Revelation 13 was a powerful text for many folks in the early church. It begins with some hairy stuff, like this descriptions of the "the beast." I always thought "the beast" was a pretty unimaginative name for this creature, but we must remember that it is the pet of another creature called "the dragon." Unimaginative names seem to be the norm here. Anyway, here's how Rev.13:1-4 describes it:
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’
I love when artists try to depict this beast by figuring out how to fit ten horns on seven heads. The usually end up putting 2 horns on the 3 middle heads, but I think they should put be more literal and put 10/7 of a horn on each head. Show me an artist who can draw 10/7 of a horn and I'll declare him the "Rembrandt of the Tribulation"! Or, more likely he'd be the "Picasso of the Tribulation".
The early church, oddly enough, was less interested in drawing this monster than it was in interpreting it. The key is how "the beast" is described as one who has a 'near death experience,' at least in one of its seven heads: "One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed." So, in case you're not paying attention, the beast is a Christ-like figure, an imitator, with its apparent death and resurrection. In response, John say, "In amazement, the whole earth followed the beast."
Some among the early church were afraid that this 'beast' was Nero, who had been a nightmare for the early church prior to this death in 68 CE. Nero was remembered - although this is shaky, historically - as the one who was responsible for the deaths of Peter and Paul. He is also the one who was believed to have given the order to destroy the temple in Jerusalem, which was completed shortly after his death. Because of the horror that he carried for them, some writings of the early church felt that Nero would be this head of the beast that revives from its apparent death to bring further destruction and persecution.
It was the "second coming" of Nero that they feared. A pseudo-Second coming, with horrible results, causing people to echo the words of Rev.13 above, "Who is like the beast and who can fight against it?"
I find it interesting that faithful people of many ages have been perplexed by the cryptic writings of the book of Revelation and have tried to find meaning in the unfolding events of their day through them. They were wrong, just like so many of the modern day folk who act as though they are figuring out the Book of Revelation are wrong. But, it was at least an attempt to be faithful in response to a very cryptic book.