So England are finally out of the World Cup and some of us will perhaps all breathe a sigh of relief and return to normality. But this time we may have been less enthusiastic about the tournament than at previous instalments anyway. Expectations of the England team had been low from the start, even at the very top. Furthermore, this World Cup has been marred by vocal opposition in the host country, Brazil, highlighting the widening gap between poor and rich, acerbated through the massive costs of the event and government corruption.

Some commentators argue that to turn a blind eye to these concerns and just enjoy the football means a system dubbed ‘bread and circuses’ works. The phrase, coined by the Roman poet Juvenal almost two thousand years ago, 1 is a popular way to describe a modern form of social order where those at the top keep their power, wealth and peace through a distraction of the masses by trivial or even divisive spectacles. To be fair, Juvenal’s aim was to chastise, in a tongue-in-cheek way, his fellow elite men for having let power slip from an oligarchy to a monarchy a few decades earlier, rather than commiserate with the masses, or argue for a fairer distribution of wealth and power.

Nonetheless, the use of his classic ‘bread and circuses’  phrase is part of a larger tendency in both academic and non-academic circles to draw analogies between modern and Roman games. But while there are of course many parallels one might want to point at, such as the ability of both forms of entertainment to fill large venues, generate mass-produced merchandise and a unique thrill, and, perhaps, a celebrity culture, there are also significant differences.

For one, contestants in the Roman games could and would die, in gladiatorial combat, animal hunts or even chariot races. Arguably, in contrast to today, this created more distance between spectators and athletes, who were in any case not even ‘working-class heroes’, but usually outcasts from society, prisoners of war, slaves or criminals.

Conversely, the distance between spectators and those who financed the games was, much, much closer than it is in the current context, at least physically. Roman games were theatres of social interaction where political leaders, who funded the games, regularly and ritually exposed themselves to scrutiny by the people. Demands on their patronage, or even opposition to their decisions were frequently voiced, to the dismay of some, like the emperor Caligula in the first century AD, who famously wished his unruly fellow citizens beleaguering him during a chariot race had ‘just one neck’ he could wring. 2 But ignoring these demands came at your peril, as the emperor Justinian learned in the sixth century, when his resolve not to listen to an unhappy crowd in the circus led to a week-long bloody uprising, the so-called Nika  riot. 3

It was not so much the giving of games that kept people happy, then, but the willingness of their leaders to have their actions checked, and changed, during the games, which ultimately was seen as justifying their wealth. For those in power, in turn, funding games, showing that wealth was well spent on a civic, collective project, meant assuring their status, not just social peace. The culture of games-giving was the product of a tacit social contract, and certainly not meant to be for economic profit; on the contrary, entry was free, at least for Roman citizens.

Modern football fans have less opportunity to see those financing the ‘beautiful game’, even where club owners choose to turn up, due to increasing prices for their tickets or consumption of football matches via mass-media. One could say, of course, that in modern-day football, which doesn’t have the same overlap of political power and wealth as the Roman empire, this lack of opportunity does not matter. But is this true for events such as the World Cup, where host nations are heavily involved in the organisation and financing? At Brazil 2014, many local people in a country crazy about football cannot afford the tickets. Of course it needs to be debated whether the money spent on the World Cup would not have been better spent on other projects more directly aimed at improving quality of life. But as it stands, Brazilians, and other football fans around the world, certainly do not get ‘bread and circuses’ – which encapsulated the right and opportunity to haunt the sponsors during the games.

Julia Hillner is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield, and teaches a module on the Nika riot. You can find all of Julia’s History Matters blogs here.

Image: Crowds at the Circus Maximus in Rome during the 2006 World Cup Final, Italy vs France [Pundit via Wikicommons]


  1. Juvenal, Satire 10.81
  2. Suetonius, Life of Caligula 30
  3. For an excellent assessment of the Nika riot see G. Greatrex, ‘The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 117 (1997), 60-86.
Tags : Brazil 2014bread and circusesfootballgladiatorsRoman gamesRoman historyWorld Cup
Julia Hillner

The author Julia Hillner

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