Since the time when Rome was governed by “bread and circuses”, bread has been a political weapon. Whoever distributed it had power and influence. If it was rationed, the days of those in power were numbered.
Sufficient bread ensures stability; with too little, a society breaks out into chaos. It is not only since the Romans succeeded in whitewashing their crises with panem et circenses that bread has been a political weapon, a sedative for the people, and a trigger for revolutions.
Queen Marie Antoinette is said to have started the French Revolution by saying that, if they lacked bread, her subjects should eat cake. Although there is no official record of her expressing these words, the phrase could not be a better indication of how bread tied in with politics. Whoever ate the hard bread of the people won their trust. Those who thought it beneath them ignited anger from below.
Even more than that, it was the access to bread, in terms of food, that was used as an instrument of power. Bread in abundance assured goodwill, as well as power and influence to those who could procure and distribute it. On the other hand, if bread had to be rationed, a social fuse was lit, and the days of those in power were numbered. In 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia demanded “peace, land and bread”, whilst chants for “work and bread” could be heard in the seething Germany of the 1920s.
Bread has thus been at the origin of many historically momentous upheavals: in short supply, as a slogan, as a demand, and as a symbol. Sadly, these revolutions have often given rise to greater scarcity, forcing the struggle for bread and power to begin anew.