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This is a shortened version of a paper originally published as "Les combats de gladiateurs dans la fiction speculative: Star Trek et Hunger Games" in L'Antiquité gréco-latine dans l'imaginaire contemporain: Fantasy, Science-Fiction, Fantastique, M. Bost-Fiévet and S. Provini (eds.), Paris: Classiques Garnier 2014, 321-338.


  1. Introduction
  2. How To Tell You're In a Gladiatorial Combat
  3. Why Evoke Gladiatorial Combat?
  4. Gladiatorial Combat in The Hunger Games
  5. Conclusion
  6. Endnotes
  7. Works Discussed

Introduction [contents]

Gladiators and gladiatorial combat are among the most recognisable elements of "ancient Rome" in modern popular culture, second only to the orgy as a marker of "Romanness" [1]. Instances of gladiatorial combat in speculative fiction, therefore, invite readers or viewers to compare the worlds created in fiction with ancient Rome. The precise nature of this interaction varies according to the specifics of the story, but it is particularly affected by whether the audience's attention is drawn to the Roman comparison explicitly through dialogue, names, or other clear markers of Rome, or whether the relationship is implicit, i.e., it is left unspoken, and the audience are allowed to make the connection themselves. This essay will explore how and why gladiatorial combat is used in speculative fiction, with particular emphasis on references to ancient Rome in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy.

How To Tell You're In a Gladiatorial Combat [contents]

Gladiator still

There a number of different types of forced combat in speculative fiction—characters may be forced to box or joust, they may be forced into service in an army, forced to go on a suicide mission, or forced to fight a duel to the death with their best friend for complicated alien purposes. Gladiatorial combat is a particular form of forced combat and invites parallels between the characters and the environment depicted and ancient Rome. The characters forced to fight in such situations can be either male or female (see for example Furey 1994: 368-380), as, indeed, they could be in ancient Rome [2]. There are five chief indications that a specific form of forced combat is gladiatorial.

1. The participants are slaves who are forced to fight. In the Roman world, some gladiators were volunteers, but most were slaves who were forced to fight by their masters (leaving aside the separate category of criminals sentenced to death in the arena; see Kyle 2001: 89). This is the most important marker of a Roman-style gladiatorial combat as opposed to other forms of combat for entertainment purposes. Because such combat is usually designed to provide some commentary on slavery as an institution, although free volunteer fighters may feature in the story, the focus will be on those forced to fight, either as condemned criminals, slaves, or both. In George R. R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons (2011), for example, although the fighters in the newly re-opened fighting pits of Meereen are supposed to be volunteers, the reader knows (as the autocratic ruling character Daenerys Targaryen does not) that at least two of the participants have been sold into chattel slavery and are appearing against their will (Martin 2011: 694).

2. Combat takes place in front of a large crowd for the purposes of entertainment. The element of entertainment is essential, both for establishing the "Roman" nature of the combat and for the thematic issues commonly addressed through the use of this trope, particularly in film and television (in which the viewer watches with the intradiegetic audience).

3. Fights are at least potentially to the death. In the ancient Roman world, we do not know how many combats were potentially to the death (depending on whether the crowd spared the loser) and gladiators were expensive commodities, so it is possible, indeed likely, that some fights had a different designated end-point (see Wiedemann 1995: 120). However, in speculative fiction (and in historical fiction set in the Roman period) such fights are virtually unheard of. To increase the tension and the dramatic potential of the fight, it must always be a fight to the death, though both participants may walk away if the audience grant them their lives, often by cheering or raising their thumbs [3].

4. Combat will take place in front of an autocratic ruler of some kind as well as the general audience, and this ruler will ultimately have the power to spare or execute survivors. Although, historically, Roman gladiatorial combat developed during the Republican period when Rome was a democracy, in the popular imagination it is associated almost entirely with emperors and absolute dictatorship [4]. This is partly due to the popularity of films such as Quo Vadis (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1951) and Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000), which depict the arena as a tool of the emperor, whose violent whims can be satisfied via this public institution [5]. It is also partly the result of the political commentary of much Western speculative fiction, in which democracy is held up as the best form of government, at the same time as adding emphasis to the work's commentary on slavery. Just as Roman Republican or anti-imperialist writers often referred to kingship as slavery and those who lived under a monarchy as enslaved (see for example Cicero, Philippics, 2.86), writers of speculative fiction use gladiatorial combat to criticise slavery and enslavement of all kinds, from personal chattel slavery to the slavery of a population living under a tyrannical dictator.

5. The autocratic leader will have the ultimate power of life and death over the gladiators, but will be influenced by the watching crowd, and will be afraid to go against their wishes. The audience at a gladiatorial show are not just watching the gladiators, but the leader as well, and an autocratic leader who displeases them will fear the anger of the mob, who are ultimately the more powerful collective presence (reinforcing the idea that democracy is ultimately more powerful than dictatorship). The gladiator protagonist will often appeal to the mob over the autocrat (who usually wants them to die for one reason or another) and the interplay between the desires of the mob and of the leader is often the driving force behind events in the story.

In addition to these five essential elements of gladiatorial combat, there are other ways of likening the imaginative combat to Roman gladiators. Popular "visual" cues—whether achieved through image or description—include searing heat and sand covering the floor of the arena, which is often a round pit-like area with the audience watching from above, emulating a Roman amphitheatre in a Mediterranean summer. A perennial favourite is the retiarius, the gladiator who uses a net and trident against a helmeted, sword-wielding opponent (see Versnel 1998: 231). The retiarius is popular because it is so distinctly Roman and sets the combat apart from a duel between opponents with matching weapons or other forms of violence-as-entertainment, like jousting. Fighting as a retiarius also requires the gladiator to be nimble and clever, as well as strong, so the retiarius may be used when the writer or director wants to emphasise that a character has intelligence and quick wits as well as brute strength (as opposed to, for example, Steven DeKnight's television series Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010), in which retiarii are rarely seen despite the prevalence of gladiatorial combat, because the series tends to emphasise brute strength over cunning). Retiarii are also useful because they do not wear helmets, making them easily recognisable—Juvenal reports as particularly shocking a member of the Gracchi family who shuns swords (a more proper weapon for a Roman, not that there is any justification, as far as Juvenal is concerned, for a noble fighting as a gladiator) and fights with trident and net, and lifts his bare face to the crowd (Juvenal, Satires, 8.200-203; see also Kyle 2001: 18). Retiarii are popular in historical stories set in Rome; it is Draba the retiarius who refuses to kill Kirk Douglas' Spartacus and whose death incites the rebellion in Kubrick's film (Spartacus, dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1960), while the unfortunate Cassius in British sitcom Plebs is a "net-man" (in Season 1 episode "The Gladiator").

Retiarii are even more popular in gladiatorial combat in speculative fiction, because they provide a visual marker to alert the reader or audience to the fact that they are watching a Roman-style gladiatorial combat. The image of a man (or woman) in light armour wielding a trident (or in some cases a long spear) is visually arresting and enticingly alien. In speculative fiction, the image of the retiarius will often be played with and mixed up while remaining recognisably retiarius-like; in Maggie Furey's Aurian (1994), for example, the titular heroine faces a pair of opponents, one of whom has a spear while the other attacks her from the other side with the net (Furey 1994: 370-372). In Star Trek Season 2 episode "Bread and Circuses" (1968), the second pair of fighters we see on the televised gladiatorial fights shown on a planet on which the Roman Empire never fell includes a retiarius-style fighter wearing a helmet.

Why Evoke Gladiatorial Combat? [contents]

Voyager still

There are, then, certain ways of indicating to your audience or reader that you want them to be thinking about Roman gladiatorial combat and seeing the forced combat inflicted upon your protagonists as parallel to it or derived from it. But why? There are a number of different points writers of speculative fiction might want to make or issues they want to raise for which gladiatorial combat is especially useful. Sometimes the combat may provide a useful and potentially amusing parallel to a real-world sport or sports fans, the story may explore issues of consent and/or the violence inflicted upon the body of a slave by a master, or the author may have a wider point they want to make about war, violence, or the inherent evils of slavery. An added potential goal, and one especially important to the use of gladiatorial combat in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series (2008-2010), is that of suggesting a level of audience complicity in the suffering inflicted upon the protagonists.

Gladiatorial combat is often presented as analogous to sport and spectators to sports fans, both in historical dramas set in Rome (such as Plebs, which draws clear visual and narrative parallels between fans of gladiatorial combat and British sports fans and team supporters through its use of "team" colours and the contrast between a socially awkward lead character unfamiliar with the sport and another character with specialist knowledge) and in speculative fiction [6]. Star Trek: Voyager's Season 6 episode "Tsunkatse" (2000) in particular draws overt links between the loosely gladiatorial "sport" of Tsunkatse (which features enslaved, forced participants and televised entertainment for the masses, but lacks an autocratic dictator and features a combination of fights to the death and lesser, "green" fights) and real martial sports, especially boxing. World Wrestling Federation star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson guest stars and the episode depicts Chakotay (established in Season 5's "The Fight" [1999] as a keen amateur boxer) and Torres (shown enjoying increasingly dangerous sporting activities in Season 5's "Extreme Risk" [1998]) enjoying the show before they find out it features forced participation. "Bread and Circuses" also refers to gladiatorial bouts as sport and equates the shows to sports coverage on television, while in The Hunger Games, Katniss notes with disgust that the Capitol forces the Districts to treat the Games like a "sporting event" (Collins 2008: 22). These comparisons encourage the audience to consider how far it is appropriate to go for sport, whether it is acceptable willingly to put oneself at risk and whether it is appropriate to watch someone do so in the knowledge that they may be seriously injured or killed.

However, because gladiatorial combat is usually forced, depictions of specifically gladiatorial combat tend to focus more on the violence visited upon the body of the gladiator and the audience's enjoyment, not of a dangerous activity with the potential for violence, but of guaranteed slaughter. For example, Peter Watkins' 1969 film The Gladiators, which features a mostly male cast forced to take part in deadly televised "Games" while a group of generals of various nationalities watch, starts by comparing the Games to sports, with the participants believing that the purpose of the Games is to prevent war by diverting humankind's violent and competitive energies into these Games. However, Watkins' target is rather broader. The film is clearly at least partly an anti-war statement, with its imagery of complacent, sometimes sleeping generals displaying a total lack of emotion or compassion as they send men to their deaths, walking among white crosses that emulate the First World War graveyards of northern France while their men shoot from trenches, depicting war as a game played by generals [7]. Watkins is also keen to depict a world in which not only are the Games used to subjugate the participants and force them to play by the rules of "the system," but the television audience are similarly subjugated and taught the same lesson through their viewing of the Games (see Cook 2009: 105-108). His Games are a metaphor for society in general, and the impossibility of true political or social reform, such is the power of "the system." As in the film version of The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross, 2012), in which Cato, the last tribute to die, realises that he is "dead anyway" and "always was," having been trained for the Games for his whole life, Watkins' revolutionary B-3, although he is tragically unable to realise it for himself, is forced to confront the fact that no matter how hard he fights it, he remains inextricably part of "the system."

Works which draw implicit, rather than explicit, parallels between ancient Rome and their imagined worlds often appropriate gladiatorial-style combat as the ultimate illustration of the inherent evil of slavery as an institution. One of the distinguishing features of chattel slavery, and especially of ancient chattel slavery, is that the owner of the human property that is the slave has the right to do anything they want with their slave, up to and including killing them (an extension of the "rights" of the victor in war, the process by which many came into chattel slavery in the ancient world; see Bradley and Cartledge 2011: 1-2). Killing or damaging another person's slave might be punished in the same way as theft of or wilful damage to another person's property, but chattel slaves themselves had no rights over their own bodies at all [8]. Gladiatorial combat offers the most extreme possible example of the lack of power a slave holds over their own body, and of the potential cruelty of slave-masters to slaves, as not only are slaves forced to suffer and die against their will, they do so for the entertainment of their masters, living or dying on their masters' whims.

Star Trek Season 2 episode "The Gamesters of Triskelion" (1968) makes this parallel clear when it combines gladiatorial-style violence with the violent physical assault of a black, female crewmember in the same episode [9]. While Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov are being held prisoner, it is strongly implied that Uhura is raped (offscreen) by one of the alien gladiators. Uhura as a character—denied an official first name until J. J. Abrams' 2009 film Star Trek confirmed the name Nyota, commonly used by fans and tie-in books—being the only female regular character following the departure of Grace Lee Whitney's Janice Rand, tends to be a cipher for whatever "woman" or "female" needs to stand for in a particular episode. She is constant representation of the Other—and of course, as a black woman, in episodes that deal with slavery she is doubly Othered as both female and black. In "The Gamesters of Triskelion," Uhura represents vulnerability and complete enslavement. Chekov also attracts the sexual attention of his "drill thrall" (trainer) but his story is played for laughs, his drill thrall unattractive and Chekov merely discomfited, not threatened. Uhura, however, suffers due to her complete lack of control over her own body throughout the episode. The ever-masculine Kirk, meanwhile, plots against their masters by seducing his own drill thrall (who is, of course, beautiful) thus asserting the free (white, American) male's authority over his own body and refusal to submit to slavery. Women are depicted as more vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, and incapable of breaking their shackles without strong masculine guidance.

While works which draw more explicit parallels between their created worlds and ancient Rome may also use the gladiatorial setting to comment on slavery, this is often not their main aim. The phrase "Bread and Circuses," used in the title of Star Trek's second gladiatorial episode in Season 2 and quoted in Mockingjay (Collins 2010: 260), comes from Juvenal's tenth Satire, in which the satirist laments the fact that the Roman people have given up all interest in taking an active part in politics, as they did under the Republic, for the sake of "bread and circuses," free food and entertainment (Juvenal, Satires, 10.81) [10]. Political commentary is often one of the aims of these stories, as it was in The Gladiators. Whereas works that emphasise gladiators as slaves view the gladiators themselves as symbolic of the oppressed people, Juvenal complains that the audience are voluntarily participating in their own disenfranchisement, losing all interest in anything beyond satisfying their own desires—the basic desires of the id, as Freud might put it. Both "Bread and Circuses" and The Hunger Games carry an element of Juvenal's political complaint, condemning an audience that watches other people suffer without trying to do anything about it; Katniss is eventually forced to participate in a revolution against the oppressive regime while Kirk leaves twentieth-century Rome comfortable in the knowledge that the followers of the Son will do the job credited to them in 1950s and 1960s ancient world epic films and gradually bring down the evil Roman Empire. In these works, the reader or audience are asked, not to sympathise with a character suffering under an oppressive regime, but to see themselves as part of the audience who, by their apathy, are holding up the oppressive regime, as for example when Katniss compares her failure to help the girl who becomes an Avox with watching the Games (Collins 2008: 104).

Gladiatorial Combat in The Hunger Games [contents]

The Hunger Games still

The Hunger Games is a trilogy that asks readers to view its Games as Roman-style gladiatorial games. The series hits on all the five essential aspects of the trope—our heroes, though not chattel slaves, are forced to fight to the death and are watched by a large audience and a political dictator. At the end of the first novel, the audience determine their fate, as Seneca Crane knows without needing to ask that his audience will be deeply upset and his Games a disaster if he allows both the final two Tributes to kill themselves (though he underestimates Snow's desire to see them dead, as he discovers later).

However, there are some notable differences between the combat represented in The Hunger Games and Roman gladiatorial combat. Unlike either the majority of reality television programmes or the Roman games, the audience of the Hunger Games have no direct ability to determine the winner. Instead, rich viewers can sponsor their favourites so that they will receive extra help in the arena that will increase their chances of winning. The Hunger Games arena, despite the use of the term "arena" and the use of Roman names for all characters from the Capitol, actually bears limited resemblance to an ancient arena, and the nature of the Games is substantially different from the usual gladiatorial set-up [11]. This is an arena where the technique employed by one nervous gladiator in Monty Python's Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, 1979), of running away until his pursuer dies of a cardiac arrest leaving him the de facto winner, might actually work (this is the technique employed by Rue, Foxface, and to an extent Katniss herself, as well as Haymitch in his Games, as we find out in Catching Fire; Collins 2009: 237-243).

Despite these differences, there are numerous allusions to Rome and the Roman Empire throughout the trilogy [12]. These become more frequent and more pointed as the series goes on, with the appearance of Finnick the retiarius in Catching Fire (his unique specialism of using a trident and homemade net justified by his origins in a District focused on fishing; Collins 2009: 251) and culminating in a overt quotation of the famous "bread and circuses" line in Mockingjay. Plutarch Heavensbee quotes "Panem et Circenses" to Katniss, the narrative explicitly drawing attention to the parallel with their country's name, Panem. He explains that these words were "written in a language called Latin in a place called Rome" by a writer who was trying to explain that "in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power" (Collins 2010: 260-261). When the Districts stop supplying the food and start supplying some entertainment, Plutarch explains, the Capitol is in trouble. Even Katniss' identity as the Mockingjay, the symbol of the revolution, is linked to entertainment and the need to replace the Games with something produced by the Districts in order for the Districts to gain control, implying once again that there is no escaping the system, and building up to Katniss' realisation that President Coin is as much her enemy as President Snow [13]. Although clear and direct references to Rome have been scattered throughout the trilogy—characters with well-known names like "Caesar" Flickerman ensuring that most readers should pick up on them—this is the first direct reference in-story to Rome, the only time ancient Rome is explicitly evoked and the reader directed, rather than encouraged, to see the parallels between the Hunger Games and gladiatorial combat [14]. The parallel forces the audience to wonder how far they themselves are in thrall to anyone who provides them with food and/or entertainment.

However, in works which explicitly draw attention to the Roman parallel, there is often another target, even more central than political commentary—mass entertainment, particularly television. By making them compare their own viewing patterns and their treatment of the people on screen with a Roman audience watching a gladiatorial combat, the audience is forced to reconsider the way they watch television. The aim is to shock the viewer into re-evaluating their viewing by comparing the audience's habits with those of people who watch others die for their own entertainment, and so the Roman analogy must be made explicit.

The Hunger Games is far from the only version of this story. The essential premise of "Bread and Circuses" is, what if the Roman Empire never fell? And the answer is, gladiatorial combat would be the most popular show on television. The tension between the political power of the autocrat and the power of the people is, as so often in these stories, a driving force behind the episode, but here the people's power is manifested in the form of television ratings. The desperate need for television producers to get good ratings to avoid cancellation, a constant problem for Star Trek in its original run, is directly reflected in First Citizen Claudius' need to provide thrilling entertainment to keep the ratings up. These Games exist to fulfil the television audience's desire for bloodshed.

"Bread and Circuses," as well as The Gladiators, is one of many television episodes and films, culminating in The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998) and Edtv (dir. Ron Howard, 1999), that featured a form of "reality television" before Big Brother inspired the reality TV boom of the early twenty-first century. For The Hunger Games, a direct product of the early twenty-first century fashion for "reality" television (author Suzanne Collins was inspired to write the story while channel-hopping), the comparison is even more important and just as explicit. A frequent criticism of "reality" television is that it exploits vulnerable people for the entertainment of others [15]. Collins deliberately draws on this aspect of early twenty-first century "reality" television in the novels, noting that, "there's also the voyeuristic thrill, watching people being humiliated or brought to tears or suffering physically. And that's what I find very disturbing. There's this potential for desensitizing the audience so that when they see real tragedy playing out on the news, it doesn't have the impact it should" [16].

The connection between The Hunger Games' gladiatorial combat and the implicit complicity of the viewing audience in what's happening is made even more explicit in the film version. In the novels, it is implied that the population in the Districts are forced to watch the Games, just as they are forced to attend the Reaping; the Games are "forcing [tributes] to kill one another while we watch," electricity in District 12 is only guaranteed during the Games or when government announcements constituting mandatory viewing are made, school is cancelled when the Games start to draw to a close, and there are screens in the square where those without a working television can view them (Collins 2008: 19, 22, 98, 340). At the beginning of the film, however, Gale insists that there could be no Games if everyone simply stopped watching. An important character in the second and third stories, Gale has almost nothing to do in the first, but Ross gives him a presence by showing him refusing to watch the opening day of the Games, and later by showing him drawn in despite himself while standing in a house with others who are watching—clearly unwilling to watch and there because he has to be, but unable to look away from his love interest kissing another boy. Partly, this is intended to give Gale something to do, to ensure that the audience still care about him by the time they reach the second film, in which he plays a bigger role (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, dir. Francis Lawrence, 2013), but the choice to make his refusal to watch the Games central to his role is significant.

This comparison drives home two connected points. On the one hand, it makes the viewing audience responsible for the suffering of the participants and asks them to question the extent of their responsibility. It also asks the audience to think about what exactly they are being entertained by and what enjoyment they are getting out of it. Gladiatorial games are not the only way to explore the darker side of what we as human beings find entertaining; in horror film The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard, 2011), for example, the audience are asked to reflect on the ethics of enjoying watching young people die in a variety of horrible ways by contrasting the experience of the protagonists with the men and women betting on them in the control room, while at the same time offering up just such a spectacle for the audience's enjoyment. (This is a similar set-up to the presentation of orgies in ancient world epics, which demand that the audience negatively judge the participants for their decadence at the same time as enjoying the lavishness and sexuality on display, "the excitement and allure of luxury and the safety of morality all rolled into one package," as Raucci puts it; Raucci 2013: 144). Gladiatorial combat offers the strongest, most effective way to force the audience to question their voyeuristic enjoyment of the spectacle because, although no one has actually died, within the story and the audience's willing suspension of disbelief, the deaths are real and the intradiegetic audience are actually watching people die. This is what makes Maximus' cry of "Are you not entertained?" in Gladiator especially powerful—he is speaking to the intradiegetic audience who are watching him kill, but the message gets out to the cinema audience as well.

Conclusion [contents]

Gladiatorial combat can be used in a variety of ways to express the author's feelings on several different issues, including race relations, slavery, and issues of consent. It is when writers want to emphasise one particular aspect of gladiatorial Games—the Games as entertainment for the masses, the suffering involved ultimately caused by the audience and their lack of compassion for those who provide their entertainment—that the connection with ancient Rome is deliberately emphasised. The writers are, essentially, saying to the audience, "You are no better than an ancient Roman." Just as Rome has so often stood for humankind's seedier desires, portrayed as a hotbed of sin and depravity, here Rome stands for the ultimate result of a culture that demands to be entertained at whatever cost, forcing the audience to question how far they expect artists to go for their own viewing pleasure.

Endnotes [contents]

  1.  On orgies in Roman-themed film and television, see Raucci 2013: 143. [return]
  2.  On female gladiators in ancient Rome, see McCullough 2008. In many ways, a female protagonist is more useful in this context; as Tolmie puts it, "literary heroines remain at their best when rising above external conditions that are against them in gender-based ways" and throwing a woman into a male-dominated arena is one way of doing this (Tolmie 2006: 148). [return]
  3.  It is unclear whether, in ancient Rome, the crowd raised or lowered their thumbs to indicate whether someone should live or die—Juvenal refers to "turning" thumbs to indicate a fighter should die (Juvenal, Satires, 3.36) and most references to the gesture, whether within the context of gladiatorial combat or not, are similarly unclear. Pliny refers to turning one's thumb down as a gesture of approval (Natural History, 28.25) so there is a possibility that, in antiquity, the crowd turned their thumbs down to indicate life and up to indicate death, but in popular culture, up always indicates life and down, death, because this matches the modern gestures of thumbs up (positive) and thumbs down (negative). See further Corbeill 1997: 18-19. [return]
  4.  On the origins of gladiatorial combat, see Wiedemann 1995: 31-35. [return]
  5.  On the use of the arena by the emperor in Gladiator, see Cyrino 2005: 240, 247-248. [return]
  6.  See further Cyrino 2005: 244-247 on the relationship between gladiatorial combat in Gladiator and U.S. sports television. [return]
  7.  There are clear parallels here with the musical Oh! What a Lovely War and the songs from the musical, especially "They Were Only Playing Leapfrog," made into a film in the same year (dir. Richard Attenborough, 1969). [return]
  8.  Aeschines 1.17 and Demosthenes 21.48-49 refer to the fact that slaves in Classical Athens were protected by law against acts of hubris, but this was designed to prevent free men from committing such acts, rather than being designed to protect the slaves. As Pomeroy et al. point out, a slave would be unlikely to have a citizen relative able to prosecute a case on their behalf in any case; Pomeroy et al. 1999: 345. [return]
  9.  In "The Gamesters of Triskelion," Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Uhura and Enisgn Chekov are forced to fight a collection of alien opponents, not for the entertainment of the mob, but for a small collection of masters (who are eventually revealed to exist as brains in a plastic dome, having "evolved beyond" humanoid form). In a sense, this is another iteration of the oft-used theme of god-like aliens who use the Enterprise crew as their playthings (see for example "Charlie X," "The Squire of Gothos," and the Classically-themed "Who Mourns for Adonais?"). However, the forced fighting in "The Gamesters of Triskelion" is marked out by the specifically combative nature of the activity the crew are forced to undertake. We also know we are watching a Roman-style gladiatorial contest, despite the absence of the usually-essential large crowd, because although the classic retiarius with net and trident does not appear, several of the crew's alien opponents wield long spears and one uses a net accompanied by a whip. [return]
  10.  On Juvenal's political commentary in his use of the famous phrase, see Keane 2006: 36-37. [return]
  11.  The title of Star Trek Season 1 episode "Arena" similarly appears to imply a Roman theme, but the primary purpose of Kirk's forced duel with Gorn is to teach both leaders a lesson and dissuade them from returning to that part of space, rather than entertainment. [return]
  12.  See further Makins "Refiguring the Roman Empire in the Hunger Games trilogy," forthcoming. On Collins' use of Roman names, see Périer 2014: 58. [return]
  13.  Bartlett draws attention to the extended styling and preparation—which he terms "rebranding"—that Katniss undergoes before entering the arena in The Hunger Games, linking the relative importance of likability over the actual ability to kill others or survive in the wild to the central metaphor of the Hunger Games as reality television, in which talent often takes a backseat or is not required (Bartlett 2012: 10). As the series progresses, Katniss' popularity with the television audience becomes more and more important until, by Mockingjay, it is virtually her sole purpose within the narrative or even as a character, and far more important to the revolution than her martial skills. [return]
  14.  On the significance of Plutarch's better knowledge of ancient Rome compared to Katniss, see Makins 2014: 347-348. [return]
  15.  See for example Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell's assertion that all viewers of reality talent show Britain's Got Talent were, to some degree, responsible for 2009 runner-up Susan Boyle's subsequent psychiatric problems; article accessed 02/16/2015. [return]
  16.  Q&A at, accessed 02/16/2015. [return]

Works discussed [contents]

Bartlett, M., 2012. "Appetite for Spectacle: Violence and Entertainment in The Hunger Games," in Screen Education, Vol. 66, 8-17.

Bradley, K. and P. Cartledge, 2011. "Introduction," in K. Bradley and P. Cartledge (eds.), The Cambridge World History of Slavery Volume 1: The Ancient Mediterranean, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-3.

Collins, S., 2008. The Hunger Games. London: Scholastic.

Collins, S., 2009. Catching Fire. London: Scholastic.

Collins, S., 2010. Mockingjay. London: Scholastic.

Cook, J. R., 2009. "Gaming the System: Peter Watkins' The Gladiators and Punishment Park," in Science Fiction Film and Television, Vol. 2, No. 1, 105-114.

Corbeill, A., 1997. "Thumbs in Ancient Rome: Pollex as Index," in Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 42, 1-21.

Cyrino, M. S., 2005. Big Screen Rome. Malden, Oxford and Victoria: Blackwell.

Furey, M., 1994. Aurian. London: Random House.

Keane, C., 2006. Figuring Genre in Roman Satire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kyle, D. G., 2001. Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. London and New York: Routledge.

Makins, M., 2014. "'Written in a language called Latin about a place called Rome.' Réception de l'Antiquité et résistance dans la trilogie Hunger Games," in L'Antiquité gréco-latine dans l'imaginaire contemporain: Fantasy, Science-Fiction, Fantastique, M. Bost-Fiévet and S. Provini (eds.), Paris: Classiques Garnier, 339-358.

Makins, M., (forthcoming). "Refiguring the Roman Empire in the Hunger Games trilogy," in B. M. Rogers and B. E. Stevens (eds.), Classical Traditions in Science Fiction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martin, G. R. R., 2011. A Dance with Dragons. London: HarperCollins.

McCullough, A., 2008. "Female Gladiators in Imperial Rome: Literary Context and Historical Fact," in The Classical World, Vol. 101, No. 2, 197-209.

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Juliette Harrisson is a Classicist and freelance writer. She is Lecturer in Ancient History at Newman University (Birmingham, UK); her book, Dreams and Dreaming in the Roman Empire (Bloomsbury), was recently released in paperback. She contributes regularly to Den of Geek and Doux Reviews and maintains a blog, Pop Classics, focusing on representations of ancient Greece and Rome in modern popular culture.
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