The Real-life Inspiration Behind 'The Hunger Games': Exploring the Ancient Roman Concept

05.24.2023 // By Tome Tailor

Few can deny the immense cultural impact of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian series, The Hunger Games (View on Amazon), which has captivated millions of readers and moviegoers alike. The chilling concept of a society that sends its children into annual deathmatches seems wildly imaginative, but did you know that the story has real-life inspiration from ancient Rome?

Panem et Circenses: Rome’s “Bread and Circuses”

In ancient Rome, a popular phrase was “Panem et circenses,” which translates roughly to “bread and circuses.” The phrase originates from the Roman satirical poet, Juvenal, who used it to criticize the Roman public’s superficial, self-indulgent attitude. Derived from this phrase, the term “bread and circuses” has come to represent the practice of pacifying the masses with cheap, superficial entertainment as a distraction from the larger issues at hand.

In The Hunger Games, the Capitol is a clear parallel to the Roman Empire, with the oppressive central government placating a restless population with the violent spectacle of children fighting to the death. The annual deathmatches are televised, entertaining the Capitol’s citizens while simultaneously reminding the Districts of the Capitol’s absolute power.

The Gladiatorial Games

The most striking similarity between The Hunger Games and ancient Rome lies in the gladiatorial games. These infamous bouts, often fought to the death, were a staple of ancient Roman culture. However, unlike the fictional Hunger Games, where participants are often unwilling and selected through a lottery process, many of the ancient Roman gladiators were volunteers seeking fame, fortune, or a better life away from slavery.

That said, the Romans certainly did pit prisoners and enslaved individuals against each other, often placing them in games specifically designed for their deaths. These deadly games served a similar purpose to that of the Hunger Games matches, quashing dissent and reinforcing the might of the Roman Empire.

The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur

The inspiration from Rome doesn’t end with the gladiatorial games or “bread and circuses”. The story of the Hunger Games also parallels the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, where the city of Athens was required to send 14 young men and women to the island of Crete every nine years to be devoured by the monstrous Minotaur in a labyrinth.

This parallel is especially apparent when considering that the Capitol in ‘The Hunger Games’ requires tributes from each of the 12 districts to participate in the deadly games, much like Athens sending its tributes to Crete. As the heroine of the series, Katniss Everdeen can be seen as a modern-day Theseus, saving her people from the monstrous Capitol and their cruel games.

The Hunger Games versus Ancient Rome

While the similarities between ancient Rome and the story in The Hunger Games are undeniable, it is crucial to recognize that the series is not merely a recreation of ancient Rome with a modern twist. Instead, it is an exploration of the darker aspects of human nature, the abuse of power, and the struggle for freedom.

Suzanne Collins drew upon ancient Rome’s history, myths, and culture to create a unique and captivating tale that resonated with modern audiences, providing a chilling cautionary tale of a society in which the very worst of humanity is unleashed for the sake of entertainment and control.

If you haven’t yet delved into the world of Panem, you owe it to yourself to discover the inspiration and engrossing story of The Hunger Games. Don’t miss out on this unforgettable journey by buying the book here or indulge in the audiobook version here.

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