It is hard NOT to write satire.
~Juvenal , Roman satirist, writing about the Rome of
Every time I turn on the television these days, I
cannot help but think of Juvenal. Yes, that's right,
Decimus Junius Juvenalis, better known as
Juvenal, an ancient Roman writer who lived in the 1st
and 2nd centuries A.D. For those of you who are
unfamiliar with him, he wrote some of the most biting,
bitter satires of ancient or modern times.
I cannot help but wonder what he would make of the
"lamest medium;" television is full of distracting
programs that must have the great Roman satirist turning
in his grave.
In Juvenal's time (55-127 A.D.), the
Roman Republic was but a distant memory as the power of
the emperors grew stronger and stronger. The once proud
Senate that had witnessed the splendid orations of Cato
and Cicero—dominated and weakened year after year by the
succession of dictators—atrophied into a figurehead of
an institution. However, Juvenal felt that the populace
took the duties of citizenship far more seriously during
the days of the Republic than in the virtual
dictatorships of the Caesars.
He lamented that "the people that once bestowed
commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddle
no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread
Those scornful words "bread and circuses," panem
et circenses in Latin, become more meaningful when
you understand that Roman citizens became increasingly
addicted to free distributions of food and the violent
gladiatorial and other contests held in the Coliseum and
the chariot races of the Circus Maximus. He felt
that Romans had lost the capacity to govern themselves
so distracted by mindless self-gratification had they
Thus, bread and circuses, is a phrase now used
to deplore a population so distracted with entertainment
and personal pleasures (sometimes by design of those in
power) that they no longer value the civic virtues and
bow to civil authority with unquestioned obedience.
Bread and Circuses has also become a general term
for government policies that seek short-term solutions
to social unrest.
Unfortunately, Juvenal's words apply quite strikingly
to the United States, certainly a people who at the turn
of the 3rd millennium are almost wholly distracted by
cheap fast food (relative to other countries) and by the
decadence of an entertainment industry that that deals
so much in sex, violence and propaganda.
I wonder how our own mass distractions compare with
those of Juvenal's era:
In ancient Rome, muscular men called gladiators
(actually slaves from all parts of the empire) fought
each other in front of thousands with swords and axes
to the death. If they fought savagely and well, the
emperor du jour might save the loser with a
"thumbs up." Hmm, muscular young men and women (many
of whom are the descendants of slaves) contest for our
allegiance in a complicated "box" while fighting
desperately to overcome opponents and sell beer.
While the Romans threw Christians to the lions, we
watch reality TV and watch young men and women
devouring such appetizing concoctions as Pureed
Centipede a la Mode or Black Pepper Grilled Scorpion
with Grubs and Live Ants on the side.
Related to the prior bullet: Please note that for
Romans who had eaten too much but who still wished to
indulge themselves, there were "Vomitariums"
available, rooms, where those feasting on delicacies
superior than the ones mentioned above I am sure,
lightly waved a feather against the back of their
throats. . . Well, you get the picture.
Also playing on reality TV, more young men and
women attempting to survive canoe trips on the Amazon
without Off or other insect repellents while fending
off hungry piranha and avoiding deadly snakes. Great
fun! I sure do enjoy watching all that suffering.
We watch "electrons deify" dubious politicians
into hero status while the economy worsens and matters
of real national security (such as our poorly guarded
borders and mediocre safeguards for nuclear power
stations) are ignored. I seem to recall that while
Nero fiddled (actually more of a symbolic legend), no
one paid much attention until the capital of the
Empire started burning.
Viewed with a little distance, almost all
television commercials are really satires of a low
(certainly not high) order. I mean, really, who can
watch those clips advertising prescription drugs
without snickering. All those "feel good" scenes of
couples playing on the beach or rolling around in
grass without peeing or collapsing due to allergies
are pure comic opera.
Now don't get me started on the television news!
Ok, if you must insist I will say just a few words. .
.actually maybe only one: Condit. . .Now I know the
man is not particularly likable maybe even somewhat
reprehesible, but the media news--all of them but
especially the "fair and balanced" one-- crucified the
poor man in the court of public opinion. I seem to
remember reading that in the United States we are
innocent until proven guilty. For those of you not
familiar with the "Roman Spectacle" that sometimes
passes for TV news in this country, Gary Condit was a
Democratic congressman from California who was
investigated for the death of a politcal aide.
Disgracefully, the corporate news media gave the
U.S. populace saturation coverage of this "non-event."
Do you think it was a conspiracy to distract the
people from various corporate accounting scandals and
downright felonious actions of Enron et al? Who
knows? Nevertheless, we were distracted!
Eventually the media feeding frenzy calmed down.
While Gary Condit was never charged in the death of
Chandra Levy, his reputaion and political career
suffered irreparable damage. Talk about the
distraction of "bread and circuses!"
Which brings us to Jerry Springer. I am not sure
there is a Roman correspondence here; the times being
what they were, full of danger and intrigue, they
probably did their best not to air dirty laundry in
public (not always successfully, I fear). I just
cannot see the Empress, Agrippina, getting up in the
Forum and telling all about her adulterous escapades
while her husband, the Emperor Claudius, waits
offstage to be ushered into her presence where she
confronts him and the assembled Patricians with her
latest lover from the Praetorian Guard. (Though she
did make quite a public spectacle of her affairs!)
Well, enough of this foolishness already! I do fear
that Juvenal would probably be out of a job in the 21st
century, since in our modern times we do not really need
a literary genius of his calibre, only a humble scribe
to write down the events of the day--epic or
inconsequential--gleaned from the mass media, especially
those on the small screen.
Yes, Decimus Junius, it is indeed hard NOT to
write [down] satire in these times, in the midst of a
civilization, whose people and (seemingly) its
government are so consumed with panem et
circenses, that it continually satirizes itself.
You probably would have liked Benjamin Franklin—our
first great man of letters, and though not in your
league as a writer of satire, was no slouch with words.
Like you, he served human liberty. As the story goes,
this exchange of conversation occurred as the now infirm
81-year old was carried out on a "sedan" from
Independence Hall in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787
after he and the other 38 delegates had signed the
"What kind of government do we have, Mr.
Franklin?" "A republic," the elderly statesman,
writer and scientist replied, ". . .if you can keep
it. . ."
Copyright 2003, Thomas James Martin, all rights
The History of the Decline and Fall of
the Roman Empire Edwin Gibbon, David Womersley More on this
The Rise of the Roman
Empire Polybius, Ian Scott-Kilvert
(Translator), F. W. Walbank
(Introduction) More on this