VICTOR’S VILLAGE STUDENT SERIES: Bread and Circuses in The Hunger Games and the Roman Empire

SURPRISE! We have one more entry in the Victor’s Village student series! This last one is a thought-provoking, meaty article from HGBC’s “assistant fangirl” (aka teaching assistant), peetasgirl!

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In the Roman Empire:

The phrase, “bread and circuses,” was coined during the time of the ancient Roman Empire by Juvenal, a satirical writer. In its original Latin form, the phrase would have been “panem et circenses,” or “bread and games.” This statement has become a common phrase, even in modern political satire. It describes a self-serving government (or emperor) who has done nothing to serve the people, yet is able to maintain popularity by offering state-sponsored “gifts” of food and entertainment. Essentially a bribe, which is unknowingly taken, but which still has the desired effect. It is an underhanded tactic to maintain power and control over a people.

“Panem et circenses” was an actual political strategy, used by the Roman Emperors and Senators to maintain their powerful positions of authority over an ever-increasing span of Empire. These leaders correctly realized that if the general populace – vast in number – were to become dissatisfied with their government, it would be easily overthrown. Later in the Roman Empire, these entitlements had become so popular, that sponsoring the “games” became the peoples’ expectation. Rulers were often judged, not by their effectiveness as public servants, but by the quality of the games/gifts sponsored.

When “panem et circenses” was first penned by Juvenal, he was attempting to awaken the common people to their pathetic attitude of complacency. It was a wake-up call. Juvenal saw himself as a voice to the people, and decried the selfishness and ignorance that he witnessed in the general populace. Roman citizens, who had once proudly participated in their government, had willingly laid aside their civic responsibilities. Instead, they had become satisfied with temporary appeasements from a self-serving government. The citizens had sold their inheritance for a bowl of soup, satisfying the immediate appetites, but at a terrible cost – the loss of their rights in government.

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In The Hunger Games:

The post-apocalyptic nation of Panem draws its name from the first part of Juvenal’s phrase. At first, it seems quite ironic to name a nation “bread,” when its people have so little food. As I think about this, I think it was a brilliant move on the part of the author – it sets up the entire dystopia.

imagesThings are not as they ought to be in Panem. The nation’s name is Panem (bread), which is the one thing that everyone needs in order to survive (food). Naming a nation “bread” implies a land of plenty and promise – provision for all. This is implied in the name. It is a very hopeful name. The government wants to capitalize upon this hope, and BECOME the hope of the people. For this reason, any other source of hope (Katniss) can be dangerous.

The government of Panem made some very calculated moves, in order to be viewed as the sole provider of both bread and hope. There is plenty of bread, but not for everyone. The government (the provider) decides who gets the bread. They use the people’s hope and need as a means of both physical and psychological control. They keep the people hungry, keep them hoping for more, giving grain to the Districts monthly (but never too much), in order to maintain their image as “the provider.” What Panem’s leaders have created is a state of total dependence. By so doing, they ensure that the citizens in the Districts would never rebel against the hand that literally feeds them. The Districts cannot rebel against the Capitol – it is their only hope of survival.

The Capitol itself is another matter. If the citizens in the Capitol were to rebel against the government, there would be upheaval in all of Panem. The Capitol’s citizens live in such close proximity to President Snow and the government agencies, they could easily stage an effective coup. So, it is in the Capitol that we see the Roman Empire’s strategy of “panem et circenses” employed to its fullest extent.

Capitol citizens receive much more than bread – they may have all the food they wish. It is a society where excess has become the status quo. Their entertainment – the “circenses” – is sponsored by the state via The Hunger Games. Tributes fight to the death for the amusement of the Capitol’s citizens, giving them an exciting diversion, and distracting them from the reality of Panem’s national condition.

Crafted by one of HGBC's students

Crafted by one of HGBC’s students

We read about them in the books, living lives of extravagance, and we want to shake them and shout, “Wake up! Can’t you see how all the other Districts in your country are suffering, while you live so luxuriously? It’s not fair!” This is what Juvenal thought about the Romans, and why he made his famous “bread and circuses” statement long ago. Like the citizens of Rome, the citizens of the Capitol are completely ignorant of others’ hardships; they are asleep. The government prefers this, and carefully controls the media to portray the Districts as they see fit.

Capitol citizens are content to never think beyond their own self-centered lives, because they have been appeased by the government, and pacified by the media. They, too, are prisoners of the state of Panem, dependent upon the government as the sole provider of their “bread and circuses.” Unlike the citizens of the Districts, however, the Capitol’s people are completely unaware. They fail to realize their true position.

In Mockingjay, it becomes an especially harsh reality for the Capitol citizens to face, having the thin veneer of “bread and circuses” ripped away. For the first time, they witness what the government – and, unknowingly, themselves – had been carefully orchestrating for 75 years: A volatile nation, filled with governmental corruption and lies, where the wealth of the few weighs heavily upon the shoulders of the poor and starving.

Is it any wonder why Snow works to hard to keep everyone in the dark? To be the only hope?
Peetasgirl

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