The Roman bread and circuses began with the loss of civic virtue

George Washington spent a lifetime studying and living civic virtue. He warned that once a free society losses these habits, it is not far from the loss of liberty.

Civic virtue is the practice of certain habits that lead to the success of a community. The Foundation for a Better Life, since 2001, promotes civic virtue through an ingenious media campaign that utilizes bill boards, television ad spots, and more. The associated website,, lists civic virtues, defines them and provides examples: devotion is love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause; appreciation is to value highly; courage is doing the right thing in the face of opposition. George Washington studied and promoted civic virtue throughout his life. Our leaders at all levels set the tone for our behavior and attitudes toward ourselves, others, and our country beginning with parents, then teachers, clergy, coaches and so on up to the president. The actions and often even the words coming from the administration and Congressional leaders do not engender civic virtue. They are setting the divisive tone illustrated through much of the media, and an all too often brazen lack of civility among the people.

Civility refers to behavior between individuals and groups that conform to the social mores of a civil society. This idea in and of itself forms an American foundational principle and much of our written law. Mores in Latin means norms, customs, virtues or values.  It has more to do with practice than law. Ethos is the Greek equivalent.  A populace that actively practices civic virtue has always been a big concern for republican forms of government, like America, Rome, Athens, etc.  Under an oligarchy or monarchy it is what ever those that hold power determine has virtue that dominates. A government “by the people and for the people” inherently survives only if a majority practices civic virtue. 

The transition of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire was preceded by a loss of civic virtue, followed by the loss of liberty. The republic lasted for over 450 years beginning in 509 BC until it collapsed under the weight of civil wars, decadence, indecency, lead poisoning, the rise of Islam or Christianity – all depending on who you talk to. According to the History Guide, under the rule of the first Roman dictator Augustus Caesar, “the city of Rome provided bread, oil and wine to its urban population.  What this meant, is that almost 250,000 inhabitants of Rome consumed about 6 million sacks of grain per year, free.  Rome provided citizens with food — it also provided them with entertainment.  Of the poor, the poet Juvenal would write: with no vote to sell, their motto is “couldn’t care less,” time was when their plebiscite elected generals, heads of state, commanders of legions: but now they’ve pulled in their horns, there’s only two things that concern them: BREAD and CIRCUSES.”

In ancient Rome, the people abandoned civility, next came the loss of a vote and republican form of government, then they gave in to lives of little more than eating and entertainment, all provided by the government.  It may have started innocently enough with a live and let live mentality, but over time a small but vocal minority was not satisfied with being free to practice life styles deprecating to their human spirit. They felt a tinge of guilt or maybe jealousy toward those who followed what appeared to be the restrictive, social mores and yet seemed to prosper and even enjoy their boring lives of service to neighbor, fealty to one man or one woman, respect for life at all stages, so forth and so on.

Civic virtue as modeled and taught by George Washington does not imply a refusal to let people live and do as they please. The notion of individual freedom and responsibility is embedded deeply into the American psyche.  It does require that each individual contribute more to society than he takes, unless truly in need, and live according to principles tested over eons to be essential to maintaining a civil society. He summarized the good society into four categories, excerpted here from the PBS Civic Classroom project.

1. Civic Knowledge

  • Vote in candidates who will defend the Constitution.
  • Write letters or e-mails, or call them on the telephone to share your views.
  • Run for office, if you are able.
  • Understand what the Constitution says about how the government works, and what the government is supposed to do and what it is not to do.
  • Civic knowledge was to form the core of education. In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, for example—the first federal law governing the western territories—it was stated that, “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
  • In his First Annual Address to Congress, President George Washington said that “the people must be taught to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority…to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness – cherishing the first, avoiding the last; and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with inviolable respect to the laws.”

2. Self-restraint

  • Control or restrain yourself; otherwise, we will need a police state—that is, a large, unlimited government—to maintain safety and order.
  • When he was sixteen years old, Washington copied a list of “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” into his school notebook, including: “Labor to keep alive in your breast the little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” By “conscience” he meant our ability to understand and reason about moral right and wrong.
  • In his First Inaugural Address, Washington said, “the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality….” He continued by saying, “there is no truth more thoroughly established that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” In other words, to be truly happy requires one to be a virtuous or moral person.

3. Self-assertion

  • Self-assertion means that citizens must be jealous of their rights, and have the courage to stand up in public and defend their rights.
  •  George Washington asserted himself in the American struggle against the British government. As a young man Washington had served in the British army and considered himself a loyal British subject, yet later he became convinced of the need to end British rule of the American colonies. He challenged his men to assert themselves in defense of liberty against their British enemy:

    “Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission. This is all we can expect. We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die. Our own country’s honor, all call upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world… Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the world, that a freeman contending for liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.”

    4. Self-reliance
    • In order to be truly free, citizens must be able to provide the basic necessities of life for themselves and their families.
    •  Citizens who cannot provide for themselves will need a large government to take care of them.
    • When citizens become dependent on government for their basic needs, the people are no longer in a position to demand that government stay limited within the confines of the Constitution.
    • Self-reliant citizens are free citizens in the sense that they are not dependent on others for their basic needs. They do not need a large provider-government, which has the potential to become an intrusive or oppressive government, to meet those needs.
    • George Washington understood the need for citizens to be self-reliant. In a letter to a recent immigrant, Washington wrote of the benefits available in America to self-reliant, virtuous citizens: “This country certainly promises greater advantages, than almost any other, to persons of moderate property, who are determined to be sober, industrious, and virtuous members of society.” Washington knew, and our national experience has shown, that only a strong self-reliant citizenry is able to fully enjoy the blessings of liberty.

Photo compliments Faye Hoggard.

 Technical and creative writer, Carla G. Harper follows current events with one eye on history and one eye on the future.  Her goal is to encourage people to think critically about what’s going on, both around them and in their lives. Follow Carla at Twitter: CarlaGHarper

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Carla Garrison

Carla writes about current issues and events with an aim toward telling the truth, using the writings of great thinkers, dead and living, as well as common sense.

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