Raping Rome

Stephen Moore’s chapter “Raping Rome” took a closer look and gender identity and gender representation regarding the book of Revelation. He starts out by taking a close look at Roma, the Roman goddess that represents the empire. She is presented as a woman who represents the epitome of masculinity. She is clothed with military might, usually holding a short spear and often seen as standing on top of shields that are represented as the armies that she conquers. Moore points out that Roma in all of her splendor was at the height imperial devotion and worship, having temples and statues made and dedicated to her. Even when she was compared and contrasted to other Roman gods/goddesses, Roma is typically shown to be a woman who is controlling and mighty, while those pictured with her are the subordinate and effeminate ones. However, Moore’s chapter centers on the idea that in Revelation, John takes the masculinized woman and degrades her to nothing more than a slavish whore. John takes a woman dressed as a man and turns her into a woman dressed as a man dressing her back into a woman.

Moore shows that this is profoundly offensive to the goddess. The queerness of gender portrayed by the goddess does give insight into the Roman understanding of gender identity. Moore explains this through the term “virtus”. He says the virtus is a grammatically feminine noun which is utterly representative of masculinity. He compares this to Roma, a grammatically feminine yet its ideology is profoundly masculine. In the amalgamation of genders, Moore shows that one’s understanding of gender is necessarily a binary view. While male is typically seen in the world as above female and one’s loss of masculinity is like climbing downward toward femininity, this helps explain what the goddess Roma represents. She, the mighty warrior is clothed in military garb to show her overcoming both sexes. She remains woman and yet becomes man. Essentially, as Moore notes, she is dressed in drag.

Moore then shifts gears and focuses on the book of Revelation specifically. He tries to make the point the John secretly loves Rome in all of his bitter hatred for her. By telling of her impending doom, he shows God and the Christ as essentially becoming a picture of the Roman empire. Just as Rome conquered and killed anything that stood in its way, so will God’s empire sweep the world with His will. He then finishes with a short discussion of trying to show Jesus as a mirrored picture of the goddess Roma. He says that Jesus is in essence androgynous. He interprets a passage of Revelation in such a way that the words in Greek could be translated as showing Jesus to have breasts. If Jesus is interpreted this way, it would indicate that John has a secret love affair with the Roman goddess and trying to fight against it. Moore’s interpretation here is somewhat far-fetched. In thinking that John has this obsession with Rome and that questions of gender comparison is in the thought process or even an influence of John’s writing is somewhat presumptuous. It felt as if Moore was trying to see something so badly that he projected his would-be conclusion into a text that is not making many social comments about the gender-ness of Roman ideology. Furthermore, his interpretation of Jesus as a mirror to Roma entirely hinges of his translation of a few Greek words. Without that translation, his argument lies dormant.

Stephen Moore’s “Raping Rome”

Moore’s Raping Rome explores why and how Rome is represented as both woman and prostitute in Revelation. His central thesis involves uncovering gender hierarchy (specifically man’s dominion over woman) in Imperial Rome and Revelation’s affirmation and inadvertent sublimation of this.  Moore argues that Rome as prostitute simply isn’t a matter doubling-up of the Rome-as-Babylon motif found in the OT (that would simply supply the essence of the analogy of Rome as woman) but rather this derogation of Rome is more fully captured in a Rome-as-Roma-as-Babylon Motif. To use Judith Butler’s fem and queer theory to give an analogy, this city-in-drag-as-god-in-drag-as-classic-derogatory-emlem-as-antitheisis-to-God-in-drag provides the essential link needed to represent Rome as a prostitute. To follow the wave of Moore’s analyses, Roma, the cultic mighty warrior goddess provides Rome with a powerful masculine ideology: strong, powerful and successful in battle—thus, she displays hegemonic masculinity: virtus. She is the “very embodiment of the central imperative in roman masculinity.”

Moore explores the inverse of this dynamic by bringing in Judith Butler and queer analyses, to recapitulate and further examine the idea that Rome in her outward appearance is masculine but her essence is female: Thus she is in “drag.”  Quoting Seneca, Moore explains that virtus is antithetical to women’s vices: “sexual profligacy, unchastity, shamelessness, weakness for jewels and riches.”  Thus, is it any wonder that John depicts Babylon as a prostitute? Moore says, “Babylon epitomizes female vice as Roma epitomizes masculine virtue.” Roma is the pinnacle of women’s vice. She is grammatically feminine but rhetorically masculine. Bringing in Butler again, Moore makes the argument that gender and ethnicity need a “constitutive other” to be constructed— this thought further lends evidence to Moore’s argument of John’s formulation of Rome as prostitute. Moore explains that the “hegemonic gender script of masculinity” that dominated Rome was one of rigidity, control, and excessive dominion both over oneself and others— a product of critical self-conquest. He notes that primal femininity was always in danger of morphing into masculinity— “Femininity is a priori”— it is a given; masculinity, however, must be “attained and controlled.” Thus, his argument is that Roma “guards” the sex/gender ideology of Rome.

Moore argues that Roman masculinity is brittle and demands constant watch, which than sets up the question, “Is Rome armed against herself?” This loop in Moore’s analysis further serves to elicit the idea and quantify the polemic: Roma is clothed as man, embodied masculine (her demeanor/stylized attitude) but nonetheless female (essence). Revelation strips Rome of her military apparel and re-clothes her as a prostitute. Moore argues that by stripping of her military clothing and dressing her up as a prostitute, Rome represents the epitome of “fallen femininity.” He says Babylon is Rome in triple drag: first “phallic masculinity masquerading as female flesh masquerading as hegemonic masculinity and then phallic masculinity re-clothed as degenerate and defeated brothel slave.” But the question Moore is really trying to get at in his analysis, is why are sex/gender coterminous with empire in Revelation in the first place? Here, he notes that Roma in her drag-splendor is only part of the answer. The other half of this answer lies in the manifestation of social hierarchy in the Roman world.

Interesting, Moore notes that while resisting the sex/gender system, John actually replicates it so that sexual violence in Revelation appears to be an affirmation of gender hierarchy. He says this happens in both inward and outward directed aggression and sexual violence. The first (inward) toward Jezebel the second (outward) toward Babylon. Here, he notes that the female is the object of sexual violence except where she “assumes patriarchically preapproved forms: virgin bride and self-sacrificing mother.” This then raises some eyebrows as the reader observes that the hierarchical gender binary isn’t itself called into question in Revelation. But then, in the last refrain, Moore brings in the depiction of Jesus, “one like a son of man”— an ambiguous being. This raises one last question for Moore, as the depiction of Jesus in Revelation is ultimately ambiguous, troubling the established gender system.  Thus Moore’s argument concludes that Revelation symbolizes the deconstruction of Roman gender causing trouble to the gender binary while simultaneously drawing Jesus into an androgynous figure, much like, coincidentally, that of the goddess, Roma.



Cohn’s “Biblical Origins”

The persecution of Judean Jews under Antiochus IV in the 160s BC forms the socio-historical context for the Book of Daniel. Antiochus desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, and then later pillaged and burned the city itself. The Jewish community fought this oppression, resulting in the Maccabaean rising in which the Temple was successfully reclaimed.

Though not a Maccabaean manifesto, Norman Cohn argues that the Book of Daniel’s aim was to encourage the (elite) civilian population to remain faithful under persecution.   The setting envisioned by the author of the Book of Daniel is likely Judea, while the four beasts he describes can be read as the imperial powers that ruled over the Jews. The one who appears from the clouds “like a son of man,” whether representative or symbol for the “saints of the Most High,” embodies the promise of future exaltation and vindication for the Jews.

This identification of the Jewish community with the “saints of the Most High” indicates that they will inherit the kingdom of God on earth. The establishment of this new and righteous kingdom is marked by the reconsecration of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Book of Daniel suggests that those Jews who rule over this new kingdom are not only those who are without sin but are those who also followed the teachings of visionaries like those of Daniel. The struggles that the Jewish community faced served as inner purification, elevating them above normal human beings and aligning them with the “holy ones” in Heaven.

The establishment of this holy kingdom is preceded by the judgment of the Seleucid Empire and of all Jews; those who were martyred under Antiochan persecution rather than deny their faith would be rewarded with eternal life. Written during the persecution of the Jews, the Book of Daniel is a narrative of resistance in that it promises retribution and reward for the injustices faced by the Jewish community under Antiochus IV.

Revelation draws heavily on the Book of Daniel, and can be understood as a Christian counterpart to the Book of Daniel. Revelation was written for Christians who still considered themselves Jews (their religion was not yet termed “Christianity”). In its relationship with the Book of Daniel, Revelation demonstrates that the history of the Church follows what has been foretold in scripture.

Early Christians were certain that Jesus would soon return to judge the living and the dead and thereby usher in the great transformation. The war in Heaven described in Revelation has an earthly parallel: the “woman clothed with the sun” represents Israel, with her child representing the Christian community. Satan is assisted on earth by two beasts: the first, representing the Roman Empire, and the second representing the “false prophet” or priesthood of the Roman religion. The Archangel Michael, the patron angel of Israel in the Book of Daniel, ultimately defeats Satan. Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian, and though scholars hotly debate the degree to which Domitian persecuted early Christians, it can be said with certainty that the author of Revelation had a conception of the cosmic order that contrasted markedly with the Hellenistic world in which he lived. Thusly, John, Revelation’s author, viewed the rule of kings and emperors as an expression of Satan’s power and expected God to put an end to both.

Cohn, “Biblical Origins”

The earliest of apocalyptic writings can be seen in the book of Daniel, which was written in response to the Antiochan persecution of Jews and the Maccabean uprising in 160 B.C.E. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid monarch of Judea, entered the temple of Jerusalem, stripped it of its gold, desecrated it with statues of pagan gods and in an act of sacrilege, built an alter to sacrifice pigs— taboo animals; later he pillaged the city, burned it down, and killed most of its inhabitants including women, and children. It’s no wonder the book of Daniel was written as a response to these atrocities.

The book of Daniel validates the chaos, oppression and destruction occurring under the rule of the Seleucid monarchy and symbolically ties it to the villainous and corrupt King, Nebuchadnezzar (dating back to 6th century) who can be likened to Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The book presents a linear progression of events starting with Nebuchadnezzar’s rule; his certain downfall; the rise of other corrupt empires; the prolonged persecution of the Jews, and a final establishment of God’s kingdom and an end to the righteous’ suffering. The story interpreted in the context of 1st century B.C.E gives hope and encouragement to the Jews: That in all this chaos there is hope, and that this too shall pass. Daniel concludes that God ultimately will judge and condemn the Jew’s oppressors, establish peace and justice, and will inaugurate his sovereignty on earth.

Daniel is orchestrated with references to the oppression of the Jews under the rule of corrupt kingdoms. In chapter 7, the four beasts that come out of the sea symbolize the imperial powers that have ruled over the Jews. The fourth beast that rises out of the sea— the ugliest, and most depraved— is representative of Alexander’s Empire; its horns represent Alexander’s successor states. The vision of the “one like a son of man who appears as on clouds of Heaven” is symbolic of future vindication and exhalation of the Jews. Whereas all past and present earthly empires are successively dominated, controlled and passed from ruler to ruler; the opposite is in store for the Jews, whose Kingdom shall remain standing and “shall never pass away.” This allegory serves to further elicit hope and encouragement to the Jews facing persecution, and shows itself as resistance literature, both explicitly (“to the man,” or rather toward the oppressors) and implicitly (in the form of mental resistance, or rather in a manifestation of certain mechanisms of self-preservation). The vile, wicked, and corrupt rulers of this era will face a pyrrhic and meaningless end— all their self-indulgent efforts, futile and worthless. But the Jews, enduring the difficulties of this present life, will know no such end, because their kingdom will endure strong and steady, and will last forever. For the Jews living at the time that the book of Daniel was written, it gave them a sense of justice, and hope and provided a context with which to frame and situate their oppression. It substantiated their experiences, and provided depth and gave meaning to their sufferings.

The Jews who had experienced martyrdom and who were remarkably holy were expected to inhabit a new god-like body after their resurrection. There was also an expectation of a reformative transformation of the world, and a newly established order. Jewish apocalyptic writings foretold of tribulation and hardship, natural disasters and wars preceding this. This further situated the experiences and expectations of the Jews living under the rule of the Seleucid Empire. Later, Jews living in the first century C.E. believed Jesus to be the referenced “son of man;” this belief permeated their understanding of his moral teachings.

The book of Revelation was written for Christians who identified as the “only true Jews” pit against those who “belonged to Satan.” The book was inspired by more than 300 Jewish scriptures, many coming from the book of Daniel. The 144,000 elect in the book of Revelations are Jews (not yet called Christians) who belong to the twelve tribes of Israel. Symbolism borrowed from Hebrew texts is re-interpreted through a Christian worldview, and these Hebrew Scriptures are used to reinforce an understanding of the prophetic and certain, linear unfolding of events. The book of Daniel is reinterpreted to give credence to the imminent victory of the Christian church. Revelations is presented as the fulfillment of the prophetic traditions of Israel.

The beast that stood for the Seleucid monarchy in the book of Daniel, now stands for the Roman Empire in the book of Revelation. The second beast in revelation symbolizes the priesthood of the official Roman religion; also, John’s view of cosmic order was in direct contrast with that of the Roman Empire; thus, he eagerly waited for God to put an end to it, and for his Kingdom to be established. This shared ideological viewpoint is layered with borrowed symbolism from Daniel and thus functions in the same way as resistance literature, albeit toward the Roman Empire.

Revelations ends with the death of the beast, and its armies—symbolizing the destruction of Rome. After satan has been bond for a thousand years and is set free, he and his legion of demons are conquered by God and his angels. Then there is the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth—the New Jerusalem. This imagery and signification, like that in the book of Daniel, serves to encourage and inspire Jews to live righteously and morally in this life, despite persecution and difficult circumstances, so that they may inherit the blessed kingdom of God.

by. S.S.