And what does the mob of Remus say? It follows fortune, as it always does, and rails against the condemned. That same rabble, if Nortia had smiled upon the Etruscan, if the aged Emperor had been struck down unawares, would in that very hour have conferred upon Sejanus the title of Augustus. Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things—Bread and Circuses!
The phrase was picked up by US Admiral Ben Moreell in an article he wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education in 1956, Of Bread and Circuses, in which he quotes Juvenal and also, from some 40 years later, the Roman Historian Fronto: “The Roman people is absorbed by two things above all others, its food supplies and its shows.” (Fronto, interestingly, was one of the tutors to young Marcus Aurelius.)
Moreell then goes on to write:
The evil was not in bread and circuses, per se, but in the willingness of the people to sell their rights as free men for full bellies and the excitement of the games which would serve to distract them from the other human hungers which bread and circuses can never appease. The moral decay of the people was not caused by the doles and the games. These merely provided a measure of their degradation. Things that were originally good had become perverted and, as Shakespeare reminds us, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
That first sentence is often misattributed to Cicero.
In 1987, in his final novel To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Robert Heinlein expands the idea further:
What is supposed to happen in a democracy is that each sovereign citizen will always vote in the public interest for the safety and welfare of all. But what does happen is that he votes his own self-interest as he sees it… which for the majority translates as ‘Bread and Circuses.’
‘Bread and Circuses’ is the cancer of democracy, the fatal disease for which there is no cure. Democracy often works beautifully at first. But once a state extends the franchise to every warm body, be he producer or parasite, that day marks the beginning of the end of the state. For when the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses without limit and that the productive members of the body politic cannot stop them, they will do so, until the state bleeds to death, or in its weakened condition the state succumbs to an invader—the barbarians enter Rome.”
So, now I know.
Along the way, I was reminded that Bread and Circuses was also the title of a Star Trek episode (Series 2, episode 25, from 1968).