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The Church during the Roman Empire
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”.
By applying this enigma to reality, there is only one plausible solution: Nero ordered the first persecution of 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 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.
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.
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 an end.
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.
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 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, Romulus Augustulus, 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 and space.
 Vespasian was emperor from AD 69 to 79. According to the traditional dating of the book of Revelation, based on the testimony of St. Irenaeus, St. John was exiled on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9) at the end of the reign of Domitian, hence towards AD 95. However, the explicit putting in the present of “one is”, attributed to the sixth king, by the author of the book of Revelation himself should have much more importance. The sixth king may also be considered Nero by starting with Julius Cæsar as the first king. But this stands in contradiction with the historical fact that only his son became first emperor, which was certainly known by St. John. Furthermore, this calculation does not fit with the short reign time of the seventh king (Rev 17:10). In fact, Vespasian was in power during about ten years. This is a significantly longer period than the one of Titus, the seventh emperor.
 Augustus began his reign on January 16, 27 BC. Vespasian ended his reign on June 24, AD 79, so more than 106 years lie between these events. Dividing this number by 6 (the six emperors of this time), one obtains over 17 years as mean reign time.
 Aventinus, Cælius, Esquilinus, Capitolinus, Palatinus, Quirinalis and Viminalis.
 If one only counts the states stemming from the Western empire – ignoring the Eastern empire, which survived for some centuries, and the kingdom of the Vandals, which belongs to the African continent, and including the fact that the kingdom of Syagrius passed to the Franks after his death in 487 – one effectively arrives at ten states. This is a number that also arises in the apocalyptic prophecy of the ten kings (see The future Antichrist). Of course, the number of states in Europe has always changed in the course of its history. France and Germany have absorbed smaller states and new states have formed. It is nevertheless not completely erroneous to argue that about ten important states were more or less always present in Europe. In Western Europe, this may be Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain. In the East, we have to include Russia, Poland, Hungary and Turkey in any case. In the present day, the ten most important nations number on a planetary scale. At the time of the future Antichrist, Europe will perhaps be a single nation.
 St. Augustine, Sermons to the People: Advent, Christmas, New Year, Epiphany Sermon 93:7 (translation from French to English by the author).
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