On the Ides of March, 1968, the world was treated to the first ever space Romans on television during the Star Trek episode ‘Bread and Circuses’.
The episode follows the Enterprise as it investigates the disappearance of the U.S.S. Beagle near Planet 892-IV. The planet is home to a Roman empire that never fell, and exists with the technology of 1960s America. During their rescue mission, Captain Kirk, Mr Spock, and Dr McCoy are imprisoned by the evil Proconsul and forced to fight in televised gladiatorial combat. Inevitably, Kirk and co. gain the upper hand and manage to escape this twentieth century Rome, leaving its institutions of slavery and public execution behind.
As with many Star Trek episodes, the intent behind the episode was to use the story to convey a particular moral or message. As Nichelle Nichols once pointed out, they were meant as ‘little morality plays’. The moral behind ‘Bread and Circuses’ seems directly tied to its title. The phrase comes from Juvenal’s Satires, where in Satire X he states:
“The people have abdicated our duties; for the people who once…handed out…everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for two things: bread and circuses.” Juvenal, Satires, 10.77-81.
Juvenal is lamenting the de-politicization of the Roman populace in favour of the state-operated bread dole and regular chariot races. In his Satire, the people are now devoid of any influence and are instead simply waiting on entertainment.
The episode builds on this theme, using Roman forms of entertainment (i.e. gladiatorial games) combined with contemporary forms of entertainment (i.e. television). It becomes a satire of 1960s network television, with the gladiatorial games depicted on a contemporary television set…
The scenes are accompanied by pre-recorded audience reactions…
And a cliched network programme announcer…
To drive home the point, we hear dialogue like: ‘You bring this network’s ratings down, Flavius, and we’ll do a special on you!’, which reinforces the comparison to contemporary television. In fact, the line ‘Live and direct from City Arena, and in color’, was originally, ‘in living color’, the tagline of NBC’s colour programming.
The focus on television prompts the viewer to consider Juvenal’s satirical message. Just as Rome’s circuses distracted the people from political issues, so television acts as a ‘circus’ for the American people in the 1960s – distracting them from the real issues of the time (e.g. Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.). The message is made quite explicit at the beginning of the episode when Kirk and crew are watching broadcasts from the planet. Although the slaves are rioting and causing disruption, the people can simply change the channel and watch gladiatorial games. This, a prime time television show in 1968 is telling its audience to stop watching, and go impact the world instead.
Yet the message doesn’t stop here. I believe the satire extends further than just television, to the larger entertainment industry of the 1960s. The episode is trying to communicate that all entertainment is acting like a ‘circus’ and distracting its audience from the real political issues.
If we look at some of the larger narrative elements in the episode, these larger satirical elements become more clear. When Kirk, Spock, and McCoy land on the planet they are greeted by the ‘Children of the Sun’, a religious sect that values love and brotherhood above all else.
The sect is persecuted and killed by the fascistic Romans, condemned to slavery and death in the arena by the evil Proconsul. Yet, it is the sacrifice of one of them that allows Kirk and co. to escape the planet. In the end, Uhura reveals that they were not the ‘Children of the Sun’, but the ‘Son’, i.e. the son of God. Kirk laments that he cannot watch it happen again, to see Christianity topple the cruel Roman empire.
Anyone familiar with the Classical epics of the 1950s might recognise this narrative somewhat. Quo Vadis (1951) follows the downtrodden Christians against the evil Emperor Nero. The Robe (1953) follow the downtrodden Christians against the evil Emperor Caligula. Ben-Hur (1959) follow a downtrodden Jewish man, who meets Christ, fighting against his evil Roman brother. Even Spartacus (1960), although not following the Christians, sees a group of downtrodden slaves, who value love and brotherhood, fighting against the evil Roman general Crassus. ‘Bread and Circuses’ uses the same formula, the world that the Enterprise crew lands on is plucked straight from the 1950s epics.
The similarities are so great that you can read the whole episode as a much larger satire of the movie industry in the 1950s and 60s. Although the popularity of these movies decreased after Cleopatra (1963), they were all still part of the public consciousness and their tropes recognisable by audiences. Thus, rather than a specific satire on network television, ‘Bread and Circuses’ instead becomes a critique of entertainment in the sixties, both on television and in film. The episode is trying to drive home that all these movies and shows are distractions from what really matters. And in the volatile political landscape of the late-1960s, this was certainly an interesting message.
However, it probably didn’t stick. According to Mark Cushman, ‘Bread and Circuses’ received the highest ratings of Star Trek‘s second season. So, rather than engaging in political activity, the audience were simply sat watching Star Trek.
This is the first in a series of posts on the episode ‘Bread and Circuses’, read Part 2.
For a condensed video version, check out my Bettakultcha talk.
I would recommend checking out Mark Cushman’s books These Are the Voyages, as they are a detailed look at the production of Star Trek. However, be aware that there are some issues with his sources (especially concerning his understanding of the ratings, see Star Trek Fact Check)
For more on Juvenal, why not read the poet himself? His works are available online for free at Poetry in Translation.
If you like reading Juvenal, you can learn more about the Satires and their historical context from Frederick Jones’ Juvenal and the Satiric Genre.
If you are interested in the historical epics of the 1950s and 60s, there is no better starting point than Maria Eyke’s Projecting the Past.