After describing the Beast from the Sea as the ultimate fulfillment of Daniel’s vision of the final nation (Dan 7:7), John sees that one of the heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but that wound was healed (13:3). This wound was healed by the second beast (13:12) and filled the world with wonder.
The beast as a whole an empire and the horns are leaders or kings associated with that empire. In Daniel 7, the final beast referred to Seleucid control of Judea and the arrogant little horn was Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The son of man was given authority by God to judge this arrogant little horn (Dan 7:9-10) and establish a kingdom that would never end (Dan 7:14). Antiochus did in fact make war against God’s people, leading to the Maccabean Revolt. Although the revolt did result in a brief time of semi-autonomous self-rule, the Hasmoneans were not the anything like the son of man waging war against the arrogant horn until they possessed a kingdom that would never end (Dan 7:21-22).
Since the everlasting kingdom of God ruled by God’s representative, the son of man, did not happen in the second century B.C., John applies Daniel 7 to the evil empire of his own day, Rome. Picking up on many themes from Daniel, God will humble the empire and arrogant world leader just as he had humbled Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar, or the Seleucids and Antiochus. Rome did not lack for arrogant rulers in the first century A.D. and it is difficult to say which first-century Roman emperor John had in mind.
Who is the ruler of the empire who died and came back to life? It is possible “one of his heads” as “his first head.” It is possible to translate the number μίαν (accusative singular of εἷς) as “first,” but this is usually found in expressions of time, such as the first day of the week (Matt 28:1 for example). It is possible this unusual use of the word reflects a Hebrew or Aramaic expression (BDAG εἷς 4), which might be expected in a Jewish apocalypse like Revelation. If the word does refer to the first of the horns, then the references is to Julius Caesar. Julius was never an emperor; however, he was assassinated. There were no legends of a “revived Julius,” but he was deified and his family became central to the imperial cult.
Another common suggestion is that this revived emperor refers to Nero who committed suicide by slitting his own throat. The rumor Nero was not dead persisted for many years after his suicide and many commentators take the recovery of the first beast as a reference to this myth. Dio Chrysostom said “Even now everyone wishes that Nero were alive, and most people actually believe it.” David Aune has an excursus on the Nero Myth along with an extensive bibliography (2:737).
Despite modern popular depictions of Nero as a tyrannical monster, he was popular in the eastern part of the empire. A rumor (or urban legend) spread that Nero had faked his death and was hiding among the Parthians where he was raising an army to retake the throne of Rome (Sib. Or. 4.119-122; Collins, The Sibylline Oracles, pp. 80–87). Tacitus refers to two pretenders in A.D. 69 (, Hist 2.8, 9; cf. Dio Cassius 64.9) and Suetonius mentions a third other active in A.D. 80 (Nero, 57).
Tacitus, Histories 2.8 About this time Achaia and Asia were terrified by a false rumour of Nero’s arrival. The reports with regard to his death had been varied, and therefore many people imagined and believed that he was alive. The fortunes and attempts of other pretenders we shall tell as we proceed; but at this time, a slave from Pontus or, as others have reported, a freedman from Italy, who was skilled in playing on the cithara and in singing, gained the readier belief in his deceit through these accomplishments and his resemblance to Nero. He recruited some deserters, poor tramps whom he had bribed by great promises, and put to sea. (LCL 1:173)
The fourth Sibylline Oracle may refer to this Nero redivivus legend:
Sib. Or. 4.119–122 Then a great king will flee from Italy like a runaway slave unseen and unheard over the channel of the Euphrates, when he dares to incur a maternal curse for repulsive murder and many other things, confidently, with wicked hand.
Sib. Or. 4.137–139 Then the strife of war being aroused will come to the west, and the fugitive from Rome will also come, brandishing a great spear having crossed the Euphrates with many myriads.
Larry Kreitzer follows Collins closely and extends the Nero myth to include Hadrian, referring specifically to 5.28-34; 93-110. Like Nero, Hadrian was responsible for destroying Jerusalem and his extensive tour of the east may have evoked the Nero redivivus myth. However, Jan Willem van Henten argued the Nero Redivivus legend is a modern scholarly construct. He surveys references to Nero in the Sibylline Oracles and concludes they are “creative recycling of tyrannical rulers’ stereotypes” rather than “a posthumous return to life of the emperor Nero.” For van Henten, scholars like Collins and Kreitzer “take the Nero redivivus for granted” (5).
Although a Christian text, the Martyrdom of Isaiah 4:2-3 compares Beliar, the satanic “king of this world” to Nero.
Mart. Ascen. Isa. 4.2–3 And after it has been brought to completion, Beliar will descend, the great angel, the king of this world, which he has ruled ever since it existed. He will descend from his firmament in the form of a man, a king of iniquity, a murderer of his mother—this is the king of this world—and will persecute the plant which the twelve apostles of the Beloved will have planted; some of the twelve will be given into his hand.
In Revelation the beast is the Roman empire, as the persecutor of the church. Like Dan 7:21-22, this beast will persecute God’s people until God himself intervenes to destroy the power of the beast and establish an eternal kingdom.
Along with Revelation 17:8, the death and resurrection of the first beast is a parody of Christ. Vern Poythress offers several examples of parody in Revelation 13.
- He has a counterfeit resurrection in the form of a mortal wound that was healed (Rev 13:3). The miraculous character of his healing creates astonishment and followers for him, just as the miracle of the resurrection creates followers of Christ.
- The beast has ten crowns (13:1), parallel to Christ’s many crowns (19:12).
- The dragon gives the beast “his power and his throne and great authority” (13:2), just as the Father gives the Son his authority (John 5:22–27).
- Worship of the dragon and the beast go together (Rev 13:4), just as worship of the Father and the Son go together (John 5:23).
- The beast claims universal allegiance from all nations (Rev 13:7), just as Christ is Lord over all nations (7:9–10).
I would add to this list the mysterious “mark of the beast” as a parody of God marking his own people (the 144,000 in Rev 14:1).
As is often the case in Revelation, John looks back to the book of Daniel and re-works the apocalyptic outline of history to apply to his own day. Just as Babylon and Persia became Antiochus and the Seleucids, John transforms the image of a beast from the sea with an arrogant little horn into Rome. But also like Daniel, there is an aspect of this apocalypse which does look forward to an ultimate enemy of God’s people and an ultimate arrogant little horn who will be finally judged when God’s kingdom arrives (Rev 19:11-20:6).
Bibliography: Larry Kreitzer, “Hadrian and the Nero Redivivus Myth” ZNTW 79 (1988): 92-115; Vern S. Poythress, “Counterfeiting In The Book Of Revelation As A Perspective On Non-Christian Culture” JETS 40 (1997): 411-418; Jan Willem van Henten, “Nero Redivivus Demolished: The Coherence Of The Nero Traditions in the Sibylline Oracles,” JSP 21:3-17
 Caligula is a possibility as well, since he was deathly ill and people wondered if he might recover, but the text indicates this head is killed by the sword in verse 14.