The Cosmic Cathedral

Understanding God in the Word and the World

Favors From a Prostitute Pt 2: Revelation 17-18 and The Pax Romana


Prostitute Riding the Beast in Revelation

As we saw last time, the language of harlotry and fornication in Revelation 17-18 refers primarily to the economic oppression of the Roman Empire.  Just as Tyre was said to have prostituted “herself with all the kingdoms of the world,” Rome was said to have done the exact same (Rev 17:2).  But how does harlotry and the Roman Empire relate to one another?

There were two types of prostitutes in the first century; poor back alley prostitutes, and rich courtesans and paramours that associated with the aristocracy and lived lavish lifestyles.  The Harlot in Revelation 17-18 is the latter.  She is depicted as robed in “purple and scarlet” attire (very expensive cloth) and adorned in “gold, precious stones and pearls” (Rev 17:4).  Even Seneca, a Roman philosopher and counselor of Nero, was sickened by the morbid affluence of Rome.  The material lust of Rome would serve to “outdo the hugest and most voracious animals in greed.”[1]  He asks, “Why do people pile riches on riches?”[2]

Just as courtesans have clients to support their lavish lifestyles, so the city of Rome had client kings to fund its gratuitous luxuries (17:2).  These client kings willingly paid for the services of the harlot city.  But why?  Because as a Harlot beautifies herself, sending forth spices and fragrances to elicit sexual fantasies, so the harlot city sent forth fantasy-like propaganda that the “golden age” of peace was coming through their reign.[3]  The means by which this fantasy would be propagated to the world was the pax romana (peace of Rome).   This is how the inhabitants of the earth became “drunk” (17:2).  The fantasy of the new world, a time of cosmic peace, and affluence “intoxicated” the Roman Empire.  An inscription from Halicarnassus, just south of Ephesus, lauding Augustus as “the savior of the human race” states:

“Land and sea have peace, the cities flourish under a good legal system, in harmony and with an abundance of food, there is an abundance of all good things, people are filled with happy hopes for the future and with delight at the present.”[4]

Here is the important part:  the pax romana was the primary way the Roman Empire gained its riches and affluence.  Much like the promises of a prostitute, the “promises” of the pax romana didn’t come cheap.  In exchange for tribute and taxes, this peace and economic abundance could be made available to the world.  But like prostitution, one pays a high price for the fantasy only to be sorely disappointed at the end.

The money the client kings gave was much more than they received, for the pax romana that promised a peace and safety never actually panned out in reality, at least not like the propaganda promised.  Many under the pax romana complained of its brutality.  Calgacus, a local chieftain, famously said, “They make desolation and call it peace.”[5]  This is why the Harlot is depicted as riding the Beast.  Bauckham sees the Beast as the military domination of Rome, while the Harlot serves as the economic exploitation within the Empire. [6]  The more territories Rome subsumes through military domination, the more produce is shipped from the dominated territories to Rome, the self-proclaimed eternal city.  The list of cargo outlined in 18:12-14 did not come from a single location, but from across the entire Empire.  Aristides writes of the vast produce that had been brought to Rome from throughout the world:

Roman coin depicting Roma upon the 7 hills

A coin issued by Vespasian depicting Roma enthroned upon the 7 hills of Rome.

“if someone should wish to view all these things, he must either see them by travelling over the whole world or be in this city (Rome)… So many merchant ships arrive here, conveying every kind of goods from every people every hour and every day, so that this city is a factory common to the whole earth… So scourings of the mines, all crafts that exist or have existed, all that is produced and grown.  Whatever one does not see here, is not a thing which has existed.”[7]

The power and economy of Rome is stimulated by tyranny.  After the initial plundering of a territory, the pax romana would then be forcibly set in place to continue milking that specific region through taxes and tribute.  The “kings of the earth” were never opposed to this since it served to line their own pockets and solidify their own power.  According to Horsley, “Greek cities of the Roman Empire were controlled by the wealthy and powerful families for their own and the empire’s benefit.”[8]  But the provinces suffered as a result.  Famine swept through Asia Minor and Israel.  Within the zero sum game of the Roman Empire, the affluence of the few led to the impoverishment of the many.

This was the prophetic critique of John.  The harlot used a “smoke and mirrors” false advertising schema of the pax romana to coax the nations into a drunken stupor so it would willfully relinquished the harlot’s fee (taxes and tribute) unto the great Harlot.  And though many benefited from Rome’s rule, many suffered.  John’s concern isn’t limited to religious persecution but extends to “all who have been slaughtered on the earth” because of Roman rule (18:24).  However, we would be utterly mistaken if we believed that religious allegiance was not a part of John’s critique.  Where did religion come into John’s assessment of Rome and how does it relate to the economics of Rome?  These are the questions we will primarily deal with in our next post.

[1] Seneca, Epistulae morales 60.3

[2] Seneca, De Consolatione ad Helvian 10.7

[3] Virgil, Aeneid 6.791-96

[4] Quoted in Richard Bauckham, “The Bible and Politics” pg. 89

[5] Tacitus, Agricola 30

[6] Bauckham, “The Theology of the Book of Revelation” pg. 36-37

[7] Quoted in Richard Bauckham, “The Bible in Politics” pg. 95

[8] Richard Horsely, “Covenant Economics” pg. 139

Author: Gary Wallin

My name is Gary Wallin and I am studying Ancient History in pursuit of one day teaching Biblical Theology at the Seminary Level. I currently live in Kansas City, MO with my self and my roommates.

6 thoughts on “Favors From a Prostitute Pt 2: Revelation 17-18 and The Pax Romana

  1. excellent! i really liked it!



  2. This article makes some interesting points. However, Roman client-patron relationships were much more complex than implied. The relationship between Rome and its client states varied from region to region, and from city-state to city-state, and was hardly comparable to a prostitute-client relationship (though that relationship was much more complex in the ancient world, too. cf. Catullus’ poems). Many foreign clientelae came to Rome for protection or for economic reasons, rather than through conquest. Some, such as Greece, simply became client states over time (cf. Polybius’ Histories). Others (also such as Greece) were clientelae before either the pax romana or the Roman empire (i.e., during the republican period).
    But as for those post-pax-romana clientelae, it’s a bit unfair to say that Rome somehow duped them into the pax romana. The PR resulted in the construction (and upkeep) of roads, aquaducts, and cities all over the Mediterranean, and Rome kept the seas free of pirates. The PR brought badly needed stability to Italy and, by extension, other regions of the Mediterranean (cf. Appian’s Civil Wars; Plutarch’s biography of Marius, Sulla, Caesar; Suetonius’ biography of Augustus in The Twelve Caesars). While some regions did feel the brunt of Roman brutality, the Romans took pains not to destabilize a region.
    In the case of Judea, Jews were the only group that Rome exempted from emperor worship. Unfortunately, the region became increasingly destabilized toward the end of the 1st century AD, as a result of long-deteriorating Greek/Jewish relations (cf. Josephus’ Jewish War, 1 Maccabees). Because Christians were really Jews in the first century, and the authorship of revelation is about contemporaneous with the 1st Jewish revolt (when anti-Roman sentiment was high in Judea), the vitriol at Rome makes sense, since such vitriol was current among many smaller sects of Judaism. All in all, though, Rome’s patronage was a lot better than what most states (including Judea), had experienced before.

    P.S. If anyone wants more information on Roman Republican patronage, there’s a great book by a classicist named E. Badian called Foreign Clientelae, 264-70 B.C. For more reading on Jewish/Greek relations, one should cf. Erich Gruen’s Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans.

    • Your point is well taken. First of all, my objective was not so much to give a detailed account of every Roman interaction, but of John’s specific critiques. Of course the Empire was vastly different from east to west. Also, being “duped” into the pax romana is sort of a brash statement. But, I would advise you to take into account the Roman rhetoric of the pax romana and the imperial cult. These were designed specifically to conjure worship, and thus obedience, throughout the empire. Lastly, if I overstated my case against Rome, it is simply because that is the message of Revelation. Did Rome do anything good? Absolutely! Did they build roads and aqueducts for the masses? Yes! But one reason for John’s caricature of Rome is simply because the good things about Rome were evident. The atrocities were not. Thus, I think your argument of “Rome was great! except for those damn Jews (or any other rebellious subjected city)” is, at least in a broad sense, talking about America’s greatness while dismissing the atrocities committed against the Indians and Africans. From the upper middle class of Rome, things were great! But in the ghettos, not so much.

  3. All in all I think your expansed details on the nature of Roman patronage very much fit into the harlot metaphor as described above. That is to say, the additional, very insightful, information doesn’t disqualify the book of Revelation describing the relationship between Rome and its patrons as harlotry. We can disagree about whether or not the relationship between Rome and its patrons was a positive or negative thing, but I think the post does a good job of laying out that it was the writer of Revelations purpose to refer to Roman client-patron relationships in this section of his book. There certainly were patrons which were not feeling the effects of peace and safety promised by Rome. And calling it s Pax Romana since peace was ensured on the edge of the sword rather than by Rome achieving a time of diplomatic peace where there was safety on all fronts and autonomous, non-hostile relations with its neighbors.

  4. Pingback: Favors From a Prostitute Pt 4: The New Jerusalem vs The Harlot « The Cosmic Cathedral

  5. Hi, I see that that this webpage is “licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.” Can I use the pic of the Roma coin from your website to publish in a book I am writing?

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