The Hunger Games trilogy is a little like Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, and a little like every reality television show ever invented. It's set in the future but has an antique pedigree. Suzanne Collins has said that Katniss Everdeen's story is essentially a "gladiator story" and that it originates in two tales from Ancient Greece and Rome.
Theseus and the Minotaur
The Hunger Games, the first book in the trilogy, stems from the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. King Minos of Crete had defeated the Athenians in war, and to solidify his authority over them, demanded a tribute of seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls to be fed to the Minotaur every nine years. The Minotaur was half-bull and half-man, a vicious creature born from the union of Minos' wife, Pasiphaë, and a snow-white bull sent down by Poseidon. The Minotaur lived at the center of a labyrinth at King Minos' palace at Knossos which had been built by the architect Daedelus and his son Icarus.
On the occasion of the third tribute sacrificed to the Minotaur, Theseus of Athens volunteered to attempt to kill the beast, and took the place of one of the youths. When he arrived in Crete, Minos' daughter, Adriane, fell in love with him and offered her help. She gave him a ball of string and passed along the secret which Daedelus had told her: go forwards, always down, and never left or right. He tied the string to the entrance of the maze, wound his way down to the center, and discovered the sleeping Minotaur, then decapitated him with a sword he'd hidden in his tunic. He fled Crete with Adriane, her sister, and the other Athenian tributes in a wooden ship.
Plutarch wrote in the Life of Theseus, "The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus [a statesman who lived at about 300 B.C.E.], for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place." Throughout the centuries, the ship reinforced the Athenians' believe that Theseus was a real, historical figure, and excavations on Knossos confirm the existence of an impressive palace, although no labyrinth has been found.
The arc of the next two books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, more closely follows that of Spartacus, a Thracian slave who was forced to be a gladiator until he led an uprising in 73 B.C.E. According to Plutarch, the first to write down the story, seventy-eight of Spartacus' fellow men succeeded in escaping from confinement "armed with choppers and spits which they seized from some cookhouse. On the road they came across some wagons which were carrying arms for gladiators to another city, and they took these arms for their own use." For two years, Spartacus's band grew in number and defeated the soldiers sent by the Roman emperor. He succeeded in bring his men to the Alps, where they planned to escape back to their homelands in Gaul and Thrace (western and southeastern Europe), but, as Plutarch writes, "They were strong in numbers and full of confidence, and they went about Italy ravaging everything in their way."
At last he was trapped and assailed on the Southern tip of Italy. "This was the most stubbornly contested battle of all. In it Crassus' troops killed 12,300 men, but he only found two of them who were wounded in the back. All the rest died standing in the ranks and fighting back against the Romans." Spartacus himself died in battle in 71 B.C.E., surrounded by enemies, and his body was never found.
Image top: Athenian urn, c. 550 B.C.E.
Image bottom: Spartacus, Denis Foyatier, 1827
This article is from the September 8, 2010 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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