A number of common expressions have been derived from a variety of cultures and languages and handed down to us through generations from so long ago that we seldom even think of their origin. A pertinent one is bread and circuses, which captures the cynical political view that the attention of the masses on the political problems they are experiencing can be diverted by food, entertainment and grand parades that will make them happy. Popular tax cuts, for example, are often a thinly disguised attempt to distract attention from underlying economic crises.
These days we tend to think of circuses as a ‘big top’ with trapeze artists, performing animals and clowns, but circuses originated in Roman times when crowds were treated to spectacular performances such as chariot races and the contests between gladiators. What has this to do with ‘bread and circuses’? As I recall from my readings about those times, there was a significant gap between the rich and poor in the Roman Empire, where much of the actual work was done by slaves acquired by conquest, leaving the ordinary Roman citizens at a loose end.
An idle, hungry, and largely unemployed citizenry could spell trouble and so the emperors introduced holidays with lavish entertainment for the crowds. The powerful Roman satirist of the time, Decimus Junius Juvenalis – commonly known as Juvenal – was disgusted by this behaviour and accused his fellow citizens of falling for the ‘bread and circuses’ bribery designed to stop them from complaining or making an issue of the problems of their daily lives or the political situation of the time.
We see this ‘bread and circus’ attitude whenever elections appear on the horizon: food parcels and or free t-shirts in the colours of whichever political party are ploys frequently used to attract the largely ill-educated masses to political rallies. At one such rally in Port Elizabeth in recent years, blankets were brought in to be handed out to the elderly – instead a lot of the latter were trampled and injured in the rush by youngsters who grabbed the blankets and fled. This is an example of a ‘bread and circuses’ tactic that backfired for that particular political party.
Regardless of the state of the economy at the time, South Africans have come to expect a decrease in the price of fuel (however slight) at the onset of the festive season – which is when much of the country is on the move: landlubbers migrate to the coastal areas and seaside dwellers seek out inland attractions; families travel long distances to be together … it is a time for wholesale celebration which is greatly enhanced if the cost of fuel is just that much less. The reduction in the fuel price creates the required ‘fuzzy’ feeling of well-being – even though the population is generally slapped with a whopping increase in January. That is how ‘bread and circuses’ works.
I cannot resist concluding this with an extract from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, Constantly risking absurdity:
Constantly risking absurdity
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of day
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
for what it may not be …