It was only after publishing yesterday’s ON THE AVENUES column …
… that the term “bread and circuses” occurred to me.
“Bread and circuses” (or bread and games; from Latin: panem et circenses) is metonymic for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace, as an offered “palliative.” Its originator, Juvenal, used the phrase to decry the selfishness of common people and their neglect of wider concerns. The phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the commoner.
There is a degree of symmetry between “bread and circuses” and another phrase, “let them eat cake.”
While it is commonly attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette, there is no record of this phrase ever having been said by her. It appears in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, his autobiography (whose first six books were written in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was nine years of age, and published in 1782). The context of Rousseau’s account was his desire to have some bread to accompany some wine he had stolen; however, in feeling he was too elegantly dressed to go into an ordinary bakery, he thus recollected the words of a “great princess”. As he wrote in Book 6:
Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit : Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.
Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: “Let them eat brioche.”
See what I did there with the French phrase?
At any rate, in France (and most of Europe) bread was daily subsistence for the peasants, and brioche (cake) a richer and more expensive treat, so to suggest that the peasants might eat cake in the absence of bread was to be oblivious to socio-economic reality — as when pricing season passes for a water park intended for all, as opposed to some.
As rhetorical swords go, “bread and circuses” is double -edged. We might express disdain for the ruler who distracts the people with restaurants and free performances, but what of the people permitting themselves to be distracted?