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Chapter 6: Decline of the Roman Empire - Triumph of Christianity

    In chapter 5, a book with seven seals is presented to John. He is told that no one can break the seals and open the book, except Jesus Christ. John then sees a Lamb with seven eyes (all-knowing) and seven horns (all-powerful). In chapter 6, the Lamb breaks the seals and opens the book. World History thus begins to unfold before our eyes, starting with the decades after the lifetime of Jesus.

6:1 And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.

The winning years of the Empire

    The Roman Empire was in peak strength for a long time after Jesus' lifetime. Until the end of the second century CE, there was political stability, strong and long-lasting emperors, peace (the Pax Romana) and prosperity. The borders of the Empire were expanding.

6:2 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.


    The map on the left shows the Empire in the year 47 CE, while the one on the right shows what the Empire looked like in 116 CE, at the height of conquest, under Emperor Trajan:

47 CE

116 CE

Decline sets in

    But then disorder arised, and the emperors started succeeding each other very quickly, usually through assassinations and civil wars. In the third century CE, rarely did any emperor rule for more than five years, and they were usually assassinated or killed in battle. Large parts of the Empire declared their independence, led by renegade army commanders or local chiefs.

6:3 And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.

6:4 And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.

    This is what the Empire looked like in 260, after the establishment of a renegade "Gallic Empire":

260 CE

    And in 268, after the creation of an independent "Palmyrenic Kingdom" on the Asian shores:

268 CE

    This disorder caused, inevitably, an economic meltdown. Food became scarce, and increasingly expensive, the fields were not adequately cultivated and foreign invaders started making incursions into the Empire, contributing to the disaster.

6:5 And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast 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.

6:6 And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts 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.

    Plague, famine, and a drop in the standards of living were inevitable companions to this unfortunate situation. The bubonic plague, and other calamities, killed a large part of the population, possibly amounting to one-fourth of the Empire's inhabitants.

6:7 And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.

6:8 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 the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

The Persecution of Diocletian

    But Rome would not go down that easily. Outside and inside enemies were finally dealt with. The Empire regained its size:

275 CE

     To prevent renegade states from arising, the provinces of the Empire were re-organized into larger regions, called Dioceses, by the Emperor Diocletian (Vladimir Putin recently did the same thing with Russia). To make the administrative system even more efficient, the Empire itself was divided into Eastern and Western halves, each in turn divided into two parts:

290 CE

     The Christians were also felt to be an inside enemy of the Empire, so Diocletian organized the fiercest of all persecutions against them, which completed the series that had begun under Emperor Nero in the first century. 

6:9 And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:

6:10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

6:11 And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.


The Empire becomes Christian

    A great "earthquake" followed, which means the collapsing of the old world order and the creation of a new one. This was most evident under Emperor Constantine, who adopted the sign of the Cross and made it possible for the new religion to gradually become the official religion of the State. The "light" of the old religion went out.

6:12 And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;

    During a solar eclipse, the sun appears black, while during a lunar eclipse the moon does not appear totally black, but assumes a dark reddish colour.


    The priests and seers of the old religion were cast down from their former position of power and glory.

6:13 And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.

    It was now time for the spiritual teachings of the old religion to depart, giving their place to the Christian teachings. Spiritual, as well as civil, power was taken from those adhering to the old religion and was transferred to Christians.

6:14 And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

    "Mountains" and "islands" denote prominence, thus probably referring to high social positions, characterized by power and influence. Those would, from now on, be occupied mostly by Christians, since Christianity would be the official religion of the Empire. In a way, they "moved out of their places".

    What an unhappy time for those still following the old religion, rich and poor, great and small, kings and slaves.

6:15 And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;

    The old religion was eventually persecuted into extinction.

6:16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:

6:17 For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?

     In the Apocalypse, every scene is seen from a specific point of view. Afflictions are seen from the point of view of those who suffer through them, in this case the followers of the ancient religion. The "heaven" departed, and the "mountains" and "islands" moved out of their places, but only as far as those people were concerned. As far as Christians were concerned, there was a new "heaven", a Christian one, and they were the new occupants of "mountains" and "islands". But why isn't this scene seen from their point of view, as well? After all, it's their victory. Well, that's what chapter 7 is here for.