Jeremy Swist, a lecturer in the Department of Classical Studies, has developed a major passion project – to study the perception of heavy metal music in the Roman Empire.
“I’ve been an avid heavy metal listener since high school, around the time I started learning Latin,” Swist said. “I have attended music festivals, supporting both local and international artists. That’s why my two worlds, classics and heavy metal, had to collide.
Through his research, he has discovered a long list of heavy metal bands that refer to the Roman emperors (over 400 songs referring to the emperors!), Use Roman symbolism, and generally draw inspiration from the rule of the empire. He explores the attractiveness of the Roman Empire and why artists across generations find common ground with this ancient civilization.
Swist, who was joined by his four long-haired cats, took the time to talk to BrandeisNOW about the path that inspired his passions and why anyone could benefit from classical studies.
How did you find your way to teaching and learning classics?
I grew up in the Boston area, visiting Maine with my family every summer. I liked it up there and really enjoyed the seafood, so I thought being a lobster on the water sounded very tempting.
However, I had an eccentric geography teacher in seventh grade who was a weirdo. He really inspired me to want to become a teacher. He was completely weird, showing me that I could be completely myself and teach people a subject I like.
It wasn’t until college that I started studying ancient history and classical literature. Then I realized that I wanted to become a college professor to study and teach these topics.
When did you discover that heavy metal bands drew inspiration from the Roman Empire?
In 2018, I completed my dissertation on the historiographical reception of the seven kings of Rome during the Roman Empire. When presenting the final product, I realized that I had dedicated myself continuously to my research for two years. After that, I didn’t know what to do with myself and my free time.
My professor suggested I find something else to write about. After discovering the reception of the Roman Empire in heavy metal music, I knew it was something I wanted to learn. I saw that there are issues that could be given more attention.
What inspires heavy metal artists to write songs about the Roman Empire? What makes this a common theme?
Enchantment, compassion, and even identification with “bad guys.” Extreme metal, especially death metal, often refers to anti-Christian symbols to defy the “status quo.” It is associated with the Roman Empire, as many emperors are said to be brutal towards Christianity.
Most of the original sources about the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome are actually written from the perspective of Christians themselves. Christians used their identity as victims of the persecution of Rome.
These exaggerations formed the narrative that the ancient Romans were evil. These artists oppose Christianity on the side of the ancient Romans, which is the greatest religion in modern society.
In the field of metal, the most popular are the emperors, who have a reputation not only for the violent persecution of Christians, but also for their unlimited power, cruelty, and carnal appetites, so Caligula and Nero top the charts. Heavy metal stands for the extremes of freedom, extravagance and transgression against all systems of compliance and control. The stereotypical “bad” emperors, engineered by both Hollywood and ancient sources such as Suetonius, have therefore been created for heavy metal.
Why do you think artists continue to refer to the Roman Empire?
Two phenomena are confused here.
People of European descent seek to restore authenticity and heritage through the romantic narratives of pre-Christian and pre-modern Europe. This phenomenon can lead to politically dangerous trajectories, as it can easily fit in with reactionary and right-wing politics, even fascism.
The “decolonial” element of the above phenomenon stems from the notion that Christianity is a foreign religion that transcends and eradicated indigenous European traditions. Bands elsewhere in the world, such as Central and South America, also use pre-colonial history and culture (ie the Aztecs) to decolonize and reject the modern conditions caused by European colonialism.
Why is it important to contextualize modern references to classical research?
It is worth looking at other forms of media to see how they shape people’s perceptions of Spartans, Romans, and so on. We need to acknowledge the mass of other media consumed and look at it critically.
Movies, video games and other media in the digital age address issues such as the fall of the Roman Empire. These sources show historians the best way to communicate with the 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 who wants to find their passion?
If something seems interesting, deal with it – even if it’s not related to your planned career. Today, due to different economic ideologies and conditions, there are pressures that everything you learn must be focused on your career.
In classical research, many of our students do not seek to become academic professors. However, the teaching we teach is a life lesson no matter what students intend to do. If you want to continue your interest in the classics when you become an accountant, this is just as competent.
I believe that if you find something interesting, it is just as worth exploring. We are meant to be more than just employees. There is more to life than just productivity.