Panem et circenses

By skepticlawyer

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…


  1. Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    I’d add just one thing – that gladiatorial combats were also religious in nature, or at least, started off that way.

    They were a form of human sacrifice, usually as part of funerary rites, performed on the Field of Mars, in honour of that god.

    Later they became as professional, as spectacular, and as carefully choreographed, as “professional wrestling” today.

    Rome was historically heterogeneous, with as much change in societal mores over its heyday as happened with the British Empire over its. More so, in fact, the period was longer (over 300 years) and the governmental system had at least one fundamental change.

    The Rome of Gaius Marius was at least as different from the Rome of Marcus Aurelius as the UK of Oliver Cromwell is as different from that of Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor.

  2. Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for deepening my understanding. Being a student of science rather than history, I didn’t catch the allusions to Rome in the Hunger Games story.

    Now you’ve sparked my curiosity. Not long ago I listened to a series of lectures by Thomas Madden called “The Tiber and the Potomac”, based on his book “Empires of Trust”. He compares the United States with the Roman Republic in their use of alliances to build an empire. He painted a more positive picture of Rome than I’d been accustomed to. Have you encountered either the lectures or the book? Any thoughts?

  3. Posted April 1, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    This was a fascinating post, SL, that really added to my understanding of Rome.

  4. Posted April 1, 2012 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    The Etruscan aspects of the gladiatorial shows were undoubtedly religious in origin. The Romans even retained the Etruscan death-demon, Charun, as an attendant in the arena: an actor dressed in his costume, complete with a bird mask akin to that of a plague-doctor (it is striking how images of psychopompoi recur across cultures) and bearing a mallet. He used it to put fallen gladiators out of their misery in some shows, or used hooks to drag dead bodies away in others.

    The Capuans also had a gladiatorial tradition, though, and theirs wasn’t religious at all – it was entertainment. The earliest stone amphitheatres were in Capua, for example, and Spartacus led his slave revolt after breaking out of a gladiators’ school in Capua. The Romans, it seems, blended the two traditions.

    I should also point out that when I write about Roman law (unless otherwise indicated), I’m referring to the ‘Classical period’, (roughly 150 BC to AD 200). This is partly because we know most about this era (early sources are scanty – we don’t even have all of the 12 Tables) while the jurists disappear as a class after about AD 250. It is indeed remarkable to watch as Roman society changes during this period, although it is fair to say that the cruelty, organisational talent, militarism and commerciality remain constants.

    The later Christians (Justinian’s great codifier Tribonian apart — and he had to deal with constant accusations of paganism) often had no understanding of the legal system they had inherited, and in any case spent most of their time passing stupid laws that picked on women and Jews, prohibited Jews and Christians from marrying each other, and divesting pagans of their property. It was not Christianity’s finest hour, shall we say.

    I haven’t read the Madden book, so can’t comment on it.

  5. Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Lead-based makeup is also incredibly effective. A few years ago, a friend of mine came back from holidays in India with a set of makeup that would sink Revlon or Elizabeth Arden forever — people were asking her where she got it left and right.

    I remember looking at it and being a bit suspicious that everything resembled pencils… and then the classics background came to the fore and I realised she’d bought kohl, which if made properly is lead-based.

    I told her this, showed her some Roman portraits (with their incredibly dramatic makeup, especially around the eyes) and pointed out the lead issues…

    …And basically got the ‘what do you know about lead?’ response we all know and love from The Castle. She kept using it, because it looked great.

  6. Posted April 1, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I noticed the Roman names while watching the film but didn’t connect all the dots.

  7. Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    [email protected]: Constantine built the Hippodrome for chariot races, but no venue for gladiatorial games, which were never imported to Nuova Roma.

    Pressure from Christianity eventually saw the gladiatorial games off: their pagan origins probably did not help, but one of the signs of the difference in sensibility that conversion to Christianity created was aversion to the gladiatorial games, which had previously been much celebrated as basic to Roman culture.

    After all, voting on whether someone should die was a pretty powerful substitute for voting for office losing significance (and not voting for Emperor).

  8. Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink


    One has to hold various contradictory things in one’s head simultaneously, which is difficult at the best of times.

    But human nature has contradictory elements in it, and different cultures deal with those contradictions in different ways.

    One of the pitfalls of evolutionary psychology and related disciplines is taking somewhat culturally specific assumptions as being human universals. The Romans are a good antidote example to much of that. But so are the Aztecs, the Chinese …

  9. Posted April 1, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    The Roman contradictions are so very glaring, though: much of the best of their culture passed into modernity via the Scottish Enlightenment. People on the Continent are also very much their legal heirs (albeit for somewhat different reasons).

    And then there are the other, more picturesque aspects… Which constitute some of the most potent nightmare fuel ever conceived of by a great civilisation. Not quite ripping hearts out on the steps of temples in Tenochtitlan, but close.

  10. Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: The Romans were the supreme engineer-civilisation. It also said something about their civilisation that Rome’s two biggest buildings were for the entertainment of the citizens. Extraordinary for their time, unremarkable in modernity.

    But their make-it-work practicality was ethically unconstrained. We find that deeply confronting, but I query how contradictory it was.

  11. Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    What an interesting, informative and superbly written article. Thanks for that and your equally interesting follow up comments.

  12. Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    You’re welcome, Rigby – it is always interesting when popular culture engages intelligently with history and law (would be nice if it happened more often, actually, but mustn’t grumble…)

  13. Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this post. Bizarrely, only today the teens and I were discussing the books and film yet again and were pondering the origin of the name “Panem” (we were on a train so couldn’t run to the internet).

  14. Posted April 28, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks, librarygirl. Also: interesting discussion of the books over at the Hoydens (alert: spoilers – the post author and most of the commenters have read all three books).

    My take on the film:

    This marked something of an event for me: it is the first time in my life I have watched a film before reading the book on which it was based. I’ll read the book after my conversion exams and see what the effect will be. My impressions:

    1. Very clever use of ancient Rome, especially Juvenal’s 10th satire, from which not only the country’s name, but several of the set-pieces (including Romans banqueting while people kill each other for their entertainment) were nicked. Collins’ story is very Roman, but those who compare it with Battle Royale are not completely off-beam – the setting for that was an alt-hist Japan victorious in WWII, and the similarities between pagan Rome and Japan + State Shinto pre-1945 are striking in the extreme.

    2. Very clever use of a lot of other literary references, from Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to George Orwell’s telescreens-that-must-never-be-turned-off-and-present-in-every-household to the myth of the Minotaur.

    3. The Eagle Fetish, as Lorenzo calls it. Intelligently used.

    4. Too long. About 30 mins of stomping through scrub and not terribly useful establishment could have been cut. Film is visual; films should be shorter than novels because you have pictures. Many directors do not seem to have got the memo on this.

    5. As for the Nazis, now for the Romans. We are going to have to stop sanitizing these societies in order to get a child-friendly censorship rating. And some of the cuts the BBFC made to what violence there was produced continuity errors. Apparently the MPAA left more of the violence in; I’ll have to wait and see.

    6. Beautiful sets and costumes, ancient Rome goes steampunk + art deco.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Legal Eagle has already reviewed the books, while I provided some context for the obvious Roman elements in the film based on the first one. Legal Eagle’s piece uses a […]

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    […] it here. In non-muppet news, Legal Eagle and I review and discuss the Hunger Games phenomenon, via Juvenal, bent Romans, and Steven […]

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