Black Horse Apocalypse
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31. Black Horse Apocalypse
Revelation 6.5-8

"When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come!' I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, 'Two pounds of wheat for a day's wages, six pounds of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!' When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, 'Come!' I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the earth's wild beasts." (Revelation 6.5-8)✞

Three Main Crops

Black Horse ApocalypseThe black horseman carrying a pair of scales in his hand symbolizes severe famine. The scales weigh bread during shortages when ordinary people couldn't afford a full loaf, but only a part of it. Following a war in antiquity, famine inevitably resulted in death, which in its turn created devastation. Plagues ending in death became the scourge in many ancient world areas and often resulted in half or three-quarters of the population dying. The first recorded famine was in Rome in BC 441 by Livy (BC 59-17 AD), the Roman historian in the "Founding of the City 4.12." Between BC 400 and 800 AD, Rome's population fell by over 90% through famine and plague! Nine of every ten people died! In Emperor Nero's time (37-68 AD), severe famines savaged the poor, but the rich's luxuries and "the oil and the wine" remained untouched. The oil and wine were protected from inflation and readily available to the wealthy elite. Because of famines and destruction, wheat is short but still available at prohibitive prices and only for the wealthy few. Wine and oil are carefully rationed luxury items but which only the wealthy elite can afford. Because of its connection to famine, the color black became a sign of death in Roman Empire communities. Even today, black is the standard mourning and funereal color. The black horse and its rider are death bringers.

Corn Wine and Oil

Wheat FieldThe three main crops in the Roman Empire are "corn, wine, and oil." The black horse apocalypse rider has a pair of scales and the cross-beam of a balance in his hand. In the Old Testament, the phrase "to eat bread by weight" indicated a great bread scarcity in society. Ezekiel 4.16 reads, "He then said to me: 'Son of man, I am about to cut off Jerusalem's food supply. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair.'" A voice from among the four living creatures dictated the bread, barley, corn, and wine prices. A day's wage was in Greek coinage, "a denarius," would buy six pounds of barley. Instead of buying bread by the loaf, which would have been the norm, it was sold in pieces by weight in famine times. It was an essential staple from flour dough, salt, and water. Leviticus 26.26 described the shortages during a famine and that it was God's punishment for disobedience, "When I cut off your supply of bread, ten women will be able to bake your bread in one oven, and they will dole out the bread by weight. You will eat, but you will not be satisfied." God warns in Ezekiel 4.16, "He then said to me, 'Son of man, I am about to cut off the Jerusalem's food supply. The people will eat rationed food anxiously and drink rationed water in despair.'" Starvation and lack of good bread are significant threats in those times, bringing trepidation and consternation.

Deeply Rooted

Olive OilHowever, people can buy wine and oil from the olive tree's fruit even when there is no corn. The olive tree and the grapevine are much more deeply-rooted than corn and reach water that corn cannot. We need to note that "Corn is a cereal crop and not the maze of North America." Olive tree groves and vineyards can stand a much harsher drought than the corn crop. When Jacob sent a plea to Egypt for corn in Joseph's time, he could still send delicacies along with his sons. Genesis 43.11 reads, "Then their father Israel said to them, 'If it must be, then do this, put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift — a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.'" Wine and oil and other delicacies were plentiful, but corn prohibitively expensive. The necessities of life are scarce.

Wheat Flour Measure

BarleyThe four living creatures announced a reduced wheat flour measure for a day's labor. It is now not sufficient for an ordinary family. This statement comes as "the voice from the four living creatures," emphasizing its importance during a famine when necessities are at a premium. It shows how important the price of food is to God and the people. In times of food shortage, two pounds of wheat for bread or six pounds of the coarser barley costs one denarius. The denarius is a small silver Roman coin first minted in BC 211, representing a workman's daily wage. The Greek word for "a day's wages" is "a denarius." A denarius is equivalent to about $80 in today's money. Usually, one denarius buys from eight to sixteen fine white wheat flour measures, three or four times its equivalent in barley. What John of Patmos in his vision is emphasizing here is that food is so expensive that a man's whole working wage is needed to buy enough just for himself. Nothing remains for any other necessities of life for his wife or family. It was a desperate situation for any working man caused widespread famine and subsequent riots in the Roman Empire. The four living creatures in Revelation show concern for the people's life or death problem.


The denarius is also a small silver coin mentioned by Jesus to Saint Peter as a tax payment. Jesus tells Peter in Matthew 17.27, "But so that we may not offend, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth, and you will find a four drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours." A four drachma Greek coin was worth four denarii in Palestine. The fish, traditionally thought to be a tilapia, or "St. Peter's Fish," is still available on restaurant menus in Canada today! A pay packet is essential for Rom's working people to buy food, mainly wheat flour for bread. Grain and the denarius determine a family's continued existence. A scarcity meant famine and death for many, and lives hung in the balance. The black horse apocalypse and the scales are omens of disaster for ordinary people.

Alexandria Corn Ship

Alexandria Corn ShipThe arrival in Ostia of an Alexandria corn ship in a severe famine created a riot. The vessel, however, brought no food but only sand for the gladiatorial games. Although John of Patmos was describing the black horse of famine preceding the end, he is also painting scenes of coming food shortages. The people's desperation for food occurred when an Alexandria corn ship arrived from Puteoli. It was the great center for shipping all kinds of goods from Egypt and other exotic places bound for Rome. The vessels came to the port of Ostia for delivery to nearby Rome. Ostia is now inland and silted up, but its merchant's streets and decorated mosaic tile floors remain outside Rome. Puteoli (now "Pozzuoli") was the fleet's central hub, some 170 miles away in Alexandria. In Rome, the starving populace thought the ship contained food, for corn ships typically came from ancient Alexandria. When the people discovered that the ship's cargo was not corn but sand for spreading at the Colosseum Games "to amuse the people," they rioted. This sand soaked up any spilled blood in the arena!

Emperor Domitian's Vineyards

Wheat HarvestThe scarcity of corn, barley, and wine in the Roman Empire was added to by a wine edict concerning Emperor Domitian's vineyards. It caused great hardship for the poor. In 92 AD, Emperor Domitian issued a wine proclamation, banning new vineyard planting in "Roman Italy." Roman Italy was created officially by the Roman Emperor Augustus with the Latin name "Italia," uniting the Italian Peninsula under the same name and government. Domitian (51-96 AD) is Emperor from 81-96 AD, one of the most prolonged emperor rules. Domitian was known as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. Domitian's edict ordered the uprooting of half of the existing vineyards in the Roman provinces, the empire's most extensive territorial and administrative units. This so-called wine edict was a way of controlling taxation and production. It encouraged farmers to grow more cereals and occurred when John of Patmos was writing from his Patmos Island cave. The Grain was short at that time with a severe famine but also a great abundance of wine! Revelation 6 also reflects starvation and death in John of Patmos's day. However, Domitian's edict had the opposite effect than intended as it came near to causing a rebellion in Asia province in which John is writing. The vineyards were one of the principal revenue sources. Emperor Domitian rescinded his law because of this hostile reaction and ordered the prosecution of those who stopped cultivating their vineyards! Corn became scarce. Interference in the Emperor's vineyards wine supply was forbidden, further protecting the wine and oil prices.✞

Pale Horse Apocalypse

The Pale HorseRevelation's pale horse apocalypse represents the coming of death, Hell, and famine and leaves people white with terror. The fourth seal's opening reveals Revelation's "pale horse," the last of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." The term "Pale" represents the color of a person's face when it is filled with terror or about to die. It describes the ashen appearance of the dead and symbolized death itself. The rider of the "pale horse" is the only horseman named "Death" and "Hades." Death is itself accompanied by Hades as his companion. Hades is the equivalent of the Hebrew "Sheol." In Revelation 1.18, Jesus says to John of Patmos, "I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of Death and Hades." Because of the pale horse and his rider, there is a scarcity of food, terrible famine, and the domain of Hades and death coming upon the earth.✞

"Black Horse Apocalypse"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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