Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Jerome use Babylon as representing the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages Rome is frequently styled “the Western Babylon.” The sect of the Fraticelli, an eremitical organization from the Franciscans in the fourteenth century, who carried the vow of poverty to the extreme and taught that they were possessed of the Holy Spirit and exempt from sin—first familiarized the common mind with the notion that Rome was the Babylon, the great harlot of the Book of Revelation.1
This interpretation goes back at least to the time of Tertullian (AdvMarc iii.13). It was adopted by Jerome and Augustine and has been commonly accepted by the Church. There are some strong reasons for accepting it. (1) The characteristics ascribed to this Babylon apply to Rome rather than to any other city of that age:(a) as ruling over the kings of the earth (Rev. 17:18+); (b) as sitting on seven mountains (Rev. 17:9+); (c) as the center of the world’s merchandise (Rev. 18:2+f 19:2+); (d) as the persecutor of the saints (Rev. 17:6+).2Because Rome, with the Vatican, is home to the global system of Roman Catholicism, the identity of Babylon as the city of Rome has often gone hand-in-hand with the view that The Great Harlot represents Roman Catholicism, possibly wed with other religious systems. See Mystery Babylon?The identity of Babylon with Rome has been bolstered by three events of history:
The Rome view is also built upon the assumption that the seven hills of Revelation 17:9+ identify the topography of the ancient city of Rome. Because literature of the ancient world contains dozens of references to the seven hills of Rome, the ancient city of Rome was universally known as the city of the seven hills. Thus, such a topographical reference would immediately suggest Rome in the minds of John’s original audience. This suggestion is especially true given the fact that the seven hills were the nucleus of the city on the left bank of the Tiber River and given the fact that an unusual festival called the septimontium received its name because of this topographical feature.
In addition, the notion that John’s audience would have understood the imagery of Revelation 17+ as referring to the topography of Rome seems strengthened by the discovery of the Dea Roma Coin minted in A.D. 71 in Asia Minor. One side of the coin contains the portrait of the emperor. The reverse side of the coin depicts Rome, a Roman pagan goddess, sitting on seven hills seated by the waters of the Tiber River. There are obvious similarities between the Dea Roma Coin and the imagery of Revelation 17+. In both cases, the goddess and the harlot are seated on seven hills and are seated either on or by the waters (Rev. 17:1+). In addition, the name of the goddess was thought by many Romans to be Amor, which is Roma spelled backwards. Amor was the goddess of love and sexuality. Thus, both the woman on the coin and the woman in Revelation 17+ represent harlotry (Rev. 17:5+). Furthermore, the coin equates Roma with the power of the Roman Empire, which was active in persecuting Christians of John’s day. The placement of Vespasian on one side of the coin and Roma on the other makes this connection. . . . The goddess is also pictured as holding a sword, which may depict Rome’s imperial power. This imagery parallels with the woman in Revelation 17+ who is said to be drunk with the blood of the saints [Rev. 17:6+].9
The points of correspondence between Rev. 17+ and the history of Romanism are too many and too marked to be set down as mere co-incidences. Undoubtedly the Papacy has supplied a fulfillment of the symbolic prophecy found in Rev. 17+. And therein has lain its practical value for God’s people all through the dark ages. It presented to them a warning too plain to be disregarded. It was the means of keeping the garments of the Waldenses (and many others) unspotted by her filth. It confirmed the faith of Luther and his contemporaries, that they were acting according to the revealed will of God, when they separated themselves from that which was so manifestly opposed to His truth. But, nevertheless, there are other features in this prophecy which do not apply to Romanism, and which compel us to look elsewhere for the complete and final fulfillment. We single out but two of these. . . . In Rev. 17:5+ Babylon is termed ‘the Mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.’ Is this an accurate description of Romanism? Were there no ‘harlot’ systems before her? . . . The Papacy had not come into existence when John wrote the Revelation, so that she cannot be held responsible for all the ‘abominations’ which preceded her. . . . Again; in Rev. 17:2+ we read of ‘the great Whore’ that ‘the kings of the earth have committed fornication’ with her. Is that applicable in its fulness to Rome? Have the kings of Asia and the kings of Africa committed fornication with the Papacy? It is true that the Italian pontiffs have ruled over a wide territory, yet it is also true that there are many lands which have remained untouched by their religious influence. It is evident from these two points alone that we have to go back to something which long antedates the rise of the Papacy, and to something which has exerted a far wider influence than has any of the popes. . . . Papal Rome, was only one of the polluted streams from this corrupt source [Babel] - one of the filthy ‘daughters’ of this unclean Mother of Harlots.10The Biblical accounts from the OT give greater attention to Babel, Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and Greece because they were great powers far in advance of Rome. Thus, Rome cannot be a mother in the sense required of the Harlot on the Beast. Nor can Rome provide the necessary support for the ride of the Harlot throughout history as implied by the seven heads on the Beast she rides (Rev. 17:3+ cf. Rev. 13:1+) which are associated with the dragon (Rev. 12:3+) who has ruled kingdoms throughout history (Luke 4:5-6; John 12:31; 1Jn. 5:19).Those who identify Babylon as Rome often place great emphasis upon the similarities between what is said of the Harlot and what history records of Roman Catholicism. Yet, taking the Harlot as Rome also conflicts with the Roman connection which Scripture records concerning the Beast (Dan. 7:8+, 20+; Dan. 9:26+ ):
The identification of the harlot as Rome is problematic because one ends up with two images for Rome; the beast and the harlot. . . . If these two characters represent the same entity, why are they depicted as two separate entities in [Rev. 17:11+ and 17:18+]? Why is the beast punished in Revelation 19+ after the harlot has already been destroyed in Revelation 18+? If these two characters represent the same entity, how are they able to interact with one another? Revelation 17:3+ depicts the woman as riding on the beast. How can Rome ride upon Rome? Revelation 17:16-17+ depicts the beast destroying the woman. How can Rome destroy Rome? Perhaps it is possible to propose that the imagery could be satisfied through Nero’s burning of Rome in A.D. 64. However, the destruction of Rome portrayed in Revelation 17:16-17+ cannot be a picture of Nero burning Rome because Nero did not destroy Rome in its entirety. Rather he only wanted to destroy part of Rome in order to make room for a building project. In sum, the imagery makes more sense if Rome destroys a rival power. This fact should prevent interpreters from identifying the woman with Rome.11Although the idea that Babylon is Rome may seem intriguing at first, we believe there are significant liabilities attending the view. Chief among them are the problem of language—making OT passages which speak of Babylon be reinterpreted hundreds of years later to denote an entirely different city—and the lack of the necessary historical significance in Rome’s early history to account for her as the mother of harlotry and abominations. See Old Testament Context.
1 M. R. Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies (Escondido, CA: Ephesians Four Group, 2002), Rev. 17:5.
2 A. W. Fortune, “Babylon in the NT,” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979, 1915), 1:391.
3 “David S. Clark . . . takes the view of many others (Moses Stuart, Jay Adams, etc.) that the increased attention to Babylon in the second half of Revelation should be taken as a mystic reference to Rome, the persecuting city after the fall of Jerusalem: ‘Rome was called Babylon because [she was] sort of a duplicate of old Babylon, in that she was a persecutor of God’s people, she was intensely idolatrous, and she was doomed to overthrow for her sins.’ ”—Steve Gregg, Revelation Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Rev. 14:8.
4 Fortune, Babylon in the NT, 1:391.
5 A. R. Fausset, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, 1877), Rev. 17:5.
6 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), Rev. 14:8.
7 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8-22 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), Rev. 14:8.
8 We believe this view is bolstered by the many aspects of his epistle which indicate he is ministering primarily to Jewish Christians of the Diaspora (1Pe. 1:1). Although Fortune favors the Roman identification, he offers two alternatives to understanding Peter’s use of Babylon as denoting Rome: “(1) That the Egyptian Babylon, or Old Cairo, is meant. Strabo (xvii.1.30), who wrote as late as A.D. 18, says the Egyptian Babylon was a strong fortress, founded by certain refugees from the Mesopotamian Babylon. But during the 1st cent this was little more than a military station, and it is quite improbable that Peter would have gone there. There is no tradition that connects Peter in any way with Egypt. (2) That the statement is to be taken literally and Babylon in Mesopotamia is meant. Many good scholars hold to this view, among them Weiss and Thayer; but there is no evidence that Peter was ever in Babylon, or that there was even a church there during the 1st century. Mark and Silvanus are associated with Peter in the letter and there is no tradition that connects either of them with Babylon. According to Josephus (Ant. xviii.9.5-9), the Jews at this time had largely been driven out of Babylon and were confined to neighboring towns, and it seems improbable that Peter would have made that his missionary field.”—Fortune, Babylon in the NT, 1:391.
9 Andy Woods, What is the Identity of Babylon In Revelation 17-18?.
10 Arthur Walkington Pink, The Antichrist (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1999, 1923), s.v. “Antichrist and Babylon.”
11 Woods, What is the Identity of Babylon In Revelation 17-18?.