The Lamb That Speaks Like a Dragon

In Revelation 13, the apostle John wrote about two beasts that are opposed to God and His people. The first beast, described in verses 1–10, is widely accepted as representing the Roman Empire and its “resurrections.” But the Eastern Orthodox Church believes that the second beast is also linked to the Roman Empire. To understand why, a study of the Roman emperor Augustus, or Octavian, is helpful.

Octavian was the great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. Caesar had chosen the youth to succeed him, partly because of their relationship but also because of the legend surrounding his birth.

Suetonius, a Roman writer of the first century, records the story in his Lives of the Caesars: “When Atia [Octavian’s mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she . . . fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it. . . . In the tenth month after that [Octavian] was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.”

As emperor, Octavian took the surname Augustus because it was associated with the sacred places of Roman society and with the ritual of augury. According to Suetonius, anything consecrated to the gods is “called ‘august’ [augusta], from the increase [auctus] in dignity.”

Known as the founder of the Roman Empire, Augustus shaped both the empire and the role of emperor for succeeding generations. The practice of calling the Roman emperor “Augustus” began with him and continued after his death in A.D. 14, 80 or so years before the apostle John wrote about the two beasts of Revelation 13.

John described the second beast in that chapter as being “like a lamb” in that it had two horns (see verse 11). Augustus’s emblem, which he used on coins and military banners, was that of Capricorn, a two-horned goat with the tail of a fish. The connection between sheep and goats is a natural one, because the two are herded together in pastoral societies. Jesus Christ himself pointed out that he would need to separate the sheep from the goats at His return (Matthew 25:31–33). Another idea is that the expression “like a lamb” highlights the anti-Christ aspect of this beast.

According to John, another characteristic of the animal was that it spoke like a dragon. That the dragon is closely related to Augustus is suggested by the legend that the god Apollo was his father. Apollo was associated with a dragon as he had slain the dragonlike serpent Python at Delphi. Afterwards he was referred to as Pythic Apollo.

Apollo had a great influence on Augustus’s life. Following his defeat of Mark Antony at Actium, Augustus raised a temple to Apollo adjacent to his residence on the Palatine Hill in Rome. According to Suetonius, its exact location had been determined by “the soothsayers [who] declared that the god had shown his desire by striking it with lightning.” Statues created for and dedicated to Augustus in Rome were melted and recast by him to honor Apollo. And Augustus even represented himself as Apollo at an infamous private dinner that became known as “the dinner of the 12 gods.” He clearly saw himself as related to or obtaining his role from Apollo and regarded this god so closely associated with a dragon as his own special patron.

In 13 B.C., following the example set by Julius Caesar, Augustus assumed the role of pontifex maximus, an office overseeing the nation’s priesthood and its religion. The title was based on the understanding that the officeholder controlled the bridge between the underworld, with its evil spirits, and the people of the empire. The name had earlier been used by priests in Pergamos, Asia Minor, at the temple of Zeus, the father of Apollo. Augustus used the office to help establish his rule and reorganize the state.

This “august,” or exalted, emperor also took to himself the titles Divi Filius (“Son of God”) and Pater Patriae (“Father of the Country”). His influence on the Roman Empire surpassed any before or after him. Following his death, the senate determined that he should be deified, and so he became known as God Augustus, or the Divine Augustus.

Well beyond his own lifetime, Augustus was worshiped as a divine savior of the empire. The Orthodox community has therefore suggested that John’s description of Antichrist, “like a lamb” but speaking “like a dragon,” was a direct reference to this imperial model, which the papacy has sought to fill. Augustus served as a type—an easily understood symbol of another person, who in the future would seek to influence the world in a similarly profound way.