Guest Article: The Ides of Icarus and Alexander: Iron Maiden & Greco-Roman Antiquity

I am very happy to say that Dr. Jeremy J. Swist of Brandeis University has kindly contributed to this blog. Not only is he literate in Latin and Ancient Greek, as he teaches both languages as a lecturer at university, he is also an expert in the reception of antiquity in heavy metal. His research interests are: imperial Greek and Roman historiography and rhetoric, late antiquity, and classical reception in heavy metal music. Check out his CV for more information. In case you think that you would like to read more of this, this is your lucky day, because Dr. Swist is running his own blog on heavy metal: Heavy Metal Classicist. Check it out! You can also follow him on Twitter and learn more about his projects on his Facebook page (Heavy Metal and the Ancient World). I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did!

When the terms “heavy metal” and “ancient history” are in any mutual proximity, the first association people are likely, if at all, to make is Iron Maiden, and deservedly so. With “The Ides of March” (Killers, 1982), “Flight of Icarus” (Piece of Mind, 1983), “Powerslave” (Powerslave, 1984), and “Alexander the Great” (Somewhere in Time, 1986), this quintet from London brought the classical flavors of their English schooldays to bear and spearheaded the popularization of ancient history and mythology in heavy metal, a phenomenon represented over three decades later by thousands of songs by hundreds of bands all over the world. 

Now, Iron Maiden were not the first or only band to receive antiquity in their lyrics and album artwork. A decade before “The Ides of March,” one of the pioneers of the heavy metal genre itself, the New York band Sir Lord Baltimore, penned an ode to the Roman dictator assassinated in 44 BCE called “Caesar LXXI” (Sir Lord Baltimore, 1971), classic hardrockers Kansas beat Maiden to the Icarus myth with 1975’s “Icarus (Born on Wings of Steel),” while Iron Maiden’s French contemporaries Sortilège and ADX adapted tales of Greek heroes like Heracles and Roman monsters like Caligula to metal in their native tongue. Iron Maiden’s commercial success as a band, however, brought tales of Mediterranean antiquity to the ears of millions more, and made this topic not only palatable, but seemingly well suited for adaptation to the themes and aesthetics of heavy metal music and its culture. Naturally, some of the first scholarly publications on metal’s reception of antiquity by Iain Campbell, Osman Umurhan, and Christian Djurslev focused heavily on this band, especially “Alexander the Great.” This song is also discussed by Lauro Meller in a monograph devoted entirely to the band’s reception of historical subjects, Iron Maiden: A Journey through History

What more could be said on Iron Maiden’s antiquarianism? “Powerslave” I leave to the expertise of Egyptologists such as Leire Olabarria and Hélène Virenque. It turns out that surprisingly little has been written on “The Ides of March” or “Flight of Icarus,” while “Alexander the Great” may yet have more to tell us. What follows are my impressions of these songs as both a veteran metalhead and a professional classicist fully engaged in the growing and evolving field of Metal Studies. 

“The Ides of March” (Killers, 1982)

While the Romans (and especially Julius Caesar himself!) gave us the 365-day calendar and names of the 12 months we still use today, they did not refer to individual days of the month as, for instance, the 15th of March or the 1st of April. Instead, they measured dates by their proximity to three particular days of each month: the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides. The Kalends (from which we get the word calendar) is the first day of each month. The Nones is either the fifth or seventh day depending on the month. The Ides is a day shy of the midpoint of each month, the thirteenth or fifteenth day depending on the month. For example, what we call February 23rd the Romans would call the 7th day before the Kalends of March.

Why did Brutus, Cassius, and the 60 or so senatorial conspirators choose the Ides of March to assassinate a man they thought was destroying Republican liberty and soon to crown himself King of Rome after his victory in civil war left him in sole control of the state in the capacity of dictator-for-life? The Ides of every month is significant in Roman religion. It is a day sacred to Jupiter, king of the gods, and the priest of Jupiter sacrificed a sheep to him outside his temple on Capitol Hill. Perhaps Caesar himself was seen as a sacrifice to Jupiter, in recognition that, as Caesar himself said when refusing a crown shortly before that day, “the only king of the Romans is Jupiter.” Choosing this date also came as a necessity, as Caesar was just about to leave Rome to launch a massive campaign of revenge and conquest against the Parthian Empire. The Parthians annihilated a Roman army under Marcus Crassus almost a decade beforehand. Caesar saw it his duty to restore Roman honor and take back the legionary eagle standards the Parthians had captured in that war. But this war never happened. Emperors after Caesar, like Trajan and Septimius Severus, would conquer the Parthians, but those conquests were short-lived.

As the instrumental that opens their 1981 sophomore album Killers, Iron Maiden penned “The Ides of the March” as the first of a number of songs inspired by the annals of world history. The track itself is characterized by instantly memorable lead guitar melodies and solos, as memorable as the occasion the song solemnly commemorates, one of the most famous assassinations in history. An equally important feature of the song is the drumming that both evokes the Roman Empire by mimicking military percussion, but also builds the tension felt by the conspirators as they approached that fateful moment, and the subsequent tension felt by every Roman after hearing their beloved dictator had fallen. What would come next? Well, following Caesar’s assassination were several more years of bloody civil war, political purges, and anarchy until Caesar Augustus finally brought peace at the cost of freedom. Matching this sequence of history, “The Ides of March” gives way to an album duly called Killers and various meditations on literary and historical violence such as “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “Genghis Khan.” Between the historical event and this instrumental prologue, the Ides of March was, and is, only the beginning.

“Flight of Icarus” (Piece of Mind, 1983)

The myth of Daedalus and his ill-fated son Icarus is one of the most familiar in contemporary culture, at least in its basic outlines. After helping to devise the escape of Minotaur-slayer Theseus from the very labyrinth he engineered, Daedalus and his son Icarus were imprisoned by the Cretan king Minos and locked in a tower. That didn’t stop the resourcefulness of this proto-Da Vinci, who one way or another collected birds’ feathers and candle wax in order to effect their escape on artificial wings. Then comes his fateful advice to his hotheaded teenage son, not to fly too low to the sea’s surface, lest his wings get weighed down by the splashes of the cresting waves, nor too high, lest the heat of the sun melt the wax that held the feathers in place. We all know what happens next: Icarus was too enthralled by the ecstasy of seemingly transcending his human limitations and his adolescent instincts propelled him upward, then downward, to his tragic death. 

This story has most often been read as a lesson in the virtue of moderation, of steering a middle path in all things between the vices of defect and excess (i.e. too low to the water, too high to the sun). But then we have the instantly memorable chorus to this song by Iron Maiden, which seemingly encourages the listener to disregard Daedalus’ warning and strive for the highest extremes. In a way, Iron Maiden see Icarus as a hero of a Greek tragedy, glorified not for keepinging within human bounds but for striving to transcend them, even if it means their downfall. It was worth it to be remembered.

Yet that is not the whole song, nor is it even the whole myth. One detail of the myth is often overlooked, and potentially reorients our interpretation. Daedalus had also told his son to stay behind him and follow his lead, and Icarus eventually ignored this advice as well. Perhaps we should focus less on Icarus’ hubris, and more on that of his father. Is this myth also a lesson in teenage parenting, in that Daedalus should not have expected his son either to remain a compliant child or to follow the same path in life as he did? At another level, was it simply irresponsible of Daedalus to commit his son to so dangerous an endeavor? Whether or not we accord him any blame for his son’s death, we can easily imagine how much Daedalus himself would have felt responsible and carried that guilt for the rest of his life. 

Once again, this is not Iron Maiden’s interpretation, but shifting the focus on Daedalus’ culpability does help us make better sense of the song’s lyrics in their totality. The song is not a simple retelling of the myth, nor are the old man and the boy explicitly identified as Daedalus and Icarus. It is not even clear what their relationship is, as it is left ambiguous whether the boy’s father mentioned multiple times is the old man or God. Did his mortal father betray him by persuading him he could fly like an eagle on with artificial wings? Or is this an allegory for the false promises of religion, the old man being a fanatical representative thereof? The Daedalus figure commands a crowd of people, and it is plausible that he is connecting the ability to fly with the miracles of salvation assured by religious faith. By focusing on the sins of the father, as it were, “Flight of Icarus” can be a warning of how religious extremists can lead people astray, by taking advantage of people’s natural inclination to soar above their human limitations and experience the highest highs. As in Greek epic and tragedy, lessons in “knowing thyself” and accepting our natural boundaries are in tension with the fact that by going to extremes, by proving oneself exceptional for extraordinary deeds, people can achieve immortal fame. Icarus would not have had a song named after him had he survived his fateful flight.  

“Alexander the Great” (Somewhere in Time, 1986)

One of the articles published in the very first issue of the journal Metal Music Studies is called “The Metal King: Alexander the Great in Heavy Metal Music,” written by Danish classicist Christian T. Djurslev. Naturally, he features Iron Maiden’s epic finale to Somewhere in Time prominently. The whole article is worth a read, and its key takeaways with regard to this song are its framing of the Macedonian warlord as not only an idealized masculine figure and thus quintessential heavy metal hero, but also a symbol of the “Western civilization” that he allegedly “spread” to the areas he conquered, becoming a common touchstone of identity and culture shared by the majority of metalheads at the time the song was written (though with metal’s globalization and diversification in subsequent decades, Western civilization as a hegemonic paradigm is being rightfully resisted more and more). 

Iron Maiden were among the first to rewrite history from all eras and places as metal lyrics, ancient Greece included. I say rewrite because even in the case of professional historians writing scholarly monographs, a new telling of an historical figure or event is to some degree remaking the past in the image of the present, or at least responding to contemporary interests and anxieties.

“Alexander the Great” is not just a song about an ancient conqueror of an empire, it is a song written during the Cold War by British musicians whose own empire had been so recently dismantled, eclipsed by the new superpowers of the United States and Soviet Union. In their nostalgia for a more recent past, Iron Maiden celebrate Alexander as a bringer of culture, one who spread the “blessings” of Greek civilization to the “barbarians” of Persia’s former dominions (as if there were no rich diversity of sophisticated cultures there already!). Alexander anticipates later British colonialism and the notion of the “white man’s burden” to “civilize the savages” of Africa and elsewhere. The band also changes the historical narrative completely, in claiming that Alexander’s troops refused to follow him to India. In fact they did, and the Indian campaign was among the bloodiest of all his wars, particularly in the savagery of his own troops taking out their frustrations with the endless campaign on the local populations, massacring thousands. This song erases that history, and modern India still remembers Alexander as an evil villain. Why? Perhaps because the British did successfully take over and “civilize” India whereas Alexander’s gains in that territory were short-lived, and he only conquered the Indus Valley, and barely reached the headwaters of the Ganges before his troops finally forced him to turn back. And the British Empire also lasted a good deal longer than Alexander’s, which almost immediately fell apart after his death, divided into Macedonian kingdoms by his generals.

However controversial Alexander’s legacy, “Alexander the Great” is also a song similar to “Flight of Icarus” that embraces the tragic destiny of a hero striving for the greatest heights, even if it means meeting a wretched end. At the end of each refrain, the lyrics change from Alexander becoming a hero, to becoming a god, to succumbing to fever in Babylon. While “liberating” the Greeks of Asia Minor and then achieving godlike feats, ultimately Alexander was just as human and mortal as any of us.

Conclusion

What unites the three songs discussed here (“The Ides of March,” “Flight of Icarus,” and “Alexander the Great”) is 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 was fooled into believing he could rise to the highest heavens and join the ranks of the divine before the wings of promised miracles disintegrated and he plunged to his doom. Alexander, like Caesar and Icarus, also flew too close to the sun, but not before establishing an immortal legacy. They earned their immortality in the minds of posterity not for being good people (far from it!), but for accomplishing something worthy of record. Such was Herodotus’ goal in writing The Histories as he expresses in his preface, and such is the purpose of Homer’s poetry before him, to preserve the memory of monumental deeds through song, be it sung to a lyre or an electric guitar. 

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