The title of this post reveals the Latin quip (by the Roman satirist Juvenal, in his 10th Satire, 77-81) from which Suzanne Collins derived the name of her fictional dystopian country in The Hunger Games (Legal Eagle’s review and commentary is here). It means ‘bread and circuses’ and is part of a lengthy whinge where Juvenal grumbles that the Roman people have disengaged entirely from politics and now care only about two things — bread and circuses:
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.
Juvenal is — for purposes of modern comparison — the Roman world’s Dickens: he blends high farce, word-play, silly names, coincidence and sentimentality in roughly equal measure.
‘Panem’ in Juvenal refers to the Roman welfare state, which was (appropriately enough for such a mercantile civilisation) run by private corporations (organised using a mutual structure, as the Romans never developed limited liability companies, a later invention of the English common law). The mutuals had to submit tenders to the fiscus (the Roman treasury) and their bids were made public, with projected profits and costings pasted up on posters (printed using block printing, like woodcuts or coinage) in the Forum. The contract for welfare provision ran for five years.
Every Roman city with a majority citizen population used a version of the same system. It was very efficient, and the mutuals developed relatively sophisticated mechanisms to make sure that people could not fraudulently obtain the vouchers (in the form of tokens) that people used to make their claims on the annona (dole). It was common practice, for example, to make welfare provision to the woman of the house (materfamilias) as — like in Japan — a Roman man handed his earnings over to his wife or girlfriend, who was then expected to manage the household. There are pictures of this process in Pompeii, showing people queueing up outside the town hall for what a Victorian would call ‘poor relief’. In one image, a man who has collected oil and bread is shown standing outside the amphitheatre handing them over to a woman: his wife or girlfriend (Romans often did not marry, although their relationships were still governed by the law of contract).
The annona did not go to the homeless or indigent, however. It went to citizens who had spotty or seasonal employment. There were several scandals throughout Roman history when non-citizens and slaves were found to be ‘working the system’.
‘Circenses’ in Juvenal refers to the provision (also by private bodies contracted by the government at the city council or regional level) of mass public entertainment (ludi). The Hunger Games – like most modern reinterpretations of the Romans — focusses on gladiatorial shows, but they were neither the most popular nor the most cruel form of Roman entertainment. The most common entertainment forms were variations on horseracing: chariot racing (like the trots, only faster), steeplechase and what we would recognise as the fifth at Randwick or the third at Kempton Park. The circus maximus in Rome at its largest (some point in the 2nd century AD) held 225,000 people. By any standard, this is staggering. A point of difference for modern readers: the jockeys and charioteers were organised into teams (delineated by colour), and there was considerable trading of charioteers between the teams at the end of each season. These transfers had to be undertaken within a certain timeframe, much like modern football’s ‘transfer window’. It seems that the majority of charioteers were free, but non-citizens, so they received the bulk of the money themselves and could become very rich.
Now horse and chariot racing were bloody dangerous (the Romans used the expression ‘shipwreck’ to describe what happened when a charioteer tried to overtake a rival on the inside and collided with the spina, that is, the central part of the racecourse). It was, by all accounts, not pretty (chariot turned into matchwood, charioteer trampled to death, etc etc). Racing was not, however, watched because people finished up dead. Romans watched it for much the same reason we watch Formula 1 or Bathurst or the MotoGP: it was thrilling and skilled. The circus maximus was never formally divided into seating by social class, either — people sat where they could afford, so a senator could finish up parked beside a cobbler if the government or a corporate sponsor decided to pick up the tab for the day’s entertainment.
The cruelest form of public entertainment — as it was in the Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, so this unpleasant manifestation of the human was pervasive until relatively recently — was the public execution of convicted criminals, undertaken (often) by the Roman state, although private providers would sometimes be brought in to do the job (Pinker documents this process vividly). The standard practice was to march the condemned around the arena with a sign hung around their necks stating their crimes, then indulge in various really, really appalling (but highly imaginative) ways of killing them off. This form of punishment was only ever inflicted on slaves and non-citizens, too: Roman law for cives (citizens) only admitted of three capital offences (murder, rape, treason) and tended to dispose of most citizen crimes by way of a fine or brief terms of imprisonment. If a citizen were to be executed, he or she was beheaded, in private (usually the prison grounds) and the family allowed to claim the body for cremation.
The horrifying cruelty of the public executions (held, typically, in between gladiatorial bouts, and often at lunchtime, so you have to imagine people sitting in the stands eating panini and pointing and giggling) delighted some Romans and appalled others. Martial (the poet and satirist) was a fan; I’ve translated a selection of his efforts here, although the poem below gives one a flavour of the repellent nastiness that cruelty combined with a sense of humour could produce in a Roman games master (called an editor or editrix, depending on sex; yes, women — inevitably citizens, of course — sometimes did the organiser’s job):
Just as Prometheus in Scythia to a rock was bound
His guts by vultures torn and ground
So lying Laureolus, by a Caledonian bear
Is shredded while crucified, hanging down there.
His limbs still live, while gore jets and drips,
Look for his body? It’s been cut into bits.
He who stabs his master, those who kill
Their parents – this is how they die.
The fool who rapes a Priestess, burns Capitol Hill
Such a fitting penalty – we have him fry.
Swap a scabrous criminal in these stories of old
And fiction becomes fact, in the amphitheatre retold.
By contrast, Seneca (the banker and philosopher) was appalled, noting in particular the common practice among schoolteachers of taking children to the amphitheatre to watch executions. Both he and Juvenal record children too small to have a seat of their own sitting in either the teacher’s (magister/magistra) or mum’s lap while watching. It is all rather mind-boggling.
Seneca, however, was a Stoic, and Stoics were different (as Legal Eagle and Stephen point out in the Hunger Games thread). We have records of Stoic parents refusing to allow their children on such excursions, of Stoics refusing to go to the ludi themselves, of Stoics publicly wondering just what watching this sort of thing did to people psychologically.
It’s important to remember that the Stoics never doubted that criminals should be punished, and they didn’t oppose capital punishment (they were also strong supporters of the military, and military service generally). Their focus was on what cruelty did to the people who administered the ludi, and on what it did to the audience watching. Their opposition to slavery had similar origins: ‘have you ever stopped to consider what having so much power over another human being does to you?’ Musonius Rufus (another Stoic) asks in one of his essays.
Although there were many similarities between Stoics (unsuccessful abolitionists) and Quakers (successful abolitionists) — great success in trade and commerce, strong focus on equality of the sexes, high value placed on education — the Stoics did not succeed in changing their society as much as one would hope. It’s a salutary reminder that the sort of Enlightenment ideals we now hold as standard were seldom held as standard in the past, and often lost out in the marketplace of ideas. Even when a Stoic emperor — Marcus Aurelius — managed to be the exception that proves Lord Acton’s dictum, he did not abolish slavery or the ludi. He humanised the former (requiring an application to court and discharging the evidential onus on the balance of probabilities before a slaveowner could exercise the vitae necisque potestas, for example) and let anyone who would listen know that he and the Empress Faustina (she was a Stoic as well) absolutely bloody hated the ludi and only went out of a sense of duty. Faustina also did the sort of attractive ‘first lady’ things one would expect from a Stoic with power: providing free education to orphan girls, for example, by means of an intelligently designed voucher system.
In other words, Marcus and Faustina ‘went native’. Perhaps one reason the Quakers succeeded and the Stoics failed is that the Test Acts ensured that Quakers had no opportunity to ‘go native’. They had to keep fighting for every good thing they got, and they couldn’t fight from within the House of Commons, not being able to stand for public office.
So where does this leave us?
One of the fascinating things about the Romans (and why their social structure and civilisation provide such fertile ground for science fiction authors, of whom Suzanne Collins is but one example) is their unusual combination of horror and wonder. Even Pinker does not address them particularly well in Better Angels of our Nature, but then, it’s very hard to get them right. One has to hold various contradictory things in one’s head simultaneously, which is difficult at the best of times. They were gifted at trade and commerce (their marvellous law, the foundation for much that is good throughout the developed world, for example, is marvellous in part because they took commerce seriously and believed it should be facilitated, not undermined). They accorded unusually high status to women: rape was always a crime against the person, women were able to participate fully in trade and commerce, were not disabled legally by marriage, were able to initiate divorce unilaterally on the same basis as men, and always retained their property. They also let same-sex couples marry, and the worst they ever did to gays and lesbians was tell off-colour jokes about them — women with shaven heads who wanted to be gladiators, for example (that’s in Juvenal), or all the Roman men sitting down at the speed of heat when an Athenian man walks into the room (that’s in Martial).
These are good, even remarkable things.
But then you have to remember the cruelty and the militarism and the fact that all the good things above were for cives. A clue that the Romans knew the system was rigged is in the legal fiction (described by all the Roman jurists, and elaborated on by Gaius) that, for the purposes of commercial litigation, non-citizens were to be treated as citizens. If nothing else, the business of the Empire was, ahem, business.
About the only thing I could imagine a Roman editor objecting to in The Hunger Games is the use of children. This is not because the Romans were particularly sentimental about children: they weren’t; infanticide was perfectly acceptable if the family were poor or the child disabled, although abortion was preferred because it saved the woman going through labour. Rather, it is because gladiators were highly skilled and took years to train well. A Roman editor would want his Hunger Games contested by adults, on the grounds that adults would be better at them.
As for the rest of it, however, a Roman editor would approve. And all of them — Stoics apart — would love the reality television bits, I’m afraid…