14. Gold, silver, bronze and iron

The four monarchies

The myth of the four monarchies is – like a good myth behooves – a recurrent and renewing story from way back when. A specific motif – in this case a sequence of four periods – follows a historical path and reflects the ways of understanding in different times and places. The four monarchies are a tetradic element in history, but it is questionable  if their presence is more than a numerological curiosity. The decreasing quality of the metals, from gold to iron, points in a linear direction, which is typical for lower division thinking.

Two mainstream developments – from a European point of view – can be distinguished in the myth: a Christian and a pagan version. The first is based on Bible-texts in Daniel 2 : 31 – 45; Daniel 7 : 1 – 14 and II Thess. 2 : 3 – 8. These religious stories are, most likely, younger derivatives of a worldly version, which originate, according to KASSIES (1989), from Asia Minor. There is also a possible eastern connection in the mythology of India, where four ages are related to metals (ENDRES, 1951):

                            Gold                                                     –     happiness

                            Silver                                                   –      fire

                            Bronze                                                 –     doubt

                            Iron                                                      –     sorrow

The periods have the following names in the Hindu-mythology: Satya, Dwarpara, Treta en Kali (ARGÜELLES, 1972).

The Greek epic poet Hesiod of Ascra propagated the myth, in his poem ‘Erga’ (Works and Days, eighth century BC.), in the European cultural realm. The Roman Ovidius, living at the beginning of the Christian era, retold  the story in his ‘Metamorphoses’.  The division of the world history in four units and their characterization by metals remained a cultural theme since. The four ages are, in their elementary form, recorded at the beginning of Book I of the ‘Metamorphoses’:

 Age of:                     Gold             the ‘aetas aurea‘, ruled by justice;

                                   Silver           no offerings to the gods; establishment of the four                                                                            seasons; building of shelters;

                                   Bronze         period of war; warlike and recklessness

                                   Iron              chaos and injustice, disaster is looming;  division of                                                            the land

The older version of Hesiod added a fifth period between the bronze and the Iron Age, characterized as the age of heroes and demigods, living on islands of salvation. Because of the justice, they surpass the third age. Plato (in the ‘Politeia’, 415A) considers himself living in the age of Iron, with much injustice (CORNFORD, 1912).

The poet Lucretius (ca. 99 – ca. 55 BC) revived the idea of the four ages in Roman times in the poem ‘De Rerum Natura’ (Book V) and also Vergil (70 – 19 BC) elaborated on the thoughts of a Golden Age.

The tradition of the four monarchies was of prime interest in the sixteenth and seventeenth century of the European cultural history. It started with the publication of Ovidius’ ‘Metamorphoses’ in a French edition of Jean de Tournes in 1557 (BOLTEN, 1984). The woodcuts of this edition (including the four world ages) are attributed to Bernard Salomon and reach the Low Countries in 1563 through copies of Vergil Solis. Within a century, there were many reprints. Between 1585 and 1590 the theme was taken up by Hendrick Goltzius (1558 – 1617).

This development was strengthened by ‘classical’ material from Italy. The Italian painter and engraver Antonio Tempesta (1555 – 1630) published in 1606 a large series of hundred and fifty etchings based on the ‘Metamorphoses’ (fig. 69). A comparison between the illustrations (of the ‘Metamorphoses’ and the four times of the world) by Salomon, Tempesta and Goltzius was made by  HENKEL (1930).


Fig. 69 – The Aetas aurea, or the Golden Age, is a symbol of a period of prosperity. This etching is by Antonio Tempesta (1555 – 1630). The series of the ‘aetas’ was published in 1606, but Tempesta’s designs were already imitated by Hendrick Goltzius and Chrispijn de Passe (c. 1564 – 1637), who published their own cycles in respectively 1590/1591 and 1602.  In: HORODISCH, Abraham (Ed.)(1984, p. 23).

The history of the myth of the four monarchies is an interesting one, but not always as clear as one would wish. The possible source in Asia Minor is already mentioned by KASSIES (1989). The theme was, according to MEYER (1910/1924), Hesiod’s own invention and any similarity with the Greek (Boeotian) and oriental division were a coincidence. The Christian version is much younger.

The Biblical story of Nebuchadnezar’s dream was the source of the Jewish/Christian branch of the four monarchies. The prophet Daniel explained the dream as follows: the head is made of gold, breast and arms are of silver, belly and thies are of bronze and the legs are of iron. The feeds are partly of iron and partly of clay. The diminishing quality of the metals pointed to the inferior quality of governments following the one of Nebuchadnezar. A large rock rolling from a mountain, which destroys the statue, is the end of the dream (fig. 70).


Fig. 70 – Nebuchadnezar’s dream. From the Silos Apocalypse (completed in 1109). The statue is complete (left) and subsequently in pieces, due to a rock not made by human hands. In: SMALLEY, 1974.

The oneirocritical Daniel situated his prediction in his own time and pointed to the future: Nebuchadnezer (‘You are the head’) personified the Golden Age at the beginning of a communication. ROWLEY (1935/1959) gave – in an excellent description of the historical setting of the myth of the four monarchies – a different position of Daniel:

                           1. Chaldean      –     Nebuchadnezar  –    Neo-Babylonic Empire

                           2. Medes           –     ‘Darius the Mede’

                            3. Persians       –     Cyrus : Daniel in the third year of Cyrus

                            4. Greek            –     Alexander

The Biblical version suggested that Daniel made his prediction in the Babylonian Captivity (586 – 539 BC.). However, historical research showed that the work was composed around 168/165 BC. (TABOUIS, 1931; ROWLEY, 1935/1959; SWAIN, 1940). The ‘prediction’ of Daniel, based on Nebuchadnezar’s dream, was therefore given ‘post eventus’. It was likely fueled by the expectations of a victory by Judas Maccabaeus to enter the Fifth Monarchy (SWAIN, 1940).

Manipulation of the position of the observer (reversal) can even lead to a complete different interpretation: in stead of a downward trend (as predicted by Daniel), there is also an upwards trend, glorifying the last (implicit the Roman) Empire. An example of the ‘upward’ movement is Polybius (c. 200 – 120 BC: Persians, Lacedaemonians, Macedonians, Romans) and Diodorus Siculus (first century BC: Egyptians, Assyrians, Greek, Romans) (SWAIN, 1940; VAN DER POT, 1951).

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, around the beginning of the Christian era, had an unconditional faith in the duration of the Roman Empire. He recognized – in his ‘Romanae antiquitates’ (the history of Rome until the Punic Wars in twenty books) – the four previous world powers (Assyria, Medes, Pers and Macedonia) and puts the Roman Empire as the ‘eternal’, fifth world-power.

A fragment of Aemilius Sura (‘de annis populi Romani‘), mentioning the four world empires, was included in the ‘Historiae Romanae’ of Vellius Paterculus. Appianus wrote, around 140 BC, a Roman history in twenty-four books, also with the Roman Empire as the fifth and last era.

This optimistic outlook on the position of the Roman Empire could not hold forever and had to be modified. Pompeius Trogus proposed a more realistic version at the beginning of the Christian era (SCHUMACHER, 2000). Only the ‘prologi’ of his twenty-four books remain, because M. Junius Justinus adapted them at the end of the third century AD. The Roman Empire is seen as the fourth monarchy, leaving room for a possible (Christian) fifth era. SWAIN (1940) noticed that Trogus (and Justinus) where – up to the Renaissance – more important as historians than Livy and Tacitus. TRIEBER (1892) underlined the popularity of Justinus as a historian, who was only shifted aside by the humanistic tendencies, when the orthodox version of Roman as a fifth and eternal era could take hold again.

The first flaws of the Roman eternal greatness began to show up in the beginning of the Christian era. Flavius Josephus description of the history of the Jewish people (c. 90 AD) was inspired by a genuine disgust of Roman megalomania. He elaborated in his ‘Antiquitates’ (Book X, Ch. 10) on the idea of the four  monarchies. The stone (destroying the statue) must be seen as the Messiah, crushing the Roman Empire. The first century AD was a time of political turmoil. In Syria and Palestine, there was ‘a lot of coming and going of inconsequential visionaries, evangelists, and fakes’ (MacMULLEN, 1984; NEUSNER et al, 1987), who mobilized forces against the foreign domination. The roots of Christianity are closely related to a power struggle in the Roman Empire.

KOCKEN (1935) examined the Christian sources and their eschatological implications. He pointed out, that this latter aspect was typical for the Christian version, while the power of Fate determined the duration of the periods in the pagan explanation of the myth (fig. 71).


Fig. 71 – The apocalyptic animals in the Bible (Ezekiel/Revelations). The four beasts (a lion with eagle wings, a leopard with four heads, a bear and a beast with eleven horns) signify the four world monarchies. British Museum, London. MS Add 11695, f. 240r. Jerome, Commentary on Daniel. Daniel chapter 7, verses 2-10. Daniel’s vision of the four beasts from the sea and the Ancient of Days. In: SMALLEY,  1974.

The four monarchies in the early Christian exegesis of the first centuries are:

                                                    1. Babylonian Empire

                                                    2. Medo-persian Empire

                                                    3. Macedonian Empire

                                                    4. Roman Empire

The four primary sources of the Christian version of the myth are, according to KOCKEN (1935):

 1. The first development of the idea is found by Irenaeus, in his book ‘Adversus Haereses’ (V. 26, 1). The fourth monarchy is the empire at present in force (i.e. the Roman Empire) and the fifth monarchy is due to come.

2. Hippolytus (c. 200 BC), a pupil of Irenaeus, is more important for the generation and dispersion of the theory. He confirmed, in his book ‘De Antichristo’ (19 – 28) and his commentary on the Book of Daniel (II, 12), a strong Roman Empire as the fourth monarchy, which can only delay the disaster afterwards.

3. No commentary on the Book of Daniel is known of Origines (c. 185 – c. 245), but there is a commentary on Genesis (Comm. in Gen. III, 4), which referred to the four monarchies. He did not hind to an eschatological conclusion.

4. The fourth source is Apollinaris of Laodicea, mentioned in book XV of Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 320).

Most influential for the dispersion of the myth of the four monarchies or world periods was the ‘Commentariorum in Danielem prophetam’ of Hieronymus (c. 407). This writing was copied by the ninth century monk Walafried Strabo in his ‘Glossa ordinaria’. This latter version became most authoritative in the Middle Ages. Hieronymus (St. Jerome) gave, according to TRIEBER (1892), ‘allgemeinen Geltung‘ (general meaning) to the theory. BLOOMFIELD (1957, notes p. 276) supported this point of view.

Orosius (c. 418) pretended not to know the Christian version of the four monarchies and did not mention Daniel. However, his ‘Seven Books of the History against the Pagans‘ is structurally based on the four monarchies.  Book I deals with the Assyrians, Book II and III are concerned with the Macedonians, Book IV describes the people of Carthage, Book V and VI is about Rome and finally Book VII leads to the birth of Christ and the Fifth Empire.

The monarchies passed through the Renaissance in either the pagan-humanistic or Christian version and became part of the symbolic representations in the six- and seventeenth century of Europe. Sleidanus (1669) wrote a small ‘pocketbook’ (9 x 12 cm) titled ‘de Quatuor Monarchiis libri tres’. The footnotes – with references to an array of classical authors – took as much space as the text. He attributed the classical theory of the four monarchies (Babylonico, Persici, Graeco and Romano) to Prius. Book I (De Prima Monarchia) dealt with Nabuchodonosor. Cyrus Persarum – rex primus – with Cambyses, the conqueror of Egypt, as a successor, governed the ‘Secunda Monarchia’. The third era (Tertia Monarchia) was centred on Philippus Rex Macedoniae. Sleidanus continued in Book II with the fourth or Roman era (Ceasare C. Octavius) and in Book III the theme got a new meaning with Charlemagne (Carolo Magno) as the modern incarnation of the Roman Empire.

Several portrayals of the four periods in world history are known from the Haarlem School of Hendrick Goltzius (fig. 72). In the ‘aurea Saturno’ (as equivalent to the ‘aetas aurea’) are groups of people in a crowded paradise (about twenty five persons are gathered, among them Bacchus (or Dionysus, god of the wine) and Ceres sitting under a tree like Adam and Eve and Saturn as a god in the clouds). In the second period, the silver age, man is laboring on the land with a plow. In the third age of bronze life is getting harder. There is building, fishing and trade, but also a stack of arms is ready for use. In the last period, the war and destruction have started.


Fig. 72 – The four periods of the world, by an unknown Dutch engraver from the school of painters and engravers around Hendrick Goltzius, based in Haarlem. Dimensions 174 x 250 mm. In: BOLTEN, 1984.

The iconographic elements in the representation of the four periods follow a dual division-line from initial happiness to utter chaos:

 1. In the golden age there are happy human pairs in an Arcadian environment;

 2. In the second age there are still peaceful circumstances, while people laboring on the land;

 3. In the third age there is a more forceful approach to nature by building activities. The equilibrium is disturbed and quarrels and strife treated to take over.

 4.  In the fourth age the balance is completely lost and chaos and degeneration sets in.

 The popularity of the (symbolic) expression of the four world-periods at the beginning of the seventeenth century (1603) was emphasized by Abraham Bloemaert’s portrayal of the motif and also by Crispijn van de Passe de Oude (BOLTEN, pp. 23 e.v. in: HORODISCH (1984)(fig. 73).


Fig. 73 – The four periods of the world, based on Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. These copper etchings by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder measure ca. 80 x 125 mm. Every picture is supported by a Latin text describing the inescapable development from great happiness to chaos and destruction. The four-fold framework (of historical units) is used to convey a strong linear message with a downward trend.

The most outstanding and influential representation of the Four Monarchies can be found in Sir Walter Raleigh’s ‘History of the World’ (1614). The frontispiece of this book showed an eye surrounded by flames labeled ‘Providentia’. Anne Bradstreet used this work to construct her poem ‘Four Monarchies’ (STANFORD, 1983; p. 240) (fig. 74).

historyFig. 74 – Title page of Sir Walter Raleigh, History of the World, London, Printed for Walter Burre, 1614. From the George McArthur Bequest, 1903. (Special Collections, Baillieu Library)

The fusion between the Christian myth of the paradise, as a time and place of perfect happiness, and the pagan Golden Age was made even stronger in the beginning of the eighteenth century. A nostalgic quest for the lost world of happiness started in intellectual circles. The French churchman and scholar Pierre Daniel Huet (1630 – 1721) was – with his book ‘Traité de la situation de paradis terrestre’ (Amsterdam, 1701) – seen as an authority on the geography of the paradise. Olof Celsius the Elder (1670 – 1756) got his Ph. D. at the university of Uppsala in 1714 on the subject of ‘De Situ Paradisi Terrestris’ en Lars Arrhenius studied in 1731, at the same university, the four monarchies. A comparison with Biblical periods was carried out (FRÄNGSMYR, 1983).

The myth of the four monarchies is today only of historical value. The four-fold division of past political entities in relation to the general understanding of present governments has never been an issue. There is, on the contrary, a sense of individuality, generated by ‘scientific revolutions’ (KUHN, 1962/1970; COHEN, 1994). Progress is not a historic necessity, but an act of personal and/or collective achievement.

The word ‘revolution’ is associated with dualism, of ‘before’ and ‘after’. Revolution is a forced change in order to create a new reality. Our present cultural sense of uniqueness, born in ‘scientific revolutions’, is related to a linear mind. The absence of an apparent historical precedence points to lower division thinking. A realization of our position in time and place might be the first step to widen our consciousness of a cyclic approach in higher division thinking.

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