The following is excerpted from the book written by Christopher Wordsworth D.D., titled “Union with Rome: Is not the Church of Rome the Babylon of the Book of Revelation?” Click on link to download a PDF of the whole book.
Chapter 1: Whether Babylon in the Apocalypse is the city of Rome.
The subject of our Inquiry is:–
Whether the Prophecies in the Apocalypse (Chapters 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19), or Revelation of St. John, respecting Babylon, concern Rome as she now is?
This Question divides itself into two parts;
First; Do these prophecies concern the City in which the Bishop of Rome holds his See?
Secondly; Do these prophecies concern that City in her spiritual as well as her temporal character; that is, do they concern her as a Church, as well as a City? And as exercising power, not merely at Rome and in Italy, but in many other countries, and over many other nations, of the world?
Let us begin with the consideration of the former of these two questions, Do these prophecies concern the City of Rome?
1. First, these Apocalyptic prophecies, which describe the Woman who is called Babylon, and is seated on the Beast with seven heads and ten horns, do not concern the older, literal, Assyrian, Babylon. The inscription on the Woman’s forehead is Mystery; indicating a spiritual meaning. This word had been used by St. John’s brother Apostle St. Paul, in his description of the Mystery of iniquity, opposed to the Mystery of Godliness (2 Thessalonians 2:7, and 1 Timothy 3:16); and St. John adopts the word from St. Paul, and appears to apply it to the same object as that which had been portrayed by that Apostle (2 Thessalonians 2:7)
Again, the Babylon of the Apocalypse is described as a City existing and reigning in St. John’s age (Revelation 17:18); but the literal, or Assyrian, Babylon had long ceased to be a reigning city when St. John wrote. Therefore the Babylon of the Apocalypse cannot be the literal or Assyrian Babylon.
2. What, then, is the City of which St. John speaks?
It is called by him a Great city (Revelation 17:18), and it is one which existed in his age; and would continue to exist for many centuries, certainly to our own times; as is evident from the fact, that its destruction, as described in the Apocalypse, is represented there as accompanied by events, which, however near they may now be, no one can say have yet taken place
The Babylon of the Apocalypse is, therefore, some Great City which existed in St. John’s age, and which still exists in our own.
Now almost all the Great Cities of his age have fallen into decay; almost the only great City which then existed, and still exists, is Rome.
3. Thirdly, we read in the Apocalypse: Here is the mind, or meaning, which hath wisdom (Revelation 17:9); the Seven heads of the Beast are Seven Mountains, on which the Woman sitteth.
In St. John’s age there was One City, a Great City, built on Seven Hills,–Rome. The name of each of its Seven Hills is well known: in St. John’s time Rome was usually called “the Seven-hilled City.” She was celebrated as such in an annual national Festival. And there is scarcely a Roman Poet of any note who has not spoken of Rome as a City seated on Seven Mountains. Virgil, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid, Silius Italicus, Statius, Martial, Claudian, Prudentius — in short, the unanimous Voice of Roman Poetry during more than five hundred years, beginning with the age of St. John, proclaimed Rome as “the Seven-hilled City.”
Nor is this all. The Apocalypse is illustrated, in this respect, from another source, equally obvious to the world — Coins.
On the Imperial Medals of that age, which are still preserved, we see Rome displayed as a Woman sitting on Seven Hills, as she is represented in the Apocalypse.
4. Fourthly, St. John give another criterion by which the Apocalyptic City is to be identified. The Woman which thou sawest (he says) is that Great City, which Reigneth over the Kings of the Earth (Revelation 17:18).
If we refer to the Latin Poets of St. John’s age, we find that the Epithets commonly applied to Rome are The great, The mighty, The royal, Rome; The Queen of Nations; The Eternal City; The Mistress of the World.
If again, we contemplate the public feelings of the World as expressed on the coins of that period, we there see Rome, as the great City, deified, crowned with a mural diadem, holding in her palm a winged figure of Victory, which bears in its hand a Globe, the symbol of Rome’s Conquests and Universal Sway.
Rome, then, was that Great City; Rome reigned over the Kings of the Earth. Therefore the Woman is Rome.
5. Yet further, St. John gives us another characteristic. The Woman, described by him as sitting on Seven Hills, and as reigning over the Kings of the Earth, is called Babylon. Upon her forehead was a name written — Mystery, Babylon the Great (Revelation 17:5). This name, as we have seen, is not to be taken literally; it cannot designate the Assyrian City on the Euphrates; but it designates some other great city which was like Babylon, and is therefore called by that name.
To apply this geographically; Babylon has found a remarkable parallel in Rome. Babylon (as S. Augustine says) was the Eastern Rome: and Rome, the Western Babylon.
Babylon was situated in a vast plain: and everyone has heard of the Campagna of Rome. Both cities are intersected by rivers. The soil of Babylon is described in Scripture as productive of clay for brick, and slime, or bitumen, for mortar (Genesis 11:3). Witness the Inspired History of the building of Babel in that region. And the enormous brick Walls of Babylon have passed into a proverb.
Turn now to Rome. We there recognize a resemblance in these respects, in the long arched aqueducts of brick which still stretch across the Roman Campagna, and connect the City with the distant hills; and in the roads, paved with bituminous blocks, which joined the capital to the coast.
Again: the city of Babylon was surrounded with pools, which, when it was destroyed, stagnated into swampy morasses, and now greatly increase the dreariness and unhealthiness of its desolate plain.
Let us now direct our eyes to the Campagna of Rome, formerly peopled with cities, and alive with the stir of men. From the inundations of the Pomptine marshes, and from the inveterate malaria of many centuries, and from the fetid miasma brooding over its sulphurous springs and brooks, it is now scarcely habitable; and by its wild and lonely aspect presents a sad prognostic of its future destiny; and seems to sound a solemn alarm and warning into the ear of Faith, that the likeness will one day be stronger between Babylon and Rome.
Here are some striking similitudes; and we must not neglect the historical parallel between Babylon and Rome. Babylon had been and was the Queen of the East, in the age of the Hebrew Prophets; and Rome was the Mistress of the West, when St. John wrote. Babylon was called the Golden City, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency (Isaiah 13:19; 14:4). She claimed Eternity and Universal Supremacy. She said in her heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God (Isaiah 14:13). I shall be a Lady for ever. I am, and none else beside me; I shall not sit as a Widow, neither shall I know the loss of children (Isaiah 47:7,8).
In these respects also, Babylon was imitated by Rome. She also called herself the Golden City, the Eternal City.
Again; the King of Babylon was the rod of God’s anger, and the staff of His indignation (Isaiah 10:5) against Jerusalem for its rebellion against Him. Babylon was employed by God to punish the sins of Sion, and to lay her walls in the dust. So, in St. John’s own age, the Imperial legions of Rome had been sent by God to chastise the guilty City which had crucified His beloved Son.
Again: the Sacred Vessels of God’s Temple at Jerusalem were carried from Sion to Babylon, and were displayed in triumph on the table at the royal banquet in that fatal night, when the fingers of a man’s hand came forth from the Wall (Daniel 5:5,6) and terrified the King.
So, the Sacred Vessels of the Jewish Temple, which were restored by Cyrus, and the book of the Law, and the Golden Candlestick, and the Table of Shew bread, were carried captive in triumphal procession to the Roman Capitol: and even now their effigies may be seen at Rome, carved in sculpture on one of the sides of the triumphal Arch of Titus, the Imperial Conqueror of Jerusalem.
And what now, it may be asked, was the language of St. John’s own age on this subject? Did it, or did it not, recognize Rome in Babylon?
To speak, first, of the Jews. So strong was their sense of the analogy between these two Cities, that the name which they commonly gave to Rome was Babylon. They felt that in their own history God had identified the two. And, it may be added, as remarkable, that , as the Restoration of the Jews by Cyrus did not take place till Babylon was taken, and then ensued immediately, so it is, and has long been, a deeply-rooted opinion and a common proverb among the Jews, that “the Redemption of Israel will not be accomplished, before Rome is destroyed.”
Next, how are these Chapters of the Apocalypse, concerning Babylon, understood by Christian writers succeeding St. John? Before this question is answered, one remark may be made. When St. John wrote, Rome was Queen of the World, and whenever she looked on Christianity, it was with an evil eye.
St. John himself was a martyr in will for the faith; he wrote the Apocalypse in banishment in Patmos, to which he was sent as a prisoner, for the testimony of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:9). He could not speak clearly concerning Rome without exasperating her. The same observation applies to the earliest Interpreters of the Apocalypse. To identify Rome with Babylon would probably have been represented as treason against her. And we know that the followers of Christ were commonly regarded by Roman writers as ill affected to her, and even as the cause of her calamities.
Now, mark the reply which was made to such allegations, as these by the ancient advocates of Christianity. They did not deny that Rome was aimed at in their inspired prophecies; but they averred that it was their bounden duty and interest to wish well to the existing Empire of Rome; because to use St. Paul’s language to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 2:6,7), the Imperial Government letted,–that is, hindered, prevented, or postponed,–the rise of another Power in its place, to which they could not wish well, inasmuch as it would be more injurious to the Gospel, than the heathen Empire of Rome.
We find that among the early Christians some were so much impressed with this identity, that they even supposed, that the Babylon from which St. Peter dates his first Epistle, was Rome. This supposition was doubtless caused by the common belief among Christians in the typical relation of Babylon to Rome, and proves how strong that belief was.
A very ancient witness on this subject is Irenaeus. He was one of the disciples of Polycarp, the scholar of St. John, and one of the most learned among the writers of the Eastern Church of that age; and he lived and died in the West, at Lyons in Gaul, of which he was Bishop. Referring to the Apocalypse, he says that the world must wait till the Roman Empire is divided into several kingdoms, signified by the ten Horns of the Beast; and that , when these kingdoms are increasing in might, then a great Power will arise, which will overawe these kingdoms, and will be the Abomination of Desolation, and will be characterized by the number of the Name of the Beast predicted by St. John. And, proceeding to speak of this number, he adds, it is wiser to wait patiently till the Prophecy if fulfilled, than to pronounce confidently upon it; but that, in his own opinion, the word Lateinos Latinus, which contains the requisite number, expresses that power. And why, it may be asked, does he fix upon this word? “Because the Latins (he says, or Romans) are they who now reign“; alluding manifestly to the words of St. John, The Woman which thou sawest is that great City, which reigneth over the Kings of the Earth.
It is therefore clear, that S. Irenaeus interpreted the prophecies of St. John, concerning the Woman on the Seven Hills, the Woman which reigneth, the Woman which is Babylon, the Mother of fornications, of no other City than Rome; and, we might add, he did not confine them to Rome as Pagan, for he says that the lawless Power, which is represented by that name, was not yet come.
One of the most learned of the Christian Fathers of the Latin Church of that age was Tertullian. He affirms that the Christians of his day pray for the duration of the Roman Empire. And why? Because its fall would be succeeded by the rise of another more terrible power. And in two places of his works he uses these words:–“Names are employed by us as signs. Thus Samaria is a sign of Idolatry, Egypt is a symbol of Malediction, and in like manner, in the writings of our own St. John, Babylon is a figure of the Roman City, mighty, proud of its sway, and fiercely persecuting the Saints.”
If also we refer to those ancient writers who composed Commentaries on the apocalypse, we find the same interpretation meeting us from various quarters, and from the earliest times, and continued in an uninterrupted series down to our own day.
The earliest extant Commentary on the Apocalypse is by a Bishop and Martyr of Pannonia, Victorinus, in the third century. He says, “the city of Babylon, that is, Rome; the City on seven hills, that is, Rome; and the Kings of the Earth will hate the Harlot, that is, Rome.”
Not to mention more authorities, the same language is echoed from the East in the commentaries of two Bishops of Cappadocia, Andreas and Arethas; the former of whom expounded the Apocalypse in the sixth century; and from Italy and Rome itself by Cassiodorus, first a Senator of that city, and then an Ecclesiastic; and from Africa by Primasius, a Bishop of Adrumetum, in the sixth century.
Thus an appeal has been made to the best Expositors in the best age of the Church — of whom some lived before Rome had become Christian, and some after — who were exempt from the partialities and prejudices of modern times, and who, to say the least, had no personal reasons for inventing and promulgating such and interpretation as this, but had many inducements to suppress it – and we find that they declare, that the Babylon of the Apocalypse is Rome.
To sum up the evidence on this portion of the inquiry; We have in our hands a Book, dictated by the Holy spirit to St. John, the beloved Disciple, the blessed Evangelist, the last surviving Apostle, — a Book predicting events from the day in which it was written even to the end of time; a Book designed for the perpetual warning of the church, and commended to her pious meditation in solemn and affectionate terms. In it we behold a description, traced by the divine finger, of a proud and prosperous Power, claiming universal homage, and exercising mighty dominion: A Power enthroned upon many waters, which are Peoples, and Multitudes, and Nations, and Tongues (Revelation 17:1,15): a Power arrogating [claiming] Eternity by calling herself a Queen for ever; a Power, whose prime agent, by his Lamb-like aspect (Revelation 13:11), bears a semblance of Christian purity, and yet, from his sounding words and cruel deeds, is compared to a Dragon: a power beguiling men from the pure faith, and trafficking in human souls (Revelation 17:13), tempting them to commit spiritual adultery, alluring them to herself by gaudy colours and glittering jewels, and holding in her hand a golden cup of enchantments, by which she intoxicates the world, and makes it reel at her feet.
This power, so described in the Apocalypse, is identified in this Divinely inspired Book with
- a Great City; and that City is described as
- seated on seven hills. It is also characterized as
- that Great City, which reigned over the Kings of the Earth in the time of St. John. And
- it is called Babylon.
Having contemplated these characteristics of this prophetic description, we pause, and consider, — what City in the world corresponds to it?
It cannot be the literal Babylon, for she was not built on seven hills, nor was she the Queen of the earth in St. John’s age. It is some Great City which then existed, and would continue to exist to our age. Among the very few Great Cities which then were, and still survive, One was seated on Seven Hills. She was universally recognized in St. John’s age as the Seven-hilled City. She is described as such by the general voice of her own most celebrated writers for five centuries; and she has ever since continued to be so characterized. She is represented as such on her own Coinage, the Coinage of the World. This same City, and no other, then reigned over the Kings of the Earth. She exercised Universal Sovereignty, and boasted herself Eternal. This same City resembled Babylon in many striking respects; — in dominion, in wealth, in physical position, and in historical acts, especially with regard to the Ancient Church and People of God. This same City was commonly called Babylon by St. John’s own countrymen, and by his disciples. And, finally, the voice of the Christian Church, in the age of St. John himself, and for many centuries after it, has given an almost unanimous verdict on this subject;—that the Seven-hilled City, that Great City, the Queen of the Earth, Babylon the Great of the Apocalypse, is the city of ROME.