Amplifying antiquity with heavy metal music

Jeremy Swist

Jeremy Swist, posed with one of his four long-haired cats.

Jeremy Swist, a lecturer in the classical studies department, has combined two of his longstanding interests by resarching heavy metal music’s frequent use of the symbols and leaders of the ancient Roman Empire.

“I’ve been an avid heavy metal listener since the beginning of high school, around the time I began taking Latin,” said Swist. “I’ve traveled to music festivals, supporting both local and international artists. Because of this, my two worlds — classical studies and heavy metal — were destined to collide.”

Through his research he has discovered a long list of heavy metal bands that reference Roman emperors (over 400 songs referring to the emperors), use symbolism connecting to the Romans, and overall draw inspiration from the empire’s rule. He examines the appeal of the Roman Empire and why heavy metal artists across generations find a common ground with this ancient civilization.

He also encourages students, regardless of their career goals, to take opportunities to delve into topics that inspire or intrigue them. "If you want to pursue your interest in classics while becoming an accountant, it’s just as valid," he said.

Swist, joined by his four long-haired cats, took some time to talk with BrandeisNOW about the path that inspired his passions and why anyone can benefit from classical studies.

How did you find your path to teaching and studying classics?

I grew up in the Boston area, visiting Maine every summer with my family. I loved it up there and really enjoyed seafood, so I thought being a lobster man on the water sounded really appealing.

However, in the seventh grade I had an eccentric geography teacher who was a complete weirdo. He really inspired me to want to become a teacher. He was a complete oddball who showed me I could be completely myself and teach people a subject I enjoy.

It wasn’t until college that I began studying ancient history and classic literature. I then realized I wanted to become a college professor to research and teach these topics.

When did you discover heavy metal bands were taking inspiration from the Roman Empire?

In 2018 I finished my dissertation thesis on the historiographical reception of the seven kings of Rome under the Roman Empire. As I submitted the final product, I had realized I had spent two years dedicating myself non-stop to my research. After that I didn’t know what to do with myself and my free time.

My professor suggested I find something different to write about. After discovering the reception of the Roman Empire in heavy metal music, I knew it was something I wanted to study. I could see there were topics that could be given more attention.

What is it that inspires heavy metal artists to write songs about the Roman Empire? What makes this a common theme?

Fascination, sympathy, and even identification with the “bad guys.” Extreme metal, particularly death metal, often refers to antichristian symbols to defy the ‘status quo.’ This connects to the Roman Empire because of many emperors' alleged brutality towards Christianity.

The majority of primary sources about the ancient Roman persecution of Christians were actually written from the perspective of Christians themselves. Christians exploited their identity as victims of Roman persecution.

These exaggerations formed the narrative that the ancient Romans were evil. These artists side with the ancient Romans as a result of opposing Christianity, the largest religion in today’s society.

The most popular emperors in metal tend to be those with a reputation not only for violent persecutions of Christians, but also for unfettered exercise of power, cruelty, and carnal appetites, hence Caligula and Nero are by far at the top of the list. Heavy metal celebrates the extremes of freedom, extravagance, and transgression against all systems of conformity and control. The stereotypical "bad" emperors constructed by both Hollywood and ancient sources like Suetonius are therefore tailor-made for heavy metal.

Why do you think artists continue to reference the Roman Empire?

There are two phenomena being conflated here.

People of European descent are attempting to retrieve authenticity and preserve heritage through romanticizing narratives of prechristian and premodern Europe. This phenomenon has the potential to lead down dangerous paths politically, as it can easily be compatible with reactionary and rightwing politics, even fascism.

The "decolonial" element of the above phenomenon comes through the perception that Christianity is a foreign religion that overtook and erased indigenous European traditions. Bands in other parts of the world, such as Central and South America, also tap into precolonial history and culture (i.e. the Aztecs) as a way of decolonization and rejection of the modern conditions brought about by European colonialism.

Why is it important to contextualize modern references to classical studies?

It’s valuable to look at other forms of media to see how they are shaping people’s understanding of the Spartans, Romans, etc. We need to acknowledge and look critically at the mass of other media being consumed.

Film, video games, and other media in the digital age cover topics like the fall of the Roman Empire. These sources tell historians the best way to engage and communicate with the general public to give them a better understanding of these topics. This can break down barriers between the academic world and the public.

What advice would you give a student looking to find their passion?

If something looks interesting then pursue it - even if it isn’t related to your planned career. There’s such a pressure today, due to various economic ideologies and conditions, that says everything you learn needs to be geared towards your career.

In classical studies, many of our students won’t strive to become academic professors. However, the studies we teach are life lessons regardless of what students plan to do.

I am a believer that if you find something interesting, it is just as valuable to study it. We are meant to be more than just workers. There is more to life than just productivity.

Categories: General, Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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