Chapter II – The Second Seal


THE second Seal is opened; and behold, on the second living creature’s voice like thunder, the white horse has past from view, that symbol of the Roman nation in joyous prosperity and triumph: and another, a red horse passes over the scene before the eyes of the Evangelist; depicting it1 under the different colour of war and bloodshed 2 But what the kind of bloodshed? The explanatory words that were added defined it to be that of civil war : There went forth another horse red 3 and to him who sat thereon it was given to take peace the peace left by the former seal 4 from the [Roman) earth, and that they should kill one another.” And whose the causal agency in the matter? It was indicated to be those whose fitting and distinctive badge was the sword-bearing: “And there was given unto him [the rider] a great sword.”

We ask then, was there any strongly marked new era and change, accordant with this figuration, in the history of the Roman Empire; following next after the era of the first Seal, and through such a casual agency? These are on this head our two points of inquiry. As to the former, let us return to Gibbon for an answer.

And on consulting his pages what find we? We find the bright period above described (a period including, as we have seen, the triumphant peace made with the Germans after Aurelius’ death by his son Commodus, and the first few years of Commodus reign following, in which he governed well, while acting, “as by a kind of tradition,” on his father’s principles and arrangements, 5) we find this period, I say, followed in his narrative-by what? Just by the breaking up of the state of national prosperity and peace, (correspondently with the sacred symbolization,) through the evil, not of foreign invasion, but of civil wars, revolution, and blood shedding: an evil begun to be prepared immediately after 185, as we shall presently see, by the misadministration of Commodus; and which broke into violence A. D. 193 on the assassination of that emperor.6

From which epoch it still continued, with scarce more than two intervals of intermission, some eighty or ninety years onward, even until the accession of Diocletian: having however, in the course of this long period, been joined and aggravated by certain fresh evils, internal and external, at two well-defined intervening epochs; of which aggravations more in my two next ensuing Chapters, as being the subjects of the third and fourth Seals respectively. 7 It may be well to glance in rapid view at the detail, for the first fifty or sixty years at least, of these civil wars, and mutual attendant slaughters.

The immediate sequel then of Commodus’ assassination first mentioned, was the elevation of Pertinax, to the Imperial throne, and within a month or two after, his murder: 8 then the setting up of Julian as his successor, and the civil wars consent, prolonged for four years, and ranging from East to West over the extent of the empire, through which the elder Severus fought his way to the throne; a throne established on the defeat and slaughter successively of the three rival emperors, Julian, Niger, and Albinus. 9

Next, after an interval of repose throughout the remainder of Severus’ reign, wherein, however, “although the wounds of civil war appeared healed, yet its mortal poison still lurked in the vitals of the Constitution” 10 and indeed, by Severus’ aggrandizement of the causal agency of the evil, (of which more presently,) a preparation was made for all its subsequent aggravation, next after this, I say, followed the murder of his one son and successor Geta by the other Caraealla, and soon after of the latter by Macrinus, in the camp of Carrhae by the Euphrates 11 then, and in consequence, the civil war which crushed Macrinus, and raised Elagabalus to the throne:12 then Elagabalus’ assassination at Rome:13 then, after a second interval of partial, and but partial repose, during the thirteen ears of the reign of his successor the second Severus, 14 the murder of that well-intentioned prince in the camp by the Rhine:15 then the civil wars, raised against his murderer and successor Maximin, wherein the two emperors of a day, the Gordians, father and son perished in Africa,16 and Maximin himself, and his son, fell by assassination in the siege of Aquileia: 17 then the murder at Rome of the two emperors Maximus and Balbinus next set up by the Senate; 18 and, quickly after, that of their associate in the empire, the third and youngest Gordian, on the banks of a river of other and holier associations, the river Chaboras: 19 then the slaughter of the next emperor Philip, the last that I shall particularize, together with his son and associate in the empire, in the battle near Verona; which, in the year A.D. 249, as above mentioned, decided the civil war between himself and Decius.20

Can the history of any empire on record present in any other sexagenarian period such an exemplification of what the Apocalyptic prophecy before us prefigured; viz. peace being taken from the empire, and men killing one another? Much more would the case seem unparalleled, were we, like Sismondi, to trace the evil some twenty or thirty years yet further forward; after it had been conjoined and aggravated by the fresh evil of wars of foreign invading foes: a subject which belongs however more properly to our fourth Seal. It may suffice to give in brief his more extended summary.

Says he; “With Commodus’ death commenced the third and most calamitous period …. It lasted ninety-two years, from 192 to 284. during that time thirty-two emperors, and, twenty-seven pretenders to the empire, alternately hurled each other in the throne by incessant civil warfare. Ninety-two years of nearly incessant civil warfare taught the world on what a frail foundation the virtue of the Antonines had reared the felicity of the empire.” Next, what the causal agency?

And, in a general way, the Apocalyptic symbol seemed to designate it as the military; the rider of the red horse having, it is said, a great sword given him. For the sword was a natural, nearly universal, and in St. John’s time well-recognized and distinctive badge among the Romans, of the military profession while its strange and unnaturally large size in the Apocalyptic figure.21 indicated further an undue authority now given to, and undue and unnatural use made of it. 22

Precisely accordant with which appears the fact, on the very surface of history, as to the origin of the sad events we speak of: the causal agent of the civil insurrections and bloodshed being as Sismondi and others state 23, from first to last military men; those whose vocation was war, whose weapon the sword, and who by the sword rose, and by the sword fell. The manner in which, throughout the favoured period of our first Seal, the license of the soldiery was restrained, and its mighty power kept in subordination to the magistrate, and used only in defense of the country and of order, is one of the chief topics of praise attaching to the great emperors of the second century.

Then the law was supreme, the sword of the army its enforcer, the civil magistracy sustained in their functions, the Senate’s high authority recognized ; and, as regards the Imperial dignity itself, the choice left with the Senate, the approval only with the armies. 24 But with Commodus began the fatal change. It may be first dated from the epoch of his exalting Perennis, commander of the Praetorian Guards, and then Cleander his successor, to despotic authority at Rome and in the state; not without military insurrections, civil strife, and blood shedding, even then as its accompaniments: 25 indeed this seems well to answer to the figure of a great sword being put into the hand of the rider of the second Apocalyptic horse.

Next, as to the immediate effect of the murder of Commodus by the Prefect Laetus, 26 and the Praetorians’ consequent sale of the empire, as their right, it was not merely, according to the prophecy, “to take peace” on that occasion “from the earth”, and cause “men killing one another,” but also to manifest in a way never to be forgotten the supremacy of what Gibbon, writing on the precise subject, in very illustrative language calls the power of the sword:” 27 and so to inculcate on both themselves, and their fellow soldiers on the frontiers, the lesson of improving that supremacy to their own advantage.

And then, after the civil wars between the several rival armies, which by almost necessary consequence thereupon followed, and the establishment of the chief of the successful one, S. Severus, on the throne, what the policy of that emperor during the remaining 13 or 14 undisturbed years of his reign?

It was directed, not, as in the age of the Antonines, to the curbing of the license of the military, and restoring the Senate and the civil magistracy to their proper station, authority, and independence; but to the riveting upon the empire, and strengthening, and perpetuating of the system of pure military despotism. Se licentious Praetorians that overawed Rome quadrupled. 28

The prime ministry of state, with authority over the whole civil as well as military administration, was attached by him systematically and de jure, as it had been by Commodus de facto, to the Praetorian Praefecture: an office which thenceforward consequently, as it has been remarked by Montesquieu and Denina, came yet more to resemble that of a Turkish Grand Visier; 29 and in which, for seven out of those four-teen years, Plautian made Rome tremble 30 The Senate he despised and degraded, nor would allow of any such “intermediate power between himself and his army. 31

And true in death, as in life, to the system, he bequeathed his maxim of ruling by the sword, as the one grand principle of government, to his son Caracalla,  “Enrich the soldiery; despise the people: a maxim well remembered and acted on by Caracalla and which soon issued, as might have been anticipated, in a succession of revolutions, civil wars, and imperial murders, worse even than before. 32

Says Gibbon, “The dissolute tyranny of Commodus, the civil wars occasioned by his death, and the new maxims too of policy introduced by the house of Severna, all contributed to increase the dangerous power of the army. “33 So that, in fine, the civil wars, murders, and insurrections before Severus’ accession, must be viewed as connected in one with those after his death, by his use of the intervening thirteen or fourteen years for the aggrandizement of that which was the causal agency of both: in other words, (reverting to the Apocalyptic figure) by his enlargement of the sword in the hand of the mystic rider of the red horse, in order to his more effectually carrying out the destiny assigned him, “to take peace from the earth, and that men should kill one another.”

As to the younger Severus’ ineffective efforts at reform, they did but aggravate the evil they were intended to cure. The army murdered him.34 And then what next? Says Montesquieu of the state of things immediately following; “What in that age was called the Roman empire was a kind of irregular republic, not unlike the aristocracy of Algiers, where the militia., possessed of the sovereignty, creates and deposes a magistrate styled a Dey. .  What was the emperor, except the minister of a violent government, elected for the private benefit of the soldiers?

The arm exercised the supreme magistracy. 35“And Sismondi; And the sovereignty had passed into the hands of the legions.” 36 In a state of things like this it ‘was to be expected, of course, that it would be for the most part the commander of one or another army that would be put forward as its candidate for the imperial office; and, if successful, constitute the representative and impersonation, for the time being, of the military dominancy.

Such in fact was the case very generally in the Roman civil wars of the century between Commodus and Diocletian. Instead of their arising out of strife between members of previously reigning royal families, on questions of disputed succession, so as in most of the civil wars noted in the histories of modern Europe 37, it is the generals of Roman armies that figure most prominently on the arena; whether as the nominees of the Praetorians, or of some other army.

And perhaps this very class of persons may be judged to have been specially indicated in the Apocalyptic figuration: considering the facts both of the sword-bearer there exhibited being depicted as on horseback, and moreover the presentation of the sword made to him apparently as in public.

For, when thus solemnly acted out before the Roman world, the presentation of a sword, (which might otherwise have been simply a general designation of the military profession,) implied that there was to be the official bearing of it: and this bearing of it signified, not the mere general military duty of wielding it against the foe, but the right of judicially using it (the jus gestandi, as the Roman law expressed it, implying and signifying the jus exercendi: 38) and this against military criminal, as well as citizens. For, it is to be observed, there was a long distinction 39 between the sword-badge, thus worn by the one functionary now spoken of, and the axe carried by lictors before another.

The latter symbolized power over the lives of Roman citizens only, the former over the lives of Roman soldiers; 40 whether distinctively, or conjointly with the civil judicial power also. The emperors themselves, of course, by their imperatoria potestas, as first established under Augustus, and perpetuated under succeeding emperors, had in its fullest sense the power of the sword, including all capital jurisdiction, both military and civil: 41 and, in token of it, they were wont to wear about them the badge I speak of, a small sword; whether borne in hand, in front, or at the side. They esteemed the military part of the authority it symbolized as one of their highest imperatorial prerogatives.

And so jealous were they of it, that for Rome itself and Italy 42 they delegated the Tower to but one individual, viz. the commander or Praefect of their own Praetorian guard, in the fortified camp just outside the city walls: 43 and moreover in the provinces entrusted it not to the Senatorian Proconsuls, but only to their own Military Lieutenants; (those to whose care were assigned the provinces least settled, and which consequently required and maintained a large military force resident) functionaries appointed and removed at the emperor’s sole pleasure. 44 In either case it was the delivery of the sword-badge into their hand that marked the delegation of this power of the sword.

Thus while the senatorial Proconsul, when entering on his provincial government, had but the badge of lictors attendant, with the rod and axe intertwined as of old in their fasces, it was the custom for the Imperial Lieutenant, on appointment to his province, publicly to receive and assume the military sword, as well as cloak, outside the pomaerium of Rome; (where also on the termination of his office he laid them down: 45) and for the home general, or Praetorian Prefect, on his appointment to office, to be similarly invested with the sword by the emperor within the city walls.

The memorable words used by Trajan on one such occasion, “Use this for me, if I rule well; if not, against me;” 46 will be remembered by the classical scholar as one illustration of the custom. And the scriptural reader will not forget another and different illustration of it in St. Paul; when thus writing to the Romans, even like an eye-witness to eye witnesses, about a magistry and magistrate of high authority there, whether the emperor himself or his prefect; He beareth not the sword in vain 47

Thus then, and considering further that alike the Praetorian Prefects at Rome, and the Imperial Lieutenants commanding the legions in the provinces, were wont to appear on horseback in their high offices,” 48 it seems to me very possible that these might suggest themselves to the mind of the Evangelist as the chief agency through which, in the second era prefigured, the Roman military sword, itself a small one, it seems to me very possible that these might suggest themselves to the mind of the Evangelist as the chief agency through which, in the second era prefigured, the Roman military sword, itself a small one, 49 would become, as it were, of exaggerated size and illegitimate use; so as to take peace from the Roman earth, and redden the body politic with the blood of civil carnage. would become, as it were, of exaggerated size and illegitimate use; so as to take peace from the Roman earth, and redden the body politic with the blood of civil carnage.

And certainly it was to these, the chief commanders of the Roman military, that the civil wars, insurrections, and bloodshed were often owing. It was in the persons of the Praetorian Prefects under Commodus, as we lately saw,50 that the military power was first seen exalted to absolute supremacy with insurrections and civil strife and bloodshed immediately resulting, that told ominously of greater evils that were to come: and in the murders both of Commodus, and of Pertinax, (consequent on which latter was the Praetorians’ sale of the the empire to the highest bidder,) the Praefect Laetus had a part.51 It was the three chief of the Imperial Lieutenants in the provinces, Severus, Niger, and Albinus, 52 that led in the civil wars following.

After which, alike in the wars and murders consequent on the first Severus’ death, and in those too after the murder of the second Severus, each took their share in the deeds of blood 53 Hence, I say, it seems to me very possible that there may have been a special reference in the Apocalyptic symbol to these representatives of the military autocracy, established from the time of Commodus. But the specific reference to them is not essential.

The symbolic sword-bearing rider may be regarded, if we prefer it, simply and comprehensively, as the impersonation of the military. body, whose badge was the sword; inclusive alike of soldiers and commanders,54 whether of the provincial armies or the’ Praetorians. The historical application is in either case the same. whether of the provincial armies or the’ Praetorians. The historical application is in either case the same.

In conclusion let me beg to impress upon the reader that the era and the subject which I suppose here prefgured was no era or subject of small importance in the Roman history, pressed into the Apocalyptic expositor’s service for the occasion, and exaggerated for his purpose. The era and the evil has been most strongly marked, as we have seen, by historians of the highest eminence:55 indeed as strongly as the prosperous era of Trajan and the Antonines which immediately preceded it. The evil introduced under Commodus into the body politic was one that acted out its part on a mighty scale, both as to duration and as to injurious effect, on the Roman people.

And it both prepared the way for, and indeed almost necessitated the sequence of, other social and political evils; which soon joined with it, as we shall hereafter see, (agreeably with the 3rd and 4th Seals’ prefigurations,) in undermining the empire’s strength, and accelerating its decline. The “increase of the dangerous power of the army,” begun by “the dissolute tyranny of Commodus,” and augmented alike by “the civil wars occasioned by his death,” and “the policy” afterwards following of “the house of Severus,” constituted, as Gibbon expresses it, “an internal change which undermined the foundations of the empire:” 56

And again; “The licentious fury of the Praetorian bands [i.e. against Pertinax] was the first symptom and cause of the decline of the Roman empire.57 And I cannot but think it remarkable that, as Tacitus, the greatest cotemporary historian of the commencement of the 1st Seal’s era, has left his strong testimony to the astonishing change to national happiness, introduced with the new age under Nerva and Trajan, 58 so Dion Cassius, the most eminent cotemporary historian of the commencement of my Second Seal’s era, has left his similar testimony to the evil change introduced under Commodus.

He speaks of his reign as one of change from a golden age to one of iron: paints in strong colouring the military despotism and license then commencing, as the grand evil of the times and in telling of a conflagration in Rome, just before Commodus assassination, of mysterious origin and terrible fury, 59which, falling on the magnificent Temple of Peace by the Via Sacra, left it a ruin 60 and thence, crossing to the Palatine, ravaged the Imperial Palace and its archives, inextinguishable by all the arts and efforts of man, he adds that it was regarded as ominous of then overthrow of peace that was to follow; and the ” the evil would not be confined to the city, but would extend to the whole Roman world 61