Boy debate the class clown”, in Daily Mail[3], London: DMG Media, ISSN 0307-7578, OCLC 795962808, archived from the original on 17 July 2019:
      At one rather telling point, [Jeremy] Hunt accused Boris [Johnson] of 'peddling optimism' by trying to guarantee we would definitely leave the EU on October 31. Boris's bread-and-circuses response – 'People want a bit of optimism, Jeremy!' – drew wild applause from the 200-odd crowd.



  1. ^ “bread and circuses”, n., in “bread, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1888; “bread and circuses, phrase” in Lexico,; Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Juvenal (1852) , “Satire X”, in Lewis Evans, transl., The Satires of Juvenal, Persius, Sulpicia, and Lucilius, Literally Translated into English Prose, [], London: Henry G[eorge] Bohn, [], OCLC 1003984759, page 107.

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