Chapter IV – The Fourth Seal


AND when he opened the fourth Seal. I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, Come! And I looked, and behold a pale1 horse! And his name that sat on it was Death: and Hades followed after him.

And power was given unto him over the fourth part [or four parts] of the earth; to kill with sword, and with famine, and with pestilence,2 and by wild beasts of the earth.

There is no research needed here to explain the intent of the prefigurative symbol. The rider was not, as before, the representative of human functionaries and rulers; whose distinctive emblems, though well understood at the time, might now require investigation to unfold them.

It is a symbol of meaning as obvious to the reader now, as it could have been then to the seer. For who it meant is expressly told us. It was the personification of DEATH! To mark that it was the actual King of terrors, and not, as otherwise it might possibly have been construed, the destroyer merely of political existence, his badge, so to express it, is said to have been Hades following him; the recipient, with his opening jaws, of the victims slain by Death.3

The commission was given him, by the supreme arbiter of life and death, to kill upon the Roman earth with all the four sore judgments of God; with the sword, and with famine, and with pestilence, and with the wild beasts of the earth: and the horse, symbolizing the Roman empire and people, appeared deadly pale and livid under his influences; a hue symptomatic of approaching dissolution.

An era of terrible mortality, and. to an extent scarce precedented in the annals of human history, was here evidently prefigured. The question for us is, Was there then such an era in the Roman imperial history; and one following, so as from the sequence of this vision on that of the Seal preceding, we might expect it to do, at no great distance after the time of the second Severus?

The answer is soon given.

An era in the Roman history, commencing within fourteen or fifteen years after the death of Alexander Severus, is so strongly marked by coincidence in every point with this terrible prefigurative emblem, that interpreters who explain the six first Seals of the history of Pagan Rome, one and all agree, I believe, in referring the Fourth Seal to it.

By Mede and Daubuz, and after them by Lowman, Newton, and others, passages have been quoted from ancient authors well descriptive of its multiplied miseries. For my own part, having given Gibbon’s testimony so much as my authority, in illustration of the former Seals, I wish to give him (though not exclusively) on this also.

And, after all, who so graphic an illustrator? Who like him for extracting the spirit of cotemporary history, and infusing it, concentrated, into his own paintings? He speaks then of the period from the celebration of the great secular games by the emperor Philip, A.D. 248, to the death of Gallienus, A.D. 68, as the twenty years of “shame and misfortune, of confusion and calamity.”

He speaks of it as a time in which (mark again the correspondence of his figure with the death-like colour of the horse in the apocalyptic emblem) “the ruined empire seemed to approach the last and fatal moment of its dissolution,” He depicts the various agencies of destruction consuming it. The sword! Every instant of time was marked, every province of the Roman world was afflicted, by barbarous invaders and military tyrants;” the sword from without, and the sword from within. Famine! “Our habits of thinking,” he says, “so fondly connect the order of the universe with the fate of man, that this gloomy period has been decorated with inundations, earthquakes, uncommon meteors, preternatural darkness, and a crowd of prodigies, fictitious or exaggerated.”

Of none of these fictitious evils, let it be observed, was there any notice in the apocalyptic vision. “But a general famine,” he adds, in correspondence with that which had been predicted, “was a calamity of a more serious kind:” and still expounding our prophecy, though now retrospectively that of the third Seal, he observes that it was ” the inevitable consequence of rapine and oppression, which extirpated the produce of the present, and the hope of future harvests.”

Yet again the agency of pestilence had been prefigured Accordingly, though little aware in what track he was following, he goes on to notice this also. “Famine,” he says, “is almost always followed by epidemical diseases, the effect of Scanty and unwholesome food. But other causes must have contributed to that furious plague, which, from the year 250 to the year 265, raged without interruption in every province, every city, and almost every family in the empire.” During a part of that time, he adds, “5000 persons died daily in Rome and many towns, that had escaped the hands of the barbarians, were entirely depopulated.” And, could we venture to extend the analogy of Alexandria, where statistical tables were kept, to the other provinces, ” we might suspect that war, pestilence, and famine had consumed, in a few years, the moiety of the human species.”4

Truly the history must be allowed to agree thus far with the prediction. If the prophetic emblems were terrific, the facts of the history of the period that we suppose them to refer to appear, if possible, yet more so. In the secular or centenary games celebrated by Philip, whence this era of mortality had its commencing date, it is observable that solemn sacrifices had been offered, according to custom, to Hades, or Pluto, (as was his Greek appellation) whereby to ensure the preservation of the Roman empire. 5 And what the response? “Behold a livid pale horse; and his name that sate thereon was DEATH; and Hades followed after him. And power was given him to kill on the Roman earth with sword, and with famine, and with pestilence, and by wild beasts of the earth.”

There is just one of the destroying agencies mentioned in the vision that is passed over without notice by the historian; that of the wild beasts of the earth. But though unnoticed by him, it is not unillustrated. For it is a well known law of nature that where the reign of man fails, that of the wild beasts begins; and that they quickly occupy the scenes of waste and depopulation.

I will not drive out the inhabitants from before thee,” said God to Israel, “in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the beasts of the field multiply against thee.”6 In fact we have it on record, that at an epoch some twenty or thirty years after the death of Gallienus, their multiplication had arisen to an extent, in parts of the empire, that made it a crying evil. So does he specify wild beasts as one of the plagues with which the land was then afflicted, and of which Christians were upbraided as the guilty cause.

But this, as I said, was written in 296, twenty or thirty years after the date of Gallienus’ death. And the question suggests itself, What of the intervening period; and can it too be classed under the prefiguration of the 4th Apocalyptic Seal? A question this quite necessary to attend to, as I date my 5th Seal not till the year 303: and the rather, as it has been asserted that the whole interval was one so markedly of restoration, not destruction, as to be in direct contrariety to, not accordance with, the symbolization of the Seal before us.

The answer to this question involves of course an historic review of the period intervening; more especially up to the notable epoch of Diocletian’s quadripartition of the empire A.D. 292, which I regard as the included terminus of the 4th Seal. It shall be given as briefly as possible.

It is to be understood then that after the emperor Valerian’s disastrous capture in the 6th year of his reign, A.D. 260, by the Persian king Sapor,7 leaving Gallienus, his son and associate on the throne, sole emperor, Gallienus’ wretched character induced insurrections and rebellions so frequent and universal, that the rival assumers of the purple during the next twelve or fourteen years are designated by Polio and other historians as the 30 tyrants. Of these the larger number were mere ephemeral emperors. But three stand out prominently, as having for several years A. D. 261,1 in Illyricum; and Posthumous and then Tetricus, from 258, in Gaul, Spain, and Britain.

Such was the empire’s mutilated internal state (of the barbarian invasions, synchronically, from without I have already spoken,) on Gallienus’ death A.D. 268; and the election of Claudius, the first of the five restoring emperors, as his successor.

On his election the cry of the Roman people and senate to him was, Save the empire! Aureolus’ own soldiers opened the way to this by assassinating him at Milan. Then came the news of a terrible Gothic invasion. He wrote thus on his road to the Senate: “320,000 Goths. have invaded the Roman territory.

The whole Republic is fatigued and exhausted. The strength of the empire, Gaul and Spain, [with Britain too] are usurped by Tetricus: and the archers of the East serve under the banners of Zenobia.” In a great battle fought near Naissus in Dardania, the legions at first gave way oppressed by numbers, and dismayed by misfortunes; till Claudius generalship decided the victory in his favour.

Still the Gothic war continued, and was diffused for a while over the provinces of Maesia Thrace and Macedon; then at length repelled within the mountain-tracts of Haemus. There the pestilence made havoc among both Goths and Romans, as the sword had done before it; and, among its Roman victims, cut down Claudius himself.

Had the destroyer DEATH yet resigned his commission to kill with the sword and with pestilence on the Roman earth? The armies chose Aurelian for his successor; the second of the restoring emperors. ” A bloody and doubtful conflict” with the Goths, was the first act of his reign; followed by a peace; of which the most memorable and important condition was Aurelian’s final abandonment to the Goths of the great province of Dacia.

Next came an Allemannic invasion of Italy one as alarming as that of the Goths before it. Three at battles ensued: in the first of which, fought near Placentia, the Romans suffered so terrible a defeat that “the immediate dissolution of the empire was apprehended.” Then the Sibyllinie books were consulted at Rome by Aurelian’s order. But “all too late,” cried a voice in the Senate house, “for the salvation of the Republic.” It is like sick men, who only consult eminent physicians when in absolute despair of recovery.

At the same time those walls of larger circuit were traced out round Rome, which still arrest the stranger’s eye by their solemn grandeur: in order to the temporary defense, if so it might be, of the otherwise “defenseless mistress of the world.” In the two subsequent battles, however, Aurelian conquered. The actual dissolution of the empire was prevented: and Aurelian proceeded to reunite to the empire those vast separated members that Claudius’s letter made allusion to, of Gaul and Spain in the West, Syria in the East.

He effected each and either object: but only through the means of two bloody civil wars: (for such the Eastern was, in fact, as well as the Western:) and having done so, and triumphed at Rome for his victories, he set out to repel a Persian invasion A.D. 275, and on the march, near Byzantium, was by one of his generals assassinated. In the course of Aurelian’s sad, though splendid reign, let me ask again, had DEATH ceased to kill with the ‘sword on the Roman earth, or the empire cast aside its hue of threatening dissolution?8 But what next? Says Gibbon: “The strength of Aurelian had crushed on every side the enemies of Rome: but, after his death, they seemed to revive with an increase of fury and numbers.&quot

In the year next following we read of hosts of the Alani, that spreading themselves over Pontus, Cappadocia, Cilicia, and Galatia, traced their course by the flames of cities and villages, but who were at length repulsed by the aged emperor Tacitus: and then of that emperor’s sudden death, (by assassination probably,) and also the assassination of his brother and successor Florian: and then of the election of Probus, the third of the five great restoring emperors; who “set himself,” says Niebuhr, “to rescue the Empire from the wretched condition in which he found it.”

First came the deliverance of Gaul, oppresed by invading armies of Franks, Batavi, Burgundians, and other barbarians; “who, since Aurelian’s death, had ravaged that great province with impunity:” then a successful inroad into Germany: and a peace, of which one of the conditions to which Gibbon calls attention, was, that the barbarians should supply the Roman army with 16,000 recruits. For, says he, “the infrequency of marriage, and ruin of agriculture, had affected le principles of population; and not only destroyed the strength of the present, but intercepted the hope of future generations.”

Next came the revolt, and successful marauding expedition round the whole maritime coast of the empire, of a colony of Franks settled by Probils in Pontus: then the revolt and defeat of Saturninus, one of the most distinguished of the Roman generals in Egypt; then the rebellion and defeat of Bonosus and Proculus in Gaul. So at length in the year 281, all enemies seeming to be vanquished, Probus, like Aurelian before him, triumphed at Rome; and, like Aurelian, was immediately after assassinated. A poet’s idyll, written on Carus’ election thereupon to the imperial throne, expresses his ardent hope that this new emperor might be the heaven-sent instrument of putting an end to the then existing era of affliction and mourning, banish war to its proper abode in Tartarus, and bring back white robed Peace and Justice. Had DEATH, in his view, ceased to destroy on the Roman earth even under Probus, or the empire assumed a healthful or joyous hue? The shorter reign of Carus was marked by the repulse of the Sarmatian invaders of Illyricum; and an invasion of Persia, successful probably, but of which the details are uncertain.

What is however certain is, that Carus, in some mysterious manner, there met his death, whether lightning-struck, or by assassination; and that the Roman army then returned homeward. This was near the end of 283. Then civil strife ensued between three several candidates for the empire. Numerian was murdered by Aper, Aper by Diocletian: which last in a great battle fought in 285, near Margus in Mmsia, defeated and slew Carinus, and secured the empire to himself.

And now began a new and memorable era in Roman imperial history. Judging the weight of the whole empire too great for any one emperor, Diocletian formed the plan of dividing it. So in 286 he began by its bipartition between himself and Maximian; and in 292 completed his plan by a quadri partition: Galerius and Constantius being added in the East and West, respectively, as the two Caesars; in association with the two senior emperors, or Augusti. Just previous to this quadripartition Maximian had bad success in some battles with barbarian invaders of Gaul; but been unsuccessful in a war with Carausius, the usurper of Britain; whom, in fact, he and Diocletian were forced to acknowledge.

So Eutropius: “It was while Carausius was in rebellion in Britain, and Achillmus in Egypt, while the Quinquegentiani were harassing the African Provinces, and ‘Naries [the Persian king] making war on the eastern frontier, that Diocletian made Maximian Herculius Augustus, Constantius and Galerius Caesars.”

Nor does Eumenius, in his Panegyric addrest in the year 297 to Constantius, give a different picture of things as that which in 292 existed in the Western Provinces.9 In fact, he compares it with the disgraceful state of the Republic under Gallienus. Mamertinus, in his previous Panegyric of 289, had declared the reign of famine and pestilence to have continued down to Maximian’s accession in 286. After this, however, (perhaps we may say from 292,) a real and more effective restoration of the empire began, only in its new form.

So have I brought down my historic sketch, as proposed, from Gallienus’ death A.D. 268 to Diocletian’s quadripartition of the empire in 292. And now let me once more repeat my question, Had DEATH as yet vacated his seat of power; or given up his commission of killing over the Roman earth with the four several agencies of sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts ?

It is precisely at this closing epoch of the period under review that Arnobius gives us his very illustrative testimony, already, in part cited, to the truth of the 4th Apocalyptic Seal. Men complain, There are now sent us from the gods pestilence, droughts, wars, scarcities, locusts, hail, and other things noxious to man: . . but was it not so in ancient times also?” Again;” If every species of corn be now devoured by locusts,10 or if floods destroy the human race, was it not so before? Were there not wars with wild beasts, and battles with lions, and destruction from venomous snakes, before our time?”11 Very striking seems to me this picture of the empire in 296; with its distinct and particular specification of all the four evils mentioned in this Seal: and very striking its contrast with Tertullian’s picture of the empire’s cultivation, populaceness, and prosperity about a century before, shortly after the ending of the prosperous period of my first Seal. 12 Indeed could there be a more direct contrast?

I must now advert to one point of marked apparent difference between the prophecy and the history: viz. that in the prophecy Death’s destroying commission might seem to be expressly limited to the fourth part of the Roman earth;13 whereas, in the history of the period just reviewed, from A.D. 248 to 292, his devastations extended over it all.

But let my readers well mark that if the prophecy here differ from the history, it differs from, and is inconsistent with, itself also: seeing that the whole horse is depicted with the pale death-like hue, not its fourth part only. Besides that the whole tenor of the prophecy seems to mark this Seal’s evil as the climax to the evils of the two preceding Seals, to which no such limitation attached. What then the solution of this difficulty?

And can we find one probable in itself, and that shall reconcile the prophecy alike with itself, and with the facts of our historic era? After much consideration, and reconsideration, my mind has turned more and more to that very remarkable reading in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, to which Mede long since caused attention, super quatuor partes terra; “over the four parts (instead of the the fourth part) of the earth.”14 The genuineness of this, as Jerome’s own version, and not any mistake of a later copyist, is indubitable:15 and since his faithfulness to the Greek text is as unquestioned as his critical judgment in choosing between various readings in it,16 it follows that he mast have had before him some correspondent reading in a Greek MS, or MSS, of authority, though our extant Greek MSS do not exhibit it; and which he deliberately preferred, as of all the best.

Admitted, this reading makes the prophecy at once consistent with itself. As applied to history what it requires is that the Roman empire, at the time predicted, should have had some kind of quadripartition. Will then our historical solution bear this new and trying test? Turn, reader, to p.- 184 supra; and -read the answer to this question in the fact of the then three great divisions of the empire from the central or Italian fourth; viz. those of the West, East, and Illyicum, under Posthumus, Aureolus, and Zenobia respectively: “just that same quadripartion, in fact, which was soon afterwards adopted and legitimatised by Diocletian; and which, as I may hereafter observe, was in a measure the original of that other famous Apocalyptic tripartite division, of which we read in the first four Trumpets.

In conclusion, let me add the testimonies of three of our most eminent modern historic heirs of Roman history, Sismondi, Schlegel, Niebuhr, reference to the state of the empire at that precise epoch of its legitimatised quadripartition that I have brought my historic sketch down to. Says Sismondi; “Diocletian put an end to this long period of anarchy.

But such a succession of invasions and civil wars, and so much suffering disorder and crime, had brought the empire into a state of mortal languor, from which it never recovered.” Says Niebuhr, speaking of the state of things after Diocletian’s accession: ” After the cessation of the plague, [“which began to decrease in the time of Probus,”] the empire was suffering from general distress: and its condition was very much like that which Followed after the cessation of the BLACK DEATH in the middle ages.” Says Schlegel: “The division of the empire among several sovereigns appeared then [under Diocletian], as afterwards, an unavoidable and necessary evil. In other words the several parts and members of the vast body of the Roman empire, which approached nearer and nearer to dissolution, began to fall to pieces.

How long, we may think, would its utter and total dissolution have been delayed, but for then infusion, not very long after, of Christianity into its political system, as a new principle of life?


1 first grassy green; also pale; and then, livid. Its application to death in either of the latter sense in obvious and frequent. In these and such like examples the epithet of the effect is, by a metathesis, applied to the causal agent. In the symbol of the forth Seal (like as in the colours of the horses of the three Seals preceding) it is applied, and more appropriately, to the party affected. So the emperor Constantius, father to Constantine, was called Chlorus from his paleness.

Hippocrates, in his 2nd Book on Prognostics, enumerates among the symptoms of approaching death, the colour of the facial skin becoming thus green and black.

2 So pestilence ought here to be rendered, as most commentators observe. Its use in this sense is borrowed from the Septuagint; which thus, in near thirty places, renders the Hebrew word translated in our English version, and without doubt correctly, pestilence. So 2 Sam. 24: 13, 15; “Or shall it be three days’ pestilence?” where the Septuagint translation is pestilence. The difference of reading given parenthetically will be noticed afterwards.

3 So Isa. v. 14; “Therefore hades hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure, and their glory, and multitude, and pomp shall descend into it.”

4 L 455, 456 -It was during this pestilence that the Christian Bishop Cyprian wrote his treatise De Mortelitate,” of which the very title illustrates the imagery of this fourth Seal comforting his brother Christians who suffered under it; reminding them that all things, even death, were theirs; that in this world they were strangers; and that death would but take them to their home with Jesus.

5 See the Pagan historian Zosimus B. ii. ad init. He gives a long account of their origin, and the ancient mysteriously discovered altar, on which the chief sacrifices were offered: tells how, on the raging of wars and diseases, the Sybilline books inculcated these games and sacrifices; (as well as to other gods also, specially Apollo and Diana;) and how, according to the oracle, the Roman empire was to he secured in his greatness and power by the celebration of the games;

6 Exod. 23:29.

7 This unhappy prince after being taken by Sapor, king of Persia, died in his captivity. At Nakshi Roustam there still remains a sculpture in the rock commemorative of the event. A sketch is given in Sir R. Portees Travels in Persia, Vol. i. p. 540.

8 In an Edict by Aurelian, given in Vopiscus c. 47, mention is made incidentally of the already begun desolation in Italy. He urges agriculturists to plant vines in certain extensive fertile lands of Etruria, that had been deserted ; whence to furnish the Roman populace with wine.

9 See Eumenius’ Paneq. Constantii, c. 12. There exist coins of A.D. 290, with the heads of Carausius, Diocletian, and Maximian; and the inscriptions, Carausius et Fratres: Pax Juxgg. Eckhel 8:47.

10 These and such like destroying insects, moreover also venomous snakes, are included in the Apocalyptic word beasts; as much as in the noisome beasts of Ezekiel.

11 Hence his argument that “it was not on account of Christians that the wretched race of man was opprest and afflicted by these evils.”

12 Tertull. De Animi, c. .50. ” Certainly the world is now from day to day brought mom under cultivation. Pleasant farms have obliterated ill-famed solitudes: cultivated fields occupy the place of woods ; wild beasts have been driven away by cattle; sands are sown, marshes dried. Everywhere there is the inhabited house and population; everywhere the republic, everywhere life.- ‘This was about A.D. 200.


14I My first suggested solution was to the effect that out of Death’s four destroying agencies the forth part of the earth might define the scene simply of one of those agencies; viz. that of the sword, next specified. I cited in illustration Jer. 15: 2 ; “Such as are for the pestilence to pestilence ; and such as are for the sword to sword; such as are for famine to famine; and such as are for captivity to captivity:” also Ezek. 33: 27; “Surely they that are in the wastes shall fall by the sword; and him that is in the open field will I give to the beasts to be devoured; and they that be in the forts and caves shall die of the pestilence.” So too Ezek. 5:12.

15 I was enabled to satisfy myself of this on occasion of a visit to Florence: having there inspected in the Laurentian Library what, I believe, is the earliest existing MS. of the Vulgate; (one assigned to the 6th or 7th century;) and found the reading in it, as in the modem copies, ” super quatuor partes terrae.” Moreover I have found it in all alike of the earliest Latin Apocalyptic expositors who used Jerome’s version, Bede, Ansbert, Haymo; though on certain other points exhibiting variations in their copies. E. g. in Apoc. 17: 17 Ansbert reads et bestia; the others, in bestia