Bread and circuses

Published 10:05 am Saturday, September 20, 2014

by Andrew Book

“Bread and circuses” may strike you as a funny title for a newspaper column, but it is unfortunately appropriate in our society today. In fact, it may be just as appropriate today as it was nearly 2,000 years ago when the term was first used. The term “bread and circuses” was first used by someone who might have been the first century’s version of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert to describe the priorities in the Roman Empire.

The man who coined the term was a political satirist by the name of Juvenal. Juvenal used the phrase in a piece of satire he wrote in about the year 100 A.D. to express his disgust at the Roman people and leaders who had traded in their responsibilities and values for “bread and circuses” — cheap food and entertainment.

Juvenal watched the people around him set aside the causes and morals that were important to them as long as they were provided with entertainment to distract them and food to fill their stomachs, hence the phrase, “bread and circuses.” Some historians even argue that the Roman obsession with bread and circuses played a major role in the downfall of the Roman Empire.

Fast forward to today. Our current “circus” goes by the initials NFL, as in “National Football League.” The NFL is easily the most popular league in this country, and while there is nothing wrong with cheering for your team and enjoying the sport (I’m an Atlanta Falcons fan), we have to be careful to make sure that entertainment does not become an obsession that overshadows what truly matters.

Our love of our “circus” and our values have recently come into conflict in some very real, very public ways. Star NFL players have recently been in the news for alleged (do we need to use that word when the event in question is on video?) domestic violence.

In the case of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, the league and its fans (that’s us) knew that Rice had pulled his unconscious fiancée from an elevator after a violent encounter between the two of them many months ago, but knowing what had happened only led to a two-game suspension for Rice. It wasn’t until the video of Rice’s violent punches was released that the public outcry grew so loud that the Ravens and the NFL realized they needed to dismiss Ray Rice.

At the end of the day, the NFL is a business. They make decisions as a business based on what is going to make them the most money. If keeping a perpetrator of domestic violence on the roster is good for business, then they will likely do it.

On the other hand, you and I are not businesses. We are people who need to recognize that there are things in life more important than the NFL. It is up to us to ensure that our society does not turn into the Roman world of “bread and circuses” where nothing else matters.

In the end, I was pleased that the American public would not stand to have a man who punches women providing us with entertainment. I wish we had spoken louder and sooner, but I was glad to see that producing a good product on the football field is not the only thing that matters to us. It turns out that we are not a society where only bread and circuses matter, but we need to be sure that our values always take precedence over our entertainment.

We need to be sure that businesses like the NFL know that, as much as we enjoy a good football game, we care more about people, about creating a society safe for women and children, and about giving our kids role models that we really want them to mimic.

This story is far from over. We will be faced with the choice between values and circuses again and again. In fact, it did happen again just a few days after Ray Rice was dismissed. This time, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was charged with felony child abuse. How are we going to respond? What about when it is our favorite player? What if it is someone who is essential to making our team competitive?

I hope you will join me in committing to put your values above your circuses, because it is only then that we can truly claim to be people who truly have values that go beyond bread and circuses!

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or