Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity informs the analytical framework of Stephen Moore’s “Raping Rome,” in which the author investigates Revelation’s Whore of Babylon as a “parodic representation of Dea Roma/Thea Rhome, the goddess who personified the city of Rome and, by extension, the Roman state (125).” Moore notes that the figure of Roma has a complicated gender identity, being a female personification of Roman militant hypermasculinity and a female body in the masculine attire of a warrior. The “rape” of Roma occurs through her transformation into the Whore of Babylon, in which she is stripped of her masculine garb and given a more feminine appearance. Rome is linked with Babylon not just because of its destructive capabilities but also because of its alluring, seductive qualities. Rome/Babylon is the antithesis of the kingdom of God, and is accordingly aligned with notions of vice.
The concept of virtus, a vitally important component of Roman masculinity, is the ideal of manliness that connotes valor and virtue. As a virtue rather than a fixed gender identity, virtus was a quality that even women were able to achieve through correct action. As the embodiment of strength and Roman virtue, the figure Roma has an inherent affinity with virtus. Virtus serves as a counterpart to “women’s vices,” which include qualities like sexual profligacy, luxury, and vanity—all, unsurprisingly, qualities that are embodied in the Whore of Babylon.
Moore advocates a multi-layered reading of the figure of Roma, suggesting that she may be read as an allegory of hegemonic Roman gender ideology in her championing of masculinity over femininity. The virtus that Roma possesses was achieved through the denial of her femininity, what Moore terms the “hard-won product of (self)-conquest (143).” Roma may also be understood as an internalization of the Roman stereotyping of Asian males as “soft,” or as a critique of the Roman ideology of masculinity, or as a satirical assertion that Roman masculinity is in constant threat of reverting to femininity—or perhaps these are all valid interpretations that work together simultaneously.
If Roma is a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man (Roman patriarchy embodied in a woman dressed as a warrior), then Roma’s transformation into the Whore of Babylon is a sort of “triple drag” in which she is stripped of her military garb and clothed as a prostitute (144). The Whore of Babylon is the embodiment of “women’s vices.” Thusly, by stripping Roma of her masculine disguise, Revelation demolishes her self-autonomy and bodily control; this is the first stage of shaming Roma undergoes, which is followed by further sexual shaming and physical punishment (Rev. 17:16).
In an interesting parallel, Moore reads the figure of Jesus presented in Revelation as similar to that of Roma; Jesus represents a masculinity constructed through the suppression of femininity (an invincible warrior with unrivalled military prowess whose physical body bears female breasts). Like Roma, Moore argues that Jesus can be read as an equally complex allegory of Roman gender ideology.
Though my knowledge on the subject of gender politics in ancient Rome is rather limited, Moore’s analysis appears to depend on an anachronistic reading of gender that is reflective of his own cultural moment. Though Moore makes a very convincing case for his analysis, especially through his thoughtful application of Butler’s theory, I wonder if his discussion of gender is perhaps too binary; as Moore himself points out, Roman sexuality was simultaneously rigid and fluid. I have a hard time understanding why a militant female figure must be understood as performing a masculine identity—it seems that there was room in the Roman imagination for women to be feminine and powerful, as in the case of the goddess Athena. Performing the virtue of masculinity seems to be different in my mind than performing masculine gender.