And I looked, and behold a pale green/blue horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. — Revelation 6:8
Here we have two figures, one named Death and another, following, named Hades. The two of them, together, have power over the fourth part of the earth. I bypass here the bulk of Thomas Witulski’s discussion about the authenticity of the received text and other passages in which “Death and Hades” appear and jump to his conclusion:
. . . [T]he view has prevailed in ancient historical research that the uprising of the Jews in Egypt and North Africa was ultimately put down by the collaboration of two Roman commanders; on the one hand, the governor of the province of Aegyptus, Μ. Rutilius Lupus, and on the other hand, the praefectus classis Q. Marcius Turbo. (W. 192)
If we accept the view that the four horsemen represent historical persons, that the first horseman was the emperor Trajan, that the second horseman signified the Jewish messianic uprisings, and that the third represented an Asian governor attempting to regulate the consequences of that uprising, then we may think it necessarily follows that the fourth horseman named Death along with another named Hades represent the two Roman commanders appointed to suppress that Jewish rebellion.
The colour of the horse is χλωρός (chloros). The Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon gives its meaning as greenish-yellow, pale, green. Various commentaries denote its meaning as the colour of death, of a pale blue corpse. The word appears in Homer’s epics when persons are faced with the “pale horror” of imminent death. Another Greek author wrote of facing imminent death so that he turned “paler than grass in autumn”.
The two riders are given power over a quarter of the earth. That does not mean that they killed a quarter of the earth but that they were given that portion of the earth in which to exercise their power.
On the phrase “to kill with the sword”, David E. Aune in Revelation 6–16 notes
“To kill with the sword” sounds like a parody of the Roman ius gladii, “law of the sword,” i.e., the power to punish individual criminals (Digest 2.1.3; A. Berger, Roman Law, 529). (403)
And when He had opened the third seal, I heard the third living being say, “Come and see!” 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 something like a voice from among the four living creatures saying, “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!” — Revelation 6:5-6
A pair of balances in his hand
Many commentators interpret the image of scales and the weighing of grain as a representation of famine that often follows in the destruction of croplands during a time of warfare. Two Old Testament verses are commonly referenced:
Leviticus 26:26When I afflict you with famine of bread, then ten women shall bake your loaves in one oven, and they shall render your loaves by weight; and ye shall eat, and not be satisfied. (LXX)
Ezekiel 4:16-17And he said to me, Son of man, behold, I break the support of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight and in want; and shall drink water by measure, and in a state of ruin: that they may want bread and water; and a man and his brother shall be brought to ruin, and they shall pine away in their iniquities. (LXX)
Thomas Witulski (whose arguments for a Hadrianic date for the book of Revelation I have been outlining) identifies the following problems with attempting to link those verses in Leviticus and Ezekiel with the third horseman of the apocalypse:
— the term for “scales” or “balances” does not appear in either Lev 26 or Ez 4;
— Lev 26 and Ez 4 speak of “bread” but “bread” is not the subject of Revelation 6:5-6;
— the scales are used to measure by weight, but what follows is not a weight measure but a volume measure; the scales are therefore not directly related to what follows – and in the words of Aune (Rev 6-16, 396), “the presence of the scales is not illuminated by what follows”;
— as we saw in the vision of the first horseman, the bow is mentioned without the accompanying reference to arrows, thus suggesting that the bow was introduced as a symbol rather than a weapon to be used, so here, scales are mentioned without the expected accompanying reference to weights. It follows that the scales, like the sword, are a symbol rather than a tool for use;
— no Old Testament reference to scales speaks of them being held in one hand as we find in Revelation 6:5.
The image of scales being held in hand appears frequently in Roman imperial coinage from the later part of the first century and throughout the second. The goddess Aequitas represents equal justice, equal decisions made in comparable cases, and stands for Roman jurisprudence in general or more specifically to the person entrusted to administer justice.
Something like a voice in the midst of the living creatures
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 horsethat was red; and powerwas given to him that satthereon 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.
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 220.127.116.11). 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.
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.
It may seem unusual to think of any of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” as representatives of individual persons. Nonetheless, that is the perspective advanced by Thomas Witulski as we saw in the post on The White Horseman of the Apocalypse. The argument was that the rider of the white horse was a coded reference to a historical figure: one who carried a bow, was given a crown, and who went forth conquering and to conquer yet further. Before presenting W’s interpretation of the rider of the red horse let’s back up a little and understand some of the justification for these “historical-personal” identifications.
In each of the four visions revealed by the breaking of the first four seals, there is a clear demarcation between the horse and its rider and the action to be performed by the rider. In each of the four visions we have the same pattern:
the horse appears
the colour of the horse is given
the rider is described
the effects of some action by the rider are related
Note that each of the four effects is brought about by its respective rider and some detail related to that rider: the first carries a bow, the second a sword, and so forth. It is widely acknowledged that the four horses in Revelation 6 are inspired by the model of the four horses, or groups of horses, in Zechariah 1 and 6. In those passages the horses alone are sufficient to represent the meaning to be discerned. So why does our author of Revelation introduce distinctive riders on each of his horses? Such a focus on each of the riders may suggest that the author has something other in mind than a general calamity being symbolized by each of the coloured horses.
Commentators have noted also the relationship between these horses, or at least the first one, to other imagery in Revelation. The Messiah rider of the white horse in Revelation 19 is introduced in the same way as the horses and their riders in Revelation 6:
Revelation 19:11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords.
Indeed, the first rider on the white horse to emerge from the first seal carries several reminders of the Christ figure in other sections of Revelation and Zechariah:
In Revelation 5:5 we read that the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has (like the first horseman) “conquered”.
In Revelation 19 we read (as we did of the first horseman) of a white horse, its rider, including a weapon, and his action of conquering.
In Revelation 19 we read of the rider with “many crowns”, a contrast to the first horseman with one crown.
In Zechariah 9:13f and Revelation 14:14 we find the imagery of the bow and sword related to the Messiah who slays his enemies.
The vision of the horses in Zechariah 6 is followed by a commission to the messianic high priest Joshua.
More explication can be added and W does add much more as he engages with various commentaries addressing the apparent relationships between Revelation and Zechariah and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The point is clear: at least the first horseman can easily be understood as an individual-to-individual match to the Messiah figure.
The first horseman appears in some way to be a counterpart to the Messiah who also rides a white horse, wears many crowns, and conquers with his sword (or sickle as in ch. 14). In other words, there is a person to person correlation between the two images. And if the first rider is interpreted this way, and the other riders are described with the same patterns, then it is reasonable to interpret each of them as signifying some personal figure as well.
Such, in brief, are the main points of W’s case for identifying the riders of Revelation’s four horsemen with persons related to significant historical events preoccupying the mind of the author.
Next, we’ll follow this approach in assessing W’s contemporary person-historical interpretation of the red horse.
Witulski, Thomas. Die Vier Apokalyptischen Reiter Apk 6,1-8: Ein Versuch Ihrer Zeitgeschichtlichen (neu-)interpretation. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.
If the book of Revelation is to be dated to the time of Hadrian (specifically to the late 120s or early 130s) how might the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” be understood?
Some commentaries propose that the white horse represents the preaching of the gospel. The difficulty with this interpretation is that the first rider emerges from the same place as the other horsemen who bring calamities to the world. Should we not expect the white horseman also to be a harbinger of death and suffering?
Revelation 6:1 And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, Come. 2 And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and he that sat thereon had a bow; and there was given unto him a crown: and he came forth conquering, and to conquer.
There is a considerable amount of evidence in ancient Greco-Roman literature linking “white horses” not only with military conquest, imperial power and rulership but also with extending the prestige acquired from those conquests to the level of equality with the divine, especially with the chief god of the Greco-Roman pantheon, Zeus/Jupiter.
The Roman historian Livy wrote at a time when the Republic of Rome was in crisis and a new age of “emperors” was dawning. Notice the nervous alarm with which he addresses the idea of a past Roman hero using white horses in his Triumphal march through Rome:
The return of Camillus drew greater crowds than had ever been seen on such an occasion in the past, people of all ranks in society pouring through the city gates to meet him; and the official celebration of his Triumph left in its splendour all previous ones in the shade. Riding into Rome in a chariot drawn by white horses he was the cynosure of every eye – and indeed in doing so he was felt to be guilty of a certain anti-republican arrogance, and even of impiety. Might there not be sin, people wondered, in giving a man those dazzling steeds and thus making him equal with Jupiter or the God of the Sun? It was this disquieting thought that rendered the celebration, for all its magnificence, not wholly acceptable. — Livy, V, 23
A later historian, Suetonius, wrote of the advent of Augustus to the world:
On the day Augustus was born, when the conspiracy of Catiline was being discussed in the senate house and Octavius stayed away until late because his wife was in labour, Publius Nigidius, hearing why he was delayed, when informed of the hour of the birth, asserted (as is generally known) that the master of the world was born. When Octavius, who was leading an army through remote regions of Thrace, sought guidance concerning his son at some barbarian rituals in the grove of Father Liber, the same prediction was made by the priests, for so great a flame had leapt up when they poured wine on the altar, that it passed beyond the peak of the temple roof and right up to the sky, a portent which had only previously occurred when Alexander the Great offered sacrifice at that altar. And on the very next night thereafter, he dreamed he saw his son of greater than mortal size with a thunderbolt and sceptre and emblems of Jupiter Best and Greatest and a radiate crown, on a chariot decorated with laurel drawn by twelve horses of astonishing whiteness. — Suetonius, Augustus, 94
By the time of Julius Caesar it was evidently the custom to allow white horses for a conqueror’s Triumph:
For they had voted that sacrifices should be offered for his [Julius Caesar’s] victory during forty days, and had granted him permission to ride, in the triumph already voted him, in a chariot drawn by white horses. — Cassius Dio, Roman History, XLIII, 14,3
Greek and Roman historians described a focus on white horses in Persian royal processions in a similar way:
Then came ten of the sacred horses, known as Nisaean, in magnificent harness, followed by the holy chariot of Zeus drawn by eight white horses, with a charioteer on foot behind him holding the reins – for no mortal man may mount into that chariot’s seat. — Herodotus, Histories, 7, 40
Next after the bulls came horses, a sacrifice for the Sun ; and after them came a chariot sacred to Zeus; it was drawn by white horses with a yoke of gold and wreathed with garlands ; and next, for the Sun, a chariot drawn by white horses and wreathed with garlands like the other. After that came a third chariot with horses covered with purple trappings, and behind it followed men carrying fire on a great altar. – Xenophon, Cyropedia, VIII, 3, 12
Then came the chariot consecrated to Jupiter, drawn by white horses, followed by a horse of extraordinary size, which the Persians called ‘the Sun’s horse’. — Rufus, History of Alexander, 3, 11
Then did the Sons of Zeus, my brethren twain, Flashing on white steeds come to war with thee. — Euripides, Iphigeneia at Aulis, 1153-1154
We read of other instances where white horses are associated with raw imperial power without any pronounced religious connotation:
. . . in the middle is Rhesos the king, son of Eïoneus. His are the most beautiful horses I have beheld and the most magnificent; they are whiter than snow, they run like the wind . . . Homer, Iliad, X, 435-37
Hard by, his white steeds to his Thracian car Are tethered : clear they gleam athwart the dark As gleams the white wing of a river-swan. — Euripides, Rhesus, 616-618
[King Turnus] called for his horses and joyfully watched their restive excitement. These horses had been given to Pilumnus by Orithyia herself – a proud possession, for they could outmatch snow in their white brilliance and the winds in their speed. — Virgil, Aeneid, XII, 82-84