The Four Kingdoms in the Book of Daniel Reconsidered

by Otto Erlend Nordgreen  © 1998

The following text is a minor version of my essay “The Identity of the 4th Kingdom in the Book of Daniel”

The current consensus among commentators on the Book of Daniel (Dan) is that it provides two ‘apocalyptic prophecies’ about the rise and fall of four ‘empires’, or secular powers.1 It is also normally accepted that the four empires of king Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Dan 2:31ff.) are equivalent to those represented by the four ‘beasts’ (Dan 7), and that the first secular power should be identified with the neo-Babylonian kingdom. This also reflects the main assumption of the present writer.

There is, however, still considerable divergence in opinion about the identities of the following three ‘empires’ portrayed by Daniel2. The larger part of modern scholars has identified the following three empires with

(2) Media;
(3) Persia; and
(4) Greece of Alexander the Great (often togther with Syria and the rest of the ‘diadochoi’);

constituting a so-called ‘Greek View’3. Others see in the four empires
(2) Medo-Persia;
(3) Greece of Alexander the Great; and
(4) Rome;
often referred to as the ‘Roman View’4.

However, as we shall see, both interpretations seem to be in conflict either with history or the rest of the Bible.

In the following, I would like to offer a small contribution to the current debate regarding the identity of the fourth empire of Daniel. My research is motivated by the observation that the two ‘leading’ views or interpretations of Daniel’s account of history do not seem to be totally in harmony with both history and the rest of the Biblical context.

A thorough examination of all the problems concerning the identities of the four empires in the Book of Daniel would demand an entire monographic study5. This can certainly not be done here. In this essay a brief examination of the most central aspects will have to do.

The problem with the ‘Greek View’ is the identification of the second and third empires with Media and Persia respectively. Media ceased to exist as an independent empire about eleven years before the fall of Babylon. Thus, there was really no Median empire different from Persia after the neo-Babylonian empire.6

So, accepting a ‘historical approach’ to these to these parts of the Book of Daniel, we have to conclude that either this interpretation is not correct or the author of these prophecies did not tell real history. The many advocates of the ‘Greek View’, of course, hold the latter position whilst their opponents hold the former statement.7

If we assume – following most commentators – that each of the succeeding empires is said to come into being first after the ‘complete’ fall of each preceding empire, the second empire, I would like to argue, should be identified with the empire of Medo-Peria. At least if we, like the present author, assume that Daniel was telling real history.

In fact, this interpretation seems to be in harmony with Dan 8:3-4. In this section the empires of Media and Persia are described as an entity (not two independent empires). Thus, it could seem that the writer of the Book of Daniel was aware of the fact that there was a unity between these two empires after the fall of Babylon (539 BCE.). That the neo-Babylonian empire is absent from the vision in Dan 8 is due to the fact that it had ceased to exist.

Thus, it would seem – at least to the author of this essay – that Daniel in this respect was not confused about history at all, and therefore did not think that there was any independant Median empire after the fall of Babylon. Following the so-called ‘Roman View’, we should therefore identify the second empire with Medio-Persia. The third empire would then have to be Greece of Alexander the Great.

We should, however, not – following the ‘Roman View’ – identify the fourth empire with Rome! This for several reasons:

(1) An identification of the fourth secular power with Rome does not seem to be in harmony with the testimony of John the Seer, who apparently did not understand the fourth ‘beast’ of Daniel to symbolise the Roman empire. It is normally recognised that the writer of the Book of Revelation has used material from Dan 7 when he described the Roman empire:

It had seven heads and ten horns with a coronet on each of its ten horns, and its heads were marked with blasphemous titles. I saw that the beast was like a leopard, with paws like a bear and a mouth like a lion (...). (The Jerusalem Bible)
As we can see, John has in Rev 13:1b-2a employed Daniel’s description of all the ‘beasts’ (viz. empires) for the portray of his single beast.8 Thus, if we accept that this beast is the Roman empire (as most scholars do), than John demonstrates that the fourth beast of Daniel in fact cannot be Rome.
Unfortunately, John’s portray of the Roman empire is often, wrongly, understood as an early christian ‘re-interpretation’ of the fourth empire mentioned by Daniel9. According to this view, John of Patmos identified the fouth ‘beast’ of Dan 7 with Rome. But this, I would argue, does not seem plausible. Daniel says that the fourth ‘beast’ was different from the other three ‘beasts’. The beast from the sea in Rev 13:1-2, however, has features from all of the four beasts.

(2) Furthermore, according to Dan 8 and 11, the secular power that succeeded the Greek empire of Alexander the Great was the ‘rival diadochi’, Egypt and Syria. It would be hard to understand why Daniel should not include the dynasty of Seleucus, that was so hostile towards the Jewish people and religion in the series of the four secular powers.

(3) It is also interesting to observe that after the fall of Alexander’s Greece, a ‘little horn’ is said to grew from one of the four diadochi, viz. Syria (cf. Dan 8:9), and that in relation to the fourth beast, Daniel also mentions a ‘little horn’. Most commentators seem to accept that the ‘little horn’ of Dan 8 is the Syrian king of Antiochus IV, Epiphanes. The most ‘natural’ reading of Daniel, I would like to argue, should lead us to accept the same identity for the ‘little horn’ in Dan 7 and 8. Thus, following the Greek View, we should relate the fourth empire of Dan 2 and 7 to the historical person of Antiochus IV.

(4) And if we accept the parallel between Dan 7:8, 20 and Dan 8:9, then, the fourth empire of Daniel can hardly be Rome, because Daniel says that the ‘little horn’ (and therefore the fourth empire as such) grew from one of the parts of Alexander’s Greece (Dan 8:9,22).

It is true that the ‘little horn’ of Dan 8:9 is said to grew from one of the parts of the fallen Greek empire of Alexander. But we should not let this disturb the interpretation that identifies this ‘little horn’ with that of the fourth empire in Dan 7. Advocates of the Greek View argue that according to Dan 8:9 the ‘little horn’ is a part of the Greek empire. Therfore, so goes the argumentation, the fourth empire has to be the Greek empire of Alexander.10

But this is, I think, to fail to recognise that Daniel actually tells us that the Greek empire already has fallen when the ‘little horn’ grew from one of its parts (cf. Dan 8:9,22; 11:4). Furthermore, it is quite possible that Daniel is using the ‘little horn’ to symbolise the fourth empire per se. Thus, like John the Seer uses one of the heads of the beast to represent the beast as such, this could also be the fact of Daniel’s portray of the fourth secular power.

It is therefore quite possible that the ‘little horn’ is both one of the eleven (Dan 7:8,20) and at the same time representing the empire as such (Dan 8:9); the one solution does certainly not exclude the other. Since John is transforming the prophetical language of Daniel into his own discourse, it seems reasonable, I think, to assume that John in Rev 13 uses the same technique of argumentation as Daniel in Dan 7 and 8.

(5) Finally, it seems that U. Staub (among others) has deduced enough evidence to assume that the fourth ‘beast’ that Daniel saw in the night was resembling the widly feared battle elephant that we e.g. can read about in 1. Mac 6.11 If this interpretation is correct, we have to relate the fourth kingdom to the Antiochene period, some way or another.

Realising that the fourth empire of Daniel should not be identified with the Roman empire, and the difficulties created by assuming the second and third empires to be those of Media and Persia respectively, has led some scholars to ‘dissociate’ the empire of the diadochi.12 This is a solution that is far to often been neglected. Starting from this, however, we could conclude that the fourth secular power mentioned by Daniel should be related to the Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, and the diadochi empires. The question is, of course, which of them and how?

I would suggest that we, in order to identify the fourth secular power, start with the figure of Antiochus IV, Epiphanes. He is portrayed by Daniel as the ‘little horn’.

As to the identification of the ten horns (Dan 7:7-8,24), there seems to be no real consensus about their identity amongst those who – following the ‘Greek View’ – relate them to Antiochus IV and the fourth empire. There are probably more than one possible solution.13

The key to their identity, I would suggest, is to be found within the Book of Daniel, i.e. in Dan 11. From Dan 2:33,41-43 we get to know that the fourth empire is to be a divided empire, or a ‘secular power’ with no real unity. The heterogeneous and non-cohesive character of this empire is pointed out in v. 43. I would like to suggest, that the commingling by human seed that is mentioned here is referring to the materimonal unions of the Ptolemies and Seleucids recorded by Daniel in 11:6 and 17.

Thus, the list of the ten horns should probably include diadochi kings of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids (viz. Egypt and Syria).

But even if there still is som uncertainty as to a precise identification of all the ten horns, we can be quite certain about the identity of the ‘little horn’ in Dan 7:8,20: As in Dan 8:9 it symbolises the Syrian king Antiochus IV, Epiphanes.14

That Daniel is not concentrating on all of the four diadochi, but only on two of them, is probably due to the fact that he is primarily interested in the history of the Jewish people. He therefore did not portray those parts of the fallen empire of Alexander that had no direct relation to Jewish affairs.15

To summarise: The secular power that could  – or, indeed, should – be identified with the fourth empire of Daniel are the ‘rival diadochoi’ Egypt and Syria, that ruled over the Jews after the fall of Alexander’s Greek empire. The ‘little horn’ is the Syrian king Antiochus IV, Epiphanes. The third secular power would then have to be the Greek empire of Alexander the Great; the second the united kingdoms of Media and Persia, and the first secular power is – as pointed out by Daniel himself – the neo-Babylonian empire (cf. Dan 2:37). We thus have the following ‘prophetic schema’ within the Book of Daniel:

(1) neo-Babylonia;
(2) Medo-Persia;
(3) Greece of Alexander the Great; and
(4) the ‘rival diadochoi’, Egypt and Syria (with Antiochus IV as the ‘little horn’)

As demonstrated by Rowley (and many others), the ‘Greek View’ has a much stronger case than the ‘Roman View’.16 However, I still do think that the identification of the fourth secular power with the two ‘rival diadochoi’, Egypt and Syria, has an even stronger case. Only this interpretation seems to be in harmony with both history and the rest of the Biblical scriptures.

Thus, I would like to conclude that even if there is a great deal to be said in favour of the ‘Greek View’, its lack of historical accuracy should – perhaps – lead us to prefer the identificaton of the fourth empire with the rival diadochi, Egypt and Syria. At least if we assume that Daniel, basically, was telling real history after all.


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[1] Cf. M. J. Gruenthaner: “The Four Empires of Daniel”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly (1946), Vol 8, No 1, pp. 72-82 and No 2, pp. 201-12.

[2] The name “Daniel” is used for the author of the Book of Daniel in this essay because it is the self-designation of the author of Dan 7:2-12:13 and the protagonist of Dan 1:1-7:2. This does not imply any particular conclusion about the relation of this ‘Daniel’ to a historical person in the 6th century BCE.

[3] Cf. C. Caragounis: “History and Supra-History: Daniel and the Four Empires”. In: A. S. van der Woude (ed.): The Book of Daniel in the Light of New Findings (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1993), pp. 386f.; and J. J. Collins: Daniel: A Commentary (Mineapolis:Fortress Press, 1993).

[4] Cf. C. C. Caragounis: op.cit., and J. G. Baldwin: Daniel (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978).

[5] Cf. H. H. Rowley: Darius the Mede and the Four World Empires in the Book of Daniel (Cardiff: University of Wales Press Board, 1935).

[6] Cf. op.cit., pp. 387.

[7] Cf. C. Caragounis: “History and Supra-History: Daniel and the Four Empires”, pp. 387. C. Caragounis tries, however, to demonstrate that the ‘Greek View’ is in “complete accord with history” (p. 388). This is also tried by M. J. Gruenthaner, op.cit., pp. 207f. Of course, C. Caragounis has to argue, that each succeeding empire does not have to come into being first after the complete fall of each preceding empire. However, if we – as suggested in this essay  – accept the solution with the fourth secular power as the rival diadochi Egypt and Syria (with the seleucian king Antiochus IV, Epiphanes) this is not neccessary.

[8] Cf. G. K. Beale: The use of Daniel in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature and in the Revelation of St. John (Lanham; New York, and London: University Press of America, 1984), pp. 229ff.

[9] Cf. C. Caragounis: “History and Supra-History: Daniel and the Four Empires”, p. 387.

[10] Cf. M. J. Gruenthaner: “The Four Empires of Daniel”, p. 207.

[11] U. Staub: “Das Tier mit den Hörnern”, Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie, XXV (1978), pp. 351-97. Contra e.g. C. Caragounis: “History and Supra-History: Daniel and the Four Empires”, p. 395.

[12] Cf. M.-J. Lagrange: “Les Propheties Messianique de Daniel”, Revue Biblique, N.S. Vol 1 (1904), pp. 494-520.

[13] Cf. H. H. Rowley: Darius the Mede and the Four World Empires, pp. 98-124.

[14] Cf. ibid., pp. 124-127.

[15] Cf. ibid., p. 96.

[16] H. H. Rowley, op.cit. Cf. C Caragounis, op.cit.


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