Author article by Neil Faulkner: Bread and Circuses (but without the bread)

Neil Faulkner is the author of A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics, to be published soon by Yale University Press. Over the next six months, in this regular blog, he will be commenting on the London 2012 Olympics in the light of the wisdom (or lack of it) of the ancients.

Article by Neil Faulkner

I was waiting for the first person to say about the London 2012 Olympics, ‘let’s keep the politics out of sport’. As if sport was ever ‘non-political’. The idea, incidentally, that anything was ‘non-political’ – let alone something as important as sport – would have been bewildering to the ancient Greeks.

Anyway, no need to worry now. The Prime Minister has injected austerity politics into the London Olympics from the get-go. In his New Year message he discussed the economic crisis. ‘There are fears about jobs and paying the bills,’ he said. ‘The search for work has become difficult, particularly for young people. And rising prices have hit household budgets.’ But these, it seems, are secondary matters. His message began with the triumphant announcement that this is the year of ‘the global drama of the Olympics and the glory of the Diamond Jubilee’.

This is what the ancients called ‘bread and circuses’. The phrase was coined by a satirical Roman poet called Juvenal (c. AD 55-140). The context is interesting. Juvenal was comparing lost democratic freedoms with the military dictatorship of his own time.

Long ago, we sold our vote to no-one, but nowadays, people couldn’t care less. Time was when we elected rulers, politicians, generals, everyone. Not any more. Now the only thing people worry about is bread and circuses.

That was, indeed, how it once worked. Ancient Rome was never a democracy, but there had been voting, open debate, and civil liberties. The emperors put a stop to all that, but to placate the mob, they nationalised the bread supply and controlled the price, and they built the Colosseum (for gladiatorial games) and the Circus Maximus (for chariot racing) and paid for free shows.

The Prime Minister’s message, then, was pure Caligula. Except for one thing: he forgot the bread. In 2012, it seems, we’re to get only the circuses. Why is that? Because the banks have crashed, the economy is in slump, and this is the age of austerity cuts (packaging the bad news is not helped by the fact that the people who caused the crisis are still raking it in). Never mind: we’ve got the London Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee to look forward to.

We need to take a lesson from the ancient Athenians (not the Romans). The Athenians, like the Romans, went to the games. But the Greek games were not the degraded blood spectacles of the Colosseum; they were genuine athletic contests involving citizen-sportsmen.

And that difference was not unrelated to the fact that, whereas the Roman crowd was a politically manipulated mob living in the shadow of state security, the Athenian crowd was a citizen-body that exercised full democratic control over the state through mass participation in popular assemblies, jury courts, and a people’s militia.

Now that’s an interesting model.

A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics

Dr Neil Faulkner is research fellow at the University of Bristol, fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and codirector of several field projects. A freelance archaeologist and historian, his previous books include Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome and Rome: Empire of the Eagles. He lives in Hertfordshire, UK.

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics is published in April 2012.

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  • January 9, 2012


    Well, I will not take the ancient Greek society as a model of democracy. I remember someone referred to it as “freedom for slave owners”.

    Anyway good post.

    • January 11, 2012

      neil faulkner

      Neil replies:

      Classe is right: ancient Greek society was not a model of democracy. It excluded slaves, women, and foreigners. But it is not true that it was ‘freedom for slave-owners’. The slave-owners hated democracy and supported oligarchy. The supporters of democracy were ordinary farmers who were too poor to own slaves themselves. And their democracy was participatory: key decisions were taken by a popular assembly made up of ordinary folk. So there are certainly elements of ancient Greek democracy which were much MORE democratic than modern parliamentary democracy – which has been hollowed out by 25 years of neoliberalism and identikit pro-market politicians.

  • I’m involved with Occupy London, and am part of a working group planning a walk around the London boroughs over 2 months this summer, encouraging local communities to hold Peoples Assemblies.
    We’re conscious of both the Olympics and Jubilee (and even more so of the various bye-laws that are being swiftly enacted to prevent ‘camping’ and ‘gathering’ and so on. All, of course, to do with the ‘health and safety’ of our ‘guests’.) So this blog is a timely reminder of ‘bread and circuses’ a phrase which had slipped my mind in the fast moving reality of current life at St. Paul’s.
    Thank you.

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