Iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli / uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim / imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se / continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, / panem et circenses. (Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, 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.)
Evil governments are usually depicted as Crapsack Worlds of greedy, corrupt, backstabbing despots who each want to cut themselves the largest piece of the pie before it rots completely, at the expense of the rabble they claim to represent. When a revolutionary hero rises from the masses and sets everything in its proper place, everyone's happy and all ends well. (Or not.)
Sometimes, however, the evils of such a government (whatever they may be) may not actually filter down to the lower levels of society. Perhaps the leaders realize that a happy population is usually a supportive one, or maybe they just aren't that despotic in most of the more utilitarian areas of government. The workers all get paid, everyone has enough to eat and The Trains Run On Time. And it's not a Lotus-Eater Machine or an especially efficient Propaganda Machine; the stuff is real. As a consequence, as long as the people are contented, who's going to care about petty things like restrictions of basic freedom, environmental destruction, WMD research or random abductions...
The trope name (Latin: Panem et Circenses) comes from Roman poet Juvenal's metaphor for people voluntarily (or democratically) giving up civic responsibility for a reasonably stable status quo (the 'circus' in question being an arena for spectator sports like races and Gladiator Games). When the people are well-fed and having fun, they will be too contented or lazy to protest against those in charge (they may even start to thank, adore and praise those in charge), turning them into Gullible Lemmings and Apathetic Citizens who will leave the Powers That Be free to do as they please. These societies tend to be run by Totalitarian Utilitarians and/or Corrupt Corporate Executives, but bread and circuses can exist in whatever form of government, even in democracies and "utopias."
It's not like the leaders are running a Lotus-Eater Machine or simply covering up the destitute, either. For examples to qualify both the food and the fun have to be real. Where they come from or what they cover up will be the thing The Hero sets out to expose.
This situation also sets up conflict for a hero who sees the evil of those in power, because as far as the neighbors are concerned, the hero is simply a rebel or a troublemaker out to ruin their (relatively) happy life — or worse, submerge them in fire and brimstone. Too much focus on the contentment of the people may also lessen audience sympathy for the hero; sometimes, this is even the correct thing, because the hero really will cause more troublethan he fixes.
There are three primary reasons for this conflict:
Those in charge pacify the people by making sure they are comfortable.
The villains at the top realize the dangers of a 0% Approval Rating and attempt to "buy over" the people in the most effective way possible: by improving their quality of life. The Lowest Common Denominator is willing to cling to this promise at all cost.
The government ensures a stable, if not always comfortable status quo.
The World Government is a perfect example of the second type, with a little bit of the first and third thrown in as well. They're a corrupt, evil force, but they manage to keep the world in one piece; not to mention that the common man sees the World Government as benevolent protectors, and pirates as savage thieves.
Oda is pretty good about maintaining Gray and Grey Morality for the most part. While the Nobles we've been shown are a corrupt and decadent bunch, the existence of more... noble individuals has not been outright denied. The Marines — especially those of higher rank — as a whole are relatively decent officers who stick to My Country, Right or Wrong with nastier ones being Punch Clock Villains and there have been quite a number of monsters among the Pirates, who are supposed to be the 'good' guys.
Ergo Proxy has the remnants of humanity living in what is essentially a bubble, and there is a prominent advertisement and voice which encourages them to shop.
As of the Edolas arc of Fairy Tail we have a city for this. While most of the parallel world is quite literally crumbling the king has taken all the magic used by the rest of the world that keep things going in order to make the capital city into a magical wonderland/amusement park. That magic was created by him from absorbing the essence of people from the normal world.
In Samurai 7, once he makes himself emperor, Ukiyo gives out free rations of rice to the peasants in the capital as part of his scheme to become an all-powerful Villain with Good Publicity. The way it works is that he tells the peasants in the provinces that he's on their side and helps them defend against the bandits, so they like him; at the same time, he sends the bandits to crush the peasants and take their rice, so they like him; that rice is then given out to people in the capital, who like him too.
The Earth Sphere, and, probably, Venus and Jupiter (of which we just know too little) are basically this in Gunnm. Populations of the Orbital habitats, Moon cities, and probably even Salem/Typhares are certainly well-off, functionally immortal and generally content, happily ignoring the fact that it comes from ruthless exploitation of downtrodden populations of Earth and Mars (and their own underclass, whose existence is generally hushed), involuntary Mind Control and general fascistic attitude of LADDER council, as far as they are fed and still get the Z.O.T.T.and motorball to watch. AgaMbadi certainly has no trobles into getting anyone he wishes elected as a Ladder Chairman.
Earthlings in Captain Harlock are so caught up in this that even politicians watch horse-races while on the job.
Doctor Doom generally runs Latveria quite well, and the people know it. How well varies from story to story but many portray his continued use of this trope as more like treating his subjects like pets than actual humans.
Lex Luthor of Superman fame is known to do a great deal for the city Metropolis and the country in general. Of course he is trying to covertly rule the planet and attempts to kill the world's greatest hero out of sheer pettiness every weekend, but everyone's gotta have a hobby.
The Plex from American Flagg maintains control through a diet of drugs, sex and violence, the last of which happens to be televised.
One of the many issues with the dystopian future seen in Six Gun Gorilla is that the government and corporations have people hooked on VR rigs where they can watch suicidal people's experiences in the civil war going on in the Blister. At the start of issue 4, an angry mob even disperses the moment the hear that Blue-3425 is broadcasting again. It backfires when the people get so caught up in Blue's "story" that they're all watching when Blue blows the whistle on their scheme to keep the war going.
By the conclusion of Act II of the Legends of Equestria continuity, this is the sort of state that Princess Celestia has set up, using the Pegasi's weather control to ensure an uninterrupted food supply, and using her cutie mark spell to ensure everyone lives the life that will make them most happy. This allows her to get away with consolidating all authority to govern into her office, and setting up an extensive police and intelligence network.
Implied from a throwaway line from some alien in Calvin & Hobbes: The Series, though the citizens are apparently aware of it and inexplicably comply.
"I heard that the dictator was planning to give us all free merchandise for our moderate behavior!"
Films — Animation
In Osmosis Jones, the cells of Frank are worried about Frank's health (i.e. their future), but Mayor Phlegming doesn't want to make the kind of sacrifices that living a healthy lifestyle would require. He doesn't want to lose the other cells' support in the upcoming election to Tom Colonic, so he uses the voice override to get Frank to just take a cold pill and call it good (even though voice override is supposed to require a vote). And he promises the cells that Frank is going to a chicken-wing Fan Convention. (Cue cheers from the Love Handle District.)
WALL•E plays with this: the people on the Axiom have been living this way for so long, they've actually gotten bored with it. At the same time, generations of complacency, consumerism, and being pampered by robots has almost completely removed the will and knowledge needed for them to fix things, at least until WALL-E himself shows up and accidentally disrupts the status quo.
In The LEGO Movie, everything in Bricksburg runs on this. It's most obvious when Emmet seems disturbed by President Business offhandedly mentioned people who oppose him "being put to sleep", then sees a clip of "Where Are My Pants," laughs, and forgets what the President was talking about.
Films — Live Action
Non-totalitarian example: Batman Returns has influential, crooked plutocrat Max Shreck tossing Christmas presents to a Gotham City crowd during a tree-lighting ceremony. (As two other characters soon discover, Shreck is secretly planning to siphon electrical power from the city and sell it back to consumers.)
This was quite literally depicted in Gladiator when spectating commoners at a gladiator match are given loaves of bread. (Truth in Television: Roman citizens were given free bread at the Colosseum.) Senator Gracchus goes so far as to comment on how clever this strategy is:
Senator Gracchus: I think [Emperor Commodus] knows what Rome is; Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom, and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it's the sand of the Colosseum. He'll bring them death...and they will love him for it.
In the film Pan's Labyrinth the Spanish fascist government of Franco is shown issuing bread rations to the starving peasants who remain loyal to the regime. It should be noted this was pretty much dead on accurate; to help deal with the fairly popular Republicans, and to a lesser extent the communists, Franco's government used food rations as a way to gain public support.
The main purpose of the rationing was to ensure that every family got exactly as much food as they needed, and not one bit more, so that they couldn't covertly provide aid to the partisans. This is explicitly mentioned in the movie.
In Peter Watkin's Privilege, set in the "near future", the British government uses a Pop star's immense popularity to keep their youth "happy, off the streets... and out of politics."
In Rollerball the giant corporations ruling the world of the future distract the masses with the violent spectator sport "rollerball." Although, it turns out this trope is actually only a side benefit. The real purpose of the game is to demonstrate the futility of individualism.
As in the short story it's based on, the society of The Running Man revolves around the population being kept docile and distracted through lots of gaudy, violent entertainment, including the titular show.
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World gives us an interesting example of a dystopia that manages to be surprisingly nice. As long as you're upper-caste (Alpha and Beta, at least), life is orgies and drink and drugs and parties; the lower-caste (Delta and Epsilon) are conditioned to be content both with their workload and with their life in general (and their free time is also orgies, drinks, drugs, and parties).
It's never quite made clear what the Gammas are, but as you can see, it doesn't make very much difference.
The Patrician runs Ankh-Morpork well, so most of his people don't question all the shady activities involved in the running. Except the mimes.So far he's been reinstated after every deposition. Although he has been described as Machiavellian, unlike the page quote, he does not fortify himself through being loved (in fact most either dislike or are indifferent to him), but by being necessary, and better than any alternative.
In Interesting Times some middle-class revolutionaries try to overthrow the Agathean Empire in the name of the workers. Rincewind asks them if they've checked what the workers would prefer to happen. (They haven't.)
In Mort, an evil Duke is plotting to murder a royal family to become king. A quick glimpse into a possible future reveals that he actually would have ruled extremely well.
The Party in 1984 goes much easier on the proles than it does on Party members, mostly by and large due to the fact that the proles are stupid and easily distracted (such as a "lottery", where even the winners don't really get anything.)
Phyllis Eisenstein's In the Red Lord's Reach was very much the third case. The Red Lord kept up crack military troops to protect people from the (largely propaganda based) enemies champing at the gates, while claiming single individuals to horrifically, sadistically torture to death.
Averted in Hector Bywater's The Great Pacific War. It looks like prime Bread And Circuses territory, but instead, to quell the revolts, instead of lulling the populace into luxury, the politicans distract them with jingoist speeches against America's interference in Chinese land that should be rightfully subject to Japan.
How the old Republic of Haven became the People's Republic of Haven in the Honor Harrington stories. The Republic guaranteed its population a "Basic Living Stipend" and most of them went onto the Dole, causing a collapse in the Haven economy, which they tried to fix by conquering their neighbours, and looting their economies, and putting their people on the Dole, which meant they had to conquer more of their neighbours...
It is in fact explicitly mentioned that there was no totalitarian regime imposing the censorship for control purposes. Instead, it was the people themselves who slowly began to demand from the government the destruction of literature.
The government of the country of Panem (from "panem et circenses", see above) in The Hunger Games keeps the people appeased (or at least those in the Capitol) with the titular Deadly Game where youths from the subjugated "districts" are forced to kill each other until only one is left. The games are meant to distract the Capitol's citizens from the suffering of the districts (who provide their resources), who in turn are Forced to Watch them as a display of the Capitol's power. In Mockingjay, the third book, a character directly quotes the phrase. And just to throw a little of Type 3, the final half of Mockingjay reveals that, if victorious, District 13 would have also implemented games of their own, using children from the Capitol. Fortunately this never came to fruition after Katniss assassinates President Coin — as Katniss herself narrates at the epilogue, 20 years later, the Hunger Games have since been treated as a shame, and all its arenas have been destroyed, replaced with memorials to the fallen youths.
In Malevil, the Big Bad Fulbert averts this at his own peril. The people of La Roque are on strict rations, Denied Food as Punishment, and they're bored from a lack of entertainment or even semi-productive work. The villagers of La Roque do nothing but suffer his abuse, hide inside trying to avoid his ire, and grumble about him. He would be overthrown in a heartbeat if he didn't horde all the food and weapons in a fortified manor early on.
In Matched, everyone in the towns of the Society are satisfied with the lack of choice they have in their lives. and are unaware that there is a war going on in the outskirts of the country.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, Daenerys Targaryen says to Ser Jorah Mormont that her brother Viserys told her that the smallfolk make dragon banners in secret and pray that he will one day return to the throne. Mormont responds that the smallfolk pray for rain, healthy children and a summer that never ends, and they don't care about the game of thrones, so long as they are left alone (and they never are).
Played straighter in Westeros.
Pycelle: It gives the young a chance at glory and the common folk a respite from ther woes.
Littlefinger: And puts coin in many a pocket.
In Stephen King's The Running Man society is portrayed as being intensely fixated on live television for entertainment, which deludes themselves towards the ever looming environmental crisis. Even when Ben Richards attempts to warn the public about it they censor him on air. Alongside this citizens are encouraged to report Richards if they see him in person to get a large sum of money.
The Telosian people in Day Of Reckoning, part of Jedi Apprentice, protested the high taxes being levied to protect and restore the sacred places on the world. A local corporation had the taxes nixed and instead set up something called Katharsis, in which people compete in various ways in specially made arenas, fighting or racing or going through obstacle courses. Competitors get injured or maimed every day, and sometimes criminals are executed in the arena. The population - and tourists - gleefully bet on competitors and enter into grand prize lotteries; most of the money went to the corporation and to restoring the sacred parks, but a winning spectator could become very wealthy. Turns out Xanatos is running the whole thing and is adored for it. While people are distracted by Katharsis, he's having their sacred places strip mined with the very money they're betting with. All of the competitions are staged, with competitors throwing whatever they did, and people who win big are prechosen.
In Those That Wake's sequel, New York is like this, changed from the straight-up dystopia of the first book. People live for excess, technology, and quick pleasure, which the government is happy to provide.
Live Action TV
In Doctor Who's Vengeance on Varos, Varos has a populace in a bread-and-circuses mode. The poor governor, a Reasonable Authority Figure, is trying to make them endure sacrifices that are absolutely necessary to get the prices they must have, and they don't want to. The situation is so bad that when we see him sentencing to death an innocent and heroic man, to amuse the populace a little longer, we sympathize with him. And at the end, when the governor has succeeded and is announcing it, the people are shown as dazed and uncomprehending and even frightened at the prospect.
The fifth episode of Hell on Wheels is also titled "Bread and Circuses" as this trope is both invoked as the main plot, and then the Latin is quoted and it is discussed.
In The Protomen's]] "Act II", Dr. Wily rebuilds the city into a place where the peoples' every need is tended to by robots, and they're safe from the mechanical 'monster' that roams the outskirts of the city. The people seem to feel that this is a small price to pay for the constant propaganda blaring throughout the metropolis, and the implication of certain freedoms being withheld. In fact, Joe seems to be the only one who realizes something is wrong with the whole setup, and when he tries to escape, crowds of people on the street beg him not to 'turn his back on the city'.
The song "Panem et Circenses" by Ihsahn deals with this phenomenon.
We consume, we consume, we go to work and then we sleep
We buy and then we eat, when we oppose they shut us up
Make it stop, make it stop before the clowns will eat themselves
We gotta leave the circus cause we want to see the world
This is some of the Dreaming Dark's M.O. in Eberron — peace through kidnapping potential rebels and happy propaganda-filled dreams for everyone!
In Dark Sun, all of the Sorcerer-Kings run the risk of a 0% Approval Rating, since they're overt wizards in a setting where all wizards are hated and their magic kills the environment. They distract their subjects with lavish gladiatorial games, which are so popular that the people keep running them after one Sorcerer-King is overthrown.
The Imperium from Warhammer 40,000 may be violent, discriminatory, oppressive and full of incompetent governors, but nearly every other option manages to be even worse.
Interestingly it's mentioned in the novels that Forgeworlds got sparetime locations for the menials and despite being the lowest level in the working force they are considered free men (whatever that means in the Imperium...), the same with your average imperial world, you will find pubs, casinos, TV channels with not too dogmatic series, and food cheap enough to allow the most modest person to survive the day.
And don't even start talking of the Ultramarines domains, it seems they are so happy their positive emotions can be seen as a bright constellation in the warp.
There are as many ways to rule worlds in the Imperium as there are worlds themselves, so some are well-governed almost-utopia's while others are the Grim Dark that we've come to associate with 40K.
The Grimdark-ness of the Imperium is largely on a galactic scale. It's outright stated that many planets are not too dissimilar to our own. Only Hive Worlds and Forge Worlds really feel the oppression, and feral worlds (due to their feudal system) However while individual worlds might experience times of prosperity and happiness, the Imperium as a whole is very pragmatic. However all it takes is one heresy to ruin all that...
It's speculated that this is how the Ethereals keep the various Tau Castes in line, by enforcing their own status quo of "good times" upon the others. All Tau know that if the Ethereals were to go extinct, their entire empire can devolve into civil war, as that's exactly what happened before the Ethereals came. Recent evidence suggest that the Ethereals might be controlling them through pheromones or latent psychic abilities however, so they might not be the saviours they appear to be.
Dark Eldar society in Commorragh. Since they use agony and pain to rejuvenate themselves, gladiatorial matches manage to be both bread and circuses at the same time. In fact, it's probably the only thing keeping the poor non-pirating Dark Eldars alive.
The Champions universe has Multiversal Conqueror Istvatha V'han, who being both Affably Evil and lacking her rivals' ability to assimilate other dimensions into her own, uses this method to consolidate her rule. It's proven quite effective-she isn't called the Empress of a Billion Dimensions for nothing (although that number's actually an exaggeration-it's more like a hundred million).
Providing enough bread and circuses for your underlings to keep them from rioting is a staple of Civilization series. Sometimes it involves construction of a literal Colosseum.
In Tales of Symphonia, the heroes have trouble getting help in towns that have made deals with the oppressive Desians — things may be bad, but at least nobody they know gets taken to the Human Ranches.
Command & Conquer: Tiberium Wars background reveals that the Brotherhood of Nod have become the last hint of civilization and order in the devastated Yellow Zones of Earth, for the people living there (about 80% of the human population) they are seen as the good guys, those who bring infrastructure, food, medicine, security and hope to the masses, also, they look really cool.
In Mother 3, the Pig Masks do keep some semblance of peace and order in Tazmily. They were the ones who made it necessary in the first place.
It is heavily implied that the Shinra Company in Final Fantasy VII used a "Bread and Circuses"-style policy while President Shinra was in charge (barring the occasional bloody cover-up of the monster breeding program). Then his son takes over and decides to use fear and superior technology instead.
The backstory for Oni explains that upper- and middle-class life under the World Coalition Government is like this.
The player can use this trope in Cybernations: building slave labor camps hurts your nation's happiness rating, but you can cancel out that effect by building stadiums and police stations. You can also build intelligence agencies to lessen the happiness penalty that comes with having a high tax rate (this also allows your nation to recruit more secret agents).
Tolbi in Golden Sun. Sure, Emperor Babi has kidnapped a holy child to force her hometown to build him a lighthouse, and wants to live forever, but he also provides an Annual Gladiatorial festival, and the Tolbians are some of the richest people in the world, and support their Emperor to the fullest.
Tolbi is essentially Rome.
In the Caesar games, you play as a Roman governor and one of your most basic duties is to provide food for your citizens. Entertainment is also required for housing to evolve beyond the most basic levels. A combination of unemployment, hunger, and lack of entertainment can result in riots.
The Hearts of Iron series features a Command And Conquer Economy for all countries, with different kinds of production controlled via sliders. This comes under the "Consumer Goods" slider - satisfy or exceed demand, and your Dissent rating goes down. Fail to meet demand, and before long you might be facing open revolt or (in the case of some countries) open civil war. Even an extremist dictatorship like Nazi Germany can have a 100% Adoration Rating if production is managed well.
... which is Truth In Television, really...
Following this principle will avert many a tantrum spiral in Dwarf Fortress. The most basic step is to never let them run out of booze. Giving them nicely furnished rooms, legendary dining rooms with high quality meals to match everyone's preferences, beautiful architecture to walk to their jobs through, will keep them in fantastic moods while their family and pets die in front of them.
Dead Rising 2 takes place in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, yet the American population is pacified with a game show based around killing zombies called Terror Is Reality and zombification inhibitor called Zombrex. The latter half of the story, plus the story of Case West, reveal that the manufacturers of Zombrex are spreading the zombie apocalypse willfully to keep demand for their medicine up, which results in rising stocks. TK, the host of Terror Is Reality, was in on the conspiracy.
Rome: Total War of course, fits the trope as (among other factors) public order depends on the frecuency of gladiatoral games and races and how high are taxes.
In Secretof Mana, the protagonists eventually get shot into Empire lands. A Genre Savvy player might be expecting to land in a Crapsack World only to find calm mellow music, green pastures, and a mix of ordinary citizens and resistance fighters moving about in a quiet country town. Even the empire soldiers, while strict, appear to be genuinely helpful to the populace. Eventually it's implied that there is peace and happy citizens in all empire towns.
Exit Path has an arena where the crowds will cheer if you die and if you don't.
In Telltale's Back to the Future adventure game series, Marty's grandfather said that's all Hill Valley's science expo he was in charge of was. This confused Trixie Trotter, who hadn't seen any clowns anywhere.
Jade Empire begins in an apparently peaceful time for the titular Empire, with the horrors of the Long Drought long past thanks to the Emperor. However, this is due to the Emperor mutilating the Water Dragon and using its still-living body to provide the needed water.
Japhet, one of the guardians in OFF, tried to keep all his zone's inhabitants happy with an amusement park, a library and other such things. He failed to take into account just how damn paranoid, and fearful they could be, however, and thus his efforts were rejected. He doesn't take this wellin the least.
Akin to the Final Fantasy VII example above, in Mega Man ZX, Serpent is the head of the Slither Inc., which gives the city the power source and protection from outer harm (namely Mavericks), which gives him a good PR. Beneath all that, though, he actually staged all those Maverick outbreaks by his minions, and he's also planning to dig up the Artifact of Doom Model W for his personal power.
In Lucky Day Forever, there's a Great Lottery in place. The Proles worked for the Whites to get money for said Lottery. If they win, they get to become a White.
Later, Gil defends him on Bread and Circuses grounds.
Domain Tnemrot. The title stadium is one of these. The people who can afford anything are all entertained with these, or compete with their slaves, and the slaves themselves are generally better off that the horrid scavenging we see at the beginning.
In A Broken Winter both Ibara and Terasu employ some variant of this trope. Terasu focuses on the bread aspect, making sure everyone is comfortable and provided for, even as they ban base pleasures such alcohol and homosexuality. Ibara focuses on the circus aspect, allowing liberal hedonism at the cost of a stable social order. They both achieve their purpose, however.
Deconstructed and parodied by thisOnion article describing a massacre of 48 civillians in Syria during the Emmy awards with the headline "48 Syrian Civilians Massacred During Claire Danes' Emmy Award Acceptance Speech"
"At press time, government soldiers were throwing the bloodied corpses of the civilians into a large mass grave as Lena Dunham was anxiously waiting to hear if Girls would win the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series."
In the world of Avalons Reign, the Purger philosophy holds that this is happening. Purgers are a subculture that eschews mind-altering chemicals because they see them as a way for the corporations to keep people pacified. Whether they're correct or just paranoid (or both) is yet to be seen.
Futurama. The robot planet demonizes humans, produces anti-human movies, and go on (normally) fruitless human hunts to distract them from a lugnut shortage and incompetent Robot Elders leadership.
Mongul's empire in Justice League drew obvious parallels to the Roman Empire. The Martian Manhunter finds out there's mass unemployment and poverty, but people are kept entertained by the gladiatorial games.
In Sonic Underground, the series shows how Robotnik can afford to stay in power. The upper-class aristocrats can either provide his funding, or lose their land and privileges and risk roboticization.
The Trope Namer was Ancient Rome, where the poor would receive free wheat and have gladiatorial shows staged for them to keep them happy. Although it's often said that "the Emperor" handed out the bread (or wheat) to placate his subjects, the practice predates the foundation of the Empire by centuries and the food was rarely if ever actually handed out by the Emperor in person. (The emperor, however, did incur the cost of the entertainment, or at least his treasury did — and since the state funds and the Emperor's personal expenses both came out of said treasury, the distinction is essentially academic.) Depicted in Gladiator (see above). It's worth noting that the it occasionally backfired spectacularly.