Ever heard of the term “bread and circuses”? It comes from the Roman empire and refers to political leaders distracting their citizens so they don’t revolt. Is it happening today?

Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Connor: Hey, Brittany.

Brittany: Hi, Connor.

Connor: The government loves to keep us distracted. This is one of the lessons that I’ve learned in my life that those in power, the politicians in power, they don’t want people to be informed. They don’t want us to know what they’re up to in magic. There’s a concept, and by no means am I a magician at all but know there’s this concept called sleight of hand. And what that means is that if I’m a magician and I’m showing you a pack of cards in let’s say my left hand, and I’m holding in front of you and I’m showing you the cards and that has your attention, well, what I’m doing is I’m distracting you from what my right hand is doing. Maybe my right hand is pulling an extra card out of my pocket or something. That’s kind of the trick if you will, but I’m getting away with it because you are being distracted by my left hand. So, that’s sleight of hand. That’s very common in magic. It’s also common with the government. And so, the government likes it when we are distracted so that it can pass bad laws or start a war or whatever bad thing they happen to be up to. And this is not a modern thing by any means. This type of thing has happened throughout history and frankly, for as long as governments have existed, so, that if the people are distracted, then they won’t be paying attention to what the government is doing. And so, then they won’t hold it accountable. Think of all the people protesting in the streets over various injustices that happen in their country. There’s at any given time protests happening somewhere in the world. Well, that’s because those people know enough about what’s going on so that they can then stand up against that injustice and try and take action. But if they’re not informed, if they’re not paying attention, then they can’t protest. They can’t stand up for themselves. They can’t demand change. And so, in the year, gosh, this was I think like 100 AD. So a hundred years after Jesus was born, there’s this Roman poet, his name is juvenile, and he was concerned about this exact circumstance because it was happening in Rome. Again, this has been happening for a long time. But he saw it happening in Rome, how the government was getting away with a lot of stuff because the citizens, the individuals were all distracted. And he noticed that Rome no longer had heroes to take on corrupt leaders. There weren’t people rising up, and all the common people were falling in behind that person. And they became the hero to stand up for the people. That wasn’t happening because everyone seemed to be distracted from all the problems that they had. He wrote this poem, it was satire, which just means he was kind of being silly and making some stuff up and being pretend a little bit. So he wrote that silly,

Brittany: But it still kind of pointing towards the truth, kind of Babylon bee-type stuff, yeah.

Connor: Babylon bee. And so he coined this term bread and circus to explain the situation. So, here’s what he wrote, and then I’ll talk about it. So he said 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. Okay? Lots of fancy words there. And frankly, it was written in Latin. It wasn’t written in English.

Brittany: So, I wouldn’t even know if it really said these words.

Connor: Yeah, it probably rhymed in Latin, not in English. But here’s what he’s saying. He’s like, a long time ago, we stood up for ourselves and our rights. We sold our vote to no man. He says you couldn’t buy our loyalty. We understood our rights. We defended them. And instead, he said, the people have abdicated our duties. Abdicate means to get rid of, to release, and to not use anymore. If a king abdicates the throne, he’s basically stepping down from power. So, when he says that the people have abdicated our duties, he’s saying that we’re not doing our duties. We’re not fulfilling what it means to be a citizen or a person with rights. And so then instead he’s saying, look, before people would hand out high military command legions, high civil, he’s basically saying people would be engaged. They would be supporting good people for office. They would be watching them. They would be making sure they’re not doing bad things. They would be, we might say today civically engaged. You’re just engaged in current events and what’s going on. Instead, he says, that’s not happening. He says it restrains itself. It’s not really happening anymore. And instead, people anxiously hope for just two things, bread and circuses. So, maybe Brittany, I’m going to throw it to you like bread and circuses in the context of Rome, why do you think he was kind of using those two words? What was Rome doing at the time? Any thoughts on why he would pick those words?

Brittany: Actually, I picked this term, I liked teaching this to my third graders back in the day, but it’s been a while. Now, bread itself was a really important thing to have back then because there wasn’t a lot of variety of food you have to remember. But people just needed to be fed to be, what’s the term? They needed to be fat and happy and happy. So, the government was providing them with two things and two things only. And that was bread, or I think it was actually called, is it lemon or it’s whatever. They weren’t having them homemade bread. They were handing them the flour and everything they needed to make the bread. Okay? So, that’s the main thing that you need to survive checked off. You have food. Nobody’s going to be complaining about food good, but then they need it to be entertained. And this gets really messed up. I’m sure you guys have heard about gladiators, like the term gladiator. Connor, when you and I were growing up, I thought a gladiator was from the show, American Gladiator, which is a shoot, the tennis.

Connor: American state Bull. Oh, I loved that show.

Brittany: That show was great. It was basically a bunch of people beating each other up with Nerf weapons, for lack of a better definition of it. But back in the day, gladiators were much different. So, sometimes they would be criminals or people who angered people in power and they would be imprisoned, but in a different kind of way. They’re imprisoned and people would meet up in, it wasn’t the coliseum, what do you call a stadium, which is a stadium. They’d meet up in a stadium, and this was free to the people remember? So, that’s where you get the bread and circus, and they would watch these gladiators fight wild beasts in hand-to-hand combat sometimes. So, they were not going to win. I mean, I don’t even know. I’m sure there are stories. I know the movie, Gladiator, the guy comes out the winner. But this was basically, people used to go to watch gladiators, fight to the death. That’s the best way to put it. So that it wasn’t an actual circus. There was no clowns or anything, but it was much worse than that. So, you were watching people fight to their death, but you had food and you were entertained, and if you had food and you were entertained, then you were not going to pay attention to anything that any of the governments were doing because you were too busy. So, that was what was meant in the Roman context of Brett and the circus.

Connor: It’s so interesting because this type of thing is happening today. This wasn’t just from Rome. When we think about the political problems that we have today, so often, I think it comes down to bread and circuses as well, that so many people are dependent upon the government for their income, food, the benefits. They’re getting subsidies, they’re getting tax benefits, they’re getting food stamps, they’re getting welfare. There are so many people who are financially dependent upon that or even student loans. We’ve talked about that too. So, for many people, their financial situation is heavily dependent on the government. And so in that sense, the government is giving them bread. It’s giving them money basically, which is the equivalent. They need it to sustain their life. And that’s happening all over the place. State governments are doing it, the federal government is doing it. There are all these different programs, and so many people out there are dependent financially upon the government. What that means is that they are likely to support policies that further empower the government. So, if the government’s going bankrupt, all the people who need money from the government, they’re not going to say, stop taxing people or stop printing money. They’re instead going to encourage the opposite. Why? Because they benefit if the government is able to get more money or print more money and give it to them. And so suddenly they become supportive of policies that empower the government to grow more and have more money and everything because they are benefiting along the way. So, the government likes us when the government likes it, when we are dependent upon it, because then we want its success because its success is our success. So, instead of the government being the opposition or the problem or the violator of our rights, or needing to shrink this leviathan, so it doesn’t get so big, the government doesn’t want to be in opposition with the people it governs. And so it loves when we’re dependent on it because then we have kind of aligned priorities. And so that’s the problem with bread, with people directly benefiting from the government financially. And then with circuses. I think this really boils down to just entertainment and social media and infighting, people debating every day what the thing is.

Brittany: Literal infighting with the gladiators.

Connor: Yeah, there you go. Every day were supposed to be upset about something. And George Orwell’s, 1984, he called it The Daily Hate, I believe is what it was. Yes, that’s right. Every day the individuals were instructed, here’s what you’re supposed to be upset about today. Let’s spend some time being upset about it. And so our society today is so full of distraction and reality, TV and TikTok and all these things where people’s attention is consumed, their mental energy is consumed by all of these, I’ll use the word frivolities, that means it’s frivolous or in other words, unimportant. And so we waste all this energy, and not that all entertainment is a waste. I’m not saying that we need to spend 24/7 being civically engaged. It’s a balance. But the problem is that I think too many people, I mean sports and everything, just people are consumed with recreational things that while good in moderation, in excess means that they’re not engaged in paying attention and holding people accountable and coming together with other people to stand up for their rights. They’re not even aware that’s happening. They become pacified because they’re like you said, kind of fat and lazy, and if you will, proverbially speaking, they just become dependent on the government. But then they’ll just go watch Netflix all day and play video games for hours a day. And that’s the extent of their livelihood. And again, the government, those in power, prefer that type of dynamic because people are easily controlled when they’re dependent upon the government and when they’re distracted, the government can get away with all kinds of things. And even if people start to realize, Hey, the government’s doing this thing, are they really going to be that critical of, are they going to bite the hand that feeds them? Is the saying, are they going to really fight a government that they rely upon? So, it’s this unfortunate dynamic where it’s happening as much today as it was in Rome.

Brittany: Yeah, and it reminds me of, and this isn’t as much as, because the bread and circus is referring to the government giving those things to people, but I think we are caught up in entertainment or rather that when the government knows that everybody’s occupied with something else like the Olympics, I kind of was thinking of the Olympics. I don’t know if anything bad has happened as far as they’ve gotten us into war or anything during the Olympics, but I think of these things that are big government-sponsored entertainment, you think, how easy would it be to just pull a fast one on people when they’re distracted like that? There was something called the National Defense Authorization Act, and that was passed when everybody was out celebrating New Year’s Eve in 2012, and nobody was paying attention to the news, and they signed, it was Obama signed this terrible thing into law. And so maybe that example, it wasn’t like a government-sponsored event, it was just New Year’s Eve. But they love doing that, and it’s really easy to get people not to pay attention if they’re busy with other things.

Connor: It’s very true. And I think the problem suggests a solution. In other words, if the problem is bread and circuses well, then the solution is probably the opposite. And so rather than being financially dependent on the government rather than getting all these benefits and tax incentives and food stamps and all the things, obviously if you’re in need, then that’s a different thing. But what we should all be striving for is economic independence. We should not be reliant upon the government because then we’re, I mean, thinking of the founding fathers, right? They could all leave their farms and their trades and their plantations and all the different things they did because they were financially independent. That allowed them the luxury to go debate in a sweaty little room in humid Philadelphia for weeks on end with other people. They weren’t troubled with the daily tasks to have to engage. So, if we’re financially independent, we can actually then go push for more freedom and we can be more involved. But if our economic lives are such that like, man, if I don’t work 24, 7, 9 to five and all these things, I’m going to starve, then we are less free because we’re not able to spend time and energy focusing on higher order. Things like improving society and engaging with others. And again, entertainment is fine, recreation is fine, but there’s a balance. And so, the opposite of the circuses is to recognize that the government wants us to be distracted, and the government likes it when we’re all plugged into social media and reality TV and whatever. So, the opposite is, Hey I need to carve out attention like mental energy where I’m also focused on current events and news and paying attention to what’s going on. Sure, I can watch my favorite shows, or I can do whatever, but I can’t become so, plugged into the digital recreational circuses of our day where I get distracted from what’s going on around me and have to wake up and pay attention. And so, I think that’s the call to action is just being more diligent, being more focused on the news, seeing what’s going on, uniting with people in your community, figuring out what you can do together. Just figuring out what civic engagement means for you because the government gets away with all kinds of shenanigans when we’re not paying attention. And so, we got to pay attention, and we got to help other people pay attention. I think that’s kind of the call to action for all of us. You’re already doing your part. You’re listening to this podcast. Please share it with some friends. Let’s get others listening as well. Let’s wake some people up and let’s rally them together to do some amazing stuff in the years ahead. Until then, Brittany, great talking to you, and we’ll talk to you on the next episode.

Brittany: Talk to you soon.