‘Bread and circuses’ in Australian politics

Over the past week or so I have become increasingly interested in the state of our polity — Australians as political citizens. Some of it came by way of my analysis of Twitterdom the other day, some of it through a recent announcement that the ACT Government was planning to build a giant, covered stadium in the heart of the city (there is already a perfectly good stadium within 5 km of the city centre), and some of it came from a chance remark about ‘bread and circuses’ made by a friend.

The phrase in question refers to ancient Rome, and was coined by the poet and satirist Juvenal, who used it to decry the attitudes of the Romans of his time, who he thought were not observing their civic duties, but just enjoying the free bread and the free entertainment offered by the rulers. This is what he said (not my own translation!): ‘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 [panem et circenses]’.

I used to think that it was the Emperors who began this, but no — it started in the days of the Republic. Juvenal was writing between about 80AD and 125 AD, during the period of the particularly nasty Emperor Domitian, and is harking back to the time when the first elected officials began to offer free (or subsidised) bread, which was a century or two earlier. What seems to have happened is that as Rome grew wealthier, more powerful and more populous, the surrounding countryside became given over to large estates and some market gardens.

Grain-growing for wheat moved  further and further away, until Rome had an substantial merchant marine bringing wheat from Sicily, and then from Libya and Egypt. Feeding the city’s population was a major governmental activity, and free or subsidised wheat was first offered to the poorer population in the second century BC. It then became a cultural habit, and in imperial times emperors might add oil or salt pork to the food dole.

Circuses came to be a habit in much the same way. Religious festivals included horse-racing and other kinds of games, and were free to anyone who wanted to come. But the building of the arenas was a major state task, and the construction and rebuilding of the largest one in Rome, the Circus Maximus, occupied the rulers of the city for several hundred years — it was in use for a millennium, and in its largest form could hold 150,000 people. The Romans were besotted with horse-racing,  and bet on the racing teams, whose colours were their symbols.

Back to Juvenal. His plaint was that Rome’s citizens had forgotten their civic duties, and were interested only in the food dole and the games. What were their civic duties? Essentially, to vote, and to take an interest in civic affairs. The males were expected to be fit enough to serve in the army if needed. As he saw it, bread and circuses undermined what he saw as true citizenship: if the common man were fed and entertained, he would not trouble the rulers, and Juvenal thought that there was a lot he should be troubled about.

How much difference is there today, I find myself asking. There is an abundance of food, and obesity is a public health issue. Our various rulers are commonly talking about even bigger circuses in which  to hold the games, and there are certainly a lot of people for whom the performance of their teams is followed with religious fervour. And what about our civic duty, which is not very different to that of the Roman citizen two thousand years ago? Judging by Twitter and what passes for comment there and on Facebook, there is not a lot of civic duty going on in Australia.

Forty years ago I was deeply interested in these questions, and my major piece of work then, which came out as Stability and Change in Australian Politics, looked at how we Australians involved ourselves in the government of our own country. I came to the conclusion that ‘the foundation of Australian democracy is habit, not understanding…’, and I would say the same today, with even more conviction.

I was able to group Australians into one of three roughly equal groups according to their interest in politics, their preparedness to follow it and their keenness to talk about it with friends and family. I called the groups the Active, the Audience and the Apathetic. When things become difficult — unemployment, inflation, international worries — the proportion in the Active group grew, as you’d expect.

I’m not aware of any recent analysis of political interest of the kind I did in the 1960s and 1970s — or, better still, an improved version of it. But I am pretty sure that these groups are there today. The Active, at least on the face of it, are doing their civic duty. The Audience is always there. The Apathetic worry me. I’ll write more about this three-part division in a post next week.



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