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Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.
The first four seals in Revelation 6:1-7 reveal the four colored horses that were released to bring divine judgment upon the fourth beast empire (Rome). The white horse, which is shown first, provides the reason for this judgment. Roman emperors had begun to be deified, usurping the rightful place of Christ as King of the nations. Hence, the emperors of Rome are pictured on the white horse, having laurel wreaths on their head as conquerors.
The second seal brings forth the red horse of war, and so we find Rome in turmoil, having to fight many wars to put down revolts across the empire. The second seal covers the time after 193 A.D., that is, beginning with Emperor Commodus, whose debauchery and unjust rule caused a major shift in Roman politics.
The Second Seal: The Red Horse (193 A.D.)
Rev. 6:3, 4 says,
3 And when He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come.” 4 And another, a red horse went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men should slay one another, and a great sword was given to him.
The time of relative peace and prosperity in Rome was broken in 193 A.D. after the murder of Emperor Commodus in 192 and the succession of three emperors in a single year. During the next 89-year period, Rome was plunged into one civil war after another. Gibbon attributes this primarily to the time when the personal bodyguards of the emperors, the Praetorian Guard, came to see that they were more powerful than the emperors themselves. Gibbon writes of this in his book on pages 56 and 57,
“The Praetorian bands, whose licentious fury was the first symptom and cause of the decline of the Roman empire, scarcely amounted to the last-mentioned number. They derived their institution from Augustus [27 B.C. to 14 A.D.]. That crafty tyrant, sensible that laws might colour, but that arms alone could maintain, his usurped dominion, had gradually formed this powerful body of guards, in constant readiness to protect his person, to awe the senate, and either to prevent or to crush the first motions of rebellion.”
Augustus Caesar had dispersed these Praetorian Guards out of Rome itself, but his son Tiberius had brought them back to Rome as his personal bodyguards. Gibbon says that under such an arrangement, it was only a matter of time before they would come to despise the corruption and weakness of the emperors, while taking note of their own military power. He writes on page 57,
“Such formidable servants are always necessary, but often fatal, to the throne of despotism. But thus introducing the Praetorian guards as it were into the palace and the senate, the emperors taught them to perceive their own strength, and the weakness of the civil government; to view the vices of their masters with familiar contempt, and to lay aside that reverential awe which distance only and mystery can preserve towards an imaginary power.”
Most of the emperors were corrupted by luxury and power and had few morals. In their moral weakness, they were easily flattered and manipulated by the worst of men. This situation generally became worse with each new emperor. The emperor Commodus (180-192 A.D.) was the worst of all the Roman emperors. Gibbon says of him on page 52,
“But every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of Commodus… His hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women and as many boys of every rank and of every province; and wherever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence… and he was the first of the Roman emperors totally devoid of taste for the pleasures of the understanding . . . Commodus, from his earliest infancy, discovered an aversion to whatever was rational or liberal.”
Gibbon then tells us on page 55,
“Commodus had now attained the summit of vice and infamy. Amidst the acclamations of a flattering court, he was unable to disguise from himself that he had deserved the contempt and hatred of every man of sense and virtue in his empire. His ferocious spirit was irritated by the consciousness of that hatred, by the envy of every kind of merit, by the just apprehension of danger, and by the habit of slaughter which he contracted in his daily amusements. History has preserved a long list of consular senators sacrificed to his wanton suspicion… His cruelty proved at last fatal to himself.”
Commodus finally murdered so many people that even his favorite concubine, Marcia, became afraid for her life. She then poisoned him, but before he could die, another man strangled him.
At this point in history, the Praetorian guards lost all respect for the emperors. They insisted that anyone who would be emperor must obtain their consent, and so they became, in effect, the kingmakers. In fact, these guards put Rome up for sale to the highest bidder for their own benefit, and from this point onward, the emperors were subject to the Praetorian guards.
It started with the murder of Commodus’ successor, Pertinax, who was killed by the guards (193 A.D.). Gibbon says of this incident on page 57,
“The Praetorians had violated the sanctity of the throne by the atrocious murder of Pertinax.”
The next emperor, Julian, bought his position for 6,250 drachms, outbidding his rival who had offered only 5,000. The Roman Empire thus entered into a period of civil war. In the next century, it would have 32 emperors and 27 pretenders. It was indeed a time of war and bloodshed, depicted by the Red Horse of Revelation 6:4.
The Red Horse was released by the second living creature around the throne—the Lion of Judah. The biblical lion sets forth divine government as it ought to be administered. The government of Rome after the death of Commodus should be viewed in contrast to the government of Christ. Because Rome held the dominion mandate that had been given to Babylon, then Persia, Greece, and then to Rome, God held these beast nations accountable for their actions. Breaking the seals, one after another, uncovered the truth of Rome’s ungodly government.
Thus, the Book of Destiny bears witness of Rome’s unacceptable behavior, as well as the reasons for divine judgment. Rome had begun by deifying men and usurping the authority of the dominion mandate, and this was followed by other men usurping the authority of the emperors themselves. The “vice and infamy” of deified men lead naturally to public aversion and to military rule. Hence, the Red Horse in 193 A.D. marked the shift from “civilian” power to military rule.
The Third Seal: The Black Horse (250-300 A.D.)
The third seal brings forth the black horse of famine, and we see severe famines from 250-300 A.D. Revelation 6:5, 6 says,
5 And when He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” And I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. 6 And I heard as it were a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and the wine.”
This speaks primarily of famine caused by war and other disruptions.
In the midst of this chaos comes a voice from the midst of the four living creatures: “A choenix [almost a quart] of wheat for a denarius, and three choenices of barley for a denarius.” Normally, the cost would be one-eighth of a denarius. A denarius was a day’s wage for a common laborer. In other words, to purchase a measure of grain sufficient to made a loaf of bread would mean that a man would have to work eight days.
In the days of Valerian, the emperor of Rome from 253 A.D. to his Persian captivity in 260, the eastern part of the Roman Empire was in turmoil. The Goths came across the Black Sea from the north and invaded the cities of Asia Minor and Greece. Gibbon says on p. 100, 101,
“At length the Gothic fleet anchored in the port of Piraeus, five miles distant from Athens, which had attempted to make some preparations for a vigorous defence….
“A general conflagration blazed out at the same time in every district of Greece. Thebes and Argos, Corinth and Sparta, which had formerly waged such memorable wars against each other, were now unable to bring an army into the field, or even to defend their ruined fortifications.”
“The temple of Diana at Ephesus, after having risen with increasing splendour from seven repeated misfortunes, was finally burnt by the Goths in their third naval invasion.”
Soon afterward, the Persians invaded from the east, after destroying the Parthian Empire. (This destruction of Parthia by the New Persian Empire is what drove the Israelite tribes living in that area to Armenia as refugees and then into Europe as pioneers.) Rome’s Emperor, Valerian, was defeated at Edessa and taken prisoner by Sapor, king of Persia. The Parthians then proceeded to plunder Asia Minor. Gibbon speaks of King Sapor on page 104,
“He despaired of making any permanent establishment in the empire, and sought only to leave behind him a wasted desert, whilst he transported into Persia the people and the treasures of the provinces.”
At about the same time, Rome’s bread baskets, Sicily and Alexandria (Egypt), were ravaged by civil strife. Gibbon writes on page 109 about the situation in Sicily:
“The situation [location] of Sicily preserved it from the barbarians; nor could the disarmed province have supported a usurper. The sufferings of that once flourishing and still fertile island were inflicted by baser hands. A licentious crowd of slaves and peasants reigned for a while over the plundered country, and renewed the memory of the servile wars of more ancient times. Devastations, of which the husbandman was either the victim or the accomplice, must have ruined the agriculture of Sicily…. It is not improbable that this private injury might affect the capital more deeply than all the conquests of the Goths or the Persians.”
As for Alexandria, Gibbon writes on pages 110, 111,
“After the captivity of Valerian and the insolence of his son had relaxed the authority of the laws, the Alexandrians abandoned themselves to the ungoverned rage of their passions, and their unhappy country was the theatre of a civil war, which continued (with a few short and suspicious truces) above twelve years….
“But a long and general famine was a calamity of a more serious kind. It was the inevitable consequence of rapine and oppression, which extirpated the produce of the present and the hope of future harvests. Famine is almost always followed by epidemical diseases, the effect of scanty and unwholesome food. Other causes must, however, have contributed to the furious plague which, from the year two hundred and fifty to the year two hundred and sixty-five, raged without interruption in every province, every city, and almost every family of the Roman empire. During some time five thousand persons died daily in Rome, and many towns that had escaped the hands of the barbarians were entirely depopulated…
“An exact register was kept at Alexandria of all the citizens entitled to receive the distribution of corn… it evidently proves that above half the people of Alexandria had perished; and could we venture to extend the analogy to the other provinces, we might suspect that war, pestilence, and famine had consumed, in a few years, the moiety [half] of the human species.”
The book of Revelation attributes this famine to the opening of the third seal, in which God set loose the Black Horse and its rider. The Black Horse of famine was particularly devastating from 150-165 A.D., as Gibbon recorded (above), and close to half of the people in the Empire died either from war of starvation.
In Revelation 6:5 the rider of the Black Horse was seen holding “a pair of scales in his hand,” a universal symbol of justice employed to this day. These were divine judgments loosed upon the Roman Empire for the depravity of the people and their despotic rulers.
The third living creature unsealing the events of this time period was the tribe of Dan, the “judge.” The government of God requires equal and impartial justice for all (Leviticus 19:15; James 2:1-4). When men usurp the authority of Christ and thus deify themselves, the resulting tyranny eventually brings military rule—that is, rule by force and by fear. Then basic principles of justice are violated as farming is disrupted and food shortages bring about widespread theft and chaos.
Even military rule is insufficient to prevent chaos in the face of widespread famine. Such was the condition of the Roman Empire that was revealed by the broken seals in Revelation 6.
Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.