on Revelation 12 :3
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;
on Revelation 12 :3
And there appeared another wonder in heaven - Represented as in heaven. See the notes on Revelation 12:1. That is, he saw this as occurring at the time when the church was thus about to increase.
And behold a great red dragon - The word rendered "dragon" - δράκων drakōn - occurs, in the New Testament, only in the book of Revelation, where it is uniformly rendered as here - "dragon:" Revelation 12:3-4, Revelation 12:7,Revelation 12:9, Revelation 12:13, Revelation 12:16-17; Revelation 13:2, Revelation 13:4,Revelation 13:11; Revelation 16:13; Revelation 20:2. In all these places there is reference to the same thing. The word properly means "a large serpent"; and the allusion in the word commonly is to some serpent, perhaps such as the anaconda, that resides in a desert or wilderness. See a full account of the ideas that prevailed in ancient times respecting the dragon, in Bochart, Hieroz. lib. iii. cap. xiv., vol. ii. pp. 428-440. There was much that was fabulous respecting this monster, and many notions were attached to the dragon which did not exist in reality, and which were ascribed to it by the imagination at a time when natural history was little understood. The characteristics ascribed to the dragon, according to Bochart, are, that it was distinguished:
(a) for its vast size;
(b) that it had something like a beard or dew-lap;
(c) that it had three rows of teeth;
(d) that its color was black, red, yellow, or ashy;
(e) that it had a wide mouth;
(f) that in its breathing it not only drew in the air, but also birds that were flying over it; and,
(g) that its hiss was terrible.
Occasionally, also, feet and wings were attributed to the dragon, and sometimes a lofty crest. The dragon, according to Bochart, was supposed to inhabit waste places and solitudes (compare the notes on Isaiah 13:22), and it became, therefore, an object of great terror. It is probable that the original of this was a huge serpent, and that all the other circumstances were added by the imagination. The prevailing ideas in regard to it, however, should be borne in mind, in order to see the force and propriety of the use of the word by John. Two special characteristics are stated by John in the general description of the dragon: one is, its red color; the other, that it was great. In regard to the former, as above mentioned, the dragon was supposed to be black, red, yellow, or ashy. See the authorities referred to in Bochart, ut sup., pp. 435, 436. There was doubtless a reason why the one seen by John should be represented as red. As to the other characteristic - great - the idea is that it was a huge monster, and this would properly refer to some mighty, terrible power which would be properly symbolized by such a monster.
Having seven heads - It was not unusual to attribute many heads to monsters, especially to fabulous monsters, and these greatly increased the terror of the animal. "Thus Cerberus usually has three heads assigned to him; but Hesiod (Theog. 312) assigns him fifty, and Horace (Ode II. 13, 34) one hundred. So the Hydra of the Lake Lerna, killed by Hercules, had fifty heads (Virgil, Aen. vi. 576); and in Kiddushim, fol. 29, 2, rabbi Achse is said to have seen a demon like a dragon with seven heads" (Prof. Stuart, in loco). The seven heads would somehow denote power, or seats of power. Such a number of heads increase the terribleness, and, as it were, the vitality of the monster. What is here represented would be as terrible and formidable as such a monster; or such a monster would appropriately represent what was designed to be symbolized here. The number seven may be used here "as a perfect number," or merely to heighten the terror of the image; but it is more natural to suppose that there would be something in what is here represented which would lay the foundation for the use of this number. There would be something either in the origin of the power; or in the union of various powers now combined in the one represented by the dragon; or in the seat of the power, which this would properly symbolize. Compare the notes on Daniel 7:6.
And ten horns - Emblems of power, denoting that, in some respects, there were ten powers combined in this one. See the notes on Daniel 7:7-8, Daniel 7:20, Daniel 7:24. There can be little doubt that John had those passages of Daniel in his eye, and perhaps as little that the reference is to the same thing. The meaning is, that, in some respects, there would be a tenfold origin or division of the power represented by the dragon.
And seven crowns upon his heads - Greek, "diadems." See the notes on Revelation 9:7. There is a reference here to some kingly power, and doubtless John had some kingdom or sovereignty in his eye that would be properly symbolized in this manner. The method in which these heads and horns were arranged on the dragon is not stated, and is not material. All that is necessary in the explanation is, that there was something in the power referred to that would be properly represented by the seven heads, and something by the ten horns.
In the application of this, it will be necessary to inquire what was properly symbolized by these representations, and to refer again to these particulars with this view:
on Revelation 12 :3
12:3 And behold a great red dragon - His fiery - red colour denoting his disposition. Having seven heads - Implying vast wisdom. And ten horns - Perhaps on the seventh head; emblems of mighty power and strength, which he still retained. And seven diadems on his heads - Not properly crowns, but costly bindings, such as kings anciently wore; for, though fallen, he was a great potentate still, even the prince of this world.