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Those familiar with Roman history, culture, and imperialistic propaganda recognize this iconic tableau. Three simple objects: the Roman she-wolf (Lupa Romana), Romulus, and Remus. This simple scene was part of the founding myth of the city of Rome, purportedly in the 8th century BC, and its ensuing empire that dominated the world in which the prophet John wrote and ministered. Founding myths from antiquity often contained irreconcilable legends and characters, and that is clearly true of the founding myths of Rome. This problem was also recognized by the ancients themselves who then usually combined (unsuccessfully) elements of the various legends into one founding myth.
Our concern is the myth, preserved in a variety of Greek and Latin sources, that identified two suckling babies, Romulus and Remus, as the founders of Rome. Once upon a time there was an internecine struggle within a royal family in Italy. There were infant heirs abandoned at the Tiber River, only to be (miraculously) rescued from sure doom and then they were suckled by a she-wolf. Stated briefly they are reared and develop into adult proto-types of later Roman leaders. There is a sibling quarrel in which Remus is killed by his brother Romulus in conjunction with the founding of a new city. As sole survivor Romulus establishes the new city, names it Rome after himself, and rules the Roman people. Thus, Romulus is considered by everyone to be the Founder of Rome and all that it will ever become.
This iconic picture came to stand for the very heart of Roman history, religion, and culture, especially with the promotion of the divinity of Romulus later in life. Following is a summary of the apotheosis (deification, consecratio) of Romulus given in the works of two Augustan era writers, the historian Livy and the poet Ovid. Based upon Livy, Romulus is taken into heaven during a meeting with Roman Senators, “snatched away to heaven by a whirlwind” and declared by those nearby as “a god, the son of a god, the King and Father of the City of Rome.” Accordingly, Romulus was prayed to and petitioned for grace, favor, protection, and good fortune for the Roman people. Sometime later the god Romulus appeared again on earth to give this divine commission, predicting Rome’s future global domination,
“Go,” said he, “tell the Romans that it is the will of heaven that my Rome should be the head of all the world. Let them henceforth cultivate the arts of war, and let them know assuredly, and hand down the knowledge to posterity, that no human might can withstand the arms of Rome” (Livy, History of Rome, I.16).
In poetic parlance Ovid depicted the god Mars speaking to Jupiter (Zeus) with these words about the ascent of Romulus into the heavens,
Since the Roman state is strong, on firm foundations, and does not depend on a single champion: free his spirit, and raising him from earth set him in the heavens. You [Jupiter] once said to me [Mars], in person, at a council of the gods (since I am mindful of the gracious words I noted in my retentive mind), “There will be one whom you will raise to azure heaven” (Metamorphoses, Book 14.805-828, Translated by A. S. Kline © 2000 All Rights Reserved).
The god Mars then comes to Rome and brings Romulus to heaven to be there with the Olympian deities.
It is not a wild theory to imagine that those early believers living in Roman Asia knew this founding myth and its iconography, since it had been on Roman coins since the time of the Republic and was well known in popular art and literature. Obviously the prophet John did not believe in the divinity of Romulus, nor the Roman propagandistic ideology that “it is the will of heaven that my Rome should be the head of all the world” (Livy, History of Rome, I.16). John knew instead that the future destiny of the world and its inhabitants was not controlled by Roman hegemony, but by “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Rev. 11:15). Indeed, as Revelation chapter 17:5 makes clear, John viewed Rome, with all her wealth and worldly influence, as the mother of all whores, a decadent slut.
Had all the believers in these seven congregations of Roman Asia agreed with John’s penetrating ridicule of Rome, then John would not have written Revelation the same way. But in fact not all believers in churches, both then and now, embrace the Bible’s intolerant outlook toward whoring cultures and civilizations. For some in John’s congregations it was just too easy and comforting to go to the breasts of Rome, to the she-wolf. The milk of conformity, the zeitgeist of John’s culture and ours, seems too sweet and soothing, indeed tranquilizing. Imagine the iconic tableau we began with, but now those two infants are no longer Romulus and Remus, but the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6) and Balaamites (Rev. 2:14), assimilated first century churchgoers whose works and influence must be hated (Rev. 2:6).
Much like Romulus and Remus there were Christians in the seven congregations who had experienced the she-wolf’s milk as sustaining and fulfilling, indeed as life and sustenance. John’s call to his readers is to walk away from the she-wolf and to refuse being suckled on Rome’s milk of wealth, decadence, abusive power, and idolatry, and rather to walk toward the Lamb and follow the Lamb wherever he leads (Rev. 14:4).