“Raping Rome”


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In “Raping Rome,” Stephen Moore explores the meaning(s) and significance behind the feminization of Rome in Revelation. Following previous commentators, he notes that Rome/Babylon “comes already sexed and gendered” through the Jewish tradition (127). Yet Revelation seems to be the only text that elaborates upon this idea with sexualized rhetoric that depicts the empire as a prostitute drunk on her lustful passions (porneia). This arresting image is best understood, according to Moore, as a “counter-imperial representation of Rome,” a parody of the empire’s depiction of itself through its august warrior goddess, Roma (128).

Moore begins with an examination of the cult of Roma in Asia Minor. Long known as the symbol of Rome, the goddess was naturally linked with power: not only did her name itself convey authority (rhome = strength), but iconic representations routinely highlight her martial attributes (e.g., carrying military equipment and wearing armor, defeating enemies, and holding the goddess Victory). The works of poets praising Rome complement this ideological portrait: Melinno of Lesbos, for example, celebrates “the royal glory of everlasting rule” of the goddess and her “lordly might” (134-135). Depictions of Roma in art reinforce this image; as a conquering hero she dominates her vanquished opponents, themselves personified as stereotypical women. Roma thus “emblematizes mythic masculinity” (135).

Moore find this evidence striking because it appears to destabilize ancient gender norms, which identified power and control as visible markers of a person’s gendered identity (“men” exercised these traits while “women” did not). In this system, though, such qualities were never fixed or stable, and masculinity was always something that biological men had to demonstrate. At the same time, biological women might occasionally transcend the weakness of their sex and achieve masculine honor (136, 140-142). Roma, then, appears as “a visual allegory of hegemonic Roman gender ideology”: a goddess whose femininity is constantly moving toward manliness by performing acts of masculine virtus, domination and control (143).

How might we compare this imperial understanding of Roma as “hegemonic Roman manhood encased in female flesh that is clad in hypermasculine garb” with Revelation’s gendered depiction of the empire? Moore sees John inverting the imperial image: the empire’s masculine woman is, in John’s hands, reclothed as a slavish prostitute whose masculine performance fails to convince, and whose seductive qualities threaten Christian identity. The imagery then turns violent, as John predicts that the whore will be stripped, sexually shamed, and ruthlessly destroyed. This “pornoprophecy” heightens the theme of domination and control and reveals that John too has been seduced by Roman gender ideology (146-148). John does not restrict his divinely sanctioned sexualized violence to his external opponents, however; he also targets internal enemies—Jezebel, in particular—with the same tactic (148). John’s wrath against women only ceases when they embody the marks of feminine purity (the mother, the virgin bride).

John’s feminization of Rome shows that he subscribes to the assumptions of sex and gender found in the empire, that men and women could slide back and forth between masculinity and femininity. Like other Roman males, he privileged masculinity over femininity, thus reaffirming the gender binary. Yet Moore also shows that Revelation upsets this stratification through its depiction of Christ as a human-like androgyne, a masculine figure who possesses female anatomy (Moore, 149-150; see Rev 1:13; 19:11-21). If gender is the mark of personhood, then Christ stands outside of the human sphere, a celestial androgyne who moves between male and female and divine and beast (152).

Moore’s “Raping Rome”

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.



Analysis of “Raping Rome”

Moore’s article explores the complexities of gendering Rome as female (pretending to be male) in its iconography, and how John uses the female gender of the goddess Roma to strip her of her divine status by calling her a prostitute. He points to Judith Butler, who argues that gender identity is a performance of learned behaviors that bear the illusion of natural manifestation. Moore uses a queer-reading approach to examine the cross-dressing goddess, both feminine in form with all the trappings of the masculine warrior. Rome then sees itself (and thus performs under this illusion) as the soft, opulent place of luxury (female) juxtaposed with its desire for violence and conquest (male). Also important is the concept of virtus, which is a female gendered noun to describe the height of masculinity, and is ascribed as a quality of the female Roma. Moore makes the distinction between masculinity and femininity by arguing “masculinity was the quality of being in control of, exercising dominion over, others and also oneself, while femininity was the quality of ceding control of oneself to others” (142).

With this statement, he can then examine how John treats Rome in his apocalypse by keeping with the stylized gendering of the city as female. John strips Roma of her armor and weapons, essentially “emasculating” her, and replacing those with jewels, purple, and a cup of wine. He then labels her the Mother of Whores. John hates Roma, according to Moore, because he secretly loves her for all her splendor; however, he treats her with such animosity because women are not the conquerors. Moore channels Butler again, who points out that those who perform their gender correctly are rarely punished. The Bride, for instance, is not punished, but praised for her submissiveness and purity. John punishes Roma by saying “they will loathe the whore, and they will ravage her and strip her naked, and they will devour her flesh and burn her with fire” (147). Moore argues that the gender binary and violence in John’s writing is a reassertion of the gender hierarchy mentioned above, that men are dominant and women fall into submission.

Moore mentions an androgynous nature of Christ in the Book of Revelation; I fail to see its relevance or its purpose. He implies that the work of scholars and translators in the past has been dishonest in translating mastios as a masculine chest, rather than as a female breast. However, a plain reading of Revelation gives no indication that John was in any way attempting to describe Christ with any kind of gender bias. While there have certainly been a number of people who have picked on John’s choice of words, it is equally likely that he simply chose the wrong word, or that the manuscripts that we have available today bear an error made by scribes. If we want to discount the possibility that anyone could have made such an error, I might point out that even today we might talk about a man beating his breasts (like an ape) without in any way meaning that his breasts had become feminine.

This article is absurd. Moore’s eisegetical approach to interpretation is damaging to John’s original intent when he sat down to write Revelation. Moore makes assumptions about John’s frame of mind and about the attitudes surrounding sexuality and gender in antiquity.

Moore, “Raping Rome”

Moore’s essay, “Raping Rome,” attempts to answer why the Roman Empire, where masculinity is valued far above femininity, is symbolically represented by the Whore of Babylon, a woman. Moore suggests that while John attempts to subvert the empire by shaming its representational goddess, Roma, he also inadvertently uses her as a model for the Jesus of Revelation, both of whom rise above the binary gender distinctions so resolutely maintained in Roman society. The fluidity of Jesus as an intersected being mirrors that of Roma similarly embodying male and female aspects.

Moore labels Roma’s inclusion in Revelation as “a case of triple transvestism” (125). She is Rome’s hypermasculine militarism in a female body in a male warrior’s dress: male as female as male. Her association with military might and imperial power, along with her very name meaning “strength,” furthers the paradox of the presence of masculinity in her clearly female body. In addition, Roma displays virtus, a male characteristic that was thought of as the opposing force to feminine vices. Moore concludes that Roma personifies both men and women, but in a constant state of tension. Judith Butler’s theories of gender and performance set the theoretical framework for examining Roma as a being in double drag, and the subsequent reading of the Whore of Babylon as one in triple drag who is stripped of her Roman power and shamefully defeated.

According to Moore, John violently destroys Roma, yet he uses her multi-gender model to describe the figure of Jesus in Revelation. On one level, the division between male and female seems rigidly separated; male takes the top place while female is relegated to a lower rank. However, Moore states that Jesus confuses the binary distinction; he is both male and female, deconstructing the boundaries between genders that Roma, and Roman society, represent.

Moore presents a compelling reading of gender in Revelation, one that makes the reader consider issues beyond the surface of the text.  The inclusion of Judith Butler’s work especially supports his conclusions.  However, the layer-upon-layer approach he takes creates confusion towards his logic and questions its applicability to the period in which Revelation was written.  Gender and queer studies are fairly recent fields in academia and can be used to examine almost any subject, yet Moore’s specific application of gender and queer studies to biblical scenarios seems a bit stretched.  My lack of extensive knowledge regarding the topic prevents me from having a solid opinion on the anachronism of Moore’s study (which he himself admits is one of his weaknesses).  But, the criss-crossing lines of logic are so difficult to follow that they give the sense that some conclusions have been forced onto the material.

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.