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  • "Bread and Circuses":Ancient Rome, Modern Science Fiction, and the Art of Political Distraction
  • Gregory S. Aldrete

One of the few concepts about ancient Rome that has penetrated the mass cultural consciousness is the notion that its rulers kept the populace complacent and politically inert by distracting them with violent entertainments and free food, an idea often expressed by the phrase "bread and circuses," which appears in a poem by the Roman author Juvenal. Unlikely as it might seem, the dynamic encapsulated in Juvenal's poetry has exerted widespread influence on science-fiction films and TV shows from the 1960s to the 2010s, and indeed has functioned as the inspiration behind some of the most popular sci-fi plots of that time. This article examines how the "bread and circuses" motif has been manifested in these celluloid visions of futuristic dystopias, focusing on one representative example from each decade: the "Bread and Circuses" episode of the original Star Trek series and the films Rollerball, The Running Man, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, and Ready Player One. The genre of science fiction is often useful more for what it reveals about the fears, concerns, and desires of the era that produces it than for offering accurate predictions of the future, and, for each film, this article additionally considers how its particular take on "bread and circuses" reflects the zeitgeist of the decade in which it was created.

Juvenal's "Bread and Circuses" Dictum

What unites all of the following films: The Hunger Games, Rollerball, The Matrix, The Running Man, and Ready Player One? One obvious answer is that they are all popular science-fiction films, but another, more interesting commonality is that all their basic plots revolve around a premise encapsulated in and popularized by a 2000-year-old line of poetry written by the Roman satirical poet Juvenal, who lived during the latter half of the first century CE. In his 10th Satire, Juvenal writes of the Roman citizenry: "the people who once upon a time bestowed military commands, high civil offices, legions, and everything else, now restrains itself, and instead, eagerly hopes for just two things: bread and circuses" (10.77-81). The "bread" that Juvenal refers to was the free monthly grain dole that citizens of the capital city were eligible to collect, and the "circuses" were violent public spectacles, such as gladiator games in the amphitheater and chariot races staged in the enormous racetrack called the Circus Maximus.

What Juvenal is asserting here is that, during the Roman Empire, the previously highly engaged and politically active Roman people traded away their political power in exchange for basic sustenance and mindless entertainment. Rome's rulers deliberately kept the populace in a complacent and inert state by continually plying them with handouts of free food and lavish, violent shows. This concept is usually expressed in shorthand by the expression "bread and circuses," or occasionally in the original Latin version, panem et circenses. Unlikely as it might sound, the idea expressed in Juvenal's poetry has exerted widespread influence on science-fiction films of the last half-century, and indeed this line has sometimes even functioned as a direct inspiration for some of the most popular sci-fi plots of that time. There are dozens of films that could be included under the "bread and circuses" rubric, but, in order to keep this article to a reasonable length while still suggesting how the theme has developed over [End Page 4] time, the analysis will focus on just one representative film from each decade.1

While ancient Roman poetry and cinematic sci-fi dystopias might seem an odd combination, because of the popularity of the sci-fi film genre, investigating their intertwined history is also illuminating for what it reveals about classical reception in mass culture. Indeed, my interest in this subject was aroused when, on the first day of class in a course on Roman civilization that I regularly taught, I asked my students to jot down what came to mind when they thought of ancient Rome, and the three most common responses were these: a man reclining on luxurious pillows, being fed grapes by half-naked women; the...