Bread and Circuses Before the Fall

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The Tribe is Speaking!

At its height, the Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles to Turkey and the Middle East. The Romans built roads, aqueducts, and elaborate public baths. They produced writers like Virgil, orators like Cicero, and model statesmen like the Catoes. Under Rome, culture and civilization reached a pinnacle the Western world would not see until centuries later.

Then Rome declined and fell.

One of the salient traits of the late Roman Empire Period was a reliance on what one writer called “Bread and Circuses.” The bread was the public dole of bread each citizen of Rome received, but I’m not really interested in that part of the phrase in this post.

I’m talking about the circuses . . . the games.

At one time, Rome had incredible playwrights and poets who performed their creations in packed amphitheaters. It was a triumph of culture. Somehow, though, the amphitheaters started to empty and fell into disrepair. New plays and poems didn’t come out as much anymore because there was no longer a viable market.

People had swapped the aesthetics of drama and poetry for the circus and in Rome, the circus was the arena for the gladiatorial games. Day after day the throngs would pack out the Colosseum and structures like it, not to watch a play, but to watch men kill each other in a first century prequel of reality television.

The Roman games were the original Survivor: Colosseum. We know what happened to Rome. What I’m afraid of now is the same thing is happening to the United States and I really believe one main symptom is our obsession as a country with REALITY TELEVISION. First came Survivor, then Big Brother, and now the floodgates are wide open. We can watch has-been athletes and actors try to dance or cute little girls try to sing. We can tune in to a real live guy trying to choose among twenty or so nubile young women all vying for his attention as well as his hand in marriage. Now, we can even watch the “saga” of teenage girls too lazy or ignorant to use birth control get rich on a TV contract instead of going away to a relative’s house to keep the matter quiet.

Televisions got the nickname “The Boob Tube” for a reason. Prime time (or anytime) programming has never been mistaken for high art. TV has always been the voice of the masses, but at times, the people in charge of the programming seem to try to have something to say. These guys and ladies called “screenwriters” actually labored away to try and make something worth watching — to try creating “must see TV.”

Sure, it wasn’t all great. For every Hill Street Blues we had four or five Manimal horrors. Still, though, behind it all we at least had a sense of some intelligent life form trying to make us cry or laugh or wring SOME sort of emotion from us. Then a funny thing happened. The writers asked for a little more money. The TV execs said no and the writers went on strike. Then some genius rolled out Survivor and the race for the gutter was on.

“Reality TV” pretty much defines this period in America’s life cycle. Instead of any semblance of plot or characterization, we vicariously follow a group of total losers with names like “Snooki” and “The Situation.” Let me just say this for the record — if you are not a multimillion dollar Hall of Fame quality athlete OR an incredibly talented statesman or possible singer — you DO NOT get an article like “the” in front of your nickname. Babe Ruth could be “The” Sultan of Swat and Abraham Lincoln could be “The” Great Emancipator, but by God no orange faced, greasy haired, chest baring goober of a “Jersey Boy” is going to be called “The Situation” and NOT get laughed at.

Freak of nature. I just want to scream, “Hey, moron, they’re laughing AT you, not WITH you!!”

The burning public buildings in this painting of the sack of Rome look a lot like many of our government buildings. Coincidence or prophecy?

But that’s what television has devolved to. Americans don’t want to think, they want to sit and mindlessly absorb. They

don’t want programs to stimulate them mentally or emotionally so the networks give them what they want — “The Biggest Loser”.

Really?

I started this out talking about Rome. The last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was quietly toddled off into retirement by a German king in 476 AD, but the “Grandeur that was Rome” had been dead long before that historic day. Rome died once “The Games” became the “In Thing” to do. Oh, they had always been around, but mostly for special days or in some lower level prestige. By the end though, the emperors controlled the masses, not by brute force, but by entertainment. Fifteen centuries give or take before Kurt Cobain penned the words “Here we are, NOW ENTERTAIN US!” The Romans had forsaken their great heritage for celebrity worship. They stopped building, stopped writing, and eventually stopped existing.

With Reality TV on 24/7/365, are we becoming like the Romans?

I hope not, but it doesn’t look good.

Love y’all.

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