Panem et Circenses

There is a theory that “Rome fell” because of its policy of “bread and circuses” – that is, in the Roman republic, the average citizen was a stout, independent yeoman farmer who participated in government through the plebeian assembly and served in the army out of duty. But as the republic became the empire such people were transformed into the proletariat – they sold out to the latifundia, and moved to Rome, where they lived in slums, and cared for nothing beyond their daily bread ration and for watching gladiatorial combat and supporting their favorite charioteers. Thus does the expression “bread and circuses” indicate the Roman policy of buying off the lower orders with cheap carbs and free entertainment. No longer were they politically engaged – they simply let Rome fall while they amused themselves to death.

Does this remind you of anyone? Are we not content as long as we have our junk food and ESPN on massive television screens? I’d call it Plato’s Cave if that weren’t another classical metaphor.

But I don’t think that this “portentous” reason for the Fall of Rome is necessarily useful. For in an age of social media, many people treat politics way more seriously than it deserves to be. I know people who cheer for their political party in the same the way that some people cheer for the Georgia Bulldogs, or that some ancient Romans cheered for the drivers of the Blue team. You could say that they’re politically engaged, for sure, but not in a useful way. Politics ought to be a small part of life, but when it becomes all-consuming, that too is symbolic of a certain decline.

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