For the first time in Revelation, the kingdom of the beast is identified as “Babylon the Great.” As with the message of the first angel, this second angel announces Babylon has (already) fallen although the judgment on Babylon is not narrated until Revelation18:1-19:10. What does John mean by “Babylon the Great”?
There are some commentators who take John’s reference to Babylon literally. Robert Thomas, for example, thinks “Babylon the Great” alludes to Daniel 4:30 and considers this verse to prophesy a central role for the city of Babylon in world affairs (Revelation 8-22, 207). Ironically, such overly literal interpretations of Revelation 14:8 must take predictions that Babylon will fall and never be rebuilt as non-literal (Isa13:19-22; Jer 50:39-40).
Since Babylon was not the capitol of a major empire at the end of the first century and the region was not particularly important for world affairs until recently, older interpreters usually found an allusion to the Roman Catholic church here, but this reflects an older, historicist view of Revelation and is (mostly) abandoned today.
Others consider Babylon as a reference to Jerusalem. In Four Views on Revelation, Ken Gentry argued Babylon is an allusion to Jerusalem as part of his thesis Revelation was written prior to A.D. 70 as a prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem. Bruce Chilton thinks the whore of Babylon represents “Apostate Jerusalem is the Harlot-city” and the fall of Jerusalem is “Israel’s final excommunication” (Days of Vengeance, 443). In his recent ITC commentary on Revelation, Peter J. Leithart states “Jerusalem is the only first-century city that fits the description of a πόρνη, a harlot city given to πορνεία. A harlot is a city that has turned from Yahweh” (172).
The majority of scholars consider Babylon the Great as an allusion to Rome. This is clear in 1 Peter 5:13, where Peter, living in Rome, greets his readers but says that he is in Babylon. Peter may be drawing a parallel between his “exile in Rome” and the Babylonian exile.
After the first century, the identification of Rome and Babylon was common in Jewish apocalyptic literature as well as Christian writings. In the fifth Sibylline Oracle, Nero’s flight from Rome is a flight from Babylon (this is probably an allusion to the return of Nero myth): “He will flee from Babylon, a terrible and shameless prince whom all mortals and noble men despise” (5.143) and in 5.434 the oracle declares “Woe to you, Babylon, of golden throne and golden sandal.” A few lines later it predicts the Parthians will terrify the “impious race of Babylonians” (5.440). These are all clear allusions to Rome. David Aune draws a parallel to the Dead Sea Scrolls which refer to Rome as the Kittim.
The parallels between Babylon and Rome are obvious. A Jewish writer would see both world empires arrogant and opposed to God; both empires destroyed Jerusalem (in 586 B.C. and A.D. 70). Dating Revelation to the end of the first century, both empires demanded worship as a sign of loyalty (cf. Daniel 3, 6 and the Imperial Cult). John calls the enemy Babylon several more times in Revelation (16:19, 17:5-6; 18:2, 10, 21). By Revelation 19:10 is seems clear he has Rome in mind.
The prediction that Rome had (already) fallen would have been laughable in the first century. Rome had endured for centuries by the time John wrote Revelation and would last for several hundred more, even if its glory was in decline. However, there were predictions of the fall of Rome in the first century, such as the Oracles of Hystaspes which predicted Rome would fall to powers from the east, but 6,000 years in the future (Aune 2:831). This work is only known through the third century A.D. writer Lactantius (Div. Inst. 7.15.11) so it is not particularly relevant for the end of the first century.
Revelation 14:8 describes Babylon the Great made the nations drink “the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.” John just hints at what the maddening wine is here, he will expand in this in Revelation 17.