The phrase bread and circuses means: something offered as a means of distracting attention from a problem or grievance.
—Cf. also the phrase bread and roses.
The phrase bread and circuses is an inaccurate translation of Latin panem and circenses (literally bread and circus games) as used by the Roman poet Juvenal (Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis – circa 60-circa 140) in Satire X; in the following passage, Juvenal denounces the fact that the Roman populace has relinquished its civic duties for the free grain and circus games provided by those seeking, or in, power:
[Populus] qui dabat olim
imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se
continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
panem et circenses.
[The people] which formerly gave military power, high offices, legions, all, now contains itself, and eagerly desires two things only—bread and circus games.
In the Latin text, circenses is short for ludi circences, circus games, with reference to the Circus Maximus, the oval circus built by Tarquinius Priscus between the Palatine and Aventine hills, which could contain more than one hundred thousand spectators.
The French equivalent of the phrase bread and circuses is a more accurate translation since it is du pain et des jeux, meaning bread and games.
In fact, the variant bread and games has been used, for example in the following from the New York Daily Tribune (New York City, New York) of Friday 30th March 1855:
The history and condition of theaters in this country present a curious struggle between the Puritanic element, which is against them, and the High-Church element, which, if it does not support, does not vehemently attack them. The theater during our Revolution was condemned by Congress assembled, as taking the attention of the people away from the serious and terrible business of driving the enemy from our shores, and confirming the simple Declaration of Independence.
In Paris, however, in the fiercest throes of their Revolution, the French Government provided bread and games—which latter did not forbid Paris from affording the stupendous quota of forty thousand of her sons to the invincible armies.
As late as Thursday 16th June 2016, The Madison County Record (Huntsville, Arkansas) published a letter in which Rep. Bob Ballinger wrote:
We no longer remember that we were not created by God to be servants of the government, to the contrary, “we the people,” as we serve God and by His power, created the government to serve us; to protect our rights, and to preserve liberty.
Oh sure, there has always been a vocal minority, crying, calling attention to the wrath that is to come, but those small, few, voices have been so marginalized that they are almost and altogether unnoticed. The rest of us have enjoyed our bread and games.
The earliest instances of bread and circuses that I have found are from The Spirit of Study, by a certain G. P. Notremah, published in The Globe (London) of Thursday 19th August 1869; interestingly, the author does not consider the terms bread and circuses as complementary, but as mutually exclusive:
The popular mind has such a difficulty in understanding the spirit of study, that, if a man does anything, it attributes his activity to one of two motives, either the desire of gain or the desire of amusement. The Roman populace was kept in good humour by bread and circuses—in other words, with food and amusement; and it may be said, metaphorically, with perfect truth of our own populace that the two inducements which are typified by bread and circuses are the only motives to activity which it quite understands. Hence, if a man is not working for his bread, it is at once inferred that he is working for his amusement—any other motive being inconceivable. The theory and practice of amateurship have been due to this binary conception of the nature of all work. Either your work is bread to you, or it is circuses to you; therefore, if you do not earn your living by it, you are merely amusing yourself.
But this conception of the nature of work and its motives is too narrow to meet the facts. The fact is, that many of the very best workers have neither bread nor circuses for their motive—neither money nor amusement. In intellectual pursuits, neither of these motives is strong enough to make a man do his very best. In these pursuits knowledge or culture is the only motive sufficiently powerful to urge men to the best activity, and sustain them in it.