What’s Up with The Four Horsemen?

Even passing familiarity with western media will have the phrase “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” ringing a few bells. Which is totally fine considering how enigmatic the idea of Four Horsemen just… existing is. But what’s up with the Four Horsemen anyway? What are they actually riding in for? Must be one heck of an occasion. 

Revelations

You probably know some variation of our four riders. In order of appearance are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. You might see Conquest referred to as Pestilence here and there, but we’ll stick with the former. 

The Four Horsemen are Christian figures that initially appeared in the Book of Revelation. If you understandably don’t study the mythology, that probably doesn’t mean anything to you. Really, you just have to know that the Book of Revelation is the last one in the New Testament, and details the end of the world. Perhaps you might call it… an apocalypse. 

You actually would call it an apocalypse, since the word “apocalypse” is derived from the Greek apokalyptein, which literally means “revelation.” The Book of Revelation was written by a guy named John… probably. It’s up for academic debate, with modern literature ultimately holding that we can’t know all that much about John besides the fact that he was a Christian prophet. 

But you don’t really care about John, you care about the four cool dudes in that painting that herald the end of the world. The Horsemen don’t just appear out of thin air, they also are summoned by breaking the first four of the Seven Seals. Each seal summons one Horseman, while the following three basically cause increasing levels of calamity. They’re described as being opened by a “lamb,” generally interpreted to be Jesus Christ. 

It’s About the Horses

The Four Horsemen gallop into the end times on some pretty specific horses. Makes sense since you’re not going to want your average horse when you’re ending the world. Conquest, War, Famine, and Death ride in on the White, Red, Black, and Pale horses respectively. They are first described as the riders of each horse, e.g. Conquest is described as the rider of the White Horse or the White Rider.

So we’ll be literal first. In the text, Conquest is described as holding a bow and wearing a crown. He’s also literally described as having the job of conquering, hence the name. War follows next, depicted with a sword. His job is to literally uh… cause war. Next is Famine, holding scales. Famine rides in literally weighing and partitioning how much food people get. Finally comes Death, and he’s actually not described as holding any artifact in text. He does get a real name, though. It’s Thanatos, you might know him as the guy Sisyphus imprisoned in a gambit for immortality. Sisyphus is the guy who is now pushing a rock up a hill for… forever. So it didn’t go very well for him. Death brings with him Hades, the Greek God of Death and also the name of the Underworld. 

As far as other weird musings on the Four go, it’s pretty straightforward. The idea of Conquest being “Pestilence” is actually a pretty modern thing, though. In the original Greek text, the only rider associated with disease is Death. Death is also described as riding a sickly horse, often depicted as a kind of gross green or yellow. But “Pale Rider” sounds cooler than “Green Rider.” 

And also Rome?

The Book of Revelation is rife with symbolism, which is the story of the Horsemen is often projected onto stuff. Perhaps one of the more common interpretations is the Horsemen describing an empire or world order collapsing. It’s more like the Horsemen aren’t ending the world, but rather their presence signals that the world is ending. Specifically, it’s Rome. 

This interpretation is attributed to Edward Bishop Elliot. Conquest is to symbolize Rome’s prosperity, with his bow being tied to the archers of Crete. As prosperity begins to wane, War rides in and Elliot attributes it to the infighting and civil war within the Roman Empire. In the Book of Revelation, the Red Rider isn’t described as an active participant in warfare. Rather, he’s described as an entity who “takes peace from Earth, and that men would slay one another.” At the very least, it helps draw a distinction between Conquest and War, since you kind of can’t conquer someone without going to war with them. 

Let’s keep going with Famine. Elliot points to the high taxation of Romans under Emperor Caracalla (often described as the worst of the Roman Emperors in modern literature). Later came Emperor Maximin, who basically funneled all wealth upwards. Kind of like how the richest 1% have more than the other 99%. Combined. By a factor of two in 2022. So you know, some dude coming in and telling you you don’t get to eat (you know, like a famine but only for the poor) while the rich get to chill sounds like a good way to tear apart a society.

Too real? 

Anyway, Death. Yeah spoiler alert, the Roman Empire did in fact collapse. 


Alright, it wouldn’t be very fruitful to quiz you on the Four Horsemen since you know who they are now. Here are some apocalypse movies instead.

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