History does not reach us only in classrooms and via textbooks; movies, novels, songs, and even video games have shaped how we understand what came before the present for generations. Lapham’s Quarterly is exploring the history and allure of pop culture’s period pieces, artifacts that captivated audiences with their conceptions of the past—and the political and cultural contexts that made these historical fictions so compelling.
My legions faithful unto death, I’ll summon to my court.
As you perish, each of you shall scream as you are sought.
—Judas Priest, “Tyrant” (1976)
In The Twelve Caesars the Roman biographer Suetonius wrote of the emperor Nero, “When someone in conversation said, ‘Let the world go up in flames when I die,’ he said, ‘Not when you die, but while I live,’ and he clearly made it so.” Nero’s later successor Julian the Apostate describes Caligula as an “evil beast” the gods abhorred. And in 2015 the French death metal band Autokrator released its debut album, which features lyrics that continue Suetonius’ and Julian’s quest to denigrate Roman monarchs infamous for megalomania and moral depravity. Similarly, Autokrator’s mastermind Loïc Fontaine said, “I don’t admire rulers I speak about. Most of them are fucking bastards.”
Roman emperors have enjoyed a prolific reception in metal music around the world—Caligula and Nero most of all, with not only hundreds of individual songs but also entire concept albums dedicated to them, such as the Belgian band Paragon Impure’s 2005 album To Gaius! (For the Delivery of Agrippina) and the Russian band Neron Kaisar’s 2013 album Madness of the Tyrant. The year 2021 saw the release of two separate records about Nero: the UK band Acid Age’s Semper Pessimus and the Canadian band Ex Deo’s The Thirteen Years of Nero. The extent of certain emperors’ popularity can even be quantified, thanks to the online database Encyclopaedia Metallum. Entering each emperor’s name into the advanced search for their appearance in lyrics and song titles, and after eliminating duplicates and false positives (e.g., nero being Italian for “black”), led me to create the following bar graph, which went semi-viral on Twitter in April 2021:
Nero with 139 songs, followed by Caligula with 110, tops a sizable catalogue of 444 songs. Yet this data set consists only of mentions by name in songs with available lyrics in the Encyclopaedia Metallum and excludes untold numbers of tracks about emperors that do not name them, such as “Incitatus,” an old-school death metal ode to Caligula’s horse and would-be consul from 2019 by the Brazilian band Orthostat, or the American band Graves of Valor’s 2009 song “Locusta,” named after the woman Nero praises as the poisoner of not only his predecessor Claudius but also his stepbrother Britannicus and his mother Agrippina.
The numbers speak for themselves: emperors are metal. But why?
In a 2019 article on ancient Rome in metal music, Spanish classicist Helena González-Vaquerizo suggests some succinct answers: masculinity, escapism, empowerment, and nationalism, laid over a musical genre that defines itself by extravagance and intensity in sound, imagery, and language. Roman emperors—or rather popular conceptions of them filtered through hostile and sensationalizing ancient accounts—more or less fit these criteria in their antipathy to modern sensibilities. They are male fantasies in which the total domination of others is paired with personal freedom to indulge in every bestial passion. The long ancestry behind the fantasy makes it all the more attractive.
Fascination, sympathy, and even identification with the “bad guys” of history goes at least as far back as the charismatic Satan of Paradise Lost and subsequent Byronic heroes. By the end of the 1960s, affinities for archetypal rebels and villains would prove congenial to the bad-boy attitude of rock and roll with the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Two years after the debut of Mick Jagger’s satanic swagger, the tritonic diabolus in musica—a discordant interval traditionally taboo in Western music—that commences Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut album inaugurated a genre, later dubbed heavy metal, whose sounds, words, and images transgress established norms, resist order in favor of chaos, and celebrate total liberation of the individual from the bounds of religion and morality.
Black Sabbath’s moniker is inspired by cinematic horror; the band wanted to transmit the strong and negative emotions of films like 1963’s Black Sabbath and 1968’s Witchfinder General to their audience through Ozzy Osborne’s melodramatic and tortured vocals and Tony Iommi’s heavy, distorted guitar riffs, played in a new way by fingers disfigured by an industrial accident. Heavy metal bands were disenchanted with working-class life in the political and economic conditions of the 1970s and set out to confront the “generals gathered in their masses / just like witches at black masses” who plotted nuclear apocalypse. Hard and heavy rock music owes a large debt to blues artists drawing from a long African American tradition of deploring social conditions through song, and early metal channeled its rebellious energy into a new form of protest music. At this early point, its satanic figures had yet to transform from the antagonists to the protagonists of their narratives.
In the English group Judas Priest’s 1976 song “Tyrant,” vocalist Rob Halford revels in the unbridled exercise of authority and cruelty. Only the layered dirge of the song’s bridge, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy beneath the hubristic characters on stage, reminds us that Halford’s ventriloquizing of a tyrant is no endorsement of tyranny:
Mourn for us oppressed in fear
Chained and shackled we are bound.
Freedom choked, in dread we live, since Tyrant was enthroned.
The flipside of metal’s antipathy to authority is the desire for liberation. In its discourse of satanic figures lurks a tension between the freedom of the individual and the collective.
In the golden age of the early 1980s, metal took two significant turns. First, bands such as England’s Venom, Denmark’s Mercyful Fate, and Sweden’s Bathory embraced Satan as their savior and evil as their good, a symbolic expression of iconoclastic libertinism that brought the legacy of shock rockers like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Alice Cooper to its logical conclusion. Early black metal comprised several subgenres, but the rawness of simple chord progressions played fast and loud beneath the inhuman shrieks of unmelodic vocals characteristic of Bathory and Switzerland’s Hellhammer proved most influential. Death metal, a far more technically virtuosic subgenre which evolved alongside black metal and matched it in speed and harshness, also took up satanic, anti-Christian, and blasphemous themes, especially through early titans like Morbid Angel from Florida and Incantation and Immolation from New York. Collectively, extreme metal’s sympathy for the devil came to range from tongue-in-cheek to theological conviction. Christianity became the new adversary, the enemy of individual liberation from all moral codes that Satan represented.
Even within these extreme subgenres, very few producers or consumers of metal believe in a literal Satan—even very few satanists—for admitting his existence is to endorse the truth of Christian theology. Rather, they are adopting imagery that the hegemonic culture they oppose will easily recognize as transgressive. But by turning crosses upside down and Satan into a positive figure the metal counterculture, ironically, is using the same playbook as the early Church vis-à-vis the Roman Empire. Drawing from the sociological theory of Albert Cohen, the historian Allen Brent has argued that the early Christians constituted a veritable counterculture by repurposing the structures and symbols of Roman authority and the religious practices of emperor worship. The Christian mass was the black mass of its day, as pagan Romans’ misrepresentations of Christians as morally deviant, antisocial, and even treasonous anticipate the stereotypes imposed on metalheads by the majority Christian establishment during the moral panics of the 1980s and 1990s. In this pendulum swing of history, the Romans were soon enough enlisted on the side of the underdog.
Amid the era’s so-called satanic panics, and perhaps even in response to them, bands like Iron Maiden, Manowar, and Bathory started taking up themes drawn from history, myth, and classical and fantasy literature. The historical allusions function as retreats from the present, an imagined past where Egyptian pharaohs, Alexander the Great, Conan the Barbarian, and pagan Vikings were celebrated for pushing the extremes of violent power and carnal indulgence. Metal’s transgressive rejection of modernity eventually led its practitioners toward escapist and romanticizing receptions of premodernity. Bathory switched from satanic to Nordic themes in the late 1980s, and other bands soon followed its example; history reconnected artists with what they perceived as their authentic selves, grounded in the native pagan traditions of Europe erased by the foreign-born tyranny of Christianity. The thematic territory quickly overtook metal bands writ large, whose members were drawn to the “great men” who dominate the ancient narratives traditionally sold by popular media. In opposition to the alleged weakness that modernity encouraged, masculinity was transgressive.
In this milieu, it was perhaps inevitable that Roman emperors would make their heavy metal debut. With Caligula and Nero, the fixation on “great men” combined with the transgressive libertinism of the satanic protagonist. In 1984 the French band ADX released “Caligula” on its first demo. It was a speed metal tour de force that begins in imperial pomp before launching into a raucous neckbreaker typical of the subgenre—fitting for a reign that began with high expectations for the son of the beloved Germanicus and ended with a descent into madness, murder, and all manner of debauchery. The lyrics, here translated from the original French, put into words what the scandalous 1979 film Caligula (which likely inspired it) put into (porno)graphic images:
Your reign will become nothing more than madness
Decadent orgies, incestuous love affairs
You knew how to spill a rain of blood.
Metal’s turn toward themes of history and heritage often ended with songwriters deliberately importing imagery from the silver screen. The more iconic Roman emperor in the popular imagination than even Caligula’s eponymous tyrant was the Nero of the 1951 blockbuster Quo Vadis. The corrupt bon vivant was played by Peter Ustinov, who strums his lyre against the backdrop of a burning Rome as a prelude to persecuting the Christians scapegoated for his own act of arson. The film, unsurprisingly, exaggerated things. The historical Great Fire, which leveled most of downtown Rome in 64, was likely as accidental as the conflagration that leveled Chicago eighteen centuries later. (Nero was not even in Rome that day.) Historians still debate whether Tacitus’ report of the emperor’s subsequent targeting of the Christians is accurate.
But that didn’t stop metal musicians from drawing on movies instead of ancient texts when they were looking for inspiration. During the heyday of thrash metal—a more abrasive, punk-infused offshoot of traditional metal born in the early 1980s with Metallica, Slayer, Kreator, and similar acts—the Nero of Quo Vadis debuted on the 1987 record Extreme Cold Weather by the Swiss band Messiah.
Nero, finder of bad sound harmonies,
Composed titles for wonderfully done things,
Found the answers, the things he sung
Were about the realities of his next strike.
“Aaaaahh my little Rome, enjoy my flames,
I sing and pray for you and your child,
Fall to ashes for my new empire,
It’s my greatest lyric now.”
Some emperors are more popular in metal than others, but does that make them more metal? Caligula and Nero may simply be the most familiar in popular culture at large, popularized by Hollywood. Because historical accuracy may disrupt the resonance of pop culture conceptions of Vikings or Roman emperors, bands often look no further than popular media for inspiration. (Although Iron Maiden’s 1986 epic “Alexander the Great” was the product of bassist Steve Harris’ immersion in the written sources of the Macedonian’s life, to the point where the song opens with a quotation from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander.) A few bands, however, saw that consulting primary sources might give them new emperors to obsess over. Exhuming history’s more obscure figures from the sands of time wasn’t always the result of intentional quests for novelty. Ola Blomkvist, guitarist in the Swedish doom metal band Dautha, said in a 2019 interview that he discovered soldier-emperor Maximinus Thrax by chance:
I stumbled upon this fine gentleman during a search for information about the biblical Nephilim. I instantly knew I had to write a song about him as he’s truly a character who is larger than life in every aspect, and one that’s strangely forgotten. In fact, just as I’d finished the lyrics for the song, the first-ever book exclusively dedicated to him came out: Maximinus Thrax: Strongman Emperor of Rome by Paul N. Pearson. However, since my lyric predates the book I had to rely on the antique Historia Augusta when creating it.
The Historia Augusta was a late antique successor to Suetonius—tabloid journalism masquerading as imperial biography, equally adaptable to metal lyrics’ taste for the sensational. Maximinus Thrax appears in only two heavy metal songs. A look at other emperors with fewer mentions is instructive; musicians have enlisted many other figures with complicated historiographies to the streamlined narrative they seek to tell.
The majority of emperors on this list fall into one or both of two categories: rebels and persecutors. For both groups, musicians more or less accept at face value the hostile ancient accounts written after their deaths, either by senators resentful of emperors who don’t treat them like equals or by Christians serving their religious agendas by inflating the number of their own martyrs. What comprises the majority of our primary sources for these imperial reigns often dials their violence and depravity to eleven. Well-behaved men seldom make history, at least by metal’s historiographical standards.
Metal’s lesser-used historical figures aren’t always cast as heroes. Artists living on the former frontiers of the Roman Empire sometimes need to conjure nemeses for true metal heroes: the Germanic, Celtic, and other “barbarian” underdogs fighting to preserve their heritage from colonialism, imperialism, and globalism. “Your empire bleeds / At Teutoburg grounds, / Augustus,” crows the German power metal band Rebellion on the 2012 concept album Arminius: Furor Teutonicus, named for the rebel whose coalition of Germanic tribes annihilated three Roman legions in 9, romanticized as a founder of the German nation since the nineteenth century. The UK black metal band Kotys’ song “Krum Strashni” honors the killer of the eighth-century Byzantine emperor Nicephorus I, whose skull was repurposed as a goblet by the victorious Bulgarian khan featured in the song’s title. The wall bisecting northern Britain, the sole reason for Hadrian’s nine mentions, was as much a symbol of Roman authority as a physical boundary just asking to be transgressed.
According to Deena Weinstein, the founding mother of metal studies, metal’s rebelliousness manifests as two complementary deities, Chaos and Dionysus. The former is the negation of order, while the latter is the positive element that takes its place: the total liberation of our animal natures from the shackles of social conventions. The disciplined patriarchs of the old republic attempted to expel the cult of Dionysus from the gates of Rome, for fear of what its rites entailed: the transgression of moral constraints and one’s socially imposed identities, gendered and otherwise. These Dionysian liberations can be found in metal’s favored protagonists—ancient sources ascribe to Nero and Elagabalus proud displays of gender fluidity, leading some today to speculate that the latter was the first transgender emperor. But it would be hard to discern these details from the songs featuring them; the hegemony of masculinity is one boundary the genre is still largely hesitant to transgress. Songs about Elagabalus stick to tropes of absolute power corrupting absolutely: “A permanent state of entitlement / The master of pain and of pleasure / A sinister bacchanal god” runs the American group A Crime of Passion’s 2015 song “Elagabalus.” The androgyny of 1980s glam metal, celebrating its own transgressive and hedonistic lifestyle in the Reagan era, never turned its attention to historical precedents.
Yet rebellion and transgression are not gendered, at least in theory, even in the still male-majority metal scene. The “bad girls” of Roman history make an infrequent appearance, often due to the presence of women musicians and lyricists in bands such as Italy’s White Skull and Slovenia’s ShadowIcon. Most often the historical women are rebels against Rome, such as the British queen Boudicca, a virtuous and charismatic icon of justified violence against colonial exploiters. But more often ancient women’s representation in metal lyrics and artwork is often caught in the same frustrating place as their granddaughters in the metal scene: they are either invisible or visible only as objects of the male gaze whose sexual sorcery threatens masculine control. Here even artists who consult the ancient sources (all written by elite men) still maintain the sensationalism of Hollywood or TV dramas. The Cleopatra VII who appears in metal carries the legacy of both Augustan propagandists and Elizabeth Taylor as a sexualized and orientalized emasculator of men. The only empresses in metal songs, Claudius’ wife Messalina and Justinian’s Theodora, fare even worse, as their portrayals as insatiable prostitutes transfer seamlessly from the prurient pages of Juvenal and Procopius to the lyrics sheet.
The maintenance of masculine hegemony is not the only way that metal takes the side of those in power while claiming a lineage of rebels. Emperors’ most transgressive symbolism comes not through rebelling against their own society but, paradoxically, through their suppression of what they perceived as rebellious elements within that society. Enter the persecutors.
As I have written about elsewhere, Roman persecutions of Christians have been a hot topic in metal since Kreator’s 1987 song “Blind Faith” and Morbid Angel’s “Lion’s Den” from 1993. Emperors such as Nero, Decius, and Diocletian may not be worth celebrating for punching down on a powerless minority. But metal’s logic takes the long view: by identifying contemporary and mainstream codes of authority and morality with Christianity (many bands originated in majority-Christian countries), metal frames itself as a persecuted minority spiritually united with ancient Rome by a common enemy. To these musicians, commemorating Christianity’s persecutors feels justified as a counterpoint to the church’s own acts of persecution, cultural erasure, “holy” wars, and imprisonment of the human mind and spirit ever since its ascension to power sixteen centuries ago.
It starts to become clear why Nero is the most popular emperor in metal. While Caligula embodied Chaos and Dionysus in their most extreme forms, the Jesus movement was barely out of Judaea during his reign (37–41) and not yet well established in Rome, where it would come to Nero’s opportunistic attention in 64. Aside from the fact that metal’s favorite integer, 666—the number of the beast—has been interpreted as numerological code for Nero’s name, it is a very Roman thing to elevate the auctor, the originator of something, to levels of fame so high that later developments of that thing are retroactively attributed to them. So Nero in metal not only turns Christians into human torches as poetic justice for alleged arson but also inaugurates their damnatio ad bestias, feeding them to lions in a Colosseum not built till after his reign. So runs the title track to the German band Obsidian Gate’s 2001 album Colossal Christhunt, which begins with Nero’s diviners warning him of the coming “Christian plague and their false father god,” retrojecting into Nero’s time events that prompted Diocletian to undertake the Great Persecution over two centuries later.
By the third century, Christians’ refusal to pay lip service to the imperial cult was not only seen as traitorous to Rome but also threatened pax deorum, the peace and prosperity guaranteed by the gods in return for their due worship. Such was the logic of persecution under the emperor Decius, who reigned from 249 to 251; metal adds to that rationale the hindsight of Christianity’s eventual triumph. Singapore’s Impiety exhort him in its 2004 song “Indomitable Fist of Decius”:
Known to all,
Christianity is set to bring about your fall,
Aimed at, demolishing,
The sacred elders of your ancient cult.
Let there be honor,
Let there be absolute control,
Over your empire, in your name,
as their savage deaths unfold.
The song’s narrative relies on the knowledge that Christianity will supplant pagan religions and the belief that Christianity was responsible for the fall of Rome. The latter notion, an overly simplistic inheritance from Edward Gibbon, dies hard, since metal scapegoats Christianity for the world’s problems as readily as these emperors did.
In the fourth century the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity arrived. Constantine appears in more than two dozen songs that accuse him of paving Christianity’s path to power. Yet was he not himself a rebel for championing the cause of an underdog against the traditions of the establishment? Germany’s Goat of Mendes offer some eloquent answers in its 2011 song “Curse of Constantine,” a narrative of the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, when Constantine allegedly received visions from God, promising him victory. The song ridicules Constantine’s choice of an alien religion to unify the empire: he was “inspired by the omen from a foreign savior” and “the foreign prophet could finally be his savior.” The song concludes:
Thus from an empire torn, was born the curse of Constantine
A minor cult was sold towards the masses
To strengthen policy, suppress individuality.
Constantine’s adoption of Christianity is styled as a cynical ploy for social control through the suppression of the ultimate metal virtue, individualism—the prideful identification with goats over sheep—paired with the supplanting of pagan religions by a single foreign faith alien to the peoples of Europe. Metal often harmonizes individualism and tradition by projecting onto pre-Christian cultures of ancient Rome, Scandinavia, Mexico, and others the elitist values of a martial society that arose naturally from its own soil. Although Constantine neither outlawed paganism nor made Christianity the state religion, those later developments owed everything, in the eyes of metal at least, to his apostasy.
Bands far beyond Europe blame Constantine’s conversion for the subsequent erasure of their ancient heritage. These include the Argentinian band Tersivel, which devotes the only concept album about a Roman emperor other than Caligula or Nero to Constantine’s nephew Julian, who reigned from 361 to 363. Worship of the Gods, released in 2017, is a sonic biography of the man who abjured his childhood faith and attempted to reverse the Christianization of the empire before dying in battle against Persia. While a hero of the Enlightenment, the Romantics, and contemporary polytheists, Julian has had an underwhelming reception in metal. He is lionized by only two other bands: the Dutch band Countess in 2011’s “An Emperor’s Stand” and the English group Spearhead in 2007’s “Iulianus Augustus Apostata.” This relative unpopularity may be due to Julian’s refusal to violently persecute Christians. In his view, Christianity was a disease to be cured by education and persuasion, not by killing the patient.
Fantasies of anti-Christian persecutions are largely tolerated in metal as channels of transgression against a privileged religious majority. Extending that antagonism toward religious traditions either separate from a band’s own ethnic background or that are followed by a historically persecuted minority is a taboo that most in the metal scene refuse to break. Those few that do include the notorious subgenre of National Socialist black metal (NSBM), a fringe group that pushes transgression to such extremes in the name of masculinity, empowerment, and nationalism that it becomes an instrument of fascism. A recurring motif in this hate music is the elevation to a proto-Hitler of the emperor Titus, who under the nascent regime of his father, Vespasian, crushed a Jewish revolt, sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed the Second Temple in 70.
While unabashed anti-Semitism and white supremacism fly in the face of metal’s solidarity with the underdog, metal’s fascination with and even adoration of some of the most powerful men in history serves as an escape from a mainstream where masculinity, individualism, and heritage are perceived as lacking. Rather than an anomaly, NSBM more accurately takes to extremes core sentiments of much of the metal mainstream, sentiments that are seldom interrogated. The German band Atlantean Kodex pines for the fading traditions of ancient and medieval Europe in their lyrics, while at the same time labeling themselves as “antimodern, antiurban, antifascist epic metal.” Metal’s orientation toward a romanticized premodernity not only in Europe but also in places like Latin America and East Asia can logically extend from leanings to the political right; in turning to the past, bands on the left half of the spectrum should reckon with the tensions inherent therein. A Mexican band like Cemican certainly can revive pre-Hispanic traditions as a form of decolonialism, but what does it mean for artists from Western backgrounds to wax nostalgic for paganism and chivalry? Is this merely escapism and transgression for its own sake?
One could appeal to the stock themes of satanism and violence against Christians in these songs as such expressions of transgression rather than of any theological convictions or genocidal advocacy—similar to how acting, a practice originating in the worship of Dionysus, is now mostly a secularized ritual. Like the plays of Euripides, however, metal songs are not divorced from social context and commentary, but not every tyrant of Rome is a mouthpiece for the band. Let them love them or hate them, so long as they fear them.
Roman emperors embody a tension in metal music between transgression and empowerment. Commemorating their infamy in song prolongs their immortality as larger-than-life figures who overshadow the rest of their historical contemporaries. Yet as the Irish band Primordial shows in the songs “Empire Falls” and “As Rome Burns,” metal in its rebellious nature can also remind us that the power and glory of these “great men,” often built on the invisible labor of the unsung, must always come down.
Every empire will fall,
Every monument crumble
Sing, sing, sing to the slaves,
Sing to the slaves that Rome burns.