Ancient Roman References in The Hunger Games

Hunger GamesI didn’t get very far into The Hunger Games before I noticed it: ancient Roman references everywhere! Perhaps not surprising since author Suzanne Collins is said to be ‘Roman Catholic’ (which could mean anything from ‘faithful Catholic’ to ‘angry anti-Catholic’.) Ancient Rome is alive in the minds of Catholics even more so than Evangelicals/Protestants, since we Catholics are more likely to seriously study the Early Church, or to hear it mentioned in homilies or Catholic books. For those of you who didn’t grow up with your nose in a Roman history book, here are some references you may have missed.

Panem – That’s the name of the country in which The Hunger Games takes place. It comes from the Latin for ‘bread’. In one of the books it’s mentioned clearly that the name ‘Panem’ comes from the phrase panem et circenses, meaning ‘bread and circuses’ (‘circuses’ meant sports such as chariot racing and gladiatorial games, not our circuses). I can’t imagine any country naming itself that, can you? Particularly since at the very beginning, the few survivors of whatever-all destroyed the United States probably had very little in the way of panem and no time off to enjoy circenses.

The Capitol – It sounds, the way the Capitol is spoken of in The Hunger Games, as if the whole of Panem was designed to service that one city. It was the same with Rome— it sounds as if the world served one city during the Roman empire. In fact, ‘Rome’ also included the surrounding agricultural land that made the city possible, and in the centuries after the founding of the city, there were Roman citizens in many places other than urban Rome. Logically, the Capitol in The Hunger Games would have included a whole Capitol ‘district’.

Roman Names – The citizens of the Capitol have names taken direct from ancient Rome— Cinna, Seneca Crane, Caesar Flickerman, and Castor and Pollux.

Tesserae – In ancient Rome, tesserae (singular: tessera) were little tags used for various purposes. One type of tesserae served as tickets to public entertainments, including gladiatorial games. In The Hunger Games, tesserae are allotments of food that a young person from the districts can sign up for, if they are willing to put their names in for the Reaping extra times.

The Games – In ancient Rome, their bloodsport, the gladiatorial games, started out as a funeral custom— a wealthy family would order two of their slaves to fight to the death at the funeral of their family member. The blood shed was a sort of replacement for the rejected practice of human sacrifice which earlier cultures practiced at funerals. Romans rejected customs of human sacrifice, and that was one reason they were so appalled by the Druids, who burned human beings alive in large wicker baskets. In The Hunger Games, the Games were a long-term punishment for the rebellious Districts. And just as a successful gladiator got money and fame, the winner of the Hunger Games was promised riches for life.

One thing that is not a parallel with ancient Rome is the matter of religion. Rome kept order by creating a national religion of revering the genius (guiding spirit) of the current Emperor. Christians, who would not burn incense to the emperor, were for that reason condemned to death in the arena— for refusing to be ‘good citizens’.

In The Hunger Games, it seems that the authorities of Panem have achieved what dictators of Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China only dreamed of— the obliteration of all religion. Not even in the Districts is there any trace of hidden people of faith, or even of remembered folk-hymns. It is all bleak, hopeless, and rather impossible to credit— unless you take into account that books that have no religion sell better to the officially-atheist American government-run schools.

For the writer who bothers to learn history, ancient Rome is an excellent source of inspiration for world-building of many kinds. It is a culture distinctively different from our own, and yet it contributed much to our world.

For Christians, knowing about ancient Rome is essential to understanding the world of the New Testament. I remember that reading Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Claudius the God’ helped me a lot in my college level New Testament courses at Fresno Pacific College. I discovered that Graves’ work, though they were novels, were very much based on the existing ancient sources.

After reading some basic books on Rome, the Christian writer might consider learning about the Early Church Fathers. These are the writers of the very earliest preserved Christian materials other than that in scripture. Some of these works, like the Didache, were considered by some to be scripture before the Church defined the official Canon of the New Testament.

In my own vast supply of Works-in-Progress that are not making enough progress, I have one world in which stray Romans went across a barrier between worlds, found themselves trapped, and build an enduring culture. This idea predates my reading of The Hunger Games, but has changed considerably based on ideas I had reading The Hunger Games. (Being contrary, my world is more of a ‘what if the Capitol were mostly in the right?’ take on the whole thing.)

So, what about you? Are there any fictional works inspired by ancient Rome that you really enjoy? Have you ever written a Roman-influenced story?


2 thoughts on “Ancient Roman References in The Hunger Games

  1. On the light side, there were Avram Davidson’s Peregrine books and S. P. Somtow’s Aquiliad. A heavier treatment of the Roman/Celtic interface and eventually the pagan/Christian interface is The King of Ys tetralogy by Poul and Karen Anderson.

    Of course, when you get into Byzantine territory, there is no Harry Turtledove but Harry Turtledove.

  2. Jerome, I read The King of Ys series many years ago and still have the books around somewhere. And I love the thing about ‘there is no Harry Turtledove but Harry Turtledove’.

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