I talked about ‘Bread and Circuses’ reliance on Juvenal and its satire of television and cinema during Part 1. But, there is even more going on during our trip to Planet 892-IV.
While the episode is accusing its audience of acting like Juvenal’s Roman mob and not engaging in politics, it simultaneously points to a number of political issues the US was dealing with the in late-1960s.
The Romans had become a metaphor for a totalitarian state over the course of the Fifties and Sixties through the Romans epics like Quo Vadis (1951) and Spartacus (1960). We see a continuation of this depiction in ‘Bread and Circuses’. In the Roman epics (discussed in Part 1) the Romans became a metaphor for Nazism or Communism, but also for the old-style imperialism of the British Empire (seen through the persistent use of British accents).
Yet, the Rome we see in ‘Bread and Circuses’ doesn’t look like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. Instead, through a procession of American magazines…
And television stations…
It looks far more like the US than another totalitarian or imperial state. The Romans even have American accents.
This comparison between Rome and the US would have been familiar to the viewers of the Sixties. The last Roman epic centred on this comparison, with The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) reflecting Anthony Mann’s concerns about declining US fortunes. In ‘Bread and Circuses’ the comparison centres on demonstrating that both Rome and the US are imperialist nations. And in 1968, after ten years of conflict in Vietnam, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and numerous other US interventions abroad, it certainly seemed to some that the US was pursuing imperialist ambitions.
This is where the characters of the Enterprise step in to let the audience know there is an alternative option. ‘Bread and Circuses’ gives us a clear description of the ‘Prime Directive’, i.e. the policy of non-interference in social development. This is a counterpoint to the imperialism of the Romans, and the US. It also had a real world analogue. Article 2, Paragraph 7 of the United Nations charter states:
“Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”
Essentially, ‘Bread and Circuses’, like many other Star Trek episodes, is attempting to get its audience to act like Kirk and co., rather than the imperialist Romans. To engage politically against imperialist intervention of the US abroad.
Slavery and the working class
The episode also concentrates on slavery throughout. But not ancient slavery. ‘Bread and Circuses’ depicts a slavery that has evolved to include guaranteed medical payments and old age pensions. It is essentially a ‘slavery with benefits’.
In fact, these slaves look a lot like the American working class, downtrodden by low income, but placated by fringe benefits. It seemed to be what Roddenberry was going for when devising the episode. A memo from him to John Kneubuhl when writing the episode shows us how he linked slavery to modern working conditions:
“Since in ancient Rome the slave system has an economic reality and logic, we have to find some reality and logic for that system here…Perhaps they [the slaves] enable our ‘Romans’ to lead lives of uncomplicated luxury by taking a great number of decisions and modern complexities out of their homes. (Incidentally, that’s not a bad idea, I could use a couple of slaves myself. Or on second thought, considering what we pay for our housekeeper, maybe I’ve got one. What a terrible thought, i.e. that I have a slave and instead of feeding her I give her money to feed herself, and probably not at all as well as I’d feed and clothe her if she lived more closely with the family. Yes, a terrible thought.)” (Cushman, 2014: p.332)
But in 1968 it would be impossible to talk about the working class and slavery without thinking about the Civil Right Movement. Since 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. had started directing his efforts towards the Poor People’s Campaign, as he believed the movement had to encompass all of the working poor. This campaign aimed at economic justice and human rights for all the working class from every background. Something mirrored in the struggle of the ex-slaves in ‘Bread and Circuses’. We can even see echoes of the summer riots of 1967 in the civil disturbances seen at the start of the episode…
By using slavery and comparing it to the working class, ‘Bread and Circuses’ is reminding its audience of the domestic problems facing the US in 1968. It wants them to engage politically to change the situation.
Although there are also reflections of the hippie movement or tensions in the Civil Rights Movement in the episode, it is these two central messages that ‘Bread and Circuses’ focuses on. Through the lens of Sixties science-fiction and the satire of Juvenal, its reaches out to its audience and reminds them of their own contemporary issues and asks them to no longer be placated by ‘bread and circuses’.
This is one of a series of posts on ‘Bread and Circuses’, read Part 1.
For a more condensed version, check out my Bettakultcha talk.
I would recommend again Marc Cushman’s These are the Voyages, but once again give the warning that sometimes his source material is slightly questionable.
To find out more about the Civil Rights Movement, the book Black Protest in the Sixties is an excellent resource.
An interesting look at the growing worry of imperialism in the US of the Sixties is Harry Magdoff’s The Age of Imperialism, published in 1969, only a year after ‘Bread and Circuses’.
For more on the Roman epics, Monica Cyrino’s Big Screen Rome is an excellent introduction.