Bread as Strategy of Control and Tactic of Subversion
Earlier this week we watched a fascinating programme, ‘Meet the Romans with Mary Beard’ (BBC2, part 1 of 3; Mary Beard is Professor of Classics and Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge University).
2000 years ago the population of Rome exploded, doubling in size and doubling in size again, becoming a city of 1 million people, a city larger than any Europe had ever known, or would know again until Victorian London.
Rome was not a place you came from, but a place you came to; and, more than that, an idea people were drawn to, from all over the ancient world. Anyone from anywhere could become a citizen of Rome. It even became a common practice for slaves to be given the money to buy themselves citizenship at the completion of their contracted service, if indeed they had not saved the sum already from out of their wages.
It struck me that the Romans – by which I mean the people who lived in Rome itself – were incredibly tolerant of anyone from anywhere; as long as they were willing to be assimilated into the Roman way of doing things. But – quite understandably, given how the city’s life depended on surfing the very edge of chaos – the Roman ‘idea’ or ‘genius’ was firmly (and when deemed necessary, violently) intolerant of anyone from anywhere who resisted assimilation: which is why both the Jewish and the Christian population experienced the unwanted attention of expulsions and persecutions from time to time.
Almost all of the population lived in the new high-rise apartment blocks (insula, a Roman architectural development), separated – for the first time in history – from the means of growing even some of their own food. The emperor bestowed upon every Roman citizen, rich or poor, a monthly grain dole. Some 200,000 received the dole, which was enough grain for bread for two people for a month.
In this way, a sizeable proportion of the population were appealed to – in much the same way as our own politicians appeal to different groups within our society – and the rest had an incentive to aspire to citizenship. As insula accommodation was predominantly one-room apartments without even kitchen facilities, let alone land, most people relied on professional bakers to turn their grain into tear-and-share bread for them.
Through the grain dole, the emperor was making the claim, “I am your Lord, who provides for you.” Though not mentioned, what struck me was how highly political the Christian act of sharing broken bread was in this context, a threat to Rome itself. In this act, they were refuting the emperor’s claim with the counter-claim “Jesus is our Lord, who provides for us.”
More than that, this is a classic example of de Certeau’s observation of strategies of control and tactics of subversion. Many of the Christians were themselves Roman citizens. They took the emperor’s strategy of control – the grain dole he bestowed – and employed a tactic of subversion – using the very grain to create the very symbol that refuted the power play at work.
This causes me to wonder how subversive Communion is in my own context. Does breaking bread retain any subversive creativity at all? Or has it, ironically, become a strategy of control, a means of reinforcing the status quo (to borrow a Latin phrase from the Romans)? How might we reclaim Communion as a tactic of subversion, within the State, and within the Established Church?
Moreover, do we view that which the State bestows on us as our right, that to which we are entitled; that which we must fight to retain for ourselves, in the context of national, regional and civic budget cuts? Or might we view what we are given as raw material that can be refashioned into the statement “Jesus is our Lord, who provides for us” as we share one another’s burdens and meet one another’s needs in ways that do not absolve the State of responsibility but undermine its position as false god we have entered into co-dependent benefactor-beholden contract with?