HUNGER GAMES Roots: Greece and Rome

Watch out. I'm about to get my nerd on.

But in the case of reading HUNGER GAMES, my extreme nerdiness actually came in handy. See, Suzanne Collins clearly comes from the school of nerdy writing--there are tons of great historical allusions in HUNGER GAMES that gives the story a little something extra for fellow nerds.

I think the greatest influence comes from Ancient Greece and Rome. Some are obvious, some aren't. Below, you'll find some of my favorite references and influences of history in HUNGER GAMES.

Theseus & Tributes
The story of Theseus is most often associated with his epic battle with the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull monster at the center of the Labyrinth. But before he did that, he had to deal with a tribute system that will remind HUNGER GAMES readers of how Katniss and Peeta became tributes.

King Aegeus was ordered to send seven of the most courageous young men and seven of the most beautiful young women of Athens to Crete as a tribute to King Minos every seventh year (there are various accounts of this; some use the number nine instead of seven). Crete had defeated Athens in battle; the tributes were to be a lasting reminder of Crete's power and success.

Sound familiar? It should: Suzanne Collins definitely had this story in mind when she wrote. She said in an interview with School Library Journal:
Theseus and the Minotaur is the classical setup for where The Hunger Games begins, you know, with the tale of Minos in Crete….
Spartacus & Gladiators
But of course, the story's not just about the selection of youths sent to die--it's also about the fight. There's definitely a gladiator feel to the setting: any situation where people are pitted against each other is reminiscent of the arena. (Interesting side note: the etymology of the word "arena" is "sandy place" because originally arenas were covered with sand on the ground in order to better soak up all the spilled blood. I warned you I was getting my nerd on with this post.)

But Suzanne Collins wasn't just thinking about gladiators in general when she wrote HUNGER GAMES. Nope. She had one specific one in mind: Spartacus.

Those of you who don't know the story (or only know the movie version), here's a quick summary: Spartacus's early life is a bit obscure, but he was probably a soldier in the Roman army who committed some crime, possibly desertion. As punishment, he was forced to be a gladiator. He didn't take too kindly to this. He was part of a rebellion at the training center (using, in part, knives from the kitchen!), and led the rebel group to camp out near Vesuvius (famous for Pompeii). Many battles followed, until he eventually died (also in battle).

You can see the similarities: a person originally law-abiding becomes a "tribute" (if you will) as punishment, is forced to battle as a gladiator, and eventually leads a rebel group to fight against the kingdom.

The problem?

Spartacus dies.

If Spartacus is Katniss, and Spartacus dies.... *shudders at the thought*

Some people speculate that this comparison--which Collins acknowledges--is actually a hint that we should be preparing for Katniss's ultimate death:
But once the “Hunger Games” story takes off, I actually would say that the historical figure of Spartacus really becomes more of a model for the arc of the three books, for Katniss. We don’t know a lot of details about his life, but there was this guy named Spartacus who was a gladiator who broke out of the arena and led a rebellion against an oppressive government that led to what is called the Third Servile War. He caused the Romans quite a bit of trouble. And, ultimately, he died.

Rome & The Capital
The Roman Empire grew and changed throughout history, but there was certainly a time when decadence was key. The word "orgy" has it's roots in the Roman Empire--that should give you a hint about the wild times they had. Rumors--some historically proven, some not--abound, including that the Romans developed a taste for food such as hummingbird tongues and the Romans would eat so much at feasts they developed a knack for vomiting afterwards to make room for more. Games--including gladiator games--became hugely popular.

The fall of the Roman Empire happened in part because of this decadence--rulers weren't focused doing their job half so much as partying. But there was also a series of rulers who were either cruel or inept or both--some of which were probably psychotic (Caligula, Nero, etc.).

Suzanne Collins mirrors the decadent Roman Empire in the Capital--partly in the parties (remember the feasts where Peeta and Katniss are disgusted by the idea of vomiting in order to eat more?) and partly in the attitude of the people (how many times was it commented that the Capital people didn't think of the Games as anything more than entertainment?). But I think it might also be true of President Snow...he has a distinctly Nero feel about him, no? If he plays a fiddle while the Capital burns, don't forget I told you first!


Mandy P.S. said...

I definitely felt some of the Roman influence when I read The Hunger Games, but I didn't think about Spartacus! I certainly hope that Katniss and the revolutionaries don't meet the same fate as Spartacus and his men. The Romans weren't just happy to kill Spartacus; they killed everyone who participated. Spartacus's men were all crucified. *shudders at the thought*

And Beth, you're always welcome to get your nerd on. :)

lotusgirl said...

I love it when you get that nerd flowing. This was very interesting. I hadn't thought of Spartacus in particular in reference to Katniss, but now that you mention it, it's so obvious. I'm hoping that the final battle will follow more the invasion of the Visigoths. I can't wait to see what Suzanne Collins does.

Mrs. DeRaps said...

I honestly didn't even think about the history of gladiators and such while reading any of this series. Der. Thanks for this post!

I'm going to post a link to this entry in my Mockingjay Madness blog post:

Jeff Hirsch said...

Yeah, Spartacus never occurred to me either but it totally makes sense. I gotta say I can't see Katniss dying though, especially since it's written in the 1st person. Her death would be pretty awkward to handle.

Mockingjay is sitting in my Kindle right now, burning it up! How am I supposed to work?

Angie Smibert said...

Great classical-nerd run-down on the historical influences, Beth. Did you catch the Starz channel version of Spartacus.(Netflix has it on instant streaming.) The show has that irritating 300 stylistic thing going on, but the story's good. Season 1 focuses on the arena. Pre-rebellion. The parallels between the "show-biz" aspects of gladiatorial games and the Hunger Games are striking.

Now I'm off to start dinner and crack open Mockingjay. Maybe not in that order.

Krispy said...

I love seeing this sort of stuff in books. Yay for nerdiness!

Elana Johnson said...

Oh, dude, I'm way out of my league here. I didn't know any of this... Yikes. :)

Okie said...

What a great and insightful post. I definitely saw hints of influences in the first two books (only just starting #3 now).

As with many truly penetrating and evocative stories, a lot of the similarities and influences are underplayed and not called out directly. In fact, in many cases, Collins may not have even been aware of their influence or only aware peripherally.

Part of what makes this series so attractive to me is its strong ties to history and humanity. Your post helps emphasize those ties.


charlierw said...

Um I definitely saw the Influence, Peeta, Plutarch, Haymith, Panem (accusative [DO] case of 3rd declension Latin noun "panes" which means bread), Caesar, Claudius, Cinna (name of 2 close friends of Julius Caesar), Cato, Portia, Flavia, and Octavia (the last three are the "nomens" [family names] for the women of three important, wealthy ancient roman families)