Panem et Circenses: An Investment Thesis Inspired on Pagan Rome

Decimus Iūnius Iuvenālis must have had a full life. He was the poet who wrote the Satires, criticizing Rome by combining comedy and wit around 100 A.D. As a teenager, I read some of Juvenal’s work out of pure curiosity, enriching my premature codes of conduct with two expressions full of meaning:

  • mens sana in corpore sano: “You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body; Ask for a stout heart that has no fear of death (…) What I commend to you, you can give to yourself; For assuredly, the only road to a life of peace is virtue.”
  • panem et circenses: “Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People (…) anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses”

The first has helped me follow a peaceful and righteous track for life. The second helped me understand the relationship of power, money, and the behaviour of the masses. But it was not until lately that I realized: panem et circenses can directly impact my investment decisions.

Here’s why.

First, some context.

A much deeper discussion is justifiable, but I’ll simplify to save time: when Juvenal was alive, the gladiator battles reached their peak, and any politician who sponsored a great spectacle would be reminded on coming elections. When those came, families received substantial grain portions from those who ran for Senate. Rome even tried to pass anti-corruption laws that refrained those tactics, but failed miserably. The common people no longer cared for history, politics, or heroism: they wanted food on the table, and some fun to forget the daily struggle.

What changed?

The average consumer, the one startups fight hard to conquer, is not very different today. Humans have not evolved too much, and most of our everyday decisions are unconsciously-biased and highly influenced by how quick arguments have been molded to win us. Believe me, there are hundreds of books about it 😉

Whenever I discuss a business model twist or analyze a new early-stage product, I think about panem et circenses and try to broaden its reach. This way, I can see how that startup will bring two sets of things to the user’s table:

  • Panem = food. Money. Complementary income. Goal achievement. Self-education. Food for thought.
  • Circenses = fun. The ability to bring fun to others. Sense of belonging. Self-deception. Happiness.

Those two lists go on and on, and I could write pages about those concepts. I’ll keep this post short and leave the interpretation to you, because it all boils down to this: if a startup is directly marketing and delivering at least one of those concepts properly, even if not explicitly, a further look is granted. It may be able to solve two pains we know are common to everyone.

Practice this on the next potential investments you face. Let me know how it works for you.