Chapter I – The First Seal


AND what then was to be the characteristic state of the Roman empire, according to the first Seal’s prefiguration, in the era next following (for so, as before said the Angel’s words to St. John fixed the chronology) after the time then present of the Apostle’s exile in Patmos? Methinks it might not unnaturally have been expected by Christians, who, like him, were suffering from Domitian’s persecution, that it would not be very long before, under the sentence of God’s righteous judgment, the great persecuting empire of Pagan Rome would be seen declining towards its dissolution.

And, indeed, the vices, follies, and oppressions of the emperor then reigning, as of most that had preceded him,1 might suggest an internal cause then already in operation, and moreover the recent successful incursions of the frontier barbarians an external one, (the facts have 2 been already noticed by me,) each apparently almost sufficient of itself to produce that result. But such a result was not indicated to St. John.

On the contrary, the first symbol under which the Roman people was represented (as I am presuming) to his view, represented it somewhat strangely under the colour of triumph, prosperity, and health in the body politic.

“I looked, and lo a white horse! and he that sat thereon having a bow; and a crown was given him; and he went forth conquering, and to conquer”3

Combining the chief indications here given, it was as if Prosperity long unknown would spring up, and continue for some considerable time, within the empire: a prosperity introduced in some striking manner by wars of victory; and that would be still attended by Victory, whenever and wherever wars might arise afterwards, even to the end of the period prefigured: to which wars there would be a going forth under guidance answering to that of the crowned bow-bearing rider; thereby assuring the general inviolability from foreign foes, and perhaps (for the words might seem to intimate as much) advancing the limits and the greatness of the empire.4

1. And, first, did not this answer very notably and distinctively to the general state and history of the Roman empire for the 30 or 90 years succeeding John’s banishment? that is, from, Domitian’s death, A.D. 96, throughout the successive reigns of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines, until the accession of Commodus, and triumphant peace made by him with the Germans, A.D. 180; or indeed, yet a year or two farther on, to the completion of his Germanic successes, and coincident primary deterioration of his government in 183 or 184? 5

I turn to Gibbon, whose History, by a singular coincidence, in respect of commencing date, as well as of subject, agrees with the Apocalyptic prefigurations: and find him, just as in this first Seal’s symbolic sketch, deferring for a while to enter on his great subject of the decline of the Roman empire; in order, in the first place, to describe its glory and its happiness in this precise era as being that which immediately preceded its declining. In fact, he makes it the bright ground, if I may so say, of his historic picture: whereon to trace out afterwards more effectively in dark colouring, the successive traits of the empire’s corruption and decline.

He represents it (and his representations are well confirmed by the original histories remaining to us) as a ” golden age” of prosperity, union, civil liberty, and. good government;6 a period “unstained with civil blood,” (like the white of the first Apocalyptic horse, in contrast with the red of the second,7) and “undisturbed by revolution;”8 a period remarkable, both at its commencement and at close, for very wonderful and almost uniform triumphs war, whereby the glory of the empire was illustrated, a its limits extended;9 and of which the middle interval though not without occasional wars (always successful) the frontiers, was generally a time of profound and happy peace. 10

In short, he thus sums up his view of it; ” if man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” 11

I said that the wars of the Romans during this period were all but uniformly triumphant. And, not to rest Nerva’s primary Pannonian triumph, which instantly the new mm opened, served to mark the return of victory under it to the Roman banners,

I say, not to rest this, who knows not of the triumphs under Trajan the Roman Alexander, by which Dacia, Armenia, Mesopotamia and other provinces, were, in the course of the twenty years of the period I speak of, added to the Roman empire

The forty-three years which followed, consisting the reigns of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, were for the most part of honorable and glorious peace: 12 of peace unbroken indeed except by the Jewish war under Hadrian, confined to a single province, in which the rebellion of that unhappy people was put down with fearful slaughter; and those lesser wars under Antoninus Pius on the frontiers, just before alluded to, which served not only to exercise the Roman legions, as Gibbon expresses it but also to illustrate Rome’s still realized destiny, as “to conquer.”

After this, however, and towards the conclusion of the octogenarian period that I speak of, wars arose again, and of the most formidable character. From East and West, North and South, it seemed as if the whole barbarian world had been stirred from its very foundations, to overwhelm the envied glory and prosperity of the empire.

And on the sudden surprise, once, and again, and a third time, alike on the Euphratean and the Danubian frontier the Roman frontier arm was overthrown. But so soon as the imperial strength lad gathered itself against the invaders, not only was the invasion on either side, and in every case repelled, but the war carried triumphantly into the invaders’ own territory.

The Parthian war was successfully ended by the total overthrow of that people, the capture of the chief Armenian and Parthian cities, Artaxata, Seleucia, Ctesiphon; and readdition to the empire of the great Mesopotamian province, which, originally conquered by Trajan, had, from motives of policy, been voluntarily ceded by Hadrian. And even in the most mighty of all those wars, the Marcomannic, victory after victory still attended the Roman standards under the second Antonine; till the German barbarians, driven into their forests, were reduced to submission. 13

So that the destiny assigned to the white horse’s rider, “and to conquer continued to be realized by the Romans, even to the end of the period under review. And as the magnificent Column of Trajan still remains at Rome, 14 the just memorial of the triumphs of its commencement, so it has ‘been ordered that there should remain also that of Antoninus Aurelius, the magnificent although inferior monument of those of its close.

II Thus far of the empire’s triumphs and prosperity during the next coming era. But whose the influential agency that would cause it and them? In other words, who the agents personified by the rider?

Now to ourselves what is related of the reigning emperors throughout this era, their absolute authority, for under them “the Roman empire was governed by absolute power under the guidance of virtue and wisdom,” “the armies being restrained by the firm and gentle band of four successive emperors,” 16 and their power used only to cherish the nation’s happiness, advance its prosperity, or guide it to its triumphs, must at once have suggested them as the persons symbolized. As Gibbon says, “The delight was theirs of beholding the general happiness of which they. were the authors.” 17

Nor were the visible symbols wanting in the vision, to foreshow the same to the Evangelist. First the rider’s white horse might suggest it; white having been both in earlier times the chosen colour for horses used by Roman generals in their triumphs, and still by Roman emperors. 18

Then the crown given him would seem sufficient absolutely to confirm this impression: the triumph and triumphal crown wearing having been from the time of Augustus all but withdrawn, as too great an honor, from subordinate generals; and appropriated, as his own proper distinctive, to the reigning emperor. 19

It so happens indeed, that as regards this ‘very point an objection has been made, to the effect that the diadem , not the crown, would have been the badge represented, if Roman emperors had been symbolized: and that, in fact, instead of the presentation of the crown fixing the meaning to individuals in that high office, the want of the diadem positively precludes the idea of their being the persons meant. 20

But the objection has been founded evidently on misapprehension. The respectable writer objecting, (and I believe he is not alone in it) seems to have confounded either between the kingly and imperial offices, or between the practices of the earlier and later Roman emperors. Let me explain.

By the imperator, or emperor, up to the time of Augustus, was meant, as is well known, simply the victorious Roman general, saluted with that title by his soldiers on the field of battle and with the triumph and its coveted honours and insignia following.

Now though with Augustus and his successors the most absolute monarchical power attached to their emperorship, yet it was their policy to veil it under the old military or imperial badges Hence their public insignia (of which the mock robing and crowning of Jesus by the Roman soldiery is an affecting rememberance) 21

l were still the laurel crown and purple robe. The assumption of the diadem, or broad white fillet set with pearls, viewed as it was by the Romans as a badge of oriental despotism, and of the servitude of subject vassals, these emperors carefully shunned.

The remembrance long remained with them of the feelings exhibited by the Roman people, on its being offered by Anthony to their great ancestor Julius Caesar; insomuch that it was considered an act of madness on the part of Caligula, (and the act was quite isolated,) to attempt to assume it.

Abundant memorials exist to show that, all through the time to which our 1st Seal refers, the crown remained the badge of Roman emperors, the diadem of barbarous kings. 22 In fact not till about the time of Diocletian, 23 near 200 years after St. John’s banishment to Patmos, was the diadem adopted by Roman emperors: the innovation being accompanied both with the other insignia, and even the adoration too, attendant on eastern royalty.

The change constituted an epoch in Roman history; and one markedly. noticed, as will hereafter appear, in the Apocalypse. 24 (I append illustrative engravings. 25

Thus then about Diocletian’s time, and thenceforward, but not till then, the diadem was the imperial badge; for a century or more cojointly with the laurel,26 then I believe exclusively.

So whereas, with reference to such a period as the close of the fourth century, it would have been an impropriety, and with reference to the sixth an anachronism, to represent the laurel crown, 27 as a badge of empire on an imperial or royal head, just as much, and indeed still more, it would have been an anachronism to represent a Roman emperor of the two and a half first centuries with, a diadem.

Thus the objection has only led us to see the more clearly the exact chronological propriety, as well as the personal distinctiveness, this particular emblem in the first Seals hieroglyphic.

And I cannot but add that the very going forth of the Apocalyptic rider, and presentation of the crown to him, were yet additional points of resemblance in the symbolic picture to the imperial usages at Rome in the time of St. John.

For an emperor’s going forth, to war was an occasion perpetually taken by the senate to express their good wishes, and their auguries of success, often- in those cases falsified: and, in token thereof, medals were struck; depicting the emperor galloping forth on horseback, striking down an enemy, and with the legend, Profectio, or, Expeditio Augusti.

Further, supposing that success had already begun to favour him in the war, they had a mode of expressing the successes accomplished, as well as those that might be anticipated for the future.

He was pictured, it might be, with a captive enemy prostrate at his horse’s feet 28 or else perhaps, whether on a triumphal arch, or on terra firma, as going forth between trophies and captives: and with ‘Victory in either case crowning, or with crown in hand preceding him.

Such e. g. is the device on a medal of the emperor Claudius, with the exergue “De Britannis” underneath, in memorial of his conquest of Britain: 29 such, more fully, that on another, which depicts a triumphal arch erected to that emperors father Claudius Drusus, after victories over the Germans: of which latter an engraving is appended. 30

And I think that after viewing it, and considering what has been also further observed respecting the crown and the white horse, the reader will deem me justified in expressing the persuasion I did in the Introduction to this Chapter; 31 to the effect that a person conversant, like St. John with the Roman usages of the age, could scarcely but have had suggested to his mind, a priori, by these emblems of the first Seal, the idea of a Roman emperor speeding forth to victory.

It is observable that medallic memorials still remain of the five several emperors in question, depicting them, more or less fully, under guise of these self. same semi-Apocalyptic devices: the two chief conquerors Trajan and M. Aurelius riding forth,- as in the Profectio Augusti; and all the five either crowned, or with the crown held out to them, by Victory. 32 And in their cases, we know, the medals spoke truth; not, as in some other cases, mere false flattery.

One objection however may still present itself, one difficulty seem to stand in the way of this our imperial application of the prophetic symbol; I mean the fact of the rider having a bow in hand. For the weapon represented in the hands of Roman emperors, on medals and other extant monuments of antiquity, is generally the javelin; sometimes the sword; never, so far as I know, the bow.

And hence indeed Vitringa, though not unconscious of the general fitness of the emblem of a crowned rider on a white horse, going forth conquering and to conquer, to depict the era of prosperity and triumph under the five Roman emperors whose reigns followed next after the date of the Apocalyptic visions, yet argues that the bow was an Asiatic and barbarian weapon and badge; and purposely inserted in the hieroglyphic, to divert the thoughts of the observer from the Roman empire and emperors. In which view he has been followed by other commentators.

But is this correct? Was the bow a badge of Asiatic and other barbarians only ? Was there not one particular province and people, among the provincials of the Roman empire, of whom it was ago distinctive ? distinctive not equally alone, but almost even more than of any barbarian people whatsoever?

If the reader will consult the records of antiquity, he will find, if I mistake not, that such was indeed the case with the island and islanders of Crete. Alike their colonial origin, mythological traditional legends, military history, and manufactures, attest this peculiar connection of the Cretans and the bow.

As to their origin, it appears from ancient authors that Crete was originally peopled, in part at least, 33 from that part of Palestine situate on the Mediterranean coast, which was by the Arabs called Keritha, and by the Syrians Creth; its inhabitants bearing the similar Hebraic appellation Crethim.

It is Sir Isaac Newton’s supposition that Crete was thus peopled from Palestine about 1045 B.C., when many of the Phoenicians and Syrians fled from King David into Asia Minor, Crete, Greece, Libya. Others date the migration earlier. 36 But, whatever the epoch, this is certain, that in Crete itself the archery habits of the Syrian Crethim colonists, as well as their name, remained.

The earliest traditional legends of the Cretan islanders ascribe a similar pre-eminence in the art to those of their forefathers that were in the island native-born. It is told us by Diodorus Siculus that Apollo (the Cretan Apollo) was affirmed in these legends to have been the first inventor of the bow, and how he taught the natives archery; whence their superior skill in the art before and above all other men. (Memorial Cretan medals are still extant, some with the device of Apollo and his bow, some of Diana and her bow)

Descending from the times of legendary fable to those of real history, we find the connection of the bow and the Cretan islanders constantly marked thenceforward for ages, in the military annals of the neighboring states. Among Homer’s’ heroes it was the Cretan Merion that bore away the palm in archery. By Pindar the appellation bowmen was attached as a distinctive appellation to the Cretan islanders.

And Pausanias states that in those earlier historic times the Cretans alone of all the Greeks were archers: impugning the correctness of a piece of sculpture, which represented Ditrephes as pierced by arrows; his slayers being other Greeks, not Cretans.

With reference to later times, Thueydides relates how in the Peloponnesian war archers were fetched by the belligerent parties from Crete: as regards those of Macedonian supremacy we are reminded of the same fact by Plutarch: 40 and with reference to those of Roman greatness, from the Carthaginian wars down to those of Caesar, when Crete had been made a Roman Province,41 and afterwards as late even as the reign of Claudius Gothicus in the 3rd century, by Polybius, Livy, Lucan, Hirtius, and Trebellius Pollio.

It was suggested by astronomers, in explanation of the fact of their long-continued eminence in the art, that Crete lay under the zodiacal sign of the Archer, Sagittarius. Moreover, the Cretan manufacture of bows, (not to say of arrows also,) was celebrated.

No European bow was noted like theirs. The name Cretan in fact came to be attached as an appellative to bows; and it was a national device impressed on their medals. I append one, copied from Pellerin, as a specimen; and subjoin the observations on the device, as a Cretan distinctive, of a Roman poet and German medalist 43

Under all which circumstances can I be wrong in stating that the bow was preeminently Cretan weapon and badge; or in inferring that, when a bow was pictured emblematically before St. John in a European warrior’s hands, the intention would be to signify that the warrior was of Cretan origin ?

In fact it so happens that, over and above all the other accumulated evidence just adduced, we have extant a Greek epigram, or epitaph, consisting of a set of emblems, the bow inclusive, with an express explanation to this effect.

A magpie sculptured on the tombstone was to mark the loquacity of the person whose epitaph it was; the cup her proneness to drink; the wool her diligence in work; the bow, what did the bow mark? It is explained that this was to signify that she was a Cretan.

I Must confess that, considering the important bearing of this point on the commencement, and consequently on the whole scheme of Apocalyptic interpretation, it has seemed to me a matter for thankfulness that so illustrative an epigram should have been preserved to us.

But what the application of all this, the reader may be thinking, to the point in hand? Or how the sense that we have inferred to attach to the emblem of a bow to connect itself with the hieroglyphic of the first Seal, and its imperial horseman riding on to triumph?

I now proceed to show this. It is well known then that, up to the accession of Otho, the reigning Caesars, from Julius to Galba inclusive were of old Roman families. Agreeably with the Roman’ jus imaginum, 44 they exhibited in each of their halls the busts of a long line of Roman nobles, their ancestors, whether of the Jilian gens, the Claudian, or the Sulpician. 45

And as for Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, and Vespasian’s two sons Titus and. Domitian, if not all of Roman, yet they were of Italian extraction; and indeed Otho of an Italian family still more ancient and noble than all the rest; for he was descended from the Etruscan kings. 46

But after Domitian, there was a notable change on this bead in the character of the imperial succession. It is said to have been pre-intimated in a dream, a little before his death, to Domitian. He dreamt, says Suetonius, that a neck of gold appeared to grow branching off from his own neck behind that which so branched off implying a new line of emperors; and the gold their character as introducers of a golden age.

Another historian, Aurelius Victor, expressly sets forth the novel character of this line as a fact very remarkable, in respect of its being one of princes of foreign extraction:” Hitherto men of Roman or Italian origin ruled the empire; from after this time foreigners in extraction.” 47

In which statement he is followed, indeed copied, by the younger Victor: and they both note at the same time the increased happiness that accrued to the empire from the innovation. And what then the foreign country, or province, to which ‘the five emperors might be ascribed, as to lineage and family, that followed next after Domitian, and introduced and kept up this golden age of the empire?

Prior to which question another must indeed first be answered; Can they all be classed together under one and the same head and family? The answer to which latter question is, that they may be so classed together; because, in a manner quite unparalleled in the subsequent history of the Roman emperors, they were all connected, as in the line of one and the same family by successive adoptions.

Trajan was adopted by Nerva, Hadrian by Trajan, 48 Antoninus by Hadrian, Aurelius by Antoninus: 49 each, as their medals and other extant memorials of antiquity illustrate to us, taking the name of his predecessor in virtue of the adoption 50 Thus, according to the well-defined Roman law of adoption, all were reckoned as of Nerva’s family; 51 he being the head of the line.-And what Nerva’s own national origin and extraction?

In Dion Cassius we find what is evidently an allusion to him, as an Itatiot 52 which word will by a reader versed in the Greek language be well understood to mean a colonist of Greek extraction, settled in Italy. His exact Greek provincial origin, however, he does not mention.

But Aurelius Victor supplies the omission. He tells us, 53 (and most of our best-known modern historians of the earlier emperors of Rome repeat the statment, 54 ) that Nerva. was, in respect of family extraction, a Cretan. 55

Yes! the meaning of the bow in the rider’s hand is now indeed manifest. And how admirable, beyond what the most learned of human artists or’ scholars would have devised, appears the point and the comprehensiveness of this device of the Divine Spirit!

Had a javelin or a sword been in the hand of the rider, so as Vitringa would have had it, in case of his representing Roman emperors, the weapon carried would have added precisely nothing either to the meaning or the distinctness of the hieroglyphic: the crown sufficing to designate emperors;- and the javelin and the sword, although appropriate, not being distinctive of them.

But; by the addition of the bow (the bow held in hand, observe, before the crown given him) there was prefigured the very provincialism of the family to which (first of any families not of Italian origin) the empire within a year from after the visions in Patmos was destined to be committed: and under which, in a measure quite unprecedented, the symbolic horse was to assume and to retain the white colour; the Roman nation to flourish in prosperity; and in its wars, both at first and whenever afterwards occurring, to realize the predicted destiny of conquering and to conquer. 56