The Red Horse of the Apocalypse and Its Rider

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by Neil Godfrey


We come now to the red horse and its rider. The first thing W [=Thomas Witulski] brings to his readers’ notice is the different manner in which this second horse is depicted:

And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer. . . .

And there went out another horse that was red; and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, that they should kill one another; and there was given unto him a great sword. . . .

And I beheld, and lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living beings say, “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine!” . . .

And I looked, and behold, a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over a fourth part of the earth to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

(Revelation 6:2-8)

The red horse is introduced as “another horse” as if in juxtaposition to the first horse. There is no separate “seeing and beholding” of the red horse. Is the appearance of the red horse meant to be subsumed beneath the “seeing and beholding” of the white horse? The red horse makes its appearance — unlike introductions of the other horses — as it “went out”. But “went out” from where? We are not told. The rider of the red horse is not presented as a subject or direct object but indirectly, in the dative case, as one to whom power to take away peace is given.

We saw the rider of the white horse conquering and conquering again. Following that scenario we come to a “fiery red” horse and its rider having the power to pull the world into a spiral of violence.


Returning to the apparent source for the idea of the red horse, Zechariah 1 and 6, we find that the red horse is identified with the angel of the Jews or Yahweh. After speaking about the sins of the Jews, the prophet writes:

Zechariah 1:8 I saw by night, and behold, a man mounted upon a red horse, and he stood among the myrtle trees that were in a ravine; and behind him were there red horses, speckled, and white.

9 Then said I, “O my lord, what are these?” And the angel that talked with me said unto me, “I will show thee what these be.”

10 And the man that stood among the myrtle trees answered and said, “These are they whom the Lord hath sent to walk to and fro throughout the earth.”

11 And they answered the angel of the Lord who stood among the myrtle trees, and said, “We have walked to and fro throughout the earth, and behold, all the earth sitteth still and is at rest.”

12 Then the angel of the Lord answered and said, “O Lord of hosts, how long wilt Thou not have mercy on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah . . . 

Back to Revelation and “the power to take peace from the earth, that they should kill one another…”. Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations:

The function of the cavalier in taking peace from the earth is portrayed as a universal phenomenon, perhaps as a conscious reversal of the Roman achievement of pax Romana, “Roman peace,” by Augustus. — Aune, 395


It denotes . . . the arising of general internal bloody turmoil, the breakdown of internal peace. — Lohmeyer, 58 (translation)


The fire-red colour of the horse points to its effect (cf. 12,3). His mission is to take peace from the earth. What is obviously meant is a civil war in which people kill each other. Civil wars are not infrequently accompanied by war. It is enough here to recall the mutual skirmishes among Jewish groups during the Jewish War (66-70 AD). However, there is no specific event in mind here (Beckwith 519). It is important that the passive voice twice emphasises that the rider acts in dependence on and in authority of God.  — Giesen, 176f (translation)


The phrase “slay one another” well could suggest civil strife and not persecution, as many commentators affirm.  — Beale, 379

And what of the sword that is, contrary to normal expectation, mentioned last:

. . . in the OT already there is mention of an eschatological sword with which Yahweh will strike the Leviathan (Isa 27:1) or Edom (Isa 3:4—5). Later, in the apocalypses of Late Ju­daism, we find this same sword in the hands of the sons of Israel who finally ex­tract vengeance from their enemies (7 Enoch 90:19,34; 91:12). The image can, however, denote divine instigation which drives the unfaithful to kill each other, cf. 1 Enoch 88:2. — Prigent, 268

Aune sees the sword not as a literally used weapon but as a symbol of authority or power:

. . . “He was given a large sword.” In this phrase the sword is the symbol of the authority given to the cavalier expressed elliptically in v 4a: . . . “he was given [the power] to remove peace from the earth”; i.e., the interpretation precedes the symbol. . . . “to bear the sword” (Rom 13:4), is a metaphor for the power over life and death possessed by governing authorities (see Philostratus Vitae Soph. 1.532, . . . “they needed a judge with a sword”). Roman emperors carried a dagger or sword as an emblem of office (Tacitus Hist. 3.68 [pugio]; Suetonius Galba 11; Dio Cassius 42.27 [ξίφος]; Ulpian Digest The ius gladii, “right of the sword,” in cases of capital punishment was a symbol of imperium exclusively exercised by the emperor in Rome but delegated to provincial officials (A. Berger, Roman Law, 529). Wearing a sword was also the right of only the highest military officials during the Roman Republic (Dio Cassius 42.27.2), and during the Empire a sword was worn exclusively by the emperor (Mommsen, Römisches Saatsrecht 1:433–35; 2:806). “That this cavalier was given a sword, therefore, indicates the authority and power with which he was temporarily entrusted by God . . . . The sword was a typical weapon used by ancient cavalry in warfare. One would have expected that the sword would be mentioned before the anticipated slaughter of v 4b is described. This is another instance of the author’s use of hysteron-proteron, “last-first,” i.e., the reversal of the logical order of events, a literary device used frequently in Revelation (3:3, 17; 5:5; 10:4, 9; 20:4–5, 12–13; 22:14). Unlike the description of the first cavalier, who is said to have “ridden away” . . . , nothing in this text suggests that the cavalier executed his task.” — Aune, 396

From all this it follows, to copy W’s words:

From all this it follows: The figure of the second ‘apocalyptic horseman’ is presented as a figure who appears as an autocrat and initiates a civil war within the borders of the imperium Romanum. Against the background of the explanations in Zech 1.8, the motif of the ἵππος πυρρός [= ‘bright red horse’] seems to mark its rider as belonging to the people of Israel or the Jews. — Witulski, 152 (translation)

Is it significant that the only other horse rider said to wield a sword is the Messiah: Revelation 19:11-16? If so, and if we accept that rider of the white horse was an imperial substitute for the messianic conqueror, we may be led to think that the rider on the red horse points to the bloodshed throughout Cyrenecia, Egypt, Cyprus, Mesopotamia (and possibly the regions around Judea) that was occasioned, it would seem, by messianic Jews. These uprisings followed in the wake of Trajan’s conquests.

Here is how Cassius Dio recorded the violence:

Meanwhile the Jews in the region of Cyrene had put a certain Andreas at their head, and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing; many they sawed in two, from the head downwards; others they gave to wild beasts, and still others they forced to fight as gladiators. In all two hundred and twenty thousand persons perished. In Egypt, too, they perpetrated many similar outrages, and in Cyprus, under the leader­ship of a certain Artemion. There, also, two hundred and forty thousand perished, and for this reason no Jew may set foot on that island, but even if one of them is driven upon its shores by a storm he is put to death. Among others who subdued the Jews was Lusius, who was sent by Trajan. — (Roman History, 32:1-3)

Later Eusebius wrote of the same event with reference to what he read in Greek histories:

When the emperor was about to enter his eighteenth year another rebellion broke out and destroyed vast numbers of Jews. In Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, and in Cyrene as well, as if inflamed by some terrible spirit of revolt they rushed into a faction fight against their Greek fellow-citizens, raised the temperature to fever heat, and in the following summer started a full-scale war, Lupus being at that time governor of all Egypt. From the first encounter they emerged victorious. But the Greeks fled to Alexandria, where they killed or captured the Jews in the city. But though deprived of their aid, the Jews of Cyrene went on plundering the territory of Egypt and ravaging the various districts, led by Lucuas. Against them the emperor sent Marcius Turbo with land and sea forces, including a contingent of cavalry. He pursued the war against them relentlessly in a long series of battles, destroying many thousands of Jews, not only those from Cyrene but others who had come from Egypt to assist Lucuas their king.

The emperor, suspecting that the Jews in Mesopotamia also would attack the people there, instructed Lusius Quietus to clear them out of the province. Lusius deployed his forces and slaughtered great numbers of the people there – a success for which the emperor appointed him governor of Judaea. These events were recorded in similar terms by the Greek authors who wrote histories of the same period. (Ecclesiastical History, IV, 2, 1-5)

These two accounts indicate that the death toll among all races, not only the Jews, was horrific. Prominent individuals are named: Andreas by Cassius Dio and Lucuas by Eusebius.

The evidence is sparse so I am setting out here what W. argues and what I read in related works. The following is from E. Mary Smallwood‘s history of the Jews in the Roman Empire and is worth reading for what we can learn from the archaeological evidence:

* Palestinian Jews looked upon the Parthians (who had supported the Hasmonaean Antigonus in 40 B.C.; above, pp. 51-2) as potential saviours; see the prediction of R. Simeon b. Yohai (mid-second century) “If you see a Persian (i.e. Parthian) horse tethered in Israel, look for the coming of the messiah” Midr. Song R. viii, 9, § 3 ; Lament. R. i, 13, § 41 ; a remark by his contemporary R. Jose b. Kisma implies the same—BT Sank. 98a-b. Cf. Neusner, JB I, 68-70 (I2, 74-6).

** Dio names the Cyrenaican leader as Andreas. Most scholars, perhaps cor­rectly, suppose him and Lucuas to have been one and the same man, with two names (too dissimilar for one to be a corruption of the other). But there may have been two Cyrenaican leaders, Andreas who led the initial stasis and Lucuas who came to the fore after the invasion of Egypt and the change in the character of the movement. There appear to be traces of Lucuas’ presence in Palestine later . . . but none of that of Andreas.

. . . . [T]he news of the revolt of Rome’s newly annexed territory east of the Euphrates some time after mid­ summer 116 may have provided the impetus which converted an anti-Greek movement into a nationalist rising against Rome. That severe setback to Roman ambitions could be seen as the beginning of the decline of Roman power in the East, which Jewish nationalists and Parthia had a common interest in breaking, and Palestinian Jews looked on the Parthians as potential saviours.* If on the other hand, as is quite possible, the Jewish rising developed into a revolt against Rome before the beginning of the Mesopotamian revolt, the latter will certainly have given it increased vigour and greater hopes of success.

The revolt was, almost inevitably, a messianic crusade. In his second reference to the Cyrenaican leader Lucuas Eusebius calls him, without comment or explanation, the insurgents’ “king”, and this single word is highly significant. When the rising changed in character from a racial quarrel to a nationalist revolt, Lucuas adopted or received the messianic title of “king”, and political independence was now the rebels’ open aim.** The movement may have been (to use a modern term) Zionist, with the return of the Jewish exiles from N. Africa to Palestine as its objective. The march of the Cyrenaican Jews into Egypt leaving a trail of devastation behind them could have been the first step in such a mass migration.

Some details of the wanton destruction wrought by the Jews in Cyrenaica are provided by archaeological evidence, especially the inscriptions recording the repair of damage done during “the Jewish disturbances”. The road from Cyrene to the port of Apollonia was put out of action, possibly to impede the progress of Roman troops who might be sent to the area by sea. The centre of the city of Cyrene was extensively wrecked. The public baths with the adjoining colonnades, exercise halls and other ancillary rooms were burnt down, as was the whole complex of the Caesareum, comprising a basilica and other public buildings, as well as the temple of the imperial cult. Such a temple was an obvious target for any rebels, but it was by no means the only pagan shrine attacked. The temples of Hecate, Apollo and Zeus, and probably also those of Artemis, Demeter, Isis and the Dioscuri, were deliberately and systematically damaged or destroyed, which suggests that it was against pagan religious buildings in particular that the Jews directed their spite. Such fanaticism on the rebels’ part ties up with the messianic purpose which evolved as the revolt progressed, and it may well have been the Jews’ iconoclasm which earned them the designation “impious” which occurs frequently enough on papyri during and immediately after the revolt to suggest that at that period it became a “continuous epithet” for the race.

Tangible evidence for damage within the other cities of the Pentapolis is still lacking, but a hoard of some eighteen hundred coins ending with Trajanic issues found in Berenice was obviously hidden during the revolt. Elsewhere in the province the sanctuary of Asclepius at Balagrae, south west of Cyrene, which was rebuilt under the Antonines, had quite possibly been damaged during the revolt; and in the east of the province, in the district of Marmarica later transferred to Egypt, the destruction of a small second century temple near the modern El Dab’a is likely also to have been the work of the Jews.

Less evidence survives for Jewish destructiveness in Egypt than in Cyrenaica, but papyri and an autobiographical fragment of Appian give vivid glimpses of the impact of the revolt on ordinary people and everyday life and fill out Eusebius’ colourless summary. Though the Jews in Alexandria were apparently reduced to submission by October 115, the city suffered a certain amount of damage in the early days of the revolt, before the army regained control. Eusebius certainly exaggerates in saying that the city was “overthrown” and had to be rebuilt by Hadrian; devastation on that scale would have left traces elsewhere. The only Greco-Roman building recorded as having been destroyed is the precinct of Nemesis where Pompey’s head was buried, which “was rased to the ground by the Jews for military purposes at the time when Trajan was exterminating the Jewish race in Egypt” (possibly a belated act of vengeance for Pompey’s desecration of the Temple in 63 B.C.). The shrine was apparently just outside the city, and if Appian’s reference to the suppression of the revolt (in 116-17) is a precise date, the destruction was the work of Egyptian and Cyrenaican Jews hard pressed by the Romans, rather than of the Alexandrian Jews in 115. Excavation has shown that the Ptolemaic Sarapeum nearby was destroyed at some point, presumably by the Jews, if the Hadrianic date suggested for its Roman successor is correct. This Alexandrian evidence harmonizes with that from Cyrenaica that gentile shrines were the Jews’ main targets. On the other side, however, the largest of the Alexandrian synagogues, described in the Talmud as one of the glories of Jewry, was also destroyed.

Eusebius puts the extension of the rising to the whole of Egypt and its development into a war in 116. Contemporary evidence provides a striking picture of the country in the grip of the rebels for some time. In the Delta area, where they seized control of at least one of the waterways and commandeered the shipping, life became so un­comfortable for the Greeks that the historian Appian fled, and only narrowly escaped falling into their clutches as he was making rendez­ vous by night with a boat bound for Pelusium. A hoard of imperial denarii, of which the latest, over half in all, are Trajanic, found in the Delta, was clearly buried for safety during the revolt. Papyri testify to severe and extensive physical damage. One which deals with the leasing of land in a Fayum village in 151 mentions a plot which had been ravaged and abandoned in 116-17 “during the Jewish disturbances” and was still producing no income. Another con­taining a land-survey in the nome of Oxyrhynchus, undated but probably of the early second century, includes among the items “vacant building-plots on which there are huts burnt(?) by the Jews.” But the most vivid of the papyri are the letters from the archive of Apollonios, strategos of Apollinopolis-Heptacomias in Upper Egypt from 113 until 120 or later. He came from a Greek family in Hermoupolis in Middle Egypt and himself owned property in that metropolis and the surrounding nome. During the revolt he was called away from his post to serve in the campaigns against the Jews (the conscription of a civil official testifies to the gravity of the situation), and his sister-wife Aline returned home temporarily to their parents. In a letter to her husband probably written in Sep­tember 115 she tells him how she cannot eat or sleep for anxiety after his sudden departure and was too miserable to take part in the New Year’s Day celebrations, and begs him not to expose himself to danger without a guard. Their mother Eudaimonis heard tales of Jewish atrocities and in a fragment of a letter to her son records her prayer to “the gods, especially the invincible Hermes, that they may not roast you.” Despite the critical situation, however, Apollonios was able to have leave late in October 116, since Aline was imminently expecting a baby in July 117. The marauding Jews swept down on Hermoupolis, where they plundered Apollonios’ estates and broke up roads between there and Alexandria. River traffic was disrupted, and in two undated letters from the archive of another Hermoupolite family, the writer, living further north, complains of a scarcity of ships going upstream to take letters, and prays that his family may be delivered from danger. By the summer of 117 slave labour and textiles were in short supply, and Eudaimonis could see herself facing the winter “without a stitch to wear.” Agriculture also naturally suffered. In the nome of Lycopolis, south of Hermoupolis, two minor officials were reprimanded after the end of the revolt for failing to supply Apollonios with some produce due to him, and sent him an indignant letter protesting (apparently; the text is poorly preserved) that “the Jewish commotions” had prevented them from fulfilling their obligations. Both Eusebius and Orosius say that the Jewish depredations spread as far south as the Thebaid. That district was still unaffected in May 116, when the erection of a dedication to Trajan implies normal conditions and when the Jews of Apollinopolis Magna were still dutifully paying their Jewish tax. The cessation of the series of tax-receipts at that point gives the date when the Jews of the Thebaid took up arms against Rome.

Papyri throw a fitful but valuable light on the military operations against the Jews. A fragment of a letter from Apollonios’ archive (with neither the writer’s nor the recipient’s name preserved) gives a glimpse of the critical situation somewhere in Egypt, perhaps at Hermoupolis itself, at the height of the Jewish successes: “The only hope and expectation that we had left lay in an attack by the massed villagers of our nome on the impious Jews. But the reverse happened. Our men were defeated in the encounter and many of them were killed But we have now had news that another legion belonging to Rutilius (Lupus, the prefect) has reached Memphis and is expected (here?).” Evidently the Jews had already worsted the Greeks of the area before the Egyptian peasants made their despairing and un­availing stand. The concentration of troops at Memphis seems to have marked the turning of the tide. Apollonios himself joined them, perhaps with some kind of local militia, and before long one of his staff in Heptacomias wrote to the bailiff of his estate in the Hermoupolite nome seeking confirmation of “the good news of his victory and success” brought by one of their master’s slaves from Memphis. As the Roman army drove southwards, other local forces rallied to their support, and nearly a century later Oxyrhynchus still celebrated the anniversary of a victory over the Jews as a holiday and claimed credit with Rome for her loyal alliance in the crisis. But for all this local pride, there can be little doubt that the suppression of the revolt was basically the work of Q. Marcius Turbo and the reinforcements which he brought from the East; indeed, the troop concentration at Memphis which retrieved the situation may have marked his arrival, and Apollonios’ victory may have been won under the command of Turbo (to whom no papyrus refers) rather than under the prefect’s.

The choice of Turbo as commander in N. Africa, probably in 116, deprived Trajan’s army in Parthia of one of his ablest generals, and this gives the measure of the gravity of the situation when the revolt was at its height. For the revolt not only endangered the economic value of the wealthy province of Egypt, one of Rome’s chief granaries, but also constituted a serious threat to Trajan’s vital communication route by sea via Alexandria to Italy. Turbo was apparently not tied to a command in either Cyrenaica or Egypt but had overriding military authority in both provinces. His command probably covered the rebellion in Cyprus also, since he was given a joint land and naval force, and here his previous naval experience as prefect of the fleet at Misenum in 114 will have been valuable. . . .

. . . Turbo’s campaigns in Egypt figure in a garbled form in a Jewish legend: Trajan’s wife gave birth to a child on 9 Ab, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple; when the child died at the festival of Hanukkah, she took the Jews’ mourning at the time of his birth and rejoicing at the time of his death as evidence of a revolt; at her instigation Trajan accordingly abandoned his operations against the barbarians, sailed against the rebels, and conducted a massacre on such a scale that the blood of the slain stained the sea as far as Cyprus. Two versions of the legend make the episode the Jews’ punishment for disregarding a Biblical warning “not to return to Egypt”, and one of these is preceded by a description of the great synagogue in Alexandria, destroyed by “Trajan”. With these clear indications of a connection with Egypt, the legend makes coherent sense as a picturesque account of Turbo’s operations there, with Trajan’s name substituted for his, but it adds nothing of military significance.

Turbo’s campaigns probably lasted about a year, and by the time of Trajan’s death in August 117 peace was largely restored in both provinces and only the final mopping-up operations remained. For one of Hadrian’s first actions as emperor was to send him to quell a rising in Mauretania, which presupposes that Jewish resistance in Egypt and Cyrenaica had by then largely collapsed. Papyri bear this out. . . .

At least some Jews who survived the war had their property con­fiscated. . . .

If gentile loss of life was heavy in the early stages of the revolt, so was Jewish in the later. Eusebius’ “myriads” killed by Turbo may not be a wild exaggeration. In Apollinopolis Magna the series of receipts for the Jewish tax is not resumed after the suppression of the revolt, which suggests the virtual annihilation of the community there. . . . . But the much reduced volume of Jewish papyri after Trajan’s reign bears eloquent witness to the fact that the Jewish community in Egypt, though not wiped out, never recovered from its severe losses or regained its position as an important element in the population of the province. (Smallwood, 397-406)

The “great sword” in the hand of the rider of the second horse points us to a figure with authority. The image of the “red horse” (recall Zechariah 1) points us to a Jewish provenance of this figure. We have evidence of both a figure of authority (called a king) leading a Jewish revolt, apparently (pseudo-)messianic in its nature. Zechariah 1:12 records an angel’s pleading question to God: How long will you allow the oppression of the Jews to continue?

W’s conclusion:

It seems extraordinarily plausible and obvious that the apocalypticist links the leader of such a messianic, possibly even ‘Zionist’ (Smallwood) oriented uprising with the image of a rider on a ἵππος πυρρός [= ‘bright red horse’]. — Witulski, 160 (translation)

Aune, David E. Revelation 6-16. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 52B. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Academic, 2017.

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Carlisle, Cumbria: Eerdmans, 1998.

Giesen, Heinz. Die Offenbarung des Johannes. Regensburg: Pustet, 1997.

Lohmeyer, E. Die Offenbarung des Johannes. Tübingen, J.C.B. Mohr (P. Siebeck), 1926. http://archive.org/details/dieoffenbarungde0000unse_n5x5.

Prigent, Pierre. Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John. Translated by Wendy Pradels. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001.

Smallwood, E. Mary. The Jews under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian: A Study in Political Relations. Reprint edition. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014.

Witulski, Thomas. Die Vier Apokalyptischen Reiter Apk 6,1-8: Ein Versuch Ihrer Zeitgeschichtlichen (neu-)interpretation. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

. . .

Cassius, Dio.  Roman History, Volume VIII, Books 61-70. Harvard University Press, 1798.

Eusebius. The History of the Church: From Christ to Constantine. Edited by Andrew Louth. Translated by G. A. Williamson. Revised edition. London ; New York: Penguin Classics, 1990.

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