Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Seven Hills (17.8–9a)


The wild animal that you saw was and is not and is about to rise from the abyss and go to destruction. And the ones whose names were not written in the scroll of life since the foundation of the cosmos will be amazed looking at the wild animal which was and is not and will be. This is the mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven hills where the woman sits.


The wild animal in Rev 13 and 17 is the book’s equivalent to similar visions in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. All three apocalypses intend this creature to be the fourth beast from Dan 7. In the original vision, the first three monsters were presented as a nightmarish lion, bear, and four-headed leopard. The author of Daniel made no attempt to compare the fourth monster to a real-world animal, only describing its claws, teeth, and horns. Where 4 Ezra reimagined this fourth beast as the imperial eagle, Rev 13 instead combined Daniel’s first three creatures to describe the fourth. This resulted in the Revelation’s wild animal having seven heads, a detail that conveniently fit right into the author’s numerological symbolism in other parts of the book. The beast’s source of power, the satanic dragon, also has seven heads, derived from mythological traditions about Leviathan. Likewise, as alluded to in Rev 13 and made explicit in Rev 17, the seven heads of the wild animal represent seven kings. Yet they also represent ‘seven hills where the woman sits’.

A minority of interpreters say the ‘seven hills’ correspond to Jerusalem. Proponents of this view identify the hills by name (such lists typically require counting two separate Mount Zions to reach a total of seven), though without citing any clear precedent contemporary with the Revelation of John that Jerusalem was known as ‘the city of the seven hills’. Even fewer interpreters point to seven fortresses used throughout Judea and Galilee during the Judean-Roman War of 66–73 CE, but such a double-layer of interpretation (heads means hills means fortresses) would be difficult for any reader to solve. The view also intends to explain how Jerusalem could be said to rule the world, by attributing the city’s exaltation to the strength of these seven fortresses. However—even if Rev 17’s description of the city’s dominance over the world is taken as extreme hyperbole—these seven specific fortresses are chosen by interpreters only with the hindsight that they were used in the Judean-Roman War, the very war during which Jerusalem was destroyed.

The vast, overwhelming majority of scholars agree that the ‘seven hills’ are the seven hills of Rome. ‘Babylon’ is Rome. The capital city was widely known throughout its empire for these hills. There was even a Roman festival named for the seven hills, Septimontium. Another cultural element was the picture itself as described in Rev 17. While Rome was often personified as a goddess, the first time she was depicted as seated on seven hills was on the backs of coins minted during the rule of Emperor Vespasian, beginning in 71 CE. This vision in Rev 17 took this propagandistic image and twisted it into a mocking insult: Rome is not a goddess, but a prostitute, and her glorious seven hills are the heads of a hideous monster. She can only ‘rule’ over the nations as long as she has illicit sex with them. When the author tells his readers to carefully interpret his vision with ‘wisdom’, he pulls back the veil of his symbolism to plainly tell them what it means without explicitly naming names. They know the scene, but he tells them what Rome ‘really’ is.



De Lingua Latina 5.41 Where Rome is now was called the Seven-Hilled, from the same number of hills which the city afterwards embraced within its walls.

De Lingua Latina 6.24 Seven Hills Day was named from these seven hills on which the city is set.


Georgics 2.533–534 Rome has thus become the fairest thing on earth, and with a single city’s wall enclosed her seven hills.

Aeneid 6.1048–1050 Illustrious Rome will bound her power with earth, her spirit with Olympus. She will enclose her seven hills with one great city wall


Secular Hymn 1–12 O Phoebus and O powerful Diana of the forest, glory of the clearest sky, ever honored and worshiped ones, grant us what we pray for at this sacred time, when the Sibyllines warn chosen virgins and chaste youths to sing a hymn to the gods, who love the seven hills […] the city of Rome


Geography 5.3.7 The first founders walled Capotiline and Palatine and Quirinal […] Again, Ancus Marcius took in the Caelium hill and the Aventine hill […] Servius […] filled it out by adding both Esquiline and Viminal.


2.5.55–57 Browse, bulls, while you can on the grass of the seven hills: here soon a great city will be sited. Rome, your name is fated to rule the earth


Elegies 3.11.57 The heights of the city of the seven hills, which presides over the world


Trisita 1.5.67–70 My home is not Dulichium, nor Ithaca, nor Samos—it is no grand punishment to leave such places—but that which, from seven hills, surveys the whole world: the empire of Rome and the place of gods.

Pliny the Elder

Natural History 3.66 Romulus left the city of Rome, if we are to believe those who state the very greatest number, having three gates and no more. When the Vespasians were emperors and censors, in the Year of the Founding 826, the circumference of the walls which surrounded it was thirteen miles and two-fifths. Surrounding as it does the seven hills, the city is divided into fourteen districts, with two hundred sixty five cross-roads under the guardianship of the Lares.


Satire 9.130 Be not afraid; so long as these hills of ours stand fast, pathic friends will never fail you.


Domitian 4.5 He made a present to the people of three hundred sesterces each on three occasions, and in the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills gave a plentiful banquet, distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate and knights, and smaller one to the commons; and he himself was the first to begin to eat.

Sibylline Oracles

2.16–18 the earth-shaking lightning-giver will break the glory of idols and shake the people of seven-hilled Rome.

11.109–113 But when Italy produces a great marvel for men, a murmuring of infants by an unpolluted spring, in a shady cave, childen of a flock-devouring beast, who, when they have become men, will cast down headlong many who have shameless spirit on seven strong hills.

13.43–45 insofar as the dear nurturer of Italians, which lies in the plain of the Nile by the wondrous water, dispatches a seasonal tribute to seven-hilled Rome.

14.107–108 Therefore he will also destroy many, for the city of seven-hilled Rome, on account of the mighty kingdom.

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