Amplifying Antiquity Through Heavy Metal Music with Jeremy Swist
June 21, 2022
Jeremy Swist, a lecturer in the Department of Classical Studies, has developed a major passion project – studying the perception of heavy metal music from the Roman Empire.
“I’ve been an avid heavy metal listener since I started high school, around the time I started studying Latin,” Swist said. “I traveled to music festivals, supporting local and international artists. Because of this, my two worlds, classical studies and heavy metal, were destined to collide.
Through his research, he uncovered a long list of heavy metal bands that reference Roman emperors (over 400 songs referencing emperors!), use Roman-related symbolism, and generally draw inspiration from Roman rule. ’empire. It examines the allure of the Roman Empire and why artists across generations are finding common ground with this ancient civilization.
Swist, along with his four long-haired cats, took the time to chat with BrandeisNOW about the path that inspired his passions and why anyone can benefit from classical studies.
How did you find your way to teaching and studying the classics?
I grew up in the Boston area, visiting Maine every summer with my family. I loved it up there and really enjoyed the seafood, so I thought being a lobster man on the water sounded really appealing.
However, in seventh grade, I had an eccentric geography teacher who was completely nuts. He really made me want to become a teacher. He was a complete oddball who showed me that I could be completely myself and teach people about a subject I love.
It wasn’t until college that I started studying ancient history and classical literature. I then realized that I wanted to become a university professor to research and teach these subjects.
When did you discover that heavy metal bands were inspired by the Roman Empire?
In 2018, I completed my dissertation on the historiographical reception of the seven kings of Rome under the Roman Empire. By submitting the final product, I realized that I had spent two years of non-stop research. After that, I didn’t know what to do with myself and my free time.
My teacher 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 that there were topics that could receive more attention.
What drives heavy metal artists to write songs about the Roman Empire? What makes it a common theme?
Fascination, sympathy and even identification with the “bad guys”. Extreme metal, especially death metal, often makes reference to anti-Christian symbols to challenge the “status quo”. This is linked to the Roman Empire due to the alleged brutality of many emperors towards Christianity.
The majority of primary sources on 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 sided with the ancient Romans because of their opposition to 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 persecution of Christians, but also for the 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 both by Hollywood and by ancient sources like Suetonius are therefore tailor-made for heavy metal.
Why do you think artists keep referring to the Roman Empire?
Two phenomena merge here.
People of European descent attempt to recapture authenticity and preserve heritage through fictionalized tales of pre-Christian and pre-modern Europe. This phenomenon has the potential to lead politically down dangerous paths, as it can easily be compatible with reactionary and right-wing politics, even fascism.
The “decolonial” element of the above phenomenon comes from the perception that Christianity is an alien religion that has overtaken and erased native European traditions. Groups from other parts of the world, such as Central and South America, also draw on pre-colonial history and culture (i.e. the Aztecs) as a means of decolonization and rejection of modern conditions brought about by European colonialism.
Why is it important to contextualize modern references to classical studies?
It is useful to look at other forms of media to see how they shape people’s understanding of Spartans, Romans, etc. We need to recognize and look critically at the mass of other media consumed.
Movies, video games, and other digital-age media cover topics like the fall of the Roman Empire. These sources tell historians how best to engage and communicate with the general public to give them a better understanding of these topics. It can break down barriers between academia and the public.
What advice would you give to a student looking to find their passion?
If something sounds interesting to you, pursue it, even if it’s not related to your career plan. There is such pressure today, due to various ideologies and economic conditions, that everything you learn should be career oriented.
In classical studies, many of our students will not strive to become university professors. However, the studies we teach are lessons for life, no matter what students plan to do. If you want to pursue your interest in the classics while becoming an accountant, that’s just as valid.
I am convinced that if you find something interesting, it is equally valuable to study it. We are meant to be more than just workers. It’s not just productivity in life.