Revelation 12:3 - Clarke's commentary and critical notes on the Bible

Bible Comments

And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. There appeared another wonder - a great red dragon - The dragon here is a symbol, not of the Roman empire in general, but of the Heathen Roman empire. This great pagan power must have, therefore, been thus represented from the religion which it supported. But what is a dragon? An entirely fabulous beast of antiquity, consequently, in this respect, a most proper emblem of the heathen worship, which consisted in paying adoration to numerous imaginary beings, termed gods, goddesses, etc. The very foundation of the heathen religious system is mostly built upon fable; and it is very difficult to trace many of their superstitions to any authentic original; and even those which appear to derive their origin from the sacred writings are so disguised in fable as literally to bear no more resemblance to the truth than the dragon of the ancients does to any animal with which we are acquainted. But it may be asked why the Spirit of God should represent the heathen Roman empire as a dragon, rather than by anger other of the fabulous animals with which the mythology of the ancient Romans abounded. The answer is as follows; In the eighth chapter of the Prophet Daniel, God has represented the kingdom of the Greeks by a he-goat, for no other apparent reason than this, that it was the national military standard of the Grecian monarchy; we may therefore expect that the pagan Roman empire is called a Dragon on a similar account. In confirmation of this point it is very remarkable that the dragon was the principal standard of the Romans next to the eagle, in the second, third, fourth, and fifth centuries of the Christian era. Of this we have abundant evidence in the writings of both heathens and Christians. Arrian is the earliest writer who has mentioned that dragons were used as military standards among the Romans. See his Tactics, c. 51. Hence Schwebelius supposes that this standard was introduced after Trajan's conquest of the Daci. See Vegetius de Revelation Militari a Schwebelio, p. 191, Argentorati, 1806; and Graevii Thesaur., Antiq. Roman., tom. x., col. 1529. Vegetius, who flourished about a.d. 386, says, lib. ii. c. 13: Primum signum totius legionis est aquila, quam aquilifer portal. Dracones etiam per singulas cohortes a draconariis feruntur ad praelium. "The first standard of the whole legion is the eagle, which the aquilifer carries. Dragons are also borne to battle by the Draconarii." As a legion consisted of ten cohorts, there were therefore ten draconarii to one aquilifer; hence, from the great number of draconarii in an army, the word signarii or signiferi, standard-bearers, came at last to mean the carriers of the dragon standards only, the others retaining the name of aquiliferi - See Veget., lib. ii. c. 7, and his commentators. The heathen Roman empire is called a Red dragon; and accordingly we find from the testimony of ancient writers that the dragon standards of the Romans were painted red. We read in Ammianus Marcellinus, lib. xvi., c. 12, of Purpureum signum draconis, "the purple standard of the dragon." See also Claudianus in Rufinum, lib. ii., l. 177, 178. Pitiscus, in his Lexicon Antiq. Romans, and Ducange, in his Glossarium Mediae et Infimae Latinitatis, sub voc. Draco, have considered this subject at great length, especially the latter writer, who has made several quotations from Claudianus, Sidonius, Prudentius, and others, in which not only the standard, but also the image of the dragon itself, is stated to be of a red or purple color. Of what has been said above respecting the dragon, this is then the sum: a huge fabulous beast is shown to St. John, by which some Great Pagan power is symbolically represented; and the Red dragon is selected from among the numerous imaginary animals which the fancies of mankind have created to show that this great pagan power is the heathen Roman empire.

Having seven heads - As the dragon is an emblem of the heathen Roman power, its heads must denote heathen forms of government. - See the note on Revelation 17:10, where the heads of the beast are explained in a similar way. These were exactly seven, and are enumerated by Tacitus (Annal., lib. i., in principio) in words to the following effect: "The city of Rome was originally governed by kings. L. Brutus instituted liberty and the consulate. The dictatorship was only occasionally appointed; neither did the decemviral power last above two years; and the consular power of the military tribunes was not of long continuance. Neither had Cinna nor Sylla a long domination: the power of Pompey and Crassus was also soon absorbed in that of Caesar; and the arms of Lepidus and Antony finally yielded to those of Augustus." From this passage it is evident to every person well acquainted with the Roman history, that the seven forms of government in the heathen Roman world were,

1. The regal power;

2. The consulate;

3. The dictatorship;

4. The decemvirate;

5. The consular power of the military tribunes;

6. The triumvirate; and,

7. The imperial government.

It is singular that commentators in general, in their citation of this passage, have taken no notice of the triumvirate, a form of government evidently as distinct from any of the others as kings are from consuls, or consuls from emperors. For the triumvirate consisted in the division of the Roman republic into three parts, each governed by an officer possessed with consular authority in his own province; and all three united together in the regulation of the whole Roman state. Consequently, it differed entirely from the imperial power, which was the entire conversion of the Roman state from a republic to a monarchy.

And ten horns - That these ten horns signify as many kingdoms is evident from the seventh chapter of Daniel, where the angel, speaking of the fourth beast, says, that "the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise;" and in this view of the passage many commentators are agreed, who also admit that the ten kingdoms are to be met with "amid the broken pieces of the Roman empire." And it is evident that nothing less than the dismemberment of the Roman empire, and its division into ten independent kingdoms, can be intended by the angel's interpretation just quoted. If, therefore, the ten horns of Daniel's fourth beast point out as many kingdoms, for the very same reason must the horns of the dragon have a similar meaning. But the Roman empire was not divided into several independent kingdoms till a considerable time after it became Christian. In what sense then can it be said that the different kingdoms into which the Roman empire was divided by the barbarous nations are horns of the dragon? They were so because it was the Roman monarchy, in its seventh Draconic form of government, which was dismembered by the barbarians. For though the Roman empire was not completely dismembered till the fifth century, it is well known that the depression of the heathen idolatry, and the advancement of Christianity to the throne, elected not the least change in the form of government: the Romans continued still to be under subjection to the imperial power; and, consequently, when the heathen barbarous nations divided the Roman empire among themselves, they might very properly be denominated horns of the dragon, as it was by means of their incursions that the imperial power, Founded by the heathen Caesars, was abolished. Machiavel and Bishop Lloyd enumerate the horns of the dragon thus:

1. The kingdom of the Huns;

2. The kingdom of the Ostrogoths;

3 The kingdom of the Visigoths;

4. The kingdom of the Franks;

5. The kingdom of the Vandals;

6. The kingdom of the Sueves and Alans;

7. The kingdom of the Burgundians;

8. The kingdom of the Heruli, Rugii, Scyrri, and other tribes which composed the Italian kingdom of Odoacer;

9. The kingdom of the Saxons; and

10. The kingdom of the Lombards.

And seven crowns upon his head - In the seven Roman forms of government already enumerated, heathenism has been the crowning or dominant religion.

Revelation 12:3

3 And there appeared another wonderb in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.