Pawan Kumar

Panem et Circenses

— Pawan Kumar

The “coze cozé” of our political leaders during the past weeks and the intellectual acrobatics some of them have resorted to in order to justify their contorsions and unbelievable posturings reminds me of the erstwhile Roman practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games and other forms of entertainment as a device employed for distracting attention from fundamental problems and gaining political power through populism.



Readers may recall that the Roman poet Juvenal (circa 100 AD) referred to this old malpractice in Satire X, in which the Latin phrase panis et circenses (bread and circuses) is used to convey “the only remaining cares of a Roman populace which had given up its birthright of political involvement.” Juvenal thus portays his contempt for his contemporary Roman citizens on account of their declining heroism and loss of commitment to basic virtues that made the glory of Rome at one time.


Roman politicians thus invented a plan in 140 B.C. to win the votes of the poor based on panem et circenses. By giving out cheap food and entertainment, the politicians decided that this policy of “bread and circuses” would be the most effective way for them to rise to power.

I quote from Juvenal’s Satire — 10.77–81:

… iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, panem et circenses.

(… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.)

In other words, bread and circuses is a metaphor for handouts and petty amusements that politicians have been using in order to gain popular support”, instead of gaining it through implementation of sound and balanced public policy. The phrase is invoked not only to criticize politicians, but also to criticize those who support this fool’s paradise and readily abscond from upholding of their civic duty.

We are informed that Spanish intellectuals between the 19th and 20th centuries complained bitterly about a similar culture of pan y toros (“bread and bullfights”) that kept people muddled up in vain pursuits.

Any suggestion from readers about a Mauritian version of “bread and circuses”? How about “boutisme et circenses”?

Pawan Kumar

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