(Rev. 17:9) Are the “seven hills” an allusion to Rome here?

CLAIM: Some commentators argue vehemently that John’s mention of the “seven hills” (Rev. 17:9 NIV) are a clear allusion to Rome. Osborne writes, “At the outset, the angel identifies the seven heads with “seven mountains,” a phrase often used for Rome in the ancient world because it was built on seven hills (see Cicero, Att. 6.5; Pliny, Nat. Hist. 3.66–67; et al.; see Swete 1911: 220 for others). The city began with an amalgamation of groups living on the seven hills (Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Equiline, Palatine, Quirinal, Viminal), and during Domitian’s reign a festival (the Septimontium) celebrated it.”[1] Robert Mounce writes, “There is little doubt that a first-century reader would understand this reference in any way other than as a reference to Rome, the city built upon seven hills.”[2] Is this the imagery being used here?

RESPONSE: While many commentators hold this view, others argue that there are several good reasons for doubting this view:

First, the Greek word for “hills” should actually be translated “mountains” instead. The Greek word for “hills” (Greek oros) should actually be rendered “mountains.” Johnson writes, “In the seven other instances of the word orē in Revelation, it is always rendered ‘mountain,’ except here in 17:9, where it is translated ‘hills.’ Is this a case where previous exegesis has influenced even the best translations?”[3] This is why other translations other than the NIV render this as “mountains.” Compare translations of Revelation 17:9:

(NASB) The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits.

(ESV) The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated.

(NIV) The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.

(NLT) The seven heads of the beast represent the seven hills where the woman rules.

Second, if this symbol refers to Rome, why would it require special wisdom? Verse 9 tells us that we need wisdom to interpret this passage. However, Johnson states, “Any Roman soldier who knew Greek could figure out that the seven hills referred to Rome. But whenever divine wisdom is called for, the description requires theological and symbolical discernment, not mere geographical or numerical insight.”[4] This doesn’t seem to fit with Rome, either.

Third, in the OT, mountains typically refer to world empires. Consider a number of OT passages that support this view:

(Ps. 30:7) O Lord, by Your favor You have made my mountain to stand strong; You hid Your face, I was dismayed.

(Zech. 4:7) ‘What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become a plain; and he will bring forth the top stone with shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”

(Jer. 51:25) Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain, who destroys the whole earth,” declares the Lord, “And I will stretch out My hand against you, and roll you down from the crags, and I will make you a burnt out mountain.

(Dan. 2:35) Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

This seems to fit with this passage in particular. In verse 10, John interprets these mountains to refer to “kings.”



[1] Osborne, Grant. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002. 617.

[2] Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. NIC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977. 313-314.

[3] Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (559). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[4] Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (558). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.