Super Bowl, American Idols & BigMac: “Panen Et Circenses” Of Today

In the days of the Roman Empire, “Panen Et Circenses” (literally ” bread & circuses”) was the formula for the “well being” of the population or more exactly a political strategy implemented by Rome’s rulers to keep the populace quiet if not fully satisfied.

The “Panen Et Circenses” formula offered a variety of pleasures and entertainment such as the distribution of free food, public baths, gladiator fights, chariot races and theater representations. It was an effective political instrument in the hands of the Emperors to keep the population reasonably peaceful, and at the same time it gave the people a controlled arena to express themselves without challenging the social orders.

Originally the Forum area was the venue for Gladiators combat. Such gatherings began at the rise of 122 BC, at first reserved stands were built around the Piazza ( the town central public square) of the Roman Forum to accommodate Rome’s ruling class at the exclusion of the poor classes. Eventually these exclusive stands were destroyed which in return won the favor of the common citizens.

The provinces of the Empire also had their games which took place in the amphitheaters built by the Romans. France, Spain, Britain and all of Italy had such arenas, but on a much smaller scale than Rome’s extravagant one. The majority of Gladiators were prisoners of war and slaves. They were obligated to fight in order to survive. This recruitment strategy had a strong political significance: Using the defeated enemy to entertain the public was a “triumph in victory”, and a celebration of the “glory of Rome”.

On Sunday, Americans who can afford it will be in Florida to watch our modern day Gladiators display their great athletic abilities. A majority of Americans will still be able to enjoy the Super Bowl circus in the comfort of their own home, providing they still have one. An estimated 100 million will be the watching America’s biggest sporting event of the year. Most will side for a team, wear the jersey of their favorite players and feast on the obligatory pizza.

The comparison between football players and gladiators is quiet obvious even so some important differences are at play. Gladiators were coerced into fighting, and by doing so brought  a sadistic pleasure to Romans, our top athletes are not. They are not only handsomely rewarded for giving us the spectacle they provide, but  they also receive the benefit of a high social status.

Professional sports, and for that matter shows such as American Idols and “reality” TV shows, have the social function to provide an opportunity for people, usually coming from a modest background, to rise above their conditions, achieve success, and climb very quickly America’s social status latter. Further, it has the critical function to sale the American dream of success. The subliminal message is simple  in both instances of American Idols and the Super Bowl: Anything is within reach in America as long as you have the talent and work hard to maintain it. It also has an even more important role in America’s politics and culture which is to keep people distracted, at least for a moment, from reality and things which truly matter.

If America is arguably the new Rome, then football players are today’s gladiators giving us a substitute form of pleasure. “Panen Et Circenses” is an old political formula to keep people distracted from reality, it worked for the Roman empire, at least  for a while, and it is still at play more than 2,000 years later. The more human nature changes, the more it stays the same. However, I do have to admit that I have a “dog in this fight”. New Orleans is still struggling and a victory of The Saints would certainly give a much needed moral boost to our beloved  Crescent City. So go Saints, and to plagiarized Roman emperors: “Let the game begin”!

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3 Responses to Super Bowl, American Idols & BigMac: “Panen Et Circenses” Of Today

  1. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Stephen Dufrechou
    February 6, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Sports and sports entertainment in America doubly functions as training in irrational jingoism. You own it for writing this one, Gilbert. Dead-on analogy, here, with the Roman idea of “bread and circus”.

    • +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Stephen Dufrechou
      February 6, 2010 at 12:54 pm

      Also, one has to wonder, if sports were not banned–but banned from television–how Americans would use that freed-up time? Indeed, there was a time when there was not television spectacles to watch…. Of course, if Edward Murrow had been listened to, TV would serve the function of educational enlightenment, not of propaganda and social diversion.

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