Is Katniss a Modern-Day Spartacus?

Amy H. Sturgis,

Release Date
December 13, 2013



Literature and legend often reflect their culture. Some themes, like that of rulers imposing coercive power, or of individuals rising up against tyrants, are as relevant today as they were in antiquity. Suzanne Collins drew on Greek mythology’s story of the Minotaur and on the legend of Spartacus in ancient Rome as she created the Hunger Games series. Her hero, like the heroes in these stories, does not seek her own power or profit but is standing up against a violent and tyrannical government. “People everywhere yearn for the freedom to pursue their own goals and dreams,” says Prof. Amy Sturgis. Even though the themes are ancient, stories like the Hunger Games resonate with readers because the anxieties and fears they portray are real and relevant. “These stories aren’t just entertainment,” Sturgis says. “They are reflections of who and what we are.” Do the themes in these stories resonate with you? Why?

The Story of Theseus [webpage]: John Dryden translates Plutarch’s ancient story of the Greek hero Theseus
The Story of Spartacus [webpage]: Jona Lendering tells the tale of Spartacus the Roman gladiator turned revolutionary
Suzanne Collins weighs in on Katniss and the Capitol [article]: Rick Margolis sits down with Suzanne Collins to talk about Mockingjay, Philosophy, the world of Panem, and the overall meaning of The Hunger Games
Our Cages and Labyrinths [article]: Jeffrey Tucker explores the many themes and ideas in The Hunger Games and other pop culture and how these themes can reflect a change in thought
Liberty, Commerce, and Literature [articles]: A series of essays on liberty in literature
An Interview with Suzanne Collins [article]: Rick Margolis sits down with Suzanne Collins to talk about her motivations in writing The Hunger Games
Young Adult Dystopias [resource]: A list of Young Adult dystopias and secondary sources compiled by Prof. Amy Sturgis
The Girl Who Was on Fire [resource]: The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy
The Hunger Games and Philosophy [resource]: The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason
The Panem Companion [resource]: An unofficial guide to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games

Is Katniss a Modern-Day Spartacus?
In one version of an Ancient Greek myth, the kingdom of Crete defeats Athens in war and then demands regular sacrifices to remind the conquered people of Crete’s power. Athenian boys and girls are taken as tributes, and then locked inside a vast labyrinth where they are pursued and devoured by a monstrous Minotaur. These terrible killings continue until one day a hero stands up in Athens, a young man named Theseus, who volunteers to take the place of one of the doomed boys.
Sound familiar? That’s because Suzanne Collins, the author of the popular Hunger Games books, consciously drew from legends of antiquity in writing her series. Young Theseus did prove himself a hero: With the help of the King’s daughter, he finds his way through the labyrinth and slays the Minotaur.  He ends the cycle of oppression so no more tributes have to die.
In ancient Rome we find another story that may sound familiar to Hunger Games fans. Spartacus, a gladiator, is forced to fight fellow slaves to the death in an arena, a spectacle to entertain the political elite and pacify the masses.  But Spartacus refuses to be used for these gruesome games. He leads his fellow slaves in a rebellion against the Roman Empire in the first century BCE, his name becoming a rallying cry for freedom.
Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the Hunger Games trilogy, inherits the mantle of both Theseus and Spartacus. She’s part freedom fighter, part political revolutionary, and part reluctant hero by necessity. While her world is updated to speak to our modern anxieties—her government employs sophisticated technology to spy on its citizens and even attack them; propaganda is fused with reality television—ultimately the story has so much power for us because it taps into a struggle thousands of years old.
As a professor of intellectual history who specializes in the dystopian tradition, I think it’s important to consider why these narratives resonate so well with us. The tales of Theseus, Spartacus, and Katniss are all iterations of the same story, of rulers imposing coercive power, and of individuals rising up against them. These heroes don’t wish to set themselves up as new tyrants. They seek only the opportunity to determine their own lives and let others do the same. Similar heroes are found in many of the greatest stories of history, recounted in our films, our novels, our music. They stir our hearts because the struggle between  liberty and power remains a very real part of our world. People everywhere yearn for the freedom to pursue their own goals and dreams. These stories aren’t just entertainment. They are reflections of who and what we are.