This first beast which rises from the sea has ten horns and seven heads. What do these horns represent? These horns are an allusion to Daniel 7:7. The fourth beast rising from the sea in Daniel’s vision has ten horns, representing a fourth empire which will persecute God’s people. Revelation reinterprets Daniel’s fourth beast as the Roman Empire.
Daniel 7:7 “After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns.
That horns represent rulers in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 is clear. Daniel 7:24 and Revelation 17:12 interpret the horns are “ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom,” although the precise identity of those kings is open for debate. In Daniel 7, the only horn that is important is the blasphemous little horn which refers to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler who sparked the Maccabean Revolt by outlawing certain Jewish practices. The fourth beast in Daniel 7 is the final kingdom before God’s representative, the Son of Man begins to rule over a kingdom which will never end.
The beast with seven heads and ten horns was introduced in Revelation 12:3 and will appear again in 17:3. In each case the horns wear crowns (διάδημα, diadem or royal headband) as a symbol of their kingship. That there are seven heads seems odd, but the power of this beast comes from the dragon, who had seven heads in 12:3. I discussed some of the possible ways to identify these ten kings in a post on Revelation 17.
One of the earliest interpretations of the first beast identified it as Rome. Both Irenaeus and Hippolytus thought the first beast was Rome, although the ten heads were ten kings who would replace of Rome (Adv. Haer. 5.26.1): “In a still clearer light has John, in the Apocalypse, indicated to the Lord’s disciples what shall happen in the last times, and concerning the ten kings who shall then arise, among whom the empire which now rules [Rome] shall be partitioned.”
Connecting Daniel 2 and 7, Hippolytus says: “A fourth beast, dreadful and terrible; it had iron teeth and claws of brass.” And who are these but the Romans? which (kingdom) is meant by the iron—the kingdom which is now established; for the legs of that (image) were of iron” (de Ant. 25). He then draws the obvious parallels to the great whore (quoting large sections of Revelation 17-18).
Although David Aune points out Roman emperors never wore diadems signifying royal status (Aune 2:733), it is still likely John means the reader to understand the horns as Roman power and the beast as Imperial Rome.
Each of the seven heads has a blasphemous name and in 13:16 the second beast will force people to write a blasphemous name on their foreheads. Later the whore of Babylon will have blasphemy written on her forehead. These names likely refer to the titles used by Roman emperors. For example, Nero minted coins with the phrase “Nero, Savior of the World” and Domitian used the title “Lord and God.”
John exposes the power behind the empire. Although the Roman Empire is the most powerful kingdom in human history, the source of its power is the dragon, Satan. This condemnation of Rome as Satan’s kingdom will become increasingly clear as John moves toward the climax in Revelation 19:11-20:6, the coming of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to establish a real kingdom of peace.