The Church during the Roman Empire
The first seven Roman emperors
The displacement of the Church from Jerusalem to Rome goes along
with the evangelization of “all nations” (Mk 13:10). The time-span of
this evangelization is consequently very long, for presently it has even not come
to an end, and occupies two cycles. The biblical historiography ends with the description
of St. Paul taken to Rome around AD 60 (Ac 27-28). However, the rest of
salvation history can be extracted from prophetic accounts according to the known
cyclic rhythm. These accounts are again found in the book of Daniel, but especially
in the book of Revelation.
The first thing we need to know to find our way in this last book
of the Bible is the present of St. John, the author of the apocalyptic visions,
for this present is the starting point for the predicted events. However, this is
only revealed in the seventeenth chapter, where a beast that “was, and is not,
and is to ascend from the abyss and go to perdition” is mentioned (Rev 17:8).
It has seven heads (Rev 13:1), which signify seven hills and at the same time
seven kings, “five of whom have fallen,
one is reigning, the other has not
yet come” (Rev 17:9-10). If five have fallen, the one who “is reigning”
is consequently the sixth king, during whose reign St. John received his apocalyptic
visions. Thus it is certain that these kings are Roman emperors since St. John lived
during their time.
The Roman state officially remained a republic during the reign
of Julius Cæsar. In order
to determine who is the sixth king, it is necessary to count from the first head
of state who set up the empire and officially obtained the imperial title. This
was Octavius, the adoptive son of Julius Cæsar, better known as
Augustus. The first five kings
of the beast are therefore Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.
Then, a year of four
emperors claiming the title of Cæsar followed. It was Vespasian who was finally
successful over the others (see note 65). He is consequently the sixth king and
St. John had his apocalyptic visions during his reign.
The seventh one, who “must remain only a little while” (Rev 17:10),
is consequently Titus, who had already invested Jerusalem during the reign of Vespasian
and reigned from June 24, AD 79, to September 13, AD 81, that is, just
a little more than two years. Compared to the mean reign of over seventeen years
from Augustus to Vespasian,
this is indeed a very short period.
The disappearing and returning beast incorporates a prophecy of
very profound sense. Limited to the first seven Roman emperors, the beast that “was”
necessarily means one of the five kings who “have fallen” (Rev 17:10)
as shown by figure 18. As for the beast that “is to ascend from the abyss”,
this must be the eighth king because he is the one who “has not yet come”
and previously belonged to the seven (Rev 17:11), more exactly to the first
five who “have fallen”.
||and is not,
||and is to ascend from the abyss...
|The seven kings
|…five of whom have fallen,
||one is reigning,
||the other has not yet come…
|The first Roman
|Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula,
Claudius and Nero
|Vespasian and Titus
Figure 18: Comparison between the apocalyptic beast
and the first eight Roman emperors.
By applying this enigma to reality, there is only one plausible solution:
Nero ordered the first
Christians as a result of the
great fire of Rome
in AD 64, which he imputed to the Christians to divert suspicions away from
himself. This is why he is the apocalyptic beast personified. Nero committed suicide
in 68, which equates to the disappeared beast. The second persecution took place
in AD 90 under the reign of Domitian, the eighth emperor, who is the “resuscitated”
Nero since he ordered the second persecution against the Christians. This is why
Domitian is the beast “ascending from the abyss”. As we are going to see,
Nero and Domitian together prefigure the future Antichrist, of whom Revelation 13:3
predicts: “One of its heads seemed fatally wounded, but its mortal wound was
healed”, which may indicate a real resurrection. Moreover, Domitian went “to
perdition” (Rev 17:11), for he was assassinated, which indicates the final
disappearance of the beast. In this sense, the beast that “is not” corresponds
to the sixth king, who “is reigning”, as well as to the seventh king, that
is to say, to Vespasian and Titus, because they did not persecute the Christians
(see figure 21).
The Roman empire
The beast also refers to the Roman empire in general, for according
to Revelation 17:9 the seven heads at the same time signify the
seven hills of Rome
enclosed by its battlements.
Rome was the capital of the whole Roman empire, its head as it were. The entire
beast, which evidently not only has heads but also a body, consequently represents
the empire in general, both on the territorial and historical level from the first
to the last emperor. The beast is called by the encoded name 666 (Rev 13:18).
This number of the beast
is traditionally deciphered as Cæsar Neron using the Hebrew translation.
Since the beast also represents the whole empire, this name does not only refer
to Nero’s persecutions but to all the persecutions that were committed by a number
of emperors like Nero up to AD 311. Hence, all emperors responsible for persecutions
are compared to Nero because he was the first persecutor.
This perhaps makes an allusion to the name of Julius Cæsar, in
honor of whom all Roman leaders from Augustus received the title of
Cæsar designating their status
as emperor because it was Julius Cæsar who led the Roman republic to the totalitarian
empire. The title Cæsar was, by the way, also used in other empires: the
emperor was called Kaisar in the
Byzantine empire up
to the seventh century, Kaiser in the
Holy Roman empire and
Tsar in the
Tsardom of Russia,
also called the Third Rome.
Therefore, just as Julius Cæsar imprinted his name on the Roman emperors by his
political impact, Revelation 13:18 attributes the name Nero to all emperors
who have committed savage persecutions. Even if they did not persecute the Christians,
most of the emperors have indulged in highly disturbed delusions of grandeur, which
Nero incarnated in an exemplary manner.
The beast consequently not only has a meaning within the frame of
the first seven emperors, but also within the frame of the whole Roman empire. At
this state level, the beast did not disappear with Nero, but only much later with
the fall of the Western
Roman empire, which collapsed under several successive invasions, in particular
the Sack of Rome in 410
by the Visigoths and the Vandals in 455. The reascent of the beast on this state
level began with the reintroduction of the Roman culture by Charlemagne in the late
eighth century, which continued with the Renaissance and then the era of European
imperialism and colonialism. The time of the disappearance of the beast is therefore
the Christianization of Europe after the decline of the Roman empire. We will look
more deeply into this topic in The beast ascending from the abyss.
Daniel’s prophecy of the statue
Let us first make a small detour to the book of Daniel, where
we find parallels concerning the apocalyptic beast: Daniel relates in chapter 2
that Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king responsible for the Jewish exile, had a
dream of a statue. Its head was composed of gold, its chest and arms of silver,
its stomach and hips of bronze, its legs of iron, and its feet were a mix of iron
and clay (Dan 2:31-33). The four metals represent four kingdoms. The first
is that of the Babylonians, of whom Nebuchadnezzar was the king at this time (Dan 2:37-44).
The other kingdoms are not revealed, but they shall succeed one after another as
victors over each other (Dan 2:39-40). Thus it is easy to determine them: the
Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, who were in turn defeated by the Greeks,
who were finally beaten by the Romans. Hence the golden head represents the Babylonians,
the silver chest and arms the Persians, the bronze stomach and hips the Greeks,
and finally the iron legs and feet the Romans.
Some scholars claim that the statue refers to the Babylonians,
Medes, Persians and Greeks. However, the legs represent a dual nature of the iron
kingdom, which can only be vaguely recognized in the Greeks, contrary to the distinct
Western and Eastern parts of the Roman empire. In addition, Rome was founded by
the twins Romulus and Remus,
which underlines this dualism of the empire even though in the realm of mythology.
The legs and feet must clearly be distinguished: only the legs
are entirely constituted of iron, whereas the feet are composed of an iron and clay
mix representing “a kingdom that will be divided” (Dan 2:41). This is
why some scholars interpret the ten toes of the feet as the approximately ten main
Roman regions under the Tetrarchy
divided into a Western part (Britannia, Gallia, Hispania, Italia, Africa) and Eastern
part (Asia, Pannonia, Maoesia, Thracia, Asiana, Oriens).
During the time represented by the
legs, the Roman empire was “strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and
shatters all things” (Dan 2:40). The clay on the other hand signifies fragility
(Dan 2:42). This is why the feet are weakened by the clay. Their breaking by
a stone reduces the whole statue to dust and the Kingdom of God sets up at its place
(Dan 2:34-35; 2:44-45). This is why the clay is part of God’s future Kingdom,
since it already weakens the feet and therefore the stability of the statue broken
later by God. One is therefore tempted to argue that the clay represents the Church,
which increasingly became integrated in the empire and contributed to its fall.
The Kingdom of God would then be the Christianization of Europe after the fall of
Rome in the fifth century.
This interpretation is certainly true as a prefiguration of the
real meaning, which is different in some important points: Daniel writes that the
iron and clay mix represents a marriage (Dan 2:43), which can only correspond
to the epoch of Christianity as state religion, which precisely began after the
decline of the empire. Formerly, this was not a marriage at all since the Church
was persecuted by the Roman state. So the clay indeed represents the Church but
in the context of the Christianization of Europe after the fifth century. In addition,
the Roman empire was not divided before its fall, even though the split into the
Western and Eastern part occurred in the third century. But this split is precisely
represented by the two legs.
This is why the legs entirely constituted of iron represent the
Roman empire before its fall; and the feet and its ten toes represent the states
that formed on the territory of the Western empire after its decline in the fifth
century. They are geographically and culturally held together through an entity
later called Europe and were indeed approximately ten in number, as shown
on figure 19 representing the European states towards AD 476.
Figure 19: Formation of the European States after the fall of the Western Roman
(adapted from Meyers Enzyklopädisches Lexikon: Europa).
Daniel also predicts the end of the marriage between Church and
State: “...but they will not hold together” (Dan 2:43), which means
that the iron and clay mix corresponds to the entire time of the State Church until
the complete separation of these two parts. Even today this has not yet taken place
in all countries of Christian tradition. Hence, the clay of the feet represents
a very long period of history, one that even at the present has not yet come to
Let us now compare Daniel’s statue with the apocalyptic beast:
as shown by figure 20, the legs of iron represent the beast that “was”.
Then there was the marriage between the Church and the European states expressed
by the mix of iron and clay, which equates to the beast that “is not” since
the persecutions against the Christians ceased. This goes together with: “I am
the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was, and who is coming” (Rev 1:8).
Christ also was and will return, but in contrast to the beast that “is not”,
the Lord still “is” after having been, which indicates the victory of the
Gospel after the collapse of Rome.
||The Roman empire
||From early Europe...
||...to Renaissance, Imperialism...
||...and end times
||The legs of iron
||The feet mixed of iron and clay...
||...that will not hold together.
||The broken statue
||The beast was...
||...and is not....
||...and is to ascend from the abyss...
||...to go to perdition.
Figure 20: Comparison between the historical meaning
of Daniel’s prophecy of the statue and the beast of Revelation.
However, this disappearance of the beast is not the final perdition
yet, which will be realized only after its reascent, according to Revelation 17:8.
The beast has consequently to return in order to definitively go to perdition. This
reascent corresponds to the divorce between the Church and the State (Dan 2:43),
which will result in new persecutions against the Church by the State during the
end times. So the beast will have returned, but will “go to perdition” during
the end times accompanied by the return of Christ, to whom corresponds he “who
is coming” (Rev 1:8).
The four phases of the Roman empire
The first phase of the third cycle of the spiritual era corresponds
to the reception of the Gospel by the pagans after the phase of sin represented
by the persecutions by the Jews and by Nero in AD 64, and the phase of judgment
incorporated by the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (see Summary of Salvation History). This phase of peace overlaps with the following phase of sin represented
by the amplifying persecutions from Domitian in AD 90 to
Decius (249-251), who for the
first time systematically proceeded with new legislation at the expense of the Christians,
Diocletian (284-305) and
Galerius (305-311). The phase
of judgment arrived with the fall of Rome caused by the invasions of the Visigoths
in 410 and Vandals in 455, which provoked the decomposition of the whole Western
empire and the dethronement of the last emperor,
by Odoacer in 476.
As testified by St. Augustine, there were also other disasters
during this time, with the result that the Christians tended to confuse them with
the end of the world:
People say sometimes: ‘The days of judgment are arriving, there
are so many evils, so many tribulations multiply. See, all what the prophets predicted
is almost accomplished, the day of judgment is imminent.’ Those who speak this language,
and who speak it with faith, think that they will soon meet the Spouse. But despite
war after war, tribulation after tribulation, earthquake after earthquake, famine
after famine, invasion after invasion, the Spouse has not yet come. It is therefore
by waiting on his arrival that lull all those who say: ‘He is coming and the day
of judgment finds us here.’ By speaking thus, one sleeps. So let us keep from sleeping
and persevere in charity before sleeping. That the sleep finds us awaiting the Spouse.
The phase of revival consists of the
cessation of hostilities by the Roman state against the Christians, which corresponds
to the temporary marriage between this state and the terrestrial representative
of the future celestial Kingdom, that is, the Church. Thus the state was tamed,
which corresponds to the time of the disappeared beast. The Christian religion was
in fact tolerated by Galerius in 311 and by
Constantine the Great
through the Edict of Milan
in 313. It was even made obligatory for all Roman citizens by
Theodosius I through the
Edict of Thessalonica
in 380. This was consequently still before the fall of Rome, which must consequently
be considered a precursory sign due to the overlapping of the phases, the main revival
occurring with the spreading of the Gospel in all Europe after the fall of the empire.
Thus, the word of the Lord: “The Gospel must first be preached to
all nations” (Mk 13:10), began its realization on a large scale of time
THE BEAST ASCENDING FROM THE ABYSS
THE LAST BIBLICAL EVENTS