Monday, 9 November 2009

Bread and circuses

The Emperor was not a happy man. His armies had endured months of intractable conflict, from Palestine to Gaul. The Senate members were not agreeing to his demands. And he knew the citizens would not take too kindly to the higher taxation he was planning to impose next spring, following the collapse of the spice trade.

It used to be so simple, he thought. When all those years of debate and politicking had led to his accession to the throne of Rome. First amongst equals. Wherever he went, the people had shown him respect. He was, in every sense of the word, a God.

But now he could sense unrest. Unrest was...inconvenient.

"Minstrel, play me a tune," he ordered as he settled back in his chair. The soothing notes of the Venetian folk muse drifted across the room, but did little to calm the Imperial brow.


The next day the Emperor called together his closest counsellors. "The people need distracting," he said. "They need something to stop them from thinking."

"But my lord," stuttered one minister, "freedom of mind characterises the Roman citizen. For are we not the cradle of philosophy and democracy?"

"Thought is over-rated. Look at what happened to the Greeks. I would rather a city of sheep."

"What would you have us do, Emperor?"

"Organise a competition. Have it held weekly. Make it so alluring that all citizens desire to see it."

"The gladiatorial combat? But my lord, all the fighters have been conscripted to the German campaign."

"No. Music and song. Every week the citizens can watch the competing muses. They want democracy? Allow them to vote on who to save. They want debate? We arrange it so there are unexpected developments. They want to protest? Let them march in the streets in support of their favoured minstrel!"

"Sir, do you think this will work?"

"People are simple. We give them full bellies, we entertain them, we distract them. They will become as children. Yet they will love us for it."

And this is how the Roman spectacle of Bread and Circuses came about. Of course, in these enlightened times, 2000-odd years later, we're far more savvy than your average Roman, aren't we?


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