The history of the Roman games (ludi) makes a fascinating study. We're all too ready to draw comparisons with imperial Rome, which still haunts us after all these years, perhaps with good reason (the haunting I mean, not the comparing). But they're fascinating in themselves, and don't serve merely as an expositive device on which to pontificate regarding the ills of our time.
It is the growth of the games that is astounding. Not merely the growth in their scope and their expansion to all provinces, but in their number. Initially a part of religious festivals, they became the means by which the people of the empire were placated, or at least kept relatively calm and complacent, even compliant. There came a point when most of the year was made up of days devoted to the holding of games of one kind or another, for one reason or another, and this does not even account for the special games put on by the emperors in connection with triumphs or in honor of various favorites and family members.
The games became more and more frequent, and also more and more expensive. Those arranging the games, senators, nobles, even emperors, regularly went into debt in doing so. But it would have been unheard of for anyone to decline what became a duty as well as necessary if one was to obtain a high place or a desired end. The games were an essential facet of politics and government.
Juvenal came up with the phrase that is the basis for the title of this post: panem et circenses. He was complaining (that's all he did, really) that in his time all the people of Rome cared for was bread and circuses, unlike their ancestors who were full of civic duty. That was all the people expected from the state, according to Juvenal, and he may well have been right.
It's fair to be skeptical of the claims made by Juvenal and others (e.g. Tacitus and Suetonius) regarding the depravity of the Roman people and nobles, and of their emperors. We're not certain when Juvenal was born or died, but it seems he lived during the time of the Flavian emperors, and perhaps even into the reign of Trajan. It may not be the case that great hordes of gladiators, animals and criminals were killed on a daily basis in the arenas, or that the emperors took a personal delight in the wholesale slaughter they sponsored. One can easily believe most anything said about Caligula, but this becomes problematic with the "good" emperors like Augustus, Vespasian, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian. Marcus Aurelius is said to have deplored them, but he attended them nonetheless; he was expected to do so. He is known to have annoyed the crowd by attending to the business of the state while at the games. Surprisingly, it seems Domitian tried to curb the excesses of the games.
Nonetheless, the games can be said to have been characteristic of Rome, and their ubiquity and frequency establish their importance to Roman society and culture. It's likely that all but a few enjoyed the games. As the emperors were judged in part by their willingness to openly appear at the games and openly enjoy them, it may be that the games served in a peculiar way as a kind of bond between the emperor and the people.
Now, shall I do what I tend to deplore myself, and refer dolefully to the bread and circuses of our time? It may surprise some to learn that I think we have nothing like them now. It may be that we're simply not there yet. Our politics are certainly money-based, and it is becoming more and more expensive to run for and obtain office. Naturally, our politicians inevitably become more and more reliant on and beholden to those who have the money to give them.
However, our politicians don't seem inclined to spend much money on the people, at least for the purpose of feeding them or amusing them, and are in this sense different from the politicians of ancient Rome. They are, though, quite willing to spend money to persuade them, even to fool them, as the politicians of Rome certainly did--but the politicians of today need not do so by feeding them or amusing them. That is no longer necessary. For now, in any case.
The avidity of the masters of ancient Rome to spend great sums in feeding the people and holding games for their entertainment indicates not merely that they were manipulative. It also indicates that they respected and feared the people. They were the mob, and it was always possible that they would become angry and violent. The games were in a sense an expression of the power of the people. The people were a force to be reckoned with, even in an autocracy. The emperor controlled the legions, true, but only those who ranked above centurions could be considered the aristocracy of the empire; the rest were its subjects, like those attending the games. They could be relied on only to a certain extent. The legions came to name their own emperors and revolt when they saw fit; they were to be feared as well, and shrewd emperors took pains to keep them happy as well as the people.
It is an interesting thought that the politicians of our time may not fear us as the politicians and rulers of ancient Rome feared their people. I refer to the politicians and rulers of the United States. We haven't demonstrated the capacity for fury and violence the people of the Roman Empire were known to display every now and then; perhaps because we're not as bad off as they were. No doubt this is a good thing, but it may be that the trade off for this is a certain disregard in those who govern us, and those who govern them through money. They need not concern themselves overmuch with seeing to it we are fed and distracted, or do so only sporadically, at election time. Of course, we don't look to our government to entertain us as the Romans did, though there is much amusement to be found in the antics of our politicians. We have other things to distract us.
As noted, we constantly compare ourselves to ancient Rome. As far as I am aware, however, we have not done so to note the care taken by the great of that time to keep the people happy, amused and content. There may be a lesson to be learned in this for the high and mighty, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.