Read Revelation 6 at Bible Gateway.
Previously: revelation 6, the first six seals: the fourth seal
So far, we have discussed the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which are not future to us at all! They have long been fulfilled by the events of the decline of the Roman Empire:
seal one: 96 to 180 ad, the white horse, or the five righteous emperors
seal two: 180 to 280 ad, the red horse, or one hundred years of violent civil war
seal three: 200 to 250 ad, the black horse, or economic collapse
seal four: 250 to 300 ad, the pale horse, or population decline by famine, disease, barbarian invasions, and wild animals (Christian persecution).
The fifth seal is different, as it is the first symbol without a horse. All of the horsemen symbols had to do with political and societal aspects of the Roman Empire; with this seal, we can expect a change from that emphasis.
When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed. Rev 6:9-11
The fifth seal doesn’t even employ symbolism; it is a vision of those who have been martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ. They ask the Lord God the key question: “How long until you judge the earth, O God?” That is the question that Revelation answers, by giving a picture of what must take place leading up to that day.
The answer, by the way, is not yet: not yet from the vantage point of those fifth seal martyrs. The end of the historical event of the fifth seal is not the end of Christians, or Christian martyrs. More people were to come into the kingdom and become Christians (the full number was reached of both their fellow servants) and more people were to become Christian martyrs (and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been.)
The traditional interpretation places the fifth seal immediately following the events of the four horsemen, or from 303 to 313 ad, the time of the tenth, worst, and last official persecution of the Christians by the Roman state. The emperor was Diocletian, who had temporarily stalled the swift collapse of the Roman state, through military reforms and a systematic way of ensuring the succession to emperor.
His intent in pursuing the persecution of the Christians was to eliminate them entirely, as most non-Christian Romans blamed them for the troubles of the last century. They believed the Christians committed the sins of atheism (because Christians denied the gods of paganism) and treason (Christians would not sacrifice to the emperor as a god), and those sins had brought the wrath of the gods on their heads.
But to see how fitting the ten brutal Roman persecutions of the Christians describes the fifth seal, we ought to know something about them. Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians was not the first of the Roman Empire. Nero had begun the first (64 – 68 ad), in which Paul and Peter had been killed. In Nero’s persecution, Christians were tied onto tall posts, wrapped in flammable materials and doused with oil, and set on fire. Nero used these living torches to light the perverse entertainments he hosted in his gardens. The Roman historian Tacitus (Annals and Histories), not a Christian by any means, stated that an immense multitude were put to death under Nero.
The second persecution was under Domitian (95 – 96 ad), and it was because of this persecution that John found himself exiled to Patmos. The third was under Trajan (106 – 107 ad) in which Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch and a famous church father, was martyred. The fourth was under righteous Marcus Aurelius (166 – 177 ad), who persecuted the Christians because he believed the tales their enemies spread about them, that they practiced cannibalism in their secret rites (Communion, eating the body and blood of the Lord Jesus). In this persecution, Polycarp, the disciple of John, was martyred.
The fifth persecution was under Severus (200 – 213 ad), and the sixth was under Maximinius (235 – 237 ad). But these persecutions were not as severe as the seventh under Decius (249 – 251 ad). That persecution was so bad, that Guerber writes of it, “Such was the severity used during the two years of this persecution, that the Romans fancied that all the Christians had been killed, and that their religion would never be heard of again.”
The eighth persecution was under Valerian (257 – 260 ad), and the ninth was under Aurelian (273 ad). Diocletian’s persecution was the tenth official persecution of the Roman Empire. Guerber writes of it that it was “the worst and bloodiest that had yet been known” of the Christian persecutions (The Story of the Romans by H. A. Guerber, pages 174 and 178). Diocletian’s persecution completely wiped out Christianity in Britain, for example.
Of Diocletian’s persecution, John Foxe writes:
“The persecution became general in all the Roman provinces, but more particularly in the east; and as it lasted ten years, it is impossible to ascertain the numbers martyred, or to enumerate the various modes of martyrdom. Racks, scourges, swords, daggers, crosses, poison, and famine, were made use of in various parts to dispatch the Christians; and invention was exhausted to devise tortures against such as had no crime, but thinking differently from the votaries of superstition. A city of Phrygia, consisting entirely of Christians, was burnt, and all the inhabitants perished in the flames. Tired with slaughter, at length, several governors of provinces represented to the imperial court, the impropriety of such conduct. Hence many were respited from execution, but, though they were not put to death, as much as possible was done to render their lives miserable, many of them having their ears cut off, their noses slit, their right eyes put out, their limbs rendered useless by dreadful dislocations, and their flesh seared in conspicuous places with red-hot irons.”
— Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Chapter II, Ten Primitive Persecutions
More martyrs were made in the tenth persecution under Diocletian, than in all the nine others which came before it combined. More than Nero’s, in which Tacitus stated that an immense number were put to death. More than Decius’, in which the Romans fancied that all the Christians had been killed and would never be heard from again. Thus does the seal of the Christian martyrs belong to 303 – 313 ad, the persecution of Diocletian.
For the story of the Christian martyrs of the Roman Empire, see Eusebius, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and the Catholic Encyclopedia, all of which agree as to the severity of the persecutions. Of note is that most secular sources discount the Roman Christian persecutions (such as Gibbon, who was an ardent unbeliever, Wikipedia, and the Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers).
It is in their interest to do so. Wikipedia even states, “Claims of martyrdom were exaggerated by the early Church Fathers in order to gain converts.” There is no citation for this statement, and frankly, I can think of nothing less convincing than the apologetic, “Become a Christian and you too can die a horrible death of privation and torture!”