In ancient Rome, bread and circuses were both fixtures of the average citizen’s life in a literal sense for most of the empire’s existence. Bread and Circuses in the case of this writing, however, is a reference to a concept originating about one thousand years ago by the Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote:
“the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses”
Its easy to ascertain what Juvenal meant in this statement, he was critiquing the state of Rome at the time, which was an unstable rotating door of megalomaniacal emperors, some claiming divinity, all perishing young of various forms of assassination. The Flavian dynasty of emperors initiated the construction of the Coliseum starting in 72 A.D. with patriarch Vespasian breaking ground and his heir Titus completing the venue 8 years later. Cutting the history lesson short, the Roman Empire continued for years after, with a deteriorating level of competence resulting in a quality of life among the common folk that was reduced significantly. There was seldom any kind of uprising against the unstable government however, and a major reason for this was the practice of the ruling class staging mass spectacles of visceral, violent sport in this newly constructed, 50k capacity stadium that remains partially intact today.
Juvenal lamented how these spectacles placated the energy of what would otherwise be civic unrest. The Roman government showering the people with lavish events featuring generous food provisions (or Bread) and an extravaganza of imperial power rife with simulated battles, centered around gladiatorial bouts to the death, was often a politically expedient matter, which directly resulted in a more docile, less engaged populace. Something about the various segments of often violent performance in the Coliseum’s harena, seemed to elicit mass catharsis. Perhaps this catharsis has to do with the Coliseum’s floor itself, previously referred to as “harena” or arena, the latin word for sand. Sand was spread evenly above wooden floorboards for the purposes of efficiently absorbing blood, the spilling of which satiated a thirsty public for seemingly just long enough.
If you sat through all of that, thank you and I’m sorry, but it does have relevance to how the world is today, particularly the American empire. The last election featured a reduced voter engagement rate, following a decades long trend where Americans whose wages have stagnated, quality of lives fallen and jobs have been lost are far too battered from the vagaries of existence under such conditions to take up arms against those responsible for the state of affairs. Where political matters are repellant to the public at large, sports, concerts, events in general galvanize us all to some degree with certainty. While I have no idea if the American empire is consciously draining their lower to middle classes of life, the dynamic of otherwise moribund laymen galvanized far more by a sporting event, than an election is one that reflects the same social dynamic Juvenal shook his head at with disappointment an entire millenium ago. The oft repeated maxim that seldom merits completion, “those who don’t learn history are doomed to…” comes to mind often when viewing the very spectacles I am commenting upon, entertained by the typical mix of team sports, and musical concerts like anyone else as the fiddling grows louder than the roar of the fires.
This is the point at which a clever, hip writer for a major publication would cleverly pivot to what they likely find appalling, the Ultimate Fighting Championships, or the central entity producing caged fight events that have increased in popularity on a steady climb. This is in reality, however, the point at which a relatively dumb, extremely unhip writer for no one really, will pivot to what I find exhilirating, The Ultimate Fighting Championships. This last weekend, a long one for many who don’t have to work July 4th, The UFC staged its allegedly (the exact number is heavily disputed) 239th edition, drawing a sell out crowd for what turned out to be a spectacularly brutal undertaking, with two bouts ending with a sincere concern for the losing fighter’s immediate state of being, as anyone unfamiliar with the sport would surely have concluded the fighter died instantly.
Headlined by a championship bout for the men’s Lightweight belt featuring defending king of the castle, Jon Jones facing the thunderously strong Thiago Silva of Brazil, UFC 239 unfolded in mundane fashion through the prelims. This changed dramatically when the main card began and the two major fights on the undercard of the main event captivated the stingy attention of MMA’s faithful in explosive fashion.
Former Olympian Ben Askren entered the signature octagonal cage without a defeat blemishing his record as a professional, rendering him the favorite against gritty former street fighter turned expert martial artist Jorge Masvidal. Origins couldn’t be more different as one could easily conclude and friction was inevitable, manifesting itself in a very direct war of words between opponents before the fight. Both fighters were in the ring and the bell rang. 5 seconds later, the bell rang again. The fight was over. Jorge Masvidal, a Cuban American from Miami known for his aggressive style, lunged airborne at Ben Askren with his right knee serving as a heat seeking missile that found its thermogenic target in the form of Askren’s undefended temple. This resulted in Askren’s consciousness to temporary end very suddenly. Head ducked down, clearly not anticipating an attack so quickly, Askren crumbled, to many viewers still shaken by the blinding brutality, likely deceased. Despite Askren at best residing in another planet cognitively and amusingly splayed unmoving like a dead shrimp, Masvidal leapt towards his head again, except eschewing a knee for a pair of hooking punches to the face before the referee mercifully ended the fight. The crowd’s roars were deafening as Masvidal mockingly replicated the rather comical manner in which Askren exited lucidity while Askren was tended to by a fleet of medical personnel.
Ben Akren did not die and was in fact, of enough functionality to competently breeze through an interview the following day. While notable most definitely for being the fastest knockout on record on a long list of them, I found one of the most fascinating aspects to be the 3 seconds following Masvidal’s lethal patella’s doing. It consisted of a guttural roar from the audience, a cathartic chorus of visceral satisfaction, with concern for the other fighter’s well being settling in eventually but totally absent from the initial reaction. As a 20 year follower of a sport that was once regarded as “human cockfighting” and banned in nearly every state, once resorting to staging an event in U.S. territory Puerto Rico, I never paid much mind to the seemingly annual batch of snarky writers comparing the sport to gladiatorial death matches, not worrying about the literal, fundamental difference between the two in favor of a hamfisted comparison they were consistently too unaware of themselves to see the amateurism in.
This was the first time I ever felt a connection between that era of humanity and this one, and a fleeting one at that, as everyone aside from likely Masvidal were hoping Askren was not dead and happy to find out he wasn’t. Then it became clear to me that there is no connection needed between something never separated. The comparison’s to Rome’s Bread and Circus were errant not because of the fact they were employed as lazy writing formulas, but because there is no difference to merit comparison. An empire presided over by a man of questionable mental fitness and a penchant for authoritarianism happily kept neutered by a succession of vicariously achieved catharsis is an equally applicable description of Rome in the first century after the death of Christ as it is an assessment of the United States as it curently stands. Falling far behind other developed nations with dramatically smaller pools of resources in everything from health to education to quality of life, The United States of America is the concept of Bread and Circus, made into the foundation of a society and manifested by a level of recorded civic apathy at all time highs.
This is not simply true for combat sports like the UFC, but for all sports and large gatherings of revelers seeking entertainment. The Coliseum as a physical evidence is a dilapidated shell of what it once was, rendering the comparison complete, as once again, the adjective used for the structure also applies unaltered to what the United States has sunken to. Rome had one such forum, but America has many, ensuring that society’s collective bloodlust is satiated by its modern alternatives. Sporting events in particular are orgies of commerce, bereft with corporate sponsors surrounding the participants who for the most part see none of the revenue from this, but who shoulder the entirety of making such sponsors exist in the first place by generating value with their labor. The parallels are numerous enough to not merit further listing, summarized and contextualized by their mirror like nature and myriad examples.
There were other fights that night, including a championship Women’s bout that ended with an arguably more severe level of carnage, punctuated by replay after replay of the champion Amanda Nunes utilizing all the momentum generated in a human shin to permanently alter the face and brain of her opponent Holly Holm, someone who found themselves deep in slumber where their dreams of victory remain that, and that only. This display of technical mastery less violence and more sport despite its visually fatal conclusion. One of the two fights described elicited a flash of recognition, not from experience but from the gut, the viscera. The primal detonation the men’s bout resulted in was the source of a sobering truth and a dormant recognition. Recognition not of our love for violence, nor recognition of how badly those engaging in it are exploited, for both are long established facts, no, it was a recognition that no matter what kind of technology is developed, no matter how different the world may seem physically when compared to ancient record, its inhabitants have yet to evolve in kind, just as susceptible to the Bread, just as rapt by the Circus and just as fucked over as the Romans were.