The gladius was the standard-issue sword of the Roman legions, whence the word gladiator gets its name. Goēteia is the ancient Greek word for sorcery. While much of traditional heavy metal old and new has been inspired by “sword and sorcery” literature, as well as by the legends and history of medieval Europe, several bands have peered further into the past to the classical world of Greece and Rome. From sorceresses enthroned on remote Aegean isles to swords dancing in the imperial arena, our heavy metal gods and heroes have time and again put the Classics in classics.
What follows here is part one of a cursory exposition of the phenomenon of classical reception in traditional heavy metal from the NWOBHM in the early 80s to the current NWOTHM. In fact, Greco-Roman themes can be found in all genres of metal, and even academic studies have begun exploring this phenomenon. Among other scholars, the work of Drs. Kris Fletcher (Louisiana State University) and Osman Umurhan (University of New Mexico) has led the charge into this area of research with recent journal articles and an edited volume coming out in October. Fletcher has an excellent introduction to the general topic on the Society for Classical Studies Blog that I need not rehash here. Also, note that I do not claim to know every instance of classical reception in metal, so please comment below if you think I’ve missed something. Now onto the music!
“First there was an age of gold…”
The genesis of heavy metal itself occurred partly through the influence of occult horror films on the creator gods Black Sabbath. Fitting, then, that the first instances of classical reception in metal came from the same body of cinematic material, when in 1980 the British band Angel Witch included a song titled “Gorgon” on their self-titled debut LP. The lyrics are based on the 1964 Hammer film “The Gorgon”—with its all-star cast of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Patrick Troughton—which in turn draws from the Greek myth of Medusa, a woman cursed to petrify anyone who meets her snake-haired gaze.
Angel Witch also features the song “Atlantis,” which imports the Greek philosopher Plato’s myth of the sunken continent into the apocalyptic context of impending nuclear war. As Plato related how his own civilization rose when that of Atlantis fell, so Angel Witch see Atlantis rising as human society as we know it is consumed by fire.
It may be no coincidence that the myths of Medusa and of Atlantis have subsequently been some of the most popular among classical themes in metal. Anthrax penned the ode “Medusa” to the femme fatale as part of 1985’s Spreading the Disease LP while just last year Attacker celebrated the hero Perseus’ beheading of the Gorgon with the title track and artwork of their Armor of the Gods EP.
As for Atlantis, the metal titans of Wichita Manilla Road titled their 1986 LP The Deluge after its epic lay of Poseidon’s wrath, a theme they later expanded upon in the 2001 concept album Atlantis Rising. The lost continent reemerges from the sea and becomes an apocalyptic battleground between the Norse gods and the Ancient Ones of the Cthulhu mythos.
Another group that took up the Atlantean theme was the French band Sortilège. These Parisians would go from early songs like their tribute to the Atlantis mythos “Civilisation perdue” (“Lost Civilization”) to taking the next steps towards classical mythology and history’s viability to define a metal band’s overall image. Their 1986 album Larmes des Héros features a track about the hero Hercules and his final labor of dragging the three-headed hellhound Cerberus out of the Underworld. The album’s artwork is an illustration of the Artemision Bronze, a famous statue in Athens of either Zeus or Poseidon (whether it wielded a lightning bolt or trident).
The band’s classicizing streak started with their 1984 EP Sortilège, which brings to life two very different ancient warriors. “Amazone” fixes a fearful male gaze upon the fabled gynecocracy of warrior women “of sanguinary habits, beauty that defies reason, bodies of goddesses with the nimbleness of cats, their blond hair flowing down to their waists” (my translation).
Seen already with Medusa, representations as fatal attractions predominate in metal’s reception of mythical women. The 1984 track “Helen of Troy” by the English band Incubus is another early example. Her depiction as a temptress whose beauty “launched a thousand ships” that would eventually demolish Troy fits well on an album called To the Devil a Daughter.
Also on Sortilège’s debut EP is the track “Gladiateur,” from the first-person perspective of a slave fighting to the death in the Roman arena to earn his emancipation. A lone warrior facing danger in the struggle for personal liberty, especially in the face of an oppressive society, is a topos quite germane to to the heavy metal aesthetic. Little wonder that gladiators are also a popular lyrical theme. The Los Angeles band Omen close out their 1984 debut Battle Cry with the gladiatorial “In the Arena.” The lyrics to this one are from a second-person perspective, exhorting the listener to withstand all pain and fight for glory: “oh mighty gladiator, in the arena, you are the chosen warrior.”
At the same time in Boston the band Steel Assassin composed a hymn to the most famous gladiator of them all, “Spartacus,” who in 73 BCE broke out of bondage and incited as many as 70,000 slaves to rebel from their masters and ravage both the Italian countryside and a few Roman legions before their revolt was finally crushed.
Spartacus’ reputation as a fighter and proto-abolitionist also inspired the first all-black heavy metal band, the LA group Sound Barrier, who included the song “Gladiator” on their 1986 album Speed of Light. Though the nationality of the historical Spartacus is unknown, Sound Barrier saw the connection of his name to his indomitable warrior spirit: “he came from the city of Sparta. Some say he’s the best. He bears one thing on his mind – to free all the rest.”
Resistance to Rome as an analogue for social oppression is yet another common theme in heavy metal classicism. On their early demos Steel Assassin similarly glorified other enemies of Roman imperialism with tracks like “Attila the Hun” and “Barbarians on the Frontier.” Steel Assassin not only dabbled in Roman history for ancient figures of defiance and transgression of established boundaries, but also in Greek mythology. Their song “Phaethon” retells the tale of a mortal son of the god Apollo who begged his father to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky, only to lose control and be struck down by Zeus’ lightning. Phaethon’s tragic downfall for arrogantly violating the boundaries between humans and immortal gods, what the Greeks call hubris, is commonly read as a cautionary tale. In the context of heavy metal, which often valorizes defiance of political, social, and religious authority, a spectacular demise is not just a lesson in mortality; it is also a ticket to true immortality, that of doomed heroes commemorated in song ever since the Homeric bards of archaic Greece passed down the sagas of Thebes and Troy. The plot of the Iliad, after all, hinges not on the success of Achilles as a warrior, but his defiance of authority and traditional codes of behavior.
The commemoration of mythical boundary-breakers brings us to the locus classicus of metal’s classical reception, Iron Maiden. Among their abundance of lyrical material drawing from literature and history at large, they most influentially pioneered the direct adaptation of classical themes in the NWOBHM. Their 1981 album Killers opens with the instrumental “The Ides of March,” alluding to the date of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE. In the Bruce Dickinson era, the Classics get their first lyrical treatment with the track “Flight of Icarus” on 1983’s Piece of Mind. Lastly, the 8.5-minute epic closer to 1986’s Somewhere in Time, “Alexander the Great,” remains perhaps the gold standard of heavy metal classicism among both fans and scholars. What unites these three songs is, as mentioned above, an admiration for those who strive to smash through the boundaries of human mortality, and though suffering for it, secure deathless fame. Obtaining sole control of Rome after an unbroken series of victories in foreign conquest and civil war, Caesar was laid low by senatorial daggers for allegedly fancying himself a king, and even a god.
Icarus fell to his death by flying too close to the sun on artificial wings, a characteristically Greek lesson in the virtue of moderation and avoidance of excess. But Iron Maiden do not dwell so much on his father Daedalus’ instructions. The song’s unforgettable chorus has different advice: “fly on your way like an eagle, fly as high as the sun!”
Such conflicts between mortality and immortality also guide their presentation of Alexander, the Macedonian king who in the 330s BCE conquered the “barbarian” Persian Empire in the name of Greek “civilization.” After his initial victories, his status in the eyes of “mortal men” steadily rose to that of a hero; after completing his conquests, he became to them a god. Yet at the end of the final refrain, his death of fever in Babylon reminds us that despite his superhuman exploits, he could not escape his physical mortality.
Alexander and Caesar’s symbolism as conquering monarchs and bringers of culture is a product of Iron Maiden’s national heritage, of a former British Empire that colonized the world as the heirs to a so-called “Western civilization” somehow forged in a vacuum by Greece and Rome. Belief in this inheritance partly explains that appropriation of Greco-Roman themes by bands in countries that have traditionally arrogated the classical legacy, not only the erstwhile imperial United Kingdom but also the Republics of the United States. Figures like Jefferson and Napoleon found political models in ancient history.
Soon after the release of “Alexander the Great” it was high time for the natural descendants of ancient Greece and Rome to make their own contributions to heavy metal classicism. In 1987, a band from Thessaloniki in Greece called Northwind did just that, with their album Mythology devoted exclusively to their ancestral gods, heroes, and heroines.
The album showcases for the first time several figures who would be treated not infrequently in metal songs thereafter: Sisyphus, the villain condemned to roll a boulder uphill for eternity; Medea, the eastern sorceress who took infanticidal revenge on her traitor of a husband Jason; Orion, the mighty hunter undone by Scorpio’s sting; Prometheus, the Titan who betrayed Zeus himself to bring mortals the technology of fire.
In the 1980s, metal bands in Europe and the US opened the gates to the mythical and historical worlds of Greece and Rome, advertising to bands in the 90s and beyond the profound richness of potential themes not only for individual metal songs, but also the concepts of entire albums and bands. Marking this transition, we can view Virgin Steele’s song “The Burning of Rome (Cry for Pompeii)” released in 1988 as a warm-up for their House of Atreus dilogy of concept albums in the early 90s.
In the footsteps of acts like Iron Maiden and Northwind, groups in virtually every genre from the traditional, to the extreme, to the experimental, began translating the classical tradition from literature and film into music where it felt right at home with odes of swords and sorcery from other sources both mythical and fictional.
Next time, we’ll examine how traditional styles of metal developed Greco-Roman themes through the 90s and into the 21st century up through the present. Much as interest in the classical world gained new levels of appreciation in the original Renaissance, such is also the case in the current renascimento dubbed the New Wave of True Heavy Metal.