An Early Christian Perspective on Revelation 17 (Part 2)
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In the first part of this series, we looked at quotes from some early Christian authors concerning the woman Babylon of Revelation 17 (click HERE to read part one). They viewed this as the city of Rome.
In the second part of this series, we want to look at the Bible and Roman history to understand more about why they viewed the chapter with this understanding. We will compare many verses from Revelation chapters 17 and 18 and then compare them to other historical writings near the time the book was written.
“1 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. 2With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”
In the first part of this verse, we see a woman being depicted as a prostitute. Kings of the earth committed adultery with her and her wine intoxicated inhabitants of the earth.
In about 200 BC, the city of Rome first appeared on ancient coins. The city was personified and deified as a goddess called Roma. On most coins, she is depicted as sitting.
Below, a coin from the reign of Vespasian (69-79). It depicts Rome as a woman sitting on seven hills or mountains (we will review the seven mountains later).
“…the kings of the earth committed adultery…”
When the Romans conquered a kingdom, many times the kingdom was required to accept certain trade terms which were favorable to Rome. The Roman deities were also expected to be worshiped amd/or worship the emperor. Also, conquered realms often sent the king, queen, and or their children to Rome. They were treated well and educated about Roman ways in hopes that they would be appreciative about Rome and serve her interests. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, these kings were called “subject-kings” (The Histories, 2.81).
Antiochus IV (also called Epiphanes) was the Greek king during the events of the Hanukkah story. He is probably among the more famous kings who spent much of his youth in Rome. When he became king, he respected the Romans and did not turn on them.
“…The inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries…”
The book of Revelation speaks of world-wide events. However, one historical application which dates to the first century was the perspective that the Roman empire was considered the habitable world or earth.
Tacitus, writing around the start of the second century, said that the Roman Empire was the whole earth or terrarium orbe (Histories, 4.3). Plutarch wrote that the Roman Empire was the habitable earth (de fort. Rom., sec. 11). Josephus used similar language in calling the Roman Empire the habitable earth (Wars of the Jews, 2.16.4, 2.18.3, 2.20.7). Other places were considered another world or separated from the world. Parthia was considered another world (alio ex orbe) from the Romans (Tacitus, Annals, 2.2). Virgil said that Britain, which at his time was not part of the Roman Empire, was totally divided from the world (toto divisos orbe) (Ecologue, 1.64-67).
In the Bible, we understand that adultery is connected to spiritual unfaithfulness to the True God. This included disobedience and the worship of other gods, which involved the use of idols (Jer. 3:8-9). The Romans at times, usually in crisis or in great celebration, tried to force people to worship and sacrifice to the gods of Rome (to learn more about this, read our article: The Mark of the Beast: An Early Church Perspective). This forced her inhabitants to participate in spiritual adultery.
3 Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.
The language used here is fascinating. The leaders of Rome were considered the head of the state. The empire was called a beast.
Livy (64 BC-17 AD) – (context: the consul of Rome died) “The helpless commonwealth, deprived of its head and all its strength, was saved by its guardian deities and the fortune of the City, who made the Volscians and Aequi think more of plunder than of their enemy” (Roman History, 3.7.1).
Tacitus (56-120 AD) – “How long, Caesar, will you permit the state to lack a head?” (Annals, 1.13). “but to convince him by his own admission that the body of the State was one, and must be directed by a single mind…” (ibid, 12; side note: this quote has interesting connections with Rev. 17:12-13).
Seutonius (69-122 AD) – “…yet he refused the title for a long time, with barefaced hypocrisy now upbraiding his friends who urged him to accept it, saying that they did not realise what a monster (belua – which can also mean beast) the empire was…” (Suetonius, Tiberius, 24).
What is interesting is that as the emperors became stronger, the focus was on the head or leader and not the beast or body. We will deal with the number seven later in reference to the seven heads and the ten horns.
“She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries…”
In the Torah, we learn about the definition of an abomination. This included actions such as idolatry, sorcery and witchcraft, sexual perversion, unclean animals, and other behaviors. These actions would be applicable to behaviors commonly found in the Roman world. As a side note, it is interesting that the Romans accused both Christians and Jews were denigrated most likely because they refused to engage in these behaviors (see Tacitus Annals 15.44 and Histories 5.4-5).
“5 The name written on her forehead was a mystery: babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes, and of the abominations of the earth.”
As discussed earlier in this article, Rome was depicted as a woman on coins. Among ancient authors this same pattern is found.
Virgil (70-19 BC) –“Illustrious Roma will bound her power with earth, her spirit with Olympus. She’ll enclose her seven hills with one great city wall, fortunate in the men she breeds” (Aeneid, 6.781).
Livy (59 BC-17 AD) – “the City which was the mistress of the world…” (The History of Rome, 38.51.4).
Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) – “Other princes through the long centuries shall make her powerful, but a prince sprung from Iulus blood shall make her mistress of the world…” (Metamorphoses, 15.447)
What connection exists between the Rome and Babylon? In the last article, we read ancient Christian writers such as Augustine who viewed the city of Rome as a Babylon in the West. On a theological level, we learn in Daniel 4 that the root of Babylon was held down by iron and bronze, which represent Rome and Greece. However, there is also an historical application.
Certain aspects of Babylonian worship were preserved by the Greeks and Romans. In Babylon, one of the chief gods/goddesses was Ishtar. She was the great mother god who goes by many names. She was married to her brother named Tammuz. As their worship traveled west, Ishtar became known by several names, among them: Astarte, Ashteroth, Baal, Cybele (or Kybele), Aphrodite, and Venus. As Venus, the deity was known as the protector of prostitutes (Encyclopedia Britannica: Ishtar). In Babylon, Ishtar was called the great mother and ‘mistress of the mountains’ (Massey, Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World, vol. 2, p 591).
During the second war between Rome and Carthage (around 204 BC), the ‘great mother goddess’ came to Rome in the form of Cybele. From there her influence spread. Another eastern pagan cult that made its way to Rome was that of the sun, which grew in prominence from the first century BC onwards. In the vision, we see the woman as a ‘great mother’ who sits on seven mountains.
“6 I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.”
Early Christians were persecuted by Roman officials starting in the time of Nero. As time passed, other emperors and/or their magistrates engaged in this behavior. In the second, third, and early fourth centuries these persecutions claimed lives and greatly disrupted Christian communities.
“9 This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while.”
The Greek word translated as hills in this verse is orous. It could easily and more accurately be translated as mountains. One thing to keep in mind is that we are not exploring the modern conception of a mountain but the ancient concept.
The ancient Roman writers viewed Rome as dwelling on seven mountains. Every December 11th there was a festival in ancient Rome called Septimonium, which in Latin means “Seven Mountains.” The Latin writers of this time period tended to use the term mons to refer to the seven mountains that Rome was built upon. We have quotes from three Roman authors below:
Marcus Varro (116–27 BC) –“Septomontium Day was named from these seven (septem) mountains (montibus) on which the City is set” (On the Latin Language, 6.24).
Propertius (50/45–15 BC) – “Farewell, ye mountains (montes) of Rome, and Rome that crowns the mountains (montibus), and Vesta brought to shame by my sin!” (Elegies, 4.4.35-36).
Aullus Gellius (125–180 AD) –“Therefore it has been, and even now continues to be, inquired why it is that when the other six of the seven mountains of the city (septem urbis montibus)…on that hill Remus took the auspices with regard to founding the city…” (Attic Nights, 13.14.4-7).
In verse 10, we learn that the seven heads of the beast correspond to seven kings.Five have fallen, one is, and the other is yet to come. It is interesting that during the monarchy period, the Romans had seven kings.
While this is not the immediate meaning of the verse, it is also interesting to consider that the Romans had six forms of government or heads by the time of John. 1) Monarchy; 2) Consuls; 3) Dictators; 4) Decemvirate; 5) Tribunes; 6) Emperor (also called the Princeps). We learn about this from the writers Livy (Roman History, 6.1) and Tacitus (Annals, 1.1). The sixth head that existed in John’s Day was the imperial system.
Ten Horns as Ten Kings
While the ten horns on the beast are ten kings which connect to a future event, this number of representatives is also important to Roman history.
The senate was divided into sets of ten men called curia. The ten best men formed a committee called the decem primi. When a king died, they held executive power until another one was found (they rotated power on a five-day schedule. At one time, Rome was ruled by a committee of ten men called decimvirs. Their sacred documents were protected by a committee of ten men (Decemviri Sacris). Treaties were sometimes signed with a delegation of ten senators. These men were usually nobles from the patrician class, which would make them princes or lords. (William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, articles Decemviri, Decem Primi, and Senatus).
“Then the angel said to me, ‘The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages.’”
At its height, the Roman Empire spanned from the British Isles, Spain, France, parts of Germany, Italy, much of southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, Israel, Syria, and northern Africa including Egypt. For a brief time it stretched to the Caspian Sea and into Iraq near the Persian Gulf. There were millions of people with many different languages under Roman hegemony.
“18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
Roman writers described Rome as a great city. Tibullus (55-19 BC) wrote,“Now, while ye may, bulls crop the grass of the Seven Hills (septem montibus). Ere long this will be the great city’s site (magnae iam locus). Thy nation, Rome, is fated to rule the earth…” (Elegies, 2.55)
The comparisons between Rome and the woman of Revelation continue into the next chapter. We will look at a few examples.
“2 With a mighty voice he shouted: ‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal…’”
This woman of Babylon is called the home for demons and unclean spirits. The Roman writers viewed Rome as the place (location) of the gods. Ovid wrote: “…but she looks out from her seven mountains upon the whole world – Rome, the place of the empire and the gods” (Tristia, 1.5.68-70).
“3 For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”
The Roman Empire had extensive trade routes which brought it goods from places outside of the realm they deemed the ‘inhabited earth’ like Sri Lanka, India, the horn of Africa, and even China.
“In her heart she boasts, ‘I sit enthroned as queen. I am not a widow; I will never mourn.’”
This verse contains a quote from Isaiah 47:7, where the daughter of Babylon claims that she will sit as the eternal (olam) queen.The Romans viewed the city which was invincible and eternal. By the third century, the Romans had coins made which inscribed the words Roma Aeternae on them.
Livy – “…Rome a blessed City, invincible and eternal” (Roman History, 5.7.10).
“‘Go,’ said he, ‘and declare to the Romans the will of Heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world; so let them cherish the art of war, and let them know and teach their children that no human strength can resist Roman arms’” (ibid, 1.16.7).
“…the spot would be the stronghold of empire and the head of all the world…” (ibid, 1.55.5-6)
Virgil –“the Father of men and gods…spoke thus…For these I set no bounds in space or time; but have given empire without end” (Aeneid, 1.254, 278-279).
Tibullus – “not yet had Romulus drawn up the Eternal City’s walls, where Remus as co-ruler was fated not to live” (Elegies, 2.5.23-24).
The connections between Revelation 17 and 18 are numerous. As you can see from the artifacts and Roman writings near the time of John, we can better understand why early Christians equated the woman of Babylon with the city of Rome.
Thanks for reading and God Bless!
Kelly McDonald, Jr.