Introduction: Advenio has miseras, Marce, ad inferias

When Mark Shelton passed away over a year ago, I was at a loss for words. For months I struggled to offer his shades tribute in my own way. I then recalled a brief exchange with him about how I played the song “Fall of Iliam” for a Latin Poetry class I had recently taught, and how it was in his music that I first felt that my passions for both heavy metal and classical antiquity truly came together as one. 

My personal journey into heavy metal music began freshman year of high school in 2003. Facebook was in its infancy, YouTube not yet born. Discovering new music came, among others, through band pages on Myspace, internet fora such as Ultimate Metal, and, of course, people in real life such as my friend Nick, who introduced me to Slayer, and off we went. Nick and I were also both enrolled in our high school’s Latin classes together. Our senior year class was devoted to the Aeneid, a Roman epic poem by Vergil that chronicles the heroic journey of the Trojan prince Aeneas through cataclysmic storms, tragic love-affairs, the terrors of the underworld, and bloodsoaked battles to win a future for his refugee people in Italy, a future of Roman glory preordained by the gods. Naturally, Nick and I saw the Aeneid’s themes as well suited to our developing musical passions, and so we formed a primitive black metal band in order to set to music the Aeneid’s more violent episodes. It was a thrill thinking we were the only metal band in existence devoted to Vergil, let alone any of the Greco-Roman classics. 

This, of course, was before I discovered Manilla Road. Little did I know that in 2005, only a year or so before I even began reading the Aeneid, these Wichita juggernauts with Mark Shelton at the helm became the first to truly transpose the Vergilian anthems of Aeneas’ immortal fame from epic verse into epic heavy metal. (I should note here that the Italian black metal band Hesperia put out an Aeneid-themed album in 2003, while two other concept albums were released in 2013 by Stormlord and Heimdall, also from Italy). Gates of Fire, to which I’ll return in this piece, was the culmination of Manilla’s Road’s classical reception, but elements of Greco-Roman mythology are present throughout their catalogue spanning four decades. Here I treat a number of themes in order as they appear in their discography. These include 1) the Roman connections of King Arthur, 2) the myth of Atlantis, 3) the 300 Spartans, 4) Rome’s imperial destiny, and 5) resistance to Greco-Roman imperialism. I do not have the space here to analyze every riff, lyric, and artistic detail, nor do I make strong claims of interpretation or authorial intent. Listen to these songs, and read the lyrics for yourself, and share your thoughts in the comments!

Arthurian Lore in the Twilight of Rome

The first theme involves a mixture of legendary traditions that is so characteristic of Manilla Road’s lyricism. Arthurian lore is a major influence, especially on records like 1985’s Open the Gates, where it is seamlessly combined with elements borrowed from the Romans and Vikings. “Die for glory and Valhalla / Fires of Mars burn this night / Ride with the Dragon Lord” runs the song “Hour of the Dragon” from that album. Within such mythological pluralism we can detect a consistent trend that ties the legends of King Arthur to his speculative historical basis. Our first hint of this comes with the 1980 debut Invasion. The acoustic ballad “Centurian War Games” is delivered from the point of view of a self-identified “centurian” who fights for “fortune and fame” alongside his brothers-in-arms. These warriors, he claims, are of a “dying race.” Are these the Romans, in whose armies centurions served as officers commanding units of 80 (and not, as the name suggests, 100) men? 

On evidence from later albums, it seems that Manilla Road were playing around with the theory that Arthurian legends, if they had any historical basis at all, might be the distorted historical memory of Britain during and just after its occupation as a province of the Roman Empire (from Claudius’ conquest in 43 CE to the legions’ withdrawal 410, the year the Visigoths sacked the capital). Who is this adventurous centurion? One possible candidate is a Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus, who after serving as a centurion was promoted to command of Rome’s 6th Legion in Britain. The rank and the name fits (‘Artorius’ resembles ‘Arthur’), but not the time. Artorius served around 200 CE, two centuries before the Romans abandoned Britain, though at this time there was plenty of military activity against the Picts invading from the north of Scotland. Another candidate, one who fits the timeframe, is a Brittano-Roman leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus. He battled against the Anglo-Saxons who took advantage of the power vacuum of a post-Roman Britain and crossed the North Sea from the Germanic lands of the continent. The man who commanded the Britons to victory at Badon Hill, traditionally identified with Arthur, might have been Aurelianus, whom history has dubbed “the Last of the Romans.” 

Manilla Road’s interpretation appears to stem from a combination of these two figures, a centurion and last of his “dying race” fighting for those Rome left behind as its empire in the West of Europe crumbled. There are echoes of “Centurian War Games” in the song “Avatar,” recorded in 1981 and released with Mark of the Beast in 2002. Again, we hear the voice of “a warrior, a centurion” who tells us that “Jupiter with all his might / I’ve worshiped from afar.” One pictures a soldier on the fringes of the dying empire, in whose decaying capital the temple of the thundering bringer of victory still stands. 

We last hear of a Roman Arthur on 1985’s Open the Gates. “The Fires of Mars” refers to the Roman war god as a metonymy for battle itself that Arthur’s forces bring upon their enemies in characteristically Roman fashion: “the standard raised on high / Pen-Dragon rides this night / Against the mighty Horde / With legion of the Sword.” Yet typical of Manilla Road as a mythological melting-pot, Arthur is as much a Viking as a Roman. This point will be relevant as we now explore the band’s perusal of Atlantean codices.

The Fall and Rise of Atlantis

1986’s The Deluge takes its name from its eponymous track on the destruction of Atlantis. Modern fantasies of pseudo-archaeologists and others in search of the “real” doomed civilization on a continent lost beneath the waves can be traced to the mythical invention of the Greek philosopher Plato. In his dialogue the Timaeus, the title character relays to Socrates what the great Athenian lawgiver Solon had heard from Egyptian priests (Plato’s typical, telescoped form of storytelling): a mighty empire from beyond the Pillars of Hercules fought a massive war with the virtuous ancestors of the Athenian people. After the invasion’s defeat (the memory of Xerxes’ Persian War is no doubt in play here), the gods punished the Atlanteans’ hubris through a seismic submersion of their entire continent. 

“The Deluge” is an eight-minute epic in three parts. The processional “Eye of the Sea” introduces Atlantis on the eve of its destruction, evacuated by those who heeded the prophetic warnings. The song also acknowledges the story as “Plato’s tragedy,” a nod to the source of the myth but perhaps also to the fact that before falling under the spell of Socrates, a young Plato dreamed of writing for the tragic stage of Sophocles and Euripides. This prelude ends with a synergy of Mark’s crushing riffs and Randy Fox’s virtuosic drumming that resembles the rolling and crashing of ocean waves on a beach. Suddenly, with a thundercrash the tempo picks up and introduce the second act “The Drowned Lands.” In this cataclysmic symphony, Poseidon is named three times, the wrathful lord of the deep and erstwhile patron-god of Atlantis. The continent is ravaged by a rain of fire from above, earthquakes from below, followed by the final flood. The reference to the “Valusian Trident” that strikes the land tells us that not only Plato’s original myth is the basis, but also its integration into the fantasy universe of Robert E. Howard, Valusia being an enemy kingdom of Atlantis a hundred millennia ago. 

It was to The Deluge’s title track that band returned in 2001 with a theme befitting their recent reunion after a brief 90s hiatus, Atlantis Rising. This concept album is the consummation of Manilla Road’s blending of Greco-Roman, Norse, Lovecraftian, and Howardian mythologies. Its first track “Megalodon” sets the scene in primordial waters, where this prehistoric shark species is suggested to be the basis for the Titans of Greek mythology who ruled the cosmos before the Olympians and Poseidon took command of the sea. The remainder of the album concocts a tale of fantasy, supernatural horror, and apocalyptic battles. Through dark magic the sunken Atlantean continent is resurrected, and with it comes the return of the Ancient Ones of the Cthulhu mythos, who usurp the throne of Poseidon’s son Triton and establish Atlantis as a base of operations for a new bid at cosmic conquest. Lest Midgard be lost to the forces of chaos, the Norse gods cross the Rainbow Bridge from Asgard and lay siege to Atlantis. Poseidon too comes to avenge his fallen son, and together with Thor’s lightning banishes the Ancient Ones back to their dark dimension. One wonders what a necromanced Plato would think of what became of his philosophical myth. 

When Giants, Troy, and Spartans Fall

Atlantis Rising was followed up in 2005 by Gates of Fire, a trilogy of trilogies. The first three songs are based on the Howard short story “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” one of the original tales of Conan the Barbarian. Next come three tracks on Roman mythology, “Out of the Ashes,” from the flight of Aeneas out of the fires of Troy, to Rome’s fratricidal foundation by Romulus and Remus, to the rise of the city’s imperial glory. Closing out the record comes the eponymous trilogy of Gates of Fire, on the last stand of the 300 Spartans against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BCE. The album’s artwork once again displays the band’s trademark blending of traditions: enclosed within three blazing, interlocking triangles are Conan in pursuit of the mysterious woman, a victorious Achilles dragging Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy, and a Spartan hoplite cradling his dying king Leonidas. The interlocking triangles form a Norse symbol, the Valknut, a sign of Odin’s welcome of fallen warriors into Valhalla. “Gates of Fire” is a loose translation of Thermopylae, the battlefield where Leonidas and his men made their entry into that Nordic Elysium. 

“Out of the Ashes” combines readings of Homer’s Greek epic the Iliad, Vergil’s Latin epic the Aeneid, and Book 1 of Livy’s History of Rome to trace the destiny of the Roman Empire from its roots in classical mythology and the Trojan War. At nearly 15 minutes in length, the first track “Fall of Iliam” is suitably an epic in its own right. The first half of the song is structured by the counterpoint of Greek aggression and Trojan destiny. As stated in an interview, Mark intended to present the story of Troy from a different perspective, that of the Roman poet Vergil, for whom the Greeks were antagonists (thus justifying their later conquest by Rome!). Each verse paints the Greeks as violent marauders bent on plunder and even the “ethnic cleansing” of the Trojan race, all for the sin of Helen’s abductor Paris. Further episodes highlight the Greeks’ brutality: the merciless Achilles dragging the corpse of his slain nemesis round the city’s walls; the treacherous wooden horse shooting metaphorical fire at the doomed town; the royal palace awash in king Priam’s blood. Between these heavy verses runs a lighter chorus, assuring the listener that not all hope is lost for the Trojans. They have destiny and a demigod on their side:

Harken the tale of Aeneas – Last hero of Iliam
Mortal born son of Venus – Destined to Latium
Prophecy’s promise of saving – The last of the Trojan line
Spoiler of ethnic cleansing – Who fathered the Roman Empire

The song’s second half picks up the tempo and runs through the plot of the Aeneid at a rapid pace: Hector’s ghost warning Aeneas to collect a band of refugees and flee by sea; the storm sent by the goddess Juno that blows them ashore in Carthage, where the tragic affair with queen Dido (“a new friend”) is passed over in virtual silence, run roughshod over by the course of fate that brings the Trojans to Italy. There, Aeneas is victorious in war and fulfills his destiny, to be the “forefather of the Roman race.” 

The next track “Imperious Rise” spans the centuries between the Trojan War (~1250 BCE) to the founding of Rome (753 BCE) by Aeneas’ descendants, the twins Romulus and Remus. Here, Manilla Road curiously overlooks the brothers’ miraculous infancy, fathered by the god Mars and rescued by a she-wolf. Instead, their heroic status derives purely from their Trojan pedigree, traced by to Aeneas and his mother, the goddess Venus. Another peculiar shift is that of perspective to the first and second person. In quasi-biblical terms, Aeneas becomes the “chosen one to lead us to the promised land,” establishing a kinship between the modern listener and the Trojans (allusions to the “manifest destiny” and the civilization of the assumedly Western audience?). In the second verse, we are enjoined to preserve the memory of the Roman founders in song as though making offerings to their gods at an altar. 

Manilla Road’s shift of focus to Aeneas as the true founder of the Roman race carries out the original political objectives of the Aeneid, whereby the first emperor Augustus legitimized his domination of the state through his Trojan descent from a morally upstanding hero. This redirection was necessary in a Republic so ideologically opposed to the very notion of a king of Rome. “Imperious Rise” hints at the reasons why, as Rome’s actual foundation involved some rather heinous acts. Romulus and Remus quarreled over who would rule and name their new city, and though Romulus received the better signs from the gods and began marking out the urban boundaries with a plow, Remus chafed at his subordination. In mockery he leapt over the sacred trench, prompting Romulus to murder his own brother in a fit of rage. Not long after, with the city established, Romulus hatched a plot to acquire wives for his city of bandits and exiles through a mass abduction from the families of neighboring towns, including those of the Sabines, who were invited to a festival of Neptune. Manilla Road recount these acts without excuse: “Romulus ploughs the furrow / Out of control / For jest blood of Remus flows / T’is harvest time / For festival tribes unite / The Sabine plight / The women raped the men die.” Not even the pact of peace and union between the Roman and Sabine men brokered by the abducted women after they clashed in battle is mentioned. Rome’s destiny is forged through the same naked violence that began it in the fires of Troy. This destiny and legacy, as the song concludes, continues to this day: “The Trojan race / Lives on in Rome today / The city wall / To this day still stands tall.” Indeed, much of the wall survives today built by the emperor Aurelian in the 270s CE, which defended (or failed to defend) the city for much of its subsequent history. 

The second trilogy concludes with the laconically titled “Rome,” less a narrative than an impressionistic survey of the Empire’s grandeur and effect on subsequent history, all owed to the destruction of Troy. The song is also retrospective of the band’s original links to Roman history: “the fires of Mars have burned” recalls the Roman elements of Arthurian lore explored in their 80s material. Though the temples to Rome’s gods have collapsed along with the empire, both live on in memory, a memory sustained and ennobled “through bardic rhymes.” Manilla Road place themselves in the tradition of Vergil, in whose Homeric-style epic the true hero is not Aeneas, but Rome itself. Rome attains immortality through living on as an idea. The song concludes, finally, with an invitation to learn more, and take part in sustaining Rome’s immortal fame: “The tale is taught – Know ye now more or not.”

While Vergil’s ancient epic forms the basis of “Out of the Ashes,” the inspiration for the final trilogy, “Gates of Fire,” may have been Steven Pressfield’s 1998 historical-fiction novel of the same name (the film 300, which inspired so many Spartan-themed metal songs, did not come out until 2006). While Aeneas’ heroism involved subordinating his own personal desires and glory to the greater cause of fulfilling the destiny of Rome, it is in reference to the symbolic legacy of the Spartans at Thermopylae that the entire album is dedicated “to all, the world over, that ever gave their lives in defense of their beliefs.” The belief the Spartans gave their lives for was that all Greece should remain free, and the track “Stand of the Spartans” makes clear that the defense of Hellenic liberty was not Sparta’s alone. Unlike in the Trojan War, the Greeks are no longer the aggressors against an Asian foe, and so their honor is redeemed in this final trilogy. The song opens with a reference to the Athenians’ success in holding off the Persian navy at Artemisium, while on land the Athenians and Thebans join the Spartans in holding the Thermopylae pass against “the Persian horde” (note the switch from “the Grecian hordes” of the previous trilogy!). However divided the Greek city-states were most of the time, Manilla Road ignite the fervor of national unity sure to resonate with their fiercely loyal Greek fanbase. Yet as with Aeneas and Rome, the events of Thermopylae are accorded a certain divine fatalism, as the song also references Apollo’s Delphic oracle, recorded by Herodotus, that either Sparta itself or one of its kings will fall. Musically, this is one of the heaviest songs on an already sonically crushing record, creating a massive wall of sound that mimics the impenetrable wall of the Spartan phalanx. 

Doom metal riffs keep applying the pressure on the next track, where the doom of the 300 themselves comes to pass (or rather, around the pass!). Destined or not, the next track “Betrayal” highlights the treason of Ephialtes, the Greek Judas who sold out his own people to the Persians, revealing to them the Anopaia pass whereby they outflanked the Greek taskforce. After even “Xerkses’ pride of war” the Immortals “could not break the Greeks,” it is suggested that a Greek victory was assured if not for Ephalties’ betrayal against both “gods and the throne.” To sell out the Greeks was to forfeit one’s Greekness, body and soul. 

Yet his treason is the price for the glory of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans, as “Epitaph to the King” immortalizes their heroic deeds for standing their ground “with honor / In spite of certain death.” Such was the warrior code of Sparta according to Herodotus: never to retreat from battle, even when outnumbered, and either win or die.

Memento mori

We now come to Manilla Road’s final LP, 2017’s To Kill a King. This record contains three different songs inspired by Greco-Roman history. In keeping with the sentiment of the album’s title, all three are thematically united by a more critical take on the imperialism of ancient conquerors, and celebrates those who fight for freedom under their shadow. Following the title track, the song “Conqueror” begins by summing up the most famous deeds of Alexander “the Great” of Macedon (r. 336-323 BCE): his conquest of the Persian Empire, his severing of the Gordian Knot, his ascent to semi-divinity in the eyes of his subjects, and the legacy of his military genius to be studied by strategists for centuries to come. This first stanza no doubt recalls Iron Maiden’s original ode to Alexander from thirty years prior—perhaps intentionally so, as the second stanza brings a cautionary counterpoint: “To reach beyond the mortal chains that bind us all / Was the beginning of his doom / So learn thee well the lessons from the ones who fall / As not to repeat history’s truth.” In conquering Persia and fancying himself superior to all mortals, Alexander committed the same hubris of the Persian king Xerxes, and as for any tragic hero, retribution is soon to follow. 

Next, the song “The Arena” shifts from the empire of Alexander to that of Rome, in whose capital the urban masses are entertained by the bloodsport of gladiatorial combat. The song contrasts the perverse inhumanity of the imperial Romans with the nobility of the slaves (the “flesh bought and sold”), whom they force to fight and kill as the price of freedom. Manilla Road inherit a few misconceptions of gladiatorial combat: in reality, most matches did not result in death, nor were the deaths that did result meant as “sacrifice[s] to the gods.” But historicity is not the point here, rather that by sacrificing slaves for their amusement, the Romans grant a class of people they ranked so low on the social ladder an immortal legacy of fame and glory: “you are the gods of the arena.” 

Toward the album’s end, finally, is a song where the hubris of the Romans, like that of Alexander, meets its limits and tragically suffers. As gladiatorial slaves will risk their lives for a shot at freedom, so those yet to be slaves will fight just as fiercely to preserve their freedom. “Ghost Warriors” is a song about the most successful of these resistances: the Battle of the Teutoburg forest. In 9 CE, a coalition of Germans under Arminius ambushed and massacred three Roman legions under Quintilius Varus. As a result, the Romans would never annex Germany as an imperial province. This battle, romanticized by German nationalists since the nineteenth century, is very popular among German metal bands, but its message, delivered to an aging Augustus after that fateful day in 9 CE, resonates with the spirit of metal in general: “we shall fight for our homes / No slave to a throne / Neither body nor soul.” On To Kill a King, Manilla Road celebrate the underdogs who fight for individualism and freedom from the tyranny of autocracy and religion, especially when combined in rulers who futilely claim to rise above the human condition: “no matter win or fall / Still death comes to us all.” 

The Quest for Helicon

I might have concluded this tribute to Mark with a reflection on mortality so deeply explored in Manilla Road’s final album, but rather than dim the lights and drop the curtain we will end with an encore, one that gets at the heart of the matter of Manilla Road’s participation in the classical tradition. The final track on 1988’s Out of the Abyss recounts the quest for “Helicon,” the mountain in central Greece where dwell the 9 Muses, the immortal daughters of Zeus and Memory who inspire songs infused with divine knowledge of past, present, and future. Here the archaic poet Hesiod, a rough contemporary of Homer, said he received the Muses’ grace, and so Manilla Road seek a similar blessing. Plato in the Symposium defines a philosopher as one who is constantly in pursuit of the divine Beauty whose possession brings true happiness. Such is the driving force behind Manilla Road’s music, the pursuit of Helicon, to possess, or rather become possessed as a vessel of ancient knowledge through the inspired medium of song. It is a quest in which the bards themselves are the heroes, fighting to attain a kingdom residing within all our minds. As Vergil was Dante’s muse, guiding him through hell and up toward the earthly paradise, so Manilla Road, taking their place in the classical tradition, have become the immortal muse that has, does, and will continue to guide and inspire musicians, artists, writers, and fans to come. Atque in perpetuum, Marce, ave atque vale

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Jeremy J. Swist

Jeremy is a professor of Classics and Ancient History from Boston, USA. His passion for heavy metal and the world of classical Greece and Rome developed at the same time, and they have always been intertwined.

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