Evil governments are allowed to be evil because they appeal to the needs and desires of the general populace.
The workers all get paid, everyone has enough to eat, and the trains run on time. And it's not propaganda or a Lotus-Eater Machine; the benefits are real. As a consequence, nobody really cares about petty things the government does like restrictions of basic freedom, environmental destruction, WMD research, or random abductions...
The trope name (Latin: Panem et Circenses) comes from the Roman poet Juvenal's metaphor for people voluntarily/democratically giving up civic responsibility for a reasonably pleasant status quo (in Rome, specifically, every citizen was entitled to a monthly grain allotment and free admission to the Circus Maximus and Flavian Ampitheater). When the people are well-fed and having fun, they will be too contented to protest against those in charge (perhaps even thanking and adoring them), 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 any form of government, even democracies and "utopias". The fact that said rulers can even pull this trope off means they'd likely have to have more than enough wealth to indulge both themselves and their citizens.
For examples to qualify, both the food and the fun have to be real, not just propaganda or promises. Where they come from or what they cover up will be the thing that the heroes set out to expose.
This situation 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 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 trouble than he fixes.
There are three primary reasons for this conflict:
- Those in charge pacify the people by making sure they are comfortable.
- The government ensures a stable, if not always comfortable, status quo.
- Better the Devil You Know than the Devil you don't.
If The Hero fights for La Résistance, he regards the first point as manipulation, and the second and third as simply wrong. If, on the other hand, he is not trying to bring down the government and this issue comes up, often enough he offers these reasons himself. Indeed, this trope may slide indetectibly into Reasonable Authority Figure, as the repressive measures are deployed against real threats — particularly if Hobbes Was Right.
Another conflict that may ensue from Bread and Circuses is the blurring of the distinctions between Dystopia and Utopia. After all, one author's utopian Sugar Bowl is another author's dystopian Bread and Circuses Crapsaccharine World.
Related to that, something interesting about this trope is that although "bread" and "circuses" were equally important in the Roman original, fictional depictions focus much more on the circuses (entertainment) than the bread (food/other living needs). This is probably because governments providing basic necessities for their people (welfare, the dole, poverty reduction, etc.) is a much more politicized and controversial topic. Whereas pretty much everyone agrees that mindless, distracting entertainment is bad, so it's safe to show your villains using it.
Some common types of "circuses" include Blood Sports, Rigged Spectacle Fights, and Gladiator Games. Even more extreme are Public Executions for amusement. The populace often knows that these things are cruel, but doesn't care. After all, either the savages who participate in such things can't appreciate true civilization anyway or they probably deserved it for some reason. A more benevolent ruler might arrange a formal, organized tournament and even participate in it.
This is related to the Marxist concept of the Dominant Ideology, whereby the lower classes are kept in place by disseminating the idea that that's their "natural" lot in life and there's no sense fighting it.
- 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.)
- Kira's rule in Death Note. The positive effects are an all-time low in crime and war. The negative effects are fear of being wrongly accused, paranoia even among family members, elitism from those too well-off to be targeted, and Light's endgame of working everyone to death in the name of perfection, but you don't see any of this in the news because anyone who even thinks about questioning the sustainability and happiness of this False Utopia is quickly (and literally) written off.
- It's telling that of Light's two opponents in the 2nd season, one is working with the mob and there is no indication they're a dying breed.
- One Piece
- 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.
- Wealth and Corrida Colliseum is essentially the way Doflamingo is ruling his Dressrosa Kingdom, having turned that once simple people into an egotistical bunch. They also completly ignore that their country generate immense incomes slave labour and arms trafficking, while dissidents are simply made into puppets and erased from other people's memories. As someone says, Dressrosa under Doflamingo's rule divides the people into submissive winners and rebellious losers, which isn't too far from how the World Government works.
- 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.
- The modus operandi within Puella Magi Madoka Magica and its spinoffs. We have Kyubey, a Manipulative Bastard with curious intents, and his so-called "workers", or the Puella Magi/Magical Girl. On one hand, the girls can get anything they want with a simple wish. In return, they have to fight Witches. On the other hand, this fighting puts them in danger of them becoming Witches they feared and their personality having a drastic retake on reality. Most of the anime revolves around why Madoka wants to become a Magical Girl, so characters involved with the Faustian Rebellion trope take this trope perfectly straight. To hammer home just how essential the system is, the finale only fixes it by rewriting reality courtesy of a One In A Million Chance.
- 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 Battle Angel Alita. 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. Aga Mbadi 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.
- The situation in the Synchro Dimension in Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V. 1% of the population (the Tops) control 99% of the wealth, while everyone else (the Commons) live in squalor. The Commons are kept down through a combination of the Sector Security and the promise of the Friendship Cup, where the winner can become a Top. Images of the latest winner, Jack Atlas, are plastered all over the the slums. The Tops are desensitized to the plight of the Commons in part by police chases being shown live on TV.
- In Psycho-Pass: The Sibyl System uses holograms, virtual worlds, psychiatric medications, high-paying jobs, Kawaisa Drones, and anything so that the masses' Psycho-Passes would be reduced. If that does not work, then they would use either rehabilitation (which seems to be pretty comfortable as the rehabilitated were allowed to keep their cherished possessions in life) or enforcement.
- Dr. STONE: Senku recruits quite a few people—most notably the Stone Age villagers he finds—by introducing modern foods and candy. To people who have never eaten anything more advanced than salted meat, it's like the food of the gods. Modern people are significantly less impressed with Senku's cooking, and they eventually revive a Supreme Chef before a long journey because they're pretty sure they'll end up starving to death if they have nothing to eat but Senku's cooking.
- Fantastic Four: 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.
- The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers: Overlord is what happens when a Person of Mass Destruction doesn't get his fix of this. It's not pretty. It's all a ploy that he hopes will goad Megatron into fighting him.
- 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 in which 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 they 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.
- The Trigan Empire is a Fantasy Counterpart Culture for Ancient Rome, so it naturally has this trope. The hero Trigo is overthrown by his niece. She's not very popular, so puts on this trope to keep the people happy. Unfortunately, to pay for the expense, she cuts military spending and removes the forces guarding the frontier, so barbarian tribes end up taking the Empire. Unlike the real-life Rome, our hero takes it back.
- Sonic the Hedgehog (Archie Comics) has Breezie use the line "Panem et circenses" verbatim to explain why she's running a fighting tournament with a Chaos Emerald as the prize.
- Legends of the Dead Earth: In Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #6, the Kane family has served as the executioners of Gotham since the Plight of Gotham crash-landed on their planet 500 years earlier. Assuming the identity of Batman or Batwoman depending on their gender, the Kanes' duty is to execute murderers in full view of the Gotham populace. While investigating the suicide of her father Robert, the new Batwoman Kathy Kane discovers that Commissioner Mondial and his men murder innocent people on a monthly basis and frame others for doing so. Further investigation leads her to Gotham's historical records which contain a written account of one of Mondial's ancestors, one of 50 survivors of the crashlanding. Inspired by the stories of Batman and Commissioner Gordon in Old Gotham, he believed that the best way to create a stable, ordered society was to use the threat of execution to keep the people in line and the spectacle of public executions to keep them entertained, even if that meant executing innocent people. His descendants continued this practice for 500 years until Kathy exposes the truth and brings it to an end.
- Wonder Woman:
- In Sensation Comics: Wonder Woman In the Clutches of Nero, Empress Fausta and Nero Maximus keep their people entertained and distracted with bloodsports and grisly executions in their coliseum while violently imposing their backwards and isolationist policies.
- In Wonder Woman (1942), Queen Clea keeps her people entertained with bloodsports and violent executions in her arena. Meals are served to the audience as they watch as well.
- 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!"
- Mercury of the Inheritance Cycle fanfic Phoenix-fire openly admits to doing the first one, and even lampshades how much he can get away with simply because he keeps them fed and entertained, while cultivating a glimmer of hope for their kids' future. It helps that he is also a Magnificent Bastard that controls and manipulates the actions of La Résistance pretty much from the get-go, so that even their victories are all part of the plan.
- This trope is actually referenced as the sole reason the Demon Empire is so powerful in Sonic X: Dark Chaos, despite its corruption and despotism. As long as worlds follow Demon law and (publicly) worship Maledict, they are showered with wealth and riches from across the universe. Even slaves are kept pacified through this trope, and this trope is explicitly referenced as the primary deterrent against slave rebellions.
- In a similar vein to Warhammer 40000, the grim darkness of the setting is mostly large scale and there are worlds that are untouched by war, Sonic's planet among them.
- In A Man of Iron, Littlefinger references this trope as for why the smallfolk being so fascinated by the Iron Man is a good thing.
Baelish: And it does well to have the people distracted. Do you know what happens when the people don't have something to focus on? They think. Think about what they don't have, what others do have, their station of life and how it isn't good enough... and soon those thoughts turn into "What can I do to get more?" Iron Man and others of his ilk keep the smallfolk happily engaged in harmless dreaming while allowing us to continue to rule.
- With Pearl and Ruby Glowing: the boys on Pleasure Island are spoiled rotten and allowed to run wild so they don't try to escape or fight back against being used for child pornography.
- In Dragons, Butterflies, And Who Knows What Else?, when Isabela covers the wrecked shop in flowers, everyone acts as though Isabela did a great thing, much to Hiccup and Mirabel's frustrations.
- In Daughters Of The Wicked Witch, Mordred believes that her attempt to seize power from Arturia was popular with the citizens because a regular hedonistic feudal lord hosting parades and tourneys was easier to understand than the almost-inhumanly perfect and pragmatic Arturia.
- Osmosis Jones, has Mayor Phlegmming, who, being up for re-election, mostly spends his time buying the loyalty of the citizens of Frank through this trope. Since Frank is an actual living person and his methods mostly revolve around having Frank eat junk food, this has some negative consequences. The citizens are aware of the issue and worried about Frank's health (i.e. their future), but aren't willing to make the kind of sacrifices that living a healthy lifestyle would require. This comes to a head when he secretly uses the voice override to stop Frank from seeing a doctor about an illness, instead deciding to just take a cold pill and plan to go to his chicken-wing Fan Convention as planned. (Cue cheers from the Love Handle District.)
- WALL•E plays with this: the people on the Axiom have been living in luxury 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 mentioning people who oppose him "being put to sleep", then laughs at a clip of "Where Are My Pants?" and forgets what the President was talking about.
- 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 is 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 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 that 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 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 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". However, it turns out that 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.
- In The Hunger Games, the government keeps the upper class citizens docile via the titular violent games while these games are used to intimidate and suppress the lower class citizens — not to mention that the name of the country, "Panem", is literally Latin for "bread".
- It's implied that various incarnations of The Game Grids in the TRON universe are both good ways to dispose of malware, malcontents, and other troublemakers as well as give the citizen Programs some entertainment. Played straighter in the films and TRON: Uprising, but treated with more complexity in the Betrayal comic, TRON: Evolution, and TRON 2.0. In the former two, Flynn has banned lethal matches, making them harmless fun. (Clu, naturally, reinstated the lethal part.) In TRON 2.0, Jet is sent there as an alternative death sentence, but he's treated relatively well, even by the guards. Mercury, the Game Grid champion, is considered a star athlete, not a condemned crook.
- In Shredder Orpheus, Hades and Persephone entrance the put-upon masses with their TV broadcasts, distracting them from the high costs of living while slowly killing them.
- In They Live!, the aliens use commercialism, movies, TV, the print, and coupons to drown out the humans' sense of need to question and overthrow authority.
- 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. Even dissidents are treated relatively humanely; they are given a sincere-sounding apology that the conditioning meant to ensure their happiness with their lot in life didn't take, and the choice between joining the ruling caste (since no one that mindlessly happy could rule) or an exile colony of other dissidents.
- Prisoners of Power by the Strugatsky Brothers combines all three on one level or another.
- Discworld: Patrician Havelock Vetinari 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.
- Inverted in 1984, where the public is kept in check by poverty instead of luxury. This serves two purposes; firstly, that the lower classes will theoretically be kept too stupid to rebel, and secondly, since luxury is relative, it's much cheaper to keep the upper classes well off by the society's standards. The government also runs a lottery, which effectively serves this exact purpose. Played straight in that the government produces trashy entertainment to keep the working class in check, including a rigged lottery, poorly-made pornography, and a selection of trashy tabloids which print nothing but crime, sports, and horoscopes.
- Bartimaeus mentions this in The Bartimaeus Trilogy about the magician governments.
- In Lockwood & Co. another series from the author of the Bartimaeus books, Jonathan Stroud, this is used almost word-to-word by the head of one of the major ghost-hunting agencies while explaining the rationale for throwing a huge festival in the middle of one of the worst ghost crises ever.
- This trope is more or less how the Imperial Order stays together in the Sword of Truth series, complete with Blood Sport.
- 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.
- The Studio in The Acts of Caine is a company that funds the most extreme live action role playing games ever by sending highly trained "Actors" over to an alternate universe populated with creatures like dragons and elves, making them have Adventures, and selling the recorded memories. In Overworld (the alternate universe in question), they are known to the locals as Aktiri, a kind of human-resembling demon that brings wanton slaughter, and Earth is known by some Overworld religions as the True Hell. This is because the actors do all the stuff fantasy heroes do - looting tombs, murdering people, exacting genocide on unpopular species, starting wars, etc. The Adventures sold by the Studio are the best-selling entertainment in human history and keep people from questioning a global feudal government that operates on a ruthless corporate caste system and keeps nine out of ten people in near wage slavery. It's one of those stories.
- 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...
- Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Most people like the mindless entertainment.
- 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, and given flour and oil in exchange for enrolling their children in the lottery that determines who enters the games, getting extra for filling out more tickets. 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 L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero In Hell, Ulysses objects to democracy because it's bound to lead to this.
- 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 hoard 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 their woes.Littlefinger: And puts coin in many a pocket.
- Played straighter in Westeros.
- 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.
- In Steelheart, the titular Epic rules Chicago (now Newcago) with a fist of steel. Ordinary non-powered citizens go about their days in muted terror, just trying to scrape by. A character points out that although Newcago isn't a great place to live by any means, it at least provides a rare example of stability in a country broken apart by constant fighting between Epics. Only a very small resistance group tries to fight the Epics. Most other people just try to keep their heads down and go about their business.
- Even some of the Reckoners argue that they shouldn't try to kill Steelheart, because he is holding together one of the few pockets of stability in the setting.
- In another book in the same setting, Lux, the titular floating city genuinely does have one of the setting's highest standards of living. All sorts of food and luxuries are readily available, the citizens are protected from Epic bandits, and you can be reasonably certain that none of Lux's four Epics will kill you unless you actually do something to deserve it. You just have to be willing to ignore the fact that all the city's luxuries are acquired by pillaging the land below. Plus there's the little-known fact that Lifeforce (the ruling Epic of Lux) keeps himself, the other three Epics, and his army of soldiers alive by displacing their wounds onto dissenters and slaves taken from the surface.
- According to Karl Marx, this is how capitalist economies work. He famously defined the ideology of a given society as stemming from the base (capital) and the super-structure (owners of capital) built on top of it, with the ideology ensuring that Status Quo Is God. This ideology can include anything and everything from appeals to religion, imagined past glory, military adventurism, racist hostility to immigrants and others stealing your jobs and women and when all else fails, Conspicuous Consumption, all of which to ensure that the working class are divided from uniting for their common interests.
- In Victoria, the decaying future America in the years before the collapse is portrayed this way. As long as the food stamps continue to flow and TV keeps running, the Apathetic Citizens remain somnolent. When the government runs out of borrowed money to pay for the show, however, chaos ensues.
- Unusually for a protagonist faction, the Republic of Amorr in The Arts of Dark and Light has something very like the original Roman variant, including violent sports and gladiatorial games. It's pointed out more than once by various people that not everyone likes this, but it's popular with the masses.
- Under Heaven: Prince Shinzu thinks this is one way to contain An Li's ambitions: keep him in the capital (away from his armies), keep throwing him feasts and parties, heap meaningless awards and titles on him, and allow him the run of any women that takes his fancy. Then, wait for "the sugar sickness" to take its toll. Too bad the First Minister's own actions made An Li paranoid and suspicious enough to want to leave the capital and meet up with troops loyal to him.
- In the "Mage Storms" trilogy of Heralds of Valdemar, the Magitek-dependent Eastern Empire is brought to its knees when magic becomes unreliable. Melles, a Manipulative Bastard who becomes the Emperor's heir, gets things under control remarkably fast by restoring basic comforts and reliable, if rationed, food. Some of the people call him a tyrant for his Repressive, but Efficient new system, but the majority simply fall in line.
- The Devil Judge: The whole point of the televised trials is for them to become the "circuses" part. Seoul in the series is an incredibly grim place with people desperately looking for work, riots breaking out, and police everywhere, so the trials become a reality show to distract the people.
- In the Doctor Who serial "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.
- An episode of Star Trek: The Original Series is actually titled "Bread and Circuses". Unsurprisingly, it takes place on a Planet of Hats whose hat is being Ancient Rome.
- Game of Thrones:
- No feudal house practices and demonstrates its effectiveness better than the Tyrells. Their home, the Reach, is a fertile region in Westeros famous for being the center of chivalry and romance. This fertility allows them a lot of food and money to throw around on extravagances for their people to keep them happy and satisfied. Margaery Tyrell, prospective and future Queen, wins the hearts and minds of her subjects by personally bringing food to war orphans. Her grandmother Olenna Tyrell outright tells Tyrion and Tywin Lannister that people need distractions like a royal wedding in the middle of wartime to turn their attention from the problems of starvation and poor governance.
- This is also one of the arguments in favour of Daenerys reopening the fighting pits. She reluctantly does so.
- In the 15 Million Merits episode of Black Mirror, the people are distracted from their dreary existence by an array of reality shows, including an American Idol knockoff dubbed "Hot Shots" that's the focus of much of the plot. In fact, citizens must watch commercials for these programs or they are fined monetarily.
- In Supergirl (2015), Kara said that the reason why Daxam was considered a pleasure planet was that the citizens were kept fat and happy so that the aristocracy could get away with various injustices, slavery and racism being a few.
- Bill Cullen once described his version of The Price Is Right as a modern-day (for the mid-60s) Bread and Circuses, what with the audience's shouts of "higher" and "freeze."
- The 70s version of Match Game certainly qualifies, with audiences robustly cheering good answers and resoundedly booing bad or ridiculous answers.
- The Outer Limits (1963) has an episode titled "Fun and Games", in which an alien society that has overcome all war, poverty, and other social ailments finds it necessary to pit "lesser" life forms against each other in deadly combat to stop society from stagnating. These lesser life forms include us, by the way.
- Planet of the Apes: In "The Gladiators", Prefect Barlow uses the gladiator games to keep the village of Kaymak quiet.
- Roman Empire. When Caligula first takes power, he brings back the Gladiator Games which hadn't been seen in Rome for a generation. These new spectacular events make him very popular in contrast to the hated Tiberius.
- The television film The Year of the Sex Olympics is set in a future where the majority of the population is kept passive with a diet of low-brow television programming, such as the Sex Olympics of the title.
- 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.
- The 1968 album Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis, which served as a manifesto for the Brazilian Tropicália artistic movement.
- Hinted at in Oingo Boingo's "Nothing to Fear":
If they don't turn you into a junkie or a zombie on the street
If they don't turn you into a yo-cat or a grinning Jesus freak
If they don't take away your brains or turn your body inside-out
If they don't take away your passion with a color TV set
Then they'll take away your heart and soul...
- "The Circus" by Project Pitchfork:
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
- "Working-Class Hero" by John Lennon:
Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you're so clever and classless and free
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see
- "Luna Park" by Pet Shop Boys subverts this trope; the people are aware that the titular amusement park note is merely a distraction, but they would rather indulge in it than confront the horrors of the world outside:
And when we're feeling scared, we're happy
With circuses and bread, we're happy
The whirling fair machines are all we need
- The trope is also name-dropped in "The Sound of the Atom Splitting."
- The translated title of Brot und Spiele, the eleventh studio album of German medieval metal band Saltatio Mortis, as well as the subject matter of its title track and a (surprisingly minor) recurring theme throughout the album.
- The Shadowrun sixth edition splatbook No Future goes into great detail about the circuses part of this trope, describing various techniques with which the mega corps keep their employees in line despite brutal working conditions and lack of freedom. However it also notes that the corps have become dependent on these measures and would suffer if they tried to cut these costs too much.
When a rogue wave messed with a live transmission of Don’t Do That, Bobby!, production in the Ares Trident slumped sixty-six percent. I bet you think I’m being hyperbolic, but I’m not. There were even a few incidents of salarymen attacking Ares corpsec (which ended badly). It was the closest thing to a strike Ares has ever seen ... I think Ares learned a valuable if difficult lesson about getting workers addicted to Arcology media that day: What you catch ’em with is what you keep ’em with.
- 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 have 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 is true of the average Imperial world, you will find pubs, casinos, TV channels with not-too-dogmatic series, and food cheap enough to allow even 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.
- The Grimdark-ness of the Imperium is largely on a galactic scale. It's 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. But 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.
- Alpha Complex may be a Crapsack World, but at least everyone pretty much always has (crappy) food and entertainment.
- 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 an exaggeration— it's more like a hundred million).
- At the beginning of the second act of Wicked, the population of Oz is in terror of attacks from Elphaba, whom they know as the Wicked Witch. So, what else to do... but have a party to celebrate the engagement of Glinda and Fiyero. "Fellow Ozians, as terrifying as terror is, let us put aside our panic for this one day, and celebrate!" In addition to this, the folks of the Emerald City are regularly distracted by productions such as Wizomania and various other things to hide the trickery of the Wizard and his corrupt government. He himself says that he's ruling because the people of Oz need someone to believe in and that he is wonderful because they call him wonderful.
- Beast Wars: Uprising: The story begins with the Builders (the corrupt remnants of both Autobot and Decepticons) forcing Maximals and Predacons to fight in gladiatorial combat. The matches are designed to keep both factions angry toward one another, and just to make things worse, winners can be dragged back into a "Cull", wherein they're killed off to save on what little no-existent energy there is. And just to make things worse, every match is rigged.
- 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.
- Later chapters of Half-Life 2 reveal that this had, at least partially, happened. A random quote from idling NPCs sitting around: "Y'know, I kind of miss the Breen show. Remember that time he had the jugglers on?"
- 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.
- In the remake, Heidegger says this trope word-for-word during his villainous gloating to the heroes after televising their actions and luring them to what he intends to be their public execution at the hands of the Airbuster.
- 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 Cyber Nations: 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.
- 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 & 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 universally loved leadership if production is managed well.
- 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 frequency of gladiatorial games and races, and tax rates.
- In Secret of Mana, the protagonists eventually get shot into Empire lands. A 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 in the remake it's implied that there is peace and happy citizens in all empire towns.... Until you get word that taxes are beginning to get exorbitant, there are nobility who opposed the aggressive policies of the empire in refuge and exiled out of their own lives, people are getting drawn into the strange parties happening around the eldritch and occultish ruins, people mysteriously disappear if they so much as complain about the empire's rule, and the people's lives are negatively impacted by the constant wars the empire is waging, including losing family drafted in and the risk of a home invasion due to its increasing military campaigns. Still, quite a nice country.
- Exit Path has an arena where the crowds will cheer if you die and if you don't.
- The Azadi Empire in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey aren't entirely liked by the people they now rule, but most people don't want to speak up specifically because the Azadi empire supplies them with paying jobs, food, and a roof over their heads.
- 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. As a direct result of this supernatural sacrilege, the Empire is undergoing a Zombie Apocalypse that literally cannot be fixed while the emperor lives, but the propaganda does its best to pretend this is a temporary problem that won't affect the capital anyway.
- In Centurion: Defender of Rome taxes affect the mood of your people, and the citizens of Rome get rebellious if they don't get frequent Gladiator Games.
- This is what Lucifer Lansfeld is up to in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. The Eternal Sphere is how he keeps the 4D denizens—what we know as gods—nicely distracted from how unfulfilling their very circumscribed lives are. And he couldn't care less if the Eternal Sphere entities attain sapience, since their suffering still serves his goals.
- 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 well in the least.
- 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.
- Not for Broadcast revolves around this; you're a newsman whose job it is to run puff pieces and encouraging ads as part of your People's Republic of Tyranny's Propaganda Machine... or do everything you can to tear it all down from the inside.
- Keeping your people both happy and well-fed is part of the core gameplay in Tropico. You're running a Banana Republic, so you have to invoke this trope to distract your people from your oppressive regime and prevent them from rebelling.
- Lampshaded in Tropico 5, when you activate the "Double Ration" edict.
- Vabbi/Elona under the rule of Palawa Joko in Guild Wars 2. The citizens live in beautiful cities where their every whim is catered to by Awakened servants, so most don't really care that any dissent leads to death, exile, or A Fate Worse Than Death, or that they all are resurrected to serve as eternal, undead slaves after they die. Some of this is also just due to generations of brainwashing into Joko's personality cult.
- In Destiny, this is the default state of the Cabal Empire. Emperor Calus rose to power by overthrowing a brutal totalitarian military regime and embraced the philosophy of For Happiness, giving his entire population food and entertainment and decadent lives of joy and pleasure. Calus went so far as to destroy entire star systems to fuel his empire's bread and circuses. When he was overthrown by Dominus Ghaul, however, this culture of excessive happiness and merriment was so deeply ingrained into the Empire that he was forced to keep it up lest he be overthrown himself.
- XCOM 2's Advent Administration has 'gene therapy' clinics that can cure any affliction, and restaurants so good that even The Resistance is addicted. Which distracts everyone from the police state, constant surveillance, and thousands of people mysteriously disappearing...
- In The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV, following the implementation of Operation Jormungandr and draft, the Erebonian Empire begins hosting huge military parades to rouse fervor and offers conscripted soldiers free tickets to Mishelam Wonderland, a theme park, in order to give them a last day of fun to enjoy and something nice to think about before they head off to the frontlines. Later, your party uses this to their own advantage, putting on a concert in order to sneak into a mansion.
- Iji has an odd example with the Komato, in that the genocide against the Tasen is their bread and circuses, given their militaristic culture. General Tor and a few Komato logbook authors theorize that the war is the only thing keeping the Komato from civil war due to the populace's violent tendencies.
- Final Fantasy X: While the Corrupt Church of Yevon generally adopts a New Technology Is Evil / Evil Luddite stance and forbids almost all forms of advanced technology - or at least it does publicly, the church's highest members secretly allow themselves access to technology that they preach against to the masses - , it makes a very specific exception for the technology needed to play Blitzball, Spira's most popular sport, so that the Spirans have at least some joy in their lives.
- 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. The Whites turn out to be faceless and lifeless, and given masks of fake smiles, and the whole joint turned out to be a scam that leads to becoming Human Resources.
- In The Order of the Stick, Celia invokes the second reason for why Haley shouldn't kill the head of the thieves guild: the Succession Crisis would harm people, and give the MOB a chance to get into the city.
- The Empire of Blood also applies this trope. This being Order of the Stick, it naturally gets lampshaded.
- In Girl Genius, one of the Baron's soldiers asks another whether the Baron sent soldiers to a street party. He had, in fact, sent barrels of booze. Besides the good will, those drunk on that would make no trouble.
- 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 than 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.
- A Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal page featured a protester upset "because it's not happening! There is constant villainy but no bread and no circuses!"
- Lovely People: After the negatively-depicted social credit system makes it so reading The Bible no longer brings any social score points, Marigold, the dedicated Bible reader among the main characters is shown switching to a series about how to make one's ears (the world is populated by Funny Animal rabbits) look and feel better that actually brings points in.
- Deconstructed and parodied by this Onion article describing a massacre of 48 civilians 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 Avalon's 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 Chapek 9 demonizes humans, produces anti-human movies, and go on (normally) fruitless human hunts to distract them from their real problems, like a lugnut shortage and incompetent Robot Elder leadership.
- Mongul's empire in Justice League drew obvious parallels to the Roman Empire. 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.
- Deconstructed in Thunder Cats 2011. The Catfolk-populated empire of Thundera has the severity of its decay, Urban Segregation and Fantastic Racism underscored by contrasting the slums, and the fates of Thundera's prisoners-of-war with the extravagant entertainments and feasts enjoyed by the upper city's deeply complacent Blue Blood. They enjoy lavish banquets and watching Blood Sport Gladiator Games in a giant amphitheatre, which a fêted general singles out as one of "the little things in life [I] miss the most." while slum-dwelling Artful Dodgers must pick pockets to buy food, and hungry Lizard Folk P.O.W.s, enslaved for the crime of raiding the expansionist Cats' crops, must contend with the most dangerous implications of medieval Stock Punishment. Small wonder the Cats fail to see their fall on the horizon...
- Played for laughs:
- Star Wars Rebels: After Governor Pryce manages to kill Kanan, she holds a grand parade to celebrate the Empire's victory over the Rebellion... and to distract everyone from the fact that she only scored that victory by destroying the Empire's fuel depot for the sector, crippling their operations there. Most of the attendants are forced to take part against their will. Admiral Thrawn is not fooled and highly unamused.
Thrawn: (visibly trembling with fury) Did you seriously believe that holding a parade would hide the fact that you destroyed our entire fuel supply? In defeating Kanan Jarrus, you have accomplished what the Rebels failed to and given them a victory. The operation on Lothal, my TIE Defender project, has been compromised.Pryce: G-Grand Admiral...Thrawn: I will deal with you when I return. Governor.