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September 6, 2018

Classical reception is evident in pop-culture media like films and TV, but it is also a recognizable part of music. I began to ponder this recently after hearing BBC Radio 6 ask the question “What song should be on a playlist inspired by ancient history and why?” The following post details some songs that I’ve enjoyed over the years that feature references to ancient history and the ancient world more generally.

First, a few caveats. I’m leaving out obvious works like Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”, Iron Maiden’s “Flight of Icarus”, or my son’s favorite “Troy Song.” Some are as fleeting as a title, others are more intrinsic to the song itself whether as subject-matter, imagery, or refrain. While I’ve had some success utilizing these songs in teaching (e.g. the video for “Paradise” features the conjugation of the verb amare, and the Mountain Goats’ “Song for Cleomenes” provides a fun precis of Cicero’s Verrines), others I’ve just enjoyed for their ties to the classical world. I think other songs can be useful, even without overt classical references: the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs seems to encapsulate Latin Love Elegy better than most basic treatments of the subject, and the self-conscious referentiality of hip hop artists like Aesop Rock and Sage Francis can effectively model allusion and intertextuality, even if they do not mention Vergil and Callimachus.

Lest you think this was all the result of procrastination, consider that the relationship between music and classical texts is booming. There’s the possibility for real work to be done with this material (if you get inspired, read this article, or this one, and go to this conference), and swell work has been done already covering connections between heavy metal and the Classics as well as Bob Dylan and the Classics. I’ve made the playlist available on Spotify (SCS_Classics Playlist 2018), feel free to leave your suggestions for additional songs that deal with the ancient world and any other comments on the playlist below on my Twitter Feed (@OberlinLatin).

  1. The Mountain Goats “Song for Cleomenes”: John Darnielle, the lead singer and mind behind the Mountain Goats is a former Classics/English double major from Pitzer College. During the 90s he made a series of recordings with allusions to the ancient world (e.g. “Against Agamemnon”), even a cassette-only release entitled Taking the Dative. “Song for Cleomenes” is his take on the crimes of Gaius Verres and Cicero’s speech about his devious ways. In the way Darnielle describes his praetorship and subsequent corrupt proconsulship of Sicily, it is easy to use in Roman history classes or Latin classes on Cicero as well as to draw parallels with the contemporary political world. One can spot additional Classical allusions in songs such as in “Yam, King of the Crops” when he sings, “she stood like Galatea over me,” the nods to the story of the founding of Rome in “Up the Wolves”, and the album cover of Nothing for Juice, which features a long quotation from Suetonius (in Latin).
  2. Sunset Rubdown “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!”: A wonderous fusion of hunting buffalo, mythological references, and, possibly, Ovid’s version of the story of Anna Perenna from the Fasti. By mentioning Erato in conjunction with Anna, Classicists might spot a double allusion to the invocation of Erato at Aen. 7.37 and the legend that connects Anna Perenna with Dido’s sister (Ov. Fast. 3.523-696). Spencer Krug, the songwriter and singer, is clearly well-versed in classical mythology as can be seen in another song “You want to walk around like you own the joint / The way that Icarus thought he might own the sky / I said ‘You can’t, can’t settle down / Until the Icarus in your blood, in your blood drowns’”.
  3. Charles Mingus “Hora Decubitus”: Charles Mingus dabbles in Latin occasionally for song titles or even the name of his album Mingus ah um, which phonetically declines his last name like a Latin 1st/2nd declension adjective. While the title would lead one to believe this may be a lullaby, it is rather fast-paced. For other jazz songs, try Fats Waller’s “Nero” and Jason Robinson’s “The Two Faces of Janus”.
  4. Franz Ferdinand “Ulysses”: While the song (and video) seem to link the experiences of Ulysses with drug use (possible shades of the Lotus-Eaters?), the lead singer has said of this song “I like the idea of the gods blowing you away for 10 years. I like the idea of being out in the Aegean – of being lost but embracing it” (MOJO May, 2008). The repetition “I’ve found a new way” would seem to be a nod to Ulysses’ famed cleverness, even as the concluding verses point out the impossibility of return for all of us who are not Ulysses.
  5. The Clientele “Minotaur”: Taking the point of view of the minotaur waiting for Theseus to come and paralleling it with a lost romantic opportunity, this song explores expectation and loss in an evocative manner. There was a moment when The Clientele were drawing heavily on Cretan mythology, an EP from 2004 is concerned with Ariadne.
  6. Arcade Fire “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)”: Arcade Fire’s 2013 album, Reflektor, has two songs dealing with the Orpheus/Eurydice myth and one can pair this track with “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”. The album itself calls attention to the mythological foundation -- its cover is Rodin’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” and one can find additional connections to the myth in other songs of the album. The differing perspectives of these songs provide a more complete picture of the tale, as “It’s Never Over” is provides the words of Eurydice, who says “Hey Orpheus / I’m behind you / Don’t turn around / I can find you”.
  7. R.E.M. “Laughing”: A classic from R.E.M.’s first album, Murmur, that deals with Laocoon, but Michael Stipe makes the famous priest from Aeneid 2 into a woman. While Laocoon may have been chosen simply for alliteration with the “L”-heavy chorus, the lyrics evoke aspects of Vergil’s tale with Laocoon and “her two sons” being bound and martyred.
  8. Tapes n’ Tapes “The Iliad”: Honestly, a more appropriate title might be The Odyssey with its references to “the burning size of siren lies” and sailing the seas, but I’ve always enjoyed it none the less.
  9. Tortoise “Seneca”: For a Seneca scholar, this one is evocative of some moments of the Naturales Quaestiones or possibly the end of the Consolatio ad Marciam, but there are no lyrics, so I’m open to other suggestions.

If you care to listen to these tunes (and perhaps add some of your own), visit the Spotify Playlist at: SCS_Classics Playlist 2018.

Header Image: Photo by Christopher Trinacty and used by permission.


Christopher Trinacty is Associate Professor of Classics at Oberlin College. He is the author of Senecan Tragedy and the Reception of Augustan Poetry (Oxford, 2014) and has published commentaries to Seneca’s Naturales Quaestiones III and Horace's Epistles I on his website.