Dawn of a Dark Age: Constantine the Great in Heavy Metal Music

The Roman emperor Constantine I, enrolled in the club of historical “the Greats,” is inarguably one of the most consequential figures in world history. By championing the erstwhile persecuted, minority cult of Jesus Christ, he set Christianity on its course to becoming the dominant religion in Europe, and from there, the world. The so-called triumph of Christianity was by no means inevitable, and those who dwell on the atrocities committed in Christ’s name over the last seventeen centuries of the Common Era may place the blame on Constantine’s initial blending of the political with the ecclesiastical. Even the medieval poet Dante, a devout Catholic, was critical of the initial merger of Church and State (Purgatorio 32.124-129, trans. Mandelbaum): 

Then I could see the eagle plunge—again
down through the tree—into the chariot
and leave it feathered with its plumage; and,

just like a voice from an embittered heart,
a voice issued from Heaven, saying this:
“O my small bark, your freight is wickedness!”

Dante recounts an allegorical vision of the Church (the chariot) being granted secular power by the Roman Empire (the eagle), and he proceeds to show how this caused the Church (especially the papacy) to become corrupt, reflecting Dante’s notions that Christianity should not wield any political power. The Florentine bard is referring specifically to the so-called Donation of Constantine, a decree in which the emperor allegedly transferred power of the Western Roman Empire to the papacy. The document, likely composed in not the fourth but the eight century, was not proved a forgery until over century after Dante, but for most of the Middle Ages it was used by the Church to justify its temporal power in Europe. While the Eastern Empire maintained the primacy of the emperor as the head of the Church (even today, Constantine is a saint among the Orthodox), the Western Church’s arrogation of temporal power thanks to Constantine’s alleged Donation set up the perennial conflicts between popes, emperors, and kings that eventually led to the theories of separation of Church and State that arose in the Enlightenment and its consequent political revolutions. Despite what’s been enshrined in various nations’ constitutions, the tensions between sacred and secular persist so long as Christianity (and other religions) continues to inform how millions of citizens want governments to intervene in people’s lives. 

It is clear to most people since Tipper Gore and the Satanic Panic what position the majority of heavy metal bands, especially extreme metal bands, have tended to take in this age-old conflict. The inversion of Christian symbols and the adoption of Satanic imagery was at the origins of extreme metal in the early 1980s with bands such as Venom, Bathory, and Mercyful Fate. Much as the authenticity of Constantine’s conversion has been called into question by some, these bands’ embrace of Satanic imagery did not necessarily reflect a genuine profession of Satanic faith, but rather represented a rebellion from the moral codes of mainstream society. If Constantine took up the cross as a means of social control, Venom and others inverted it in order to break that control. 

The artists mentioned above were chief influences on the Second Wave of Black Metal that began in Norway at the beginning of the 1990s. With a consolidation of what became the standard sound of Black Metal also came the establishment of its traditional lyrical concept, that being a more serious antagonism toward Christianity (and religion overall). In Scandinavia, this sentiment combined with a nationalistic view of history nostalgic for a time before the Vikings converted to Christianity. Beginning with Bathory, such pining for a pre-Christian authenticity gave rise to the subgenres variously known as Viking, Pagan, Folk, and Celtic Metal. But in Norway itself, this led a handful of artists to take action, resulting in the arson of several churches across the country. 

So as it is among Black Metal and Folk/Pagan Metal bands that we find lyrical concepts interested in the historical themes of Christianization, so it is mostly among artists of these subgenres that we find the most mentions of Constantine. A search on the Metal-Archives database reveals 28 songs that have been recorded that mention Constantine by name. Quantitatively, he is not the most popular Roman emperor in metal songs, far eclipsed by Caligula and Nero, but he is a distant third (Diocletian comes in fourth). 

Before we dive into these Constantinian metal songs, it is worth reviewing the historical Constantine, in order to appreciate how these artists receive, however faithfully, the historical record. Flavius Valerius Constantinus was born around 272 CE in modern-day Serbia, at a time when the Roman Empire was in the midst of the Third-Century Crisis. Amid political, social, and economic instability, dozens of emperors came and went as across the empire imperial armies elevated usurpers, clashed in civil wars, and assassinated legitimate emperors on a whim, all the while so-called barbarians, such as the Goths, were penetrating the now porous borders.  During this crisis, some emperors such as Decius and Valerian scapegoated Christians and their refusal to take part in emperor-worship as the reason for the gods’ anger, and so undertook violent persecutions of a cult that had spread from the Levant across the empire. Out of this crisis, in 284 CE, arose the emperor Diocletian, whose sweeping reforms (including a new wave of anti-Christian persecutions) aimed to stabilize the empire, including the imperial office. He appointed a co-emperor (or Augustus), Maximian, and later on both of them each appointed a junior emperor (Caesars) to be their designated successor. In this system known now as the Tetrarchy, all four emperors governed different quadrants of an empire now thought too large for one man to capably control. This arrangement was also intended to ensure smooth successions of emperors. Diocletian abdicated the throne in 305, and he forced Maximian to do the same. Maximian’s Caesar Constantius ascended to the rank of Augustus. Though it was expected that Diocletian would appoint Constantius’ son Constantine and Maximian’s son Maxentius as their respective successors, they both ended up being snubbed. Nevertheless, when Constantius died in Britain a year later in 306, his army declared Constantine the new Augustus, and not long afterward Maxentius declared himself Augustus in Rome. 

What followed was a series of civil wars between various tetrarchs in both East and West, leading to a showdown between Constantine and Maxentius’ armies outside the gates of Rome in 312. The winner would take sole control of the western half of the empire. Constantine was preparing to take on an enemy with home field but not, as many mythologizing sources claim, numerical advantage. It was then that a miracle allegedly took place. The Christian rhetorician Lactantius is our earliest source to report it (De Mortibus Persecutorum 44.5, my translation):

Constantine was advised in his sleep to mark the heavenly sign of God on his shields and in this way commit to battle. He did as he was commanded and marked “Christ” across the shields with a letter X with the very top turned around.

The sign the dream commanded him to use was a Christogram, the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek (chi and rho). Years later, the bishop Eusebius of Caesarea produced a more elaborate account (Life of Constantine 1.28-29 trans. Schaff):

He saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription “conquer by this.” At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle…then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.

The Vision and Battle That Christianized the West - Catholic Family News
Penni, Romano, & del Colle, Visione della croce, 1524, Vatican Museums

In the original Greek, “conquer by this” was ἐν τουτῷ νίκα (en toutoi nika), which was translated into Latin as in hoc signo vinces, “in this sign you will conquer.” The sign Constantine used in this account was the labarum, a legionary standard with a Christogram at its top. Now, these two sources, though contemporary with Constantine, were not eyewitnesses to the event and their Christian agenda undoubtedly influences their narrative. No non-Christian sources convey these details, only that Constantine fought a fierce battle at the Milvian Bridge and soundly defeated the forces of Maxentius, who drowned in the Tiber River. 

Bronze nummus depicting Constantine (obverse) and the labarum (reverse), 337 CE.

Up to this point, Constantine was a pagan who worshipped the traditional gods of the Roman state, but especially the sun-god Sol Invictus, whose cult became popular with the military and emperors alike in the third century. While not an exclusive monotheism, the rise of solar worship represented a step in that direction. What these sources would have us believe is that Constantine found in the god of the Christians the help he needed for victory. It is possible that he saw Sol Invictus and the Christian god as one and the same. In any case, after the battle there was a shift in Constantine’s policies toward Christianity. In 313 he issued the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious tolerance throughout the empire, thereby making Christianity legal. As his long reign progressed, he granted the Church more and more privileges, with imperial subsidies, tax exemptions, and funding the construction of grand churches. By 324, he had become sole ruler of the empire after he defeated the eastern emperor Licinius, and desired that a united empire could only sponsor a united Church. Christian communities across the empire had developed diverse theological beliefs, so in 325 Constantine invited the empire’s bishops to the ecumenical Council of Nicaea to generate a uniform creed, which is still recited to this day in the Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant churches. In 337, Constantine was baptized on his deathbed, a not uncommon practice, to cleanse his soul of sin before his death. 

First Council of Nicaea (Illustration) - Ancient History Encyclopedia
Icon depicting the Council of Nicaea, Mégalo Metéoron Monastery, Greece

A common misconception is that Constantine imposed Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire. This is not true. Christians made up only 10% of the population at the start of his reign, far from a critical mass. What Constantine did do by privileging the Church was set in motion the gradual Christianization of the empire, and an accelerated rate of conversions. Nor, conversely, did Constantine illegalize paganism, neither closing pagan temples nor banning sacrifices to the old gods. It would be his sons and imperial successors who began such policies, interrupted briefly by the reign of the pagan Julian the Apostate (r. 361-363). Only by the reign of Theodosius I (r. 379-395) can we talk of Christianity as becoming the state religion, and it would not be until Justinian the Great (r. 527-565) that paganism was officially outlawed. 

More in dispute is the genuineness of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Did he truly believe that the Christian god had brought him victory, or did he adopt the religion for more Machiavellian purposes, as a tool for social control and a means to unite the empire under the banner of one faith? These two interpretations need not be mutually exclusive, and it is plausible that Constantine was a genuine convert who also saw the political utility of sponsoring the religion. Constantine was a complicated figure, but his legacy as the first Christian emperor, responsible for setting the religion on its course to world conquest, comprises the core of his reception, whether laudatory or critical.

With our historical background set, we can finally jump into the music, and proceed chronologically. The earliest mention on Constantine in Metal traces back only 15 years, to 2005 with the release of the album Broken History by the Italian Progressive Power Metal band Adramelch and its opening track “I’ll Save the World.” The lyrics’ exposition sets a dark, dreary world dominated by dogmatism: 

Fall tears of sorrow
down day by day
Until tomorrow
Darkening thy way

Now, heavy clouds, hide the sun, hide the light
No hope to light a candle
No hope to light mind and heart
Now a heavy cage is trapping our spirits
No more free interpretations
No more free flight for our thoughts

Adramelch use the old Platonic trope of identifying the sun and light with truth and knowledge, both of which have been extinguished in the darkening age where free and diverse thought have been replaced with a uniform set of beliefs. With the next stanza comes the blame for this paradigm shift: “Three hundred and thirteen / A flash on Constantine / Comes the time of worship / Comes the heretic infidel’s yoke.” Here is an allusion to Constantine’s vision before the battle of the Milvian Bridge, which occurred in 312. It is either a mistake that the song sets the date at 313 or else it is alluding to the Edict of Milan of that year, in which case the Edict is interpreted not only as the legalization of Christianity, but its imposition as the official religion. With Constantine comes the spiritual slavery of a religion that rejects the traditional gods, a view the band characterizes as heresy. 

The next stanza moves forward in history: “The year three hundred and twenty-five comes / Nicea ratifies / The Emperor banishes / A jester tells a story for our memories / Oyez: the emperor proclaims / But is it truth what he declaims?” The Council of Nicaea is here identified as a further step in the suppression of free thought, where with the ratification of a single orthodox creed of theological beliefs, all other interpretations are declared heretical, and their adherents who did not adopt the new Nicene creed were excommunicated and exiled. While the historical Constantine deferred to the bishops to formulate the creed, the song inflates the emperor’s role in determining belief and professing it as truth. Again, Constantine is solely to blame for the closing of the collective mind. 

The final stanza of the song jumps far ahead in time: “Ten ninety-five / Urban the second / I’m loyal to my Truth / I’ll save the world.” The reference here is to the Council of Clermont, where pope Urban II launched the First Crusade, the Christian conquest of the Holy Land which had been under Muslim rule for four centuries. When the lyrics shift to the first person, it is possible that these are the words of either the pope himself or a crusader, so firm in his beliefs that he is willing to kill for them, and by spreading those beliefs to foreign lands, to bring salvation to those who aren’t yet Christians. Adramelch view Constantine as the harbinger of the so-called Dark Ages, where a classical age of reason, diversity, and peace gave way to faith, conformity, and violence. Such Renaissance notions are today highly outmoded, but attractive to a heavy metal discourse antagonistic to religion. 

Such discourse, as discussed earlier, is most aggressive in the subgenre of Black Metal. In 2006 the American Black Metal band Catholicon put out the song “Dawn of a Dark Age” on their album The Death Throes of Christianity. The song elaborates on the theme of the consequences of the Edict of Milan, namely the destruction of an idealized classical age and the coming of a violent, dark age:

the heart of God handed to man
in a belief quarantined, pent up fixations
martyrs fed daily to the lions, stirring sympathy
for the Gospel of Paul, distorted beyond belief
the words of the Son, bottled up to ferment
unleashed on a world ripe for punishment
theocracy and the empire collide into
Christianity-destroying the world one life at a time
for the sake of the love, grace, and mercy of God
why cannot this bloodshed ever come to a stop
for the sake of the satiation of all sins
this blackout for four hundred years shall not end
armies of God are poised to devour
as we embrace our darkest hour, all that we’ve achieved is baptized in fire
you’ve been legalized, given all you want
why cannot the onslaught ever stop
for all we’ve given you, yet you take even more
those we’ve killed of you, you’ve returned thousand score
you were legalized, a mistake never undone
when allowed every inch, a mile is soon withdrawn
every liberty given you, ungratefulness our reward
in the name of a bastard who was born to a whore
from the pagans of Rome, one name would descend
and through his acts, silence the voices within
fevered dreams and visions, uncertain in faith
a nation divided cannot stand in God’s grace
a man after God’s own heart and mind
the devastations of God’s wrath trail not far behind
the will of Constantine, monotheistic unity
holy water and blood drown out Promethean flames
state religion bestowed upon the plague of all plagues
and now all may be lost so that all might be saved
despite death-bed baptism, undecided in faith
under the stigma of Christ, an empire falls in disgrace
armies of God are poised to devour
as we embrace our darkest hour, all that we’ve achieved is baptized in fire
baptized in fire
dawn of a dark age

One of the main thrusts of the song is the role reversal of Christians from the persecuted to the persecutors. “[M]artyrs fed daily to the lions, stirring sympathy” plays upon the myth fabricated by ecclesiastical historians that the Roman persecution of Christianity was widespread and sustained, when it fact it was sporadic and unevenly enforced. The line also hints at how the example of martyrdom was a means to the Church’s growth. As the third-century Christian apologist Tertullian put it, “the blood of Christians is seed” (Apologeticum 50.13). 

The track proceeds to suggest that with Christianity’s legalization “theocracy and empire collide,” which implies that the Roman Empire had previously been a secular state in which religion was separate. Again, modern ideals are projected onto a pre-Christian past. In any case, the band argues that the combination of Church and State led to four centuries of violence committed in Christ’s name, and that the scale of violence against non-Christians was far greater than what the Christians had suffered. All the while the very divinity and paternity of Christ, in whose name these atrocities were committed, is questioned: “a bastard who was born to a whore.” 

The last third of the song focuses on Constantine’s motives: “fevered dreams and visions, uncertain in faith / a nation divided cannot stand in God’s grace.” Constantine’s epiphanies before the battle of the Milvian Bridge are styled as febrile hallucinations, while “uncertain in faith” suggests a cynical reading of Constantine’s championing of Christianity, namely that he did not truly convert, but saw in Christianity the means to unify the empire under the banner of one faith: “the will of Constantine, monotheistic unity.” His lack of personal devotion persists to his death-bed baptism, “undecided in faith.” 

The track ends with the claim that Christianity caused the collapse of the empire, and with it the erasure of the achievements of classical civilization: “holy water and blood drown out Promethean flames.” By alluding to Prometheus’ gift of fire to humankind, Catholicon invoke a perennial conflict between science and religion, as though Constantine destroyed an age of reason for one of faith. 

Some artists do not necessarily view Constantine as merely turning from the secular to the sacred. In 2007, the British Black Metal band Caïna released the acoustic song “Constantine the Blind” as part of their album Mourner. Once again, the emperor’s adoption of Christianity is presented as the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages:

Constantine the blind, corssing rivers of pale ashes
Negates Sol Invictus with the Nazarene’s dark pain
The alien of Genneseret, stealing into the heart of Diana’s temple
Raping her with the fury of the sacrificed
Constantine the blind, wan Godhead at his side
Scales mythic Olympus, insolent, depositing Zeus and Mars alike, recognising his bloodline’s theft.
Like tragic Akhenaton, the sightless man seeing, destroys that most valuable to him.
Jeshua ben Joseph all smiles, all laughter, all glorious addictive hatred,
Looks on in wonder at the Empire fallen.
The Sun sets.
All hail the Sun.

While Adramelch and Catholicon focused on Constantine’s conversion as a shift from an age of reason to one of unreason, Caïna focus much more on the polytheistic traditions that they allege the emperor discarded in favor of a foreign cult. In particular, they note how he abandoned his own devotion to Sol Invictus, but also the traditional Greco-Roman gods like Zeus and Mars. By “scal[ing] mythic Olympus,” Constantine is styled as a mythical enemy of the gods, like the giants who attempted to ascend Olympus and overthrow them. Indeed, as Tim Whitmarsh has noted in his book Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, the Greeks characterized atheists in these terms, comparing them to the original battlers of the gods. Antichristian polemicists called Christians atheists for their worship of a mortal man and rejection of any other god. The band also compares Constantine the the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, who had attempted to replace his country’s polytheism with solar monotheism, but upon his death failed to achieve his vision. In place of the native gods of the land, Constantine introduces Jesus, whose foreignness is emphasized by his epithets “the Nazarene” and “the alien of Genneseret” and his Hebrew name “Jeshua ben Joseph,” the last of which suggests he was not the true son of God but of a mortal man. The song ultimately dwells on Constantine’s blindness, for the introduction of the Jesus cult turned out to destroy the empire that he tried to preserve. Caïna not only suggest that Christianity caused the fall of Rome, but their argument is similar to that of emperors like Diocletian who persecuted Christians, and later pagan apologists who defended the polytheism, including after the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. They argued that it was the pagan gods that were the source of Rome’s sustained strength, and abandoning them would bring about Rome’s destruction.

Finally, “the Sun sets” is a pregnant phrase, as once again we may read the Sun platonically as a symbol of truth and reason. It also certainly recalls the Sol Invictus the emperor abandoned. Moreover, it recalls the phrase “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” and evokes a nostalgia for imperial glory that British bands sometimes channel. Such conservative vibes resonate with its characterization of Christianity as an alien force that seeks to violently destroy authentic culture. The word choices in this song may not necessarily reflect a xenophobic political agenda, but they do attempt to deny Christianity as an integral component of their cultural heritage.

We now move forward to 2011 when three bands released Constantinian songs. We’ll first discuss the Finnish Death/Thrash Metal band Feastem and their song “The Lie” from their album World Delirium. It opens with the now familiar suggestion that Constantine cynically adopted Christianity for nothing more than social control:

Nicaea, fourth century
A pagan emperor compiles
A book of stories fit
To strengthen his empire
Twenty-first century Earth
The same story-book
Is taught as the only truth
To our children in schools
Control through fear
Mind games and shame
Justification for all atrocities
Done in God’s name
Try this on for size
You weren’t the first Earth-born
To look at the stars and ask
Where did all this come from
So many have had to die
It’s sick what people will buy
Millions living by
The 1700-year-old lie
Lie!
Control through fear
Mind games and shame
Atrocities done in God’s name

The song credits Constantine with the work at Nicaea really done by hundreds of bishops, and also falsely claims that it was at this council that the Bible was compiled. In truth, the council played no role in assembling the biblical canon. Nevertheless, Feastem view Constantine as never committing to the new faith, rather he invented it (never mind the three centuries of Christian history that preceded him!) in order to control the masses and “strengthen his empire.” The song then shifts to the modern day to discuss the legacy of religion as a political tool, employed through public education systems, used not only to brainwash the population but to justify atrocities. Thanks to Constantine’s “1700-year-old lie,” free thought is denied to millions of people, who live in fear of punishment after death for straying from this manufactured truth. 

We next cross over to Ireland, where the Celtic Black Metal band Cruachan put out the title track to their album Blood on the Black Robe. The song is delivered from the point of view of a pagan living in the late fourth century who is recounting to his brethren an encounter he had with a Christian monk who came on a mission of proselytization. The song title refers to the fatal result of this encounter. Among the words the pagan recalls speaking to the monk are these:

“You are sent by our enemy Victricius,
In the name of Jesus – The Christ.
To spread the falsehood of Constantine,
Who remained Pagan all his life.”

The reference is to St. Victricius of Rouen, a Roman soldier from Gaul who became a bishop and traveled as a missionary to the British Isles toward the end of the fourth century. The warrior rejects Christianity as a fabrication, and we see once again how Constantine somehow manufactured the religion for machiavellian ends rather than adopting the faith out of genuine conviction. Cruachan tell this story to revive pride in their Irish heritage, which they divorce from Catholicism by tracing their culture back to pre-Christian times. By embracing ancient Irish paganism, the band forges a separate identity from the Catholic mainstream, which they view as superficial and inauthentic. 

Over in Germany, the Folk Metal band Goat of Mendes channel a similar theme with the track “Course of Constantine” from their album Consort of the Dying God. The majority of the song is a detailed narrative of the battle of the Milvian Bridge. It begins by setting the context of the tetrarchs’ civil wars: “Rome divided, an Empire in turmoil / The Banner of the Eagle claimed by Emperors three / One Tetrarch on a mission to save the Western Empire / Son of Sol Invictus, known as Constantine.” Constantine is presented as on a righteous mission to save the empire from turmoil by unifying it. It also references his connection to Sol Invictus, playing upon the Diolcetianic ideology of emperors associating themselves with a personal god that brings them victory. The narrative seems to put Constantine in a positive light, styling Maxentius as a “usurper,” and glorifying Constantine’s victory “though we are outnumbered.” Yet the account is spiced with some familiar digs at the new religion that the emperor adopts through his celestial vision before the battle: “the foreign prophet could finally be his savior;” “inspired by the omen from a foreign savior.” Christianity’s alienness is emphasized. The song concludes by revealing the band’s true impression of these events:

Thus from an Empire torn, was born the Curse of Constantine
A minor cult was sold towards the masses
To strengthen policy, suppress individuality
As long as people don’t realize their losses

Dogmatic views suppressed widespread matriarchy
And thus a long dead prophet rose as godlike being
Replaced the threefold Goddess with the Holy Trinity
A self made Book of Lies installed as mankind’s treaty

Again, Constantine’s adoption of Christianity, with its manufactured “Book of Lies,” is styled as a cynical ploy for social control through the suppression of the ultimate heavy metal virtue: individualism. The band also reflect on the suppression of pagan religion, and retrojects their neopagan focus on the Great Goddess onto the ancient world. They assume that pre-Christian religions were matriarchal (ignoring that patriarchal pantheons such as that of the Olympians had long taken their place). Goat of Mendes paint in broad strokes to suggest that an age of individualism and religious diversity was replaced by Constantine with one of conformity and uniformity. 

While Constantine’s Christianizing legacy is the focus of most bands, some delve deeper into his biography. Last year (2019) saw the American Doom Metal band Broken Trinity release their debut demo with the title track “Robes of Purple and Gold.” The title refers to the emperor’s self-presentation and character:

Constantine adorner of
robes of purple and gold he loved
Your legacy was based on fears
Tainted the faithful for hundreds of years
Juxtaposed between ideologies
A conundrum of complexities

Crowned our land, before its time
Nails or thorns, there’s no peace in sight

Why wait
Until your deathbed
For your conversional
Baptism

What is history
Trying to convey
to the masses
about your deeds

Trapped in obscurity
Things historians
Didn’t want the lowly to know

The power of the church
Exerting efforts to hide your deeds
Unholy trinity Divined
from Paganistic rites

Tide and tithing to no one
Ruling an empire you thought you had won
tales of corruption and deceit has begun
Leaving the faithless praying to the SUN

While the song does address his impact upon the minds of posterity and the subsequent dark age of violence, we get more of a meditation on the man himself. Broken Trinity suggest that Constantine was greedy for royal power and its lavish display. The historical Constantine was not the first to adopt these trappings, as the switch from the simple togas of the princeps to the extravagance and ceremonial of a dominus goes back at least to Diocletian as a means to elevate the imperial office to a dignity of semi-divinity. The song attempts to expose Constantine as a flawed, sinful figure that church historians like Eusebius attempted to lionize. It asks rhetorically why he waited till his death to be baptized. Perhaps to wash away the sins of his rule? While not stated explicitly, the band appears to allude to the murder of his son Crispus and wife Fausta. While today’s historians by no means attempt to hide these crimes, the song does attempt to address the emperor’s saintly reputation in the contemporary mind. 

The final song we’ll examine at length came out just this year (2020), and presents Constantine as a foil to another emperor, Diocletian. The Australian Black Metal band Kommodus (named for yet another infamous emperor) released the song “Diocletian Persecution” as part of their all Roman-themed, self-titled debut album. One look only at the cover artwork of a wolf wearing lorica segmentata and goring a helpless human victim to appreciate the band’s glorification of Roman power and violence. “Diocletian Persecution” is an ode to the eponymous ruler’s Great Persecution at the beginning of the fourth century:

The final emperor struggles, Latium in spiritual strife
A king who rose through the ranks of carnage and conquest
Now must purge the carpenter cult from a fractured culture
A black cloud, seeping in through the cracks of our armour

Stand against the winds of change
Foreign echoes from the desert

Fulfil thine wish of martyrdom, die like your Christ
Crucified heretics bleed, a grinning coliseum cheers
Son and daughters of Adam, fed to the lions and the flames
Reduced to excrement or ash, call the true gods by their names

You betrayed the heritage of our land
For false hope and lies drawn in the sand

A plague purified by fire
Efforts to preserve tradition
Diocletian Persecution
The strongest pagan empire
Converted by a successor’s vision

The final pagan, a resolve like we’ve never seen
A reputation and legacy besmirched by emperor Constantine
A church erected above his final resting place
Spurned in death, his soul swept to Elysium with divine haste

The track commences by acknowledging Diocletian’s origins as a soldier who meritocratically rose to and violently seized power. Curiously, he is referred to as the “final emperor,” as though Rome fell immediately upon his death rather than two centuries later. He is also called “the final pagan,” despite Julian being the last pagan emperor and paganism continuing to exist in the empire to the end of antiquity. It could be that Diocletian was “the final pagan” much as Marcus Brutus or Flavius Aetius were called “the last of the Romans,” in other words, the final true exemplars of their kind. Nevertheless, the band is more or less faithful to the purpose of the Great Persecution, the belief that preservation of the pagan religion was the key to the strength and survival of the empire. As we have seen in multiple songs, Christianity is characterized as a foreign threat to the integrity of native culture, past or present. As for Constantine, presented as Diocletian’s immediate successor, the implication is that the imperial conversion following the vision before the Milvian Bridge robbed “the strongest pagan empire” of its strength. However, Constantine’s main role in this encomium of Diocletian was the denigration of a legacy that Kommodus tries to rehabilitate. Diocletian is elevated to the status of a Greek hero, whose deeds earn him entry to the paradise of Elysium after death. Meanwhile, the band plays fast and loose with the historical record to suggest that Constantine built a church over his predecessor’s tomb. In truth, Diocletian’s mausoleum in Salona (modern-day Split, Croatia) was not reconsecrated as the cathedral of St. Domnius until three centuries after Constantine. But regardless, “Diocletian Persecution” illustrates Constantine’s revised legacy in metal music through contrast to its reception of not a pro-Christian, but anti-Christian emperor. 

This was not an exhaustive survey of every song that references Constantine, the Council of Nicaea, or the phrase in hoc signo vinces. Indeed, that phrase is found in dozens of songs to refer not to the sign of the cross or the Christogram, but rather the pentagram, the sign of Satan, an example of how metal counterculture adopts and inverts Christian symbolism to construct its own identity. But I hope to have shown how Metal bands adopt a more or less singular perspective on Constantine. Buying into the Great Man theory of history, these artists imbue the emperor with extraordinary deeds and influence, such as the manufacturing of the Christian religion, conversion of the empire, and destruction of paganism and intellectualism. He becomes the arch-scapegoat for the evils of mainstream society, identified with Christianity, that traditional metal discourse critiques. They also buy into the reductive division of history (Western European history, that is) into Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Modernity, blaming Constantine for an abrupt transition between an age of light to one of darkness. Like hundreds of bands across the globe, they idealize and glorify pre-Christian antiquity as a time when humankind exercised its full potential, lived authentic lives through a primordial spirituality, and enjoyed full liberty of body and mind. It’s an aesthetic that resists nuance, and in its rebellious spirit overlooks, perhaps out of lack of awareness, the complexities of a period we call late antiquity. This is not to say that we should judge metal artists by the standards of academic historiography, but much as the mythmaking of the cross in the sky or the document that empowered medieval popes had a consequential impact, to say the least, so historical myths perpetuated through artistic reception can influence the consumer’s sense of history, which informs their view of the world. In this sign, many have, or have been, conquered.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s