Two thousand years after the satirist Juvenal quipped that Rome’s emperors kept the plebeian hordes happy with “bread and circuses”, tangible proof of brazen vote-buying has been unearthed by archaeologists.
Experts have discovered a house in Pompeii that was used as a base for election campaigning by an aspiring Roman politician and that also contained a bakery with a large oven for making loaves of bread.
The bread would have been doled out for free, or sold cheaply, to ordinary Romans in return for their votes, archaeologists say.
Graffiti and inscriptions show that the man plotting to win political office was a wealthy Roman called Aulus Rustius Verus, who hoped to be elected an aedile or senior official.
Normally, such inscriptions are found on the outside walls of a building where passersby could read them.
But these were found on the inside walls of the villa, indicating that the house was used as a campaigning office, a venue for meetings and dinners.
“Aulus Rustius Verus would have understood, when he was scheming to become an aedile and during his election campaign, that voters relied above all on bread for their survival,” said Maria Chiara Scappaticcio, an academic at Federico II University in Naples and the co-author of a report on the discovery. “Magistrates and bakers collaborated to the very limits of legitimacy.”
Archaeologists found the aspiring politician’s initials on a millstone in the bakery, adding further weight to the theory that he financed the bread-making business “for both political and economic ends”.
Although he may well have owned the property, it was probably leased out to one of his business partners, friends or even a freed slave, said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the Pompeii archaeological site.
“We know from the ancient sources that there was often a connection between bakeries and politicians because through the distribution of bread they could influence the electorate and secure votes,” he said.
“It is something that today would be considered illegal campaign financing or corruption, but it was quite common at the time. Without Pompeii, we would know much less about how these things worked.”
The discoveries suggest that Aulus Rustius Verus was “a very important figure in those last years of Pompeii”, before the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius, said Prof Zuchtriegel.
Archaeologists also discovered in the villa a lararium, a shrine to the guardian spirits of the household, where family members would perform regular rituals.
Analysis of the shrine revealed that the last offerings to be made, before the villa and the rest of Pompeii were engulfed by ash and volcanic debris, were figs and dates.
The wall behind the shrine was decorated with a pair of snakes squirming across a blood-red background and beneath them a third snake with crimson frills around its head.
Juvenal’s much-quoted remark about “panem et circenses”, bread and circuses, was meant as a jibe against the Roman populace, accusing them of having been bribed into submission by chariot racing, gladiatorial spectacles and food handouts dispensed by emperors.