The Hunger Games and The Third Servile War

The Third Servile War is probably one of the most famous wars you’ve never heard of.  What I mean by that is that everyone knows about Spartacus’ rebellion from the movie Spartacus, but few people know that there really was a Spartacus and he really did start a rebellion that morphed into what the Romans knew as the Third Servile War.  In Roman history, it was a monumental event that forced the Romans to reconsider their treatment of slaves and paved the way for later legislation to give slaves some protection (you could be charged for murder if you killed a slave during Claudius’ reign!).

What really struck me when I read The Hunger Games is that the Third Servile War is startlingly similar and is probably at least what partially inspired Suzanne Collins’ depiction of the rebellion of the Districts.  First I think we need a little background on the inspiration behind this and then we’ll go more in depth into why there are so many similarities.

The Third Servile War didn’t start out as a war.  It started out as a breakout from a gladiator school in Capua that included some two hundred slaves and gladiators.  Unsurprisingly, with that many people involved, the plot was discovered and the rebel slaves had to fight their way out of the school.  Spartacus was among them and he was naturally looked to as a leader, but what most people forget is another man who was a key player: Crixus.  Crixus was a Celt who had also been captured to fight in the gladiator schools of the Roman Republic and he didn’t like his situation any more than Spartacus did.  He and Spartacus, even though it may not have started out that way, became the ringleaders of their little revolt.

Their little band of escaped slaves started raiding the rich lands of Campania, which was the summer retreat of many of the senators.  So, naturally, the senators sent out a token untrained force because they did not think the slaves were a threat and because essentially all of the veteran legions were in Gaul with Caesar at the time.  They defeated the Roman soldiers because they were on Mount Vesuvius and attacked by stealth, climbing vines in order to surprise their enemies.  It was quite clever and it certainly drummed up support for their cause.

Spartacus and Crixus recruited slaves from all across the Italian countryside and trained them through the winter, working on a sort of exponential system: they would train some men who would each go and train more men, who would then in turn train more men until their army of 18,000-40,000 was fully trained and ready for the upcoming campaign season.  By this point, they had weapons and armour from the villas they raided and the Roman soldiers they killed so while they were still not optimally equipped, they were better than the seventy or so ragged men that initially escaped from Capua.

Where accounts differ is the number of armies Spartacus and Crixus then went on to defeat, with some people estimating one consular army plus support forces and others suggesting two consular armies plus support forces.  One ancient account gives three full consular armies, but this is highly unlikely; the middle ground is likely more accurate.  Although, once the senate took things seriously, the Third Servile War was never meant to last.  Crixus died and Spartacus was defeated in battle by Marcus Licinius Crassus, the remainder of his army being killed by Pompeius Magnus while they fled.

You could spend hours, even days studying the true subtleties of the Third Servile War and I would encourage you to do so (because it is quite interesting) but we don’t need to do that for the purpose of my analysis.  So here are the similarities:

1.  How the rebellion starts.

Of course, everyone and their mother knows by now that the Hunger Games are modelled on the cruelly inventive ancient Roman gladiatorial events.  Katniss is trained as a tribute in order to put on a good show for her masters, just like Spartacus was trained to put on a good show for his in the arena.  They are both natural leaders, so in crisis people tend to look to them for help, even when they themselves are not necessarily sure of their abilities.  This is particularly true when Katniss agrees to become the Mockingjay for the District 13 rebels and has to put on a face of bravery even when she was exhibiting some pretty severe psychological problems.  (And in her situation, who wouldn’t?)

Since we have no first-hand accounts from Spartacus like we do Katniss, we can hardly speculate as to his motives but it seems like the two have a lot in common: they just want to be free.  They don’t want to have to participate in the rich capital city’s bloody games and they were tired of seeing people all around them starve while others had so much.  Is wanting to be free such a crime?  Well, in ancient Rome and in Panem at the time it certainly was.

2.  The actual rebellion.

Both rebellions did take a little time to gain more widespread momentum and support.  For Spartacus, he really didn’t catch much momentum until after his victory over the Roman forces at Mount Vesuvius, where he showed that they could be defeated.  And for the District 13 rebels, it wasn’t really until Katniss agreed to be the Mockingjay in their propaganda videos that the rebellion truly got started in an organized fashion.

One of the main differences between the two rebellions is that while Rome was a little distracted and thus did not throw their resources into a slave revolt, Panem was not distracted one bit.  They could hit all of the Districts where it hurt and had time to try to turn Peeta against Katniss through weeks of torture.  The main difference between Panem and Rome is that Rome had external enemies at the time, while Panem it seems did not.

3.  The rebels.

Unlike in most dystopias, sometimes the rebels in real life are just as bad as the authoritarian regime they’re trying to overthrow.  That can be argued in Spartacus’ case, but you can’t deny the fact that a lot of people died during their plundering of the countryside.  Yes, they escaped from horrific slavery, but was it necessarily the right thing to do the same to other people?  I don’t think that Spartacus was interested in collapsing the Roman slavery system; if that were the case he would have tried marching on a few towns and cities instead of raiding.  No, I think he was more interested in freedom for himself and those close to him.  That’s not a bad goal, but we can’t really describe totally altruistic motivations for his escape-turned-revolt.

In the Hunger Games trilogy, it seemed to me that the rebels are just as bad as the former regime.  They’re out for blood, they manipulate people like Katniss for their own propaganda purposes and they’re more than willing to let a few civilian casualties happen on the way to victory.  Some of their motives are undoubtedly altruistic, but it sort of seems in District 13 that the whole rebellion is about gaining power for themselves (for the leadership at least).  Like with Spartacus, while the rebellion was in a way a good thing because it made the Romans wake up to just how horrible they treated their slaves, the rebels were not entirely altruistic and good.  Such things aren’t defined so clearly in real life like they are in movies, so you can’t really call either Spartacus or Panem’s rebels ‘good’ or even ‘bad’.  They’re complicated human beings taking on huge, nearly impossible endeavours for a wide variety of reasons.

At the end of the day, Suzanne Collins seems to have drawn heavily from Roman history, particularly from the Third Servile War.  There are some pretty startling similarities, not just on the surface with the fact that she draws from many ancient Roman names.  I could do several articles on the names alone, never mind the historical events that are similar.  However, the most important similarity with the Hunger Games trilogy and ancient Rome lies in its similarity to the Third Servile War seeing as the rebellion of the Districts was sort of the main focus in books 2-3.



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  2. cav12

    A very nice overview of the The Servile War. I think Spartacus was an opportunistic. He seized the rising animosity, set himself up as a probable leader to free the slaves. I really don’t believe he or Crixis thought out what to do next once they escaped from Capua. That’s just my thoughts ;D

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