Circuses but no bread—a political-theological meditation offered on the weekend of the Coronation of King Charles III

A Silver Denarius of Severus Alexander (Rome, 226 AD) showing Annona with corn-ears & cornucopiae, modius at foot

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation.

A few weeks ago some of you may have read reports about an announcement made by the current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Member of Parliament for South East Cambridgeshire, Lucy Frazer, that, on Coronation Day, 3,800 seats were to be made available in front of Buckingham Palace in a specially built grandstand. Frazer told us that these seats were to be offered to military veterans and NHS (National Health Service) workers “as a mark of the nation’s profound gratitude.”

OK. Hold this piece of information in mind for just a moment.

In the late first or early second century CE, the Roman satirical poet, Juvenal, famously wrote in his tenth satire, that:

“Ever since the time their votes were a drug on the market, the people don’t give a damn any more. Once they bestowed Legions, the symbols of power, all things, but now they are cautious, playing it safe, and now there are only two things that they ask for, bread and circuses” (Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81, Rolfe Humphries translation, slightly adapted).

Although Juvenal originally used the term “bread and circuses” to make a complaint about people’s general selfishness and neglect of their wider civic duties, the phrase has today come to refer primarily to any situation where a political class is seeking to garner public support, not by showing competence in the provision of either public services or public policy but, instead, by using the tactics of diversion and distraction, especially in the form of food and entertainment, i.e. bread and circuses.

To a Roman living in the first couple of hundred years of the Common Era, this later reading of the meaning of bread and circuses would have made sense because, along with the provision of entertainment in the form of the munus legitimum — a spectacle that would involve fighting animals in the morning, executions at midday and gladiatorial fights in the afternoon — the Emperor also made a distribution of grain, the so-called Cure Annonae. The Cure Annonae — literally, the care of the goddess Annona — refers to a grain goddess particularly associated with the city of Rome who was closely related to the more ancient Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships who was, herself, closely related to the even older Greek goddess, Demeter.

Now, when I first heard Lucy Frazer’s announcement about the grandstand in front of Buckingham Palace, it suddenly struck me that I was seeing a shocking political-theological development. This was because it offers us a glimpse of the emergence of a style of government that thinks it now needs only to offer us circuses in order to keep us under their control and passively accepting of all the sleaze, greed, incompetence and corruption we can see everywhere around us.

The circus being offered to those 3,800 military veterans and NHS workers was, of course, not the munus legitimum, but this weekend’s Coronation. Through television, newspapers and social media, all of us could also have had, should we have wished, a free, if second-hand, view of this same spectacle.

And the absence of bread can be seen in our government’s continual refusal to offer these, and many other public servants, any adequate post-discharge or post-retirement support services, in-service support, pensions and, as the current strikes reveal, even decent, living wages that would ensure none of these astonishing, selfless public servants, after working harder and longer hours than most of us can ever imagine, would ever find themselves needing to resort to food banks in order to feed themselves and their families, which they must often take back to rented rooms, flats and houses they cannot afford properly to heat.

Now, some people may think that this is all politics and that, therefore, someone like me, a minister of religion, should not be venturing so clearly into this realm, least of all on the very weekend of the Coronation. But I find that in this modern offering of circuses, but no bread, there is a religious element fully in play. And, to help reveal it to you, I need to remind you of Carl Schmitt’s (1888-1985) powerful, and I think correct, observation, written in 1922 that:

“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development . . . but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts” (Political Theology: Four Chapters on Sovereignty, MIT Press, 1985, p. 36).

On this occasion, the secularized theological concept I want to point to is found in the absent “bread” part of “bread and circuses.”

As I have already indicated, in the Roman context of the first and second centuries CE, the distribution of grain — and, therefore, its most important resultant product, bread — was connected with the goddess Annona. Holding Schmitt’s words in mind, it’s important to see that Annona was a politicized version of Ceres. So, what we see here is, then, an early example of the process of secularization, as Ceres is transformed into Annona, becoming, along the way, an expression of the Emperor’s own earthly, political power to care for his people through the provision of grain.

The significant thing I’d like you to see here is that, although a secularizing development of religion has occurred — and one not in the direction many of us today would applaud — the invocation of Annona, rather than Ceres, still meant that some concept of “care” of others remained alive, albeit in attenuated form, in the minds of the Emperors.

Two milennia later, we should not be surprised to find that this process of secularization has continued into our own day and, although we are separated from the Roman gods and goddesses by at least 1500 years of Christian faith and practice, and so no longer even vaguely think about Annona, if indeed we’ve ever heard of her, until very recently, a central concept alive in our modern, British, secular theories of the state was the recognition that those in power must display some kind of care to the people and that they must not be allowed to go hungry. Indeed, from 1909 onwards, the development of what is known as the “welfare state” can be understood as a secular, if by then, very ghostly, manifestation of the goddess Annona. To remind you, lest you had forgotten or, alas, never knew, the welfare state is defined as a one in which the state “protects and promotes the economic and social well-being of its citizens, based upon the principles of equal opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for citizens unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life.” The welfare state was, therefore, an expression of the state’s own earthly, political power to care for its people and, as such, it can be seen as a secular descendant of the goddess Annona.

It seems to me that, this weekend, in offering a small number of military veterans and NHS staff a grandstand view of the circus but without offering them any bread (in the form of increased wages or better terms of employment) our government has inadvertently revealed a little bit more of its underlying desire entirely to exorcize the last ghostly vestiges of the goddess Annona from our collective memory, and so utterly expunge from civic life any shared understanding of the need to develop motherly relationships with one another.

Surely we need, right here and right now, to begin decisively to turn away from the distraction of the countless circuses we are daily being offered by our current crop of politicians and to pledge our allegiance, once again, to the basic idea of some kind of welfare state. Secondly, I think we need to recover an understanding that the idea of the welfare state is one with deep religious roots that stretch all the way back through Anonna to the Roman goddess, Ceres, and then, even further back, to the more ancient Greek goddess, Demeter.

When we read our history books, whether about ancient or modern times, we are rightly horrified by any government that has sought to exercise its power and control of its people through the cynical deployment of bread and circuses. Should we not, therefore, be doubly horrified and, yes, angry, to find ourselves being ruled today by a government that is beginning to think it is perfectly acceptable to offer us only circuses?


Myrna said…
It’s not only Greek goddesses and Juvenal satires (never heard of them till this week, then he cropped up elsewhere…), I’m also seeing links with Hebrew Bible and Jubilee. And Jesus affirmation in the temple, concerning the same - if he said it - but it’s just as valid whoever said it!
Yes, indeed, the same idea pops up all over the place. Fittingly, as has been said by many people, we can get an awful lot more done when we don't mind who takes the credit.

Nevertheless, I think it can be helpful to trace the genealogies of ideas, as this can help us better to understand of how/why some ideas have got real traction in our culture and how/why others have not. It may also help us bring about changes in what grips and what doesn't grip us. But, of course and as always, this piece is simply a footprint and not a blueprint . . .