Four Empires

A popular tradition concerned a sequence of four empires which would dominate the world. The raw material for this belief came from two dreams in the Book of Daniel. In the first, King Nebuchadnezzar saw a statue made of out of gold, silver, brass and a mix of iron and clay, which Daniel interpreted as four kingdoms, culminating in a fifth heavenly kingdom which would last forever (Dan. 2.31-44). In the second, dreamt by Daniel himself, there were four terrible beasts representing the kingdoms, the last with ten horns which stood for ten kings, followed by a little horn which would subdue three others and then destroy the kingdom, paving the way for the kingdom, to be ruled by God and his saints.

In the early Middle Ages the four kingdoms were often identified as Babylon, Persia, Macedonia (i.e. of Alexander the Great), and Rome. This put stress on the importance of the ‘Roman Empire’ as the last barrier to the End Times, particularly when read in conjunction with II Thess. 2.3, which stated that there would be a ‘falling away’ or ‘revolt’ (‘discessio’ in the Latin) before the Son of Perdition would reveal himself.

Rather than imaginging the empires as a sequence, some writers associated them with points of the compass. Orosius, in his Seven Books of History (418), described Babylon and Rome as opposites in East and West respectively, with the Macedonian empire to the north and the ‘African empire’ (Carthage) to the south. In the seventh century, with crisis in the Middle East, the author of the History attributed to Sebeos adapted this idea further so that to the north were the kingdoms of Gog and Magog (playing on Ezek. 38-9) and to the south was the kingdom of the Ishmaelites, with the Greeks to the West and Persians to the East.

With the waning of the Roman Empire as political institution in the West from the fifth century – although it endured effectively until the fifteenth century in Byzantium – new polities took on the ‘dignity of the Roman Empire’ in apocalyptic scenarios. In the tenth century, for instance, a writer named Adso wrote to Queen Gerberga of the Franks to comfort her that the kingdom of the Franks stood as the successor to Rome as a block to the coming of Antichrist.