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What Are Our Bread and Circuses?

2012 April 2

Good stories are more than just stories – they can open our eyes and force us to ask the hard questions about our world. This week I will be posting a series of the hard questions that The Hunger Games series forced me to ask and I invite you to respond.

One of the dominant themes in The Hunger Games books is that of bread and circuses. Here’s an excerpt from my book The Hunger Games and the Gospel where I explain what it is all about –

In ancient Rome – “Politicians would distribute bread or host games to win the favor of the population. It was in frustration at this shallowness among his fellow Romans that the 1st century CE satirist Juvenal coined the terms “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses) to mock those who were too distracted to care about justice or the needs of the oppressed.

The handful of Hunger Games readers who happened to take Latin in high school would have been clued in that the series was directly referencing the bread and circuses of ancient Rome. Early on, we read that the country itself is named Panem (bread) and has a tesserae system that provided the districts both food and a higher chance at a ticket to the games (but as participants, not as spectators). But it isn’t until the final book that Plutarch, the ex-Head Gamemaker turned rebel, explains to Katniss that “in the Capitol, all they’ve ever known is Panem et Circenses,” and, like the Romans, they “in return for full bellies and entertainment … [gave] up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.”

The people in the Capitol can gorge themselves on gourmet foods, have the latest electronics, and obsess over a game show where children fight to the death. The people of Panem must (under threat of death) send the fruit of their labor as well as their children to provide for the insatiable consumerism of the Capitol. Their suffering, starvation, and brokenness supplies the bread and circuses that keep the citizens of the Capitol diverted enough to not be bothered enough to care about the hidden costs of their lifestyle.

The comparisons to our modern world couldn’t be more obvious. In the United States, our consumptive lifestyle similarly comes at the expense of suffering people around the world…

So what do you think?

  • Are we in the United States distracted by bread and circuses like the Capitol?
  • What are our bread and circuses?
  • Do we care more for our entertainments than the suffering of others?
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2 Responses leave one →
  1. April 4, 2012

    Went to see the movie with my 13 year old. He has read all the books and is very enthusiastic about it (he is also taking Latin in Middle School). I am surprised at some of the depth of what is covered in the books, and will probably have it as summer reading.

    To your questions: I think we are coming close to the “panem” idea. I think many of us (me included) would welcome some diversion from the daily grind. The panem idea though goes deeper, and I do not think we are quite there yet. To truly have it we would have to be more in a 1984-type society.

    But in a sense all societies, and even more so if there is a huge inequality of distribution of resources, there is a trade off between the hard work of social/political engagement, and having your most basic needs met. Food being the most obvious in this case.

    If you provide me with some of those needs and entertain me, it is quite likely that I will be more compliant, less willing to rock the boat as it were. But I do not think we care less for the suffering of others, but rather that our own sufferings seem so much bigger than those of strangers.

  2. Russ permalink
    July 7, 2012

    Hi Julie

    I it’s hard to comprehend that from my office window I can see Syria. But despite the nearby slaughter, and ever-present threat of war, my concerns lie with the State of Israel and the growing authoritarianism over its people. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4249821,00.html

    I agree with the protesters, and even if I didn’t support their right to assemble, and to freedom of speech. This is slipping away here. The leaders of the movements had their homes searched and were questioned weeks ago. No warrants were issued. Last year the press supported these protesters; this year they call them marxists and draft dodgers. As if serving in the army would guarantee you a job and an apartment in Tel Aviv…

    A journalist on twitter recently went to a top EU/Asian business leaders conference. The only topic on the agenda: how to get the masses to swallow the concept of extreme austerity.

    According to him, “anti-terrorism budgets being refocused on internal/domestic threats.” As far as he is concerned “It’s everywhere.” And indeed it is. I hold dual-citizenship – Israeli and South African (the latter is illegal according to SA law) and both states are cracking down on their citizenry and controlling the media.

    What they don’t realise is that the global population is tired of this. Normal people don’t hate each other, it’s the leaders that cause these problems because they want to slave trade their citizens to the whims of the likes of the older countries… It makes me ill, but this isn’t going away, the more they try to control, the worse it’s going to get…

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