Timeline of Four Empires

The Book of Daniel contains both historical narratives and apocalyptic prophecies. Apocalyptic prophecies portray future events using dreams and visions that include symbols and metaphors. Some of Daniel's apocalyptic visions were fulfilled historically in the centuries before Christ. Consequently, Daniel gives us a basis for interpreting the apocalyptic visions in the New Testament book of Revelation.
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Text of Daniel 2
Nebuchadnezzar Has a Disturbing Dream
2 In the second year of his reign Nebuchadnezzar had many dreams. His mind was disturbed and he suffered from insomnia.
2 The king issued an order to summon the magicians, astrologers, sorcerers, and wise men in order to explain his dreams to him. So they came and awaited the king’s instructions.
3 The king told them, “I have had a dream, and I am anxious to understand the dream.”
4 The wise men replied to the king: [What follows is in Aramaic ] “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will disclose its interpretation.”
5 The king replied to the wise men, “My decision is firm. If you do not inform me of both the dream and its interpretation, you will be dismembered and your homes reduced to rubble!
6 But if you can disclose the dream and its interpretation, you will receive from me gifts, a reward, and considerable honor. So disclose to me the dream and its interpretation!”
7 They again replied, “Let the king inform us of the dream; then we will disclose its interpretation.”
8 The king replied, “I know for sure that you are attempting to gain time, because you see that my decision is firm.
9 If you don’t inform me of the dream, there is only one thing that is going to happen to you. For you have agreed among yourselves to report to me something false and deceitful until such time as things might change. So tell me the dream, and I will have confidence that you can disclose its interpretation.”
10 The wise men replied to the king, “There is no man on earth who is able to disclose the king’s secret, for no king, regardless of his position and power, has ever requested such a thing from any magician, astrologer, or wise man.
11 What the king is asking is too difficult, and no one exists who can disclose it to the king, except for the gods – but they don’t live among mortals!”
12 Because of this the king got furiously angry and gave orders to destroy all the wise men of Babylon.
13 So a decree went out, and the wise men were about to be executed. They also sought Daniel and his friends so that they could be executed.
14 Then Daniel spoke with prudent counsel to Arioch, who was in charge of the king’s executioners and who had gone out to execute the wise men of Babylon.
15 He inquired of Arioch the king’s deputy, “Why is the decree from the king so urgent?” Then Arioch informed Daniel about the matter.
16 So Daniel went in and requested the king to grant him time, that he might disclose the interpretation to the king.
17 Then Daniel went to his home and informed his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the matter.
18 He asked them to pray for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery so that he and his friends would not be destroyed along with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.
19 Then in a night vision the mystery was revealed to Daniel. So Daniel praised the God of heaven,
20 saying, “Let the name of God be praised forever and ever, for wisdom and power belong to him.
21 He changes times and seasons, deposing some kings and establishing others. He gives wisdom to the wise; he imparts knowledge to those with understanding;
22 he reveals deep and hidden things. He knows what is in the darkness, and light resides with him.
23 O God of my fathers, I acknowledge and glorify you, for you have bestowed wisdom and power on me. Now you have enabled me to understand what I requested from you. For you have enabled me to understand the king’s dilemma.”
24 Then Daniel went in to see Arioch (whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon). He came and said to him, “Don’t destroy the wise men of Babylon! Escort me to the king, and I will disclose the interpretation to him!”
25 So Arioch quickly ushered Daniel into the king’s presence, saying to him, “I have found a man from the captives of Judah who can make known the interpretation to the king.”
26 The king then asked Daniel (whose name was also Belteshazzar), “Are you able to make known to me the dream that I saw, as well as its interpretation?”
27 Daniel replied to the king, “The mystery that the king is asking about is such that no wise men, astrologers, magicians, or diviners can possibly disclose it to the king.
28 However, there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in the times to come. The dream and the visions you had while lying on your bed are as follows.
29 “As for you, O king, while you were in your bed your thoughts turned to future things. The revealer of mysteries has made known to you what will take place.
30 As for me, this mystery was revealed to me not because I possess more wisdom than any other living person, but so that the king may understand the interpretation and comprehend the thoughts of your mind.
31 “You, O king, were watching as a great statue – one of impressive size and extraordinary brightness – was standing before you. Its appearance caused alarm.
32 As for that statue, its head was of fine gold, its chest and arms were of silver, its belly and thighs were of bronze.
33 Its legs were of iron; its feet were partly of iron and partly of clay.
34 You were watching as a stone was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its iron and clay feet, breaking them in pieces.
35 Then the iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold were broken in pieces without distinction and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors that the wind carries away. Not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a large mountain that filled the entire earth.
36 This was the dream. Now we will set forth before the king its interpretation.

Daniel Interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream

37 “You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has granted you sovereignty, power, strength, and honor.
38 Wherever human beings, wild animals, and birds of the sky live – he has given them into your power. He has given you authority over them all. You are the head of gold.
39 Now after you another kingdom will arise, one inferior to yours. Then a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule in all the earth.
40 Then there will be a fourth kingdom, one strong like iron. Just like iron breaks in pieces and shatters everything, and as iron breaks in pieces all of these metals, so it will break in pieces and crush the others.
41 In that you were seeing feet and toes partly of wet clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom. Some of the strength of iron will be in it, for you saw iron mixed with wet clay.
42 In that the toes of the feet were partly of iron and partly of clay, the latter stages of this kingdom will be partly strong and partly fragile.
43 And in that you saw iron mixed with wet clay, so people will be mixed with one another without adhering to one another, just as iron does not mix with clay.
44 In the days of those kings the God of heaven will raise up an everlasting kingdom that will not be destroyed and a kingdom that will not be left to another people. It will break in pieces and bring about the demise of all these kingdoms. But it will stand forever.
45 You saw that a stone was cut from a mountain, but not by human hands; it smashed the iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold into pieces. The great God has made known to the king what will occur in the future. The dream is certain, and its interpretation is reliable.”
46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar bowed down with his face to the ground and paid homage to Daniel. He gave orders to offer sacrifice and incense to him.
47 The king replied to Daniel, “Certainly your God is a God of gods and Lord of kings and revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery!”
48 Then the king elevated Daniel to high position and bestowed on him many marvelous gifts. He granted him authority over the entire province of Babylon and made him the main prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.
49 And at Daniel’s request, the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the administration of the province of Babylon. Daniel himself served in the king’s court.
(NET)
Text of Daniel 7
Daniel has a Vision of Four Animals Coming up from the Sea
7 In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream filled with visions while he was lying on his bed. Then he wrote down the dream in summary fashion.
2 Daniel explained: “I was watching in my vision during the night as the four winds of the sky were stirring up the great sea.
3 Then four large beasts came up from the sea; they were different from one another.
4 “The first one was like a lion with eagles’ wings. As I watched, its wings were pulled off and it was lifted up from the ground. It was made to stand on two feet like a human being, and a human mind was given to it.
5 “Then a second beast appeared, like a bear. It was raised up on one side, and there were three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and devour much flesh!’
6 “After these things, as I was watching, another beast like a leopard appeared, with four bird-like wings on its back. This beast had four heads, and ruling authority was given to it.
7 “After these things, as I was watching in the night visions a fourth beast appeared – one dreadful, terrible, and very strong. It had two large rows of iron teeth. It devoured and crushed, and anything that was left it trampled with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that came before it, and it had ten horns.
8 “As I was contemplating the horns, another horn – a small one – came up between them, and three of the former horns were torn out by the roots to make room for it. This horn had eyes resembling human eyes and a mouth speaking arrogant things.
9 “While I was watching, thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His attire was white like snow; the hair of his head was like lamb’s wool. His throne was ablaze with fire and its wheels were all aflame.
10 A river of fire was streaming forth and proceeding from his presence. Many thousands were ministering to him; many tens of thousands stood ready to serve him. The court convened and the books were opened.
11 “Then I kept on watching because of the arrogant words of the horn that was speaking. I was watching until the beast was killed and its body destroyed and thrown into the flaming fire.
12 As for the rest of the beasts, their ruling authority had already been removed, though they were permitted to go on living for a time and a season.
13 I was watching in the night visions, “And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him.
14 To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed.

An Angel Interprets Daniel’s Vision

15 “As for me, Daniel, my spirit was distressed, and the visions of my mind were alarming me.
16 I approached one of those standing nearby and asked him about the meaning of all this. So he spoke with me and revealed to me the interpretation of the vision:
17 ‘These large beasts, which are four in number, represent four kings who will arise from the earth.
18 The holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will take possession of the kingdom forever and ever.’
19 “Then I wanted to know the meaning of the fourth beast, which was different from all the others. It was very dreadful, with two rows of iron teeth and bronze claws, and it devoured, crushed, and trampled anything that was left with its feet.
20 I also wanted to know the meaning of the ten horns on its head, and of that other horn which came up and before which three others fell. This was the horn that had eyes and a mouth speaking arrogant things, whose appearance was more formidable than the others.
21 While I was watching, that horn began to wage war against the holy ones and was defeating them,
22 until the Ancient of Days arrived and judgment was rendered in favor of the holy ones of the Most High. Then the time came for the holy ones to take possession of the kingdom.
23 “This is what he told me: ‘The fourth beast means that there will be a fourth kingdom on earth that will differ from all the other kingdoms. It will devour all the earth and will trample and crush it.
24 The ten horns mean that ten kings will arise from that kingdom. Another king will arise after them, but he will be different from the earlier ones. He will humiliate three kings.
25 He will speak words against the Most High. He will harass the holy ones of the Most High continually. His intention will be to change times established by law. They will be delivered into his hand For a time, times, and half a time.
26 But the court will convene, and his ruling authority will be removed – destroyed and abolished forever!
27 Then the kingdom, authority, and greatness of the kingdoms under all of heaven will be delivered to the people of the holy ones of the Most High. His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; all authorities will serve him and obey him.’
28 “This is the conclusion of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts troubled me greatly, and the color drained from my face. But I kept the matter to myself.”
(NET)
During the 6th Century BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had a dream of a great statue, as recorded in Daniel 2. Daniel's interpretation of this dream revealed it to be a timeline of four great empires that would arise. At the end of Nebuchadnezzar's vision, a rock emerges that destroys these former empires and then becomes a mountain that fills the earth. This symbolises the Kingdom of God's Messiah that will one day replace all earthly kingdoms. Daniel identified the first empire as representing the Babylonian Empire, which was the one already in existence at the time.

In chapter 7, Daniel had his own vision of the same four empires, this time portrayed as four beasts. In chapter 8, he had further visions relating to the second and third empires. Putting all these together, the second empire in chapters 2 and 7 is clearly identifiable from history as the Medo-Persian Empire, which conquered the Babylonian Empire. The third empire is clearly the Greek Empire, which conquered the Medo-Persian Empire. But what is the fourth empire?

From a western perspective, the natural assumption is that the fourth empire is the Roman Empire, given that it came after the Greek Empire. On this basis, in the first century AD, the Jews assumed that if Jesus were their Messiah, he would conquer the Roman Empire and establish his eternal kingdom. After the feeding of the five thousand, as recorded in John's gospel, we see that the people recognised Jesus as their Messiah and wanted to make him king, their assumption being that he would then lead them to victory over the Romans. Jesus' lack of inclination to do so is one of the reasons the Jewish nation ended up rejecting him.
John 6:14-15 Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, “This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Then Jesus, because he knew they were going to come and seize him by force to make him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone. (NET)
Clearly, if Jesus really is the Messiah, the Jews were somehow mistaken in their understanding of Nebuchadnezzar's vision.

Another important question is "Why is the fourth empire represented in two parts on the timeline?" It starts as legs of iron that are strong, and ends up as feet of iron and clay that are weak and brittle. Given that the timeline says nothing about gaps between empires, it would have been natural for 1st century Jews to assume the feet represented the Roman Empire in a weakened state, heading towards its demise.

Today, the majority view among Christian bible teachers is still that the fourth empire represents the Roman Empire. If you accept that view, you are left with two main options:

1) Given that the Roman Empire came to an end, in the end times we should expect a Restored Roman Empire to emerge, as represented by the feet, or:

2) You might argue that the vision was fulfilled by Jesus establishing his kingdom in the 1st century, not in a literal sense, but in a spiritual sense. Passages that might support such a view include:
John 18:36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." (NET)

Luke 17: 20 Now at one point the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming, so he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (NET)
However, if you read further in Luke 17, it is clear that although Christ's kingdom may exist in our midst as an invisible inner reality in the present age, Jesus still looked forward to the 'days of the Son of Man' when he would return in visible glory like lightning. And in Daniel's interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's vision, it is clear that Messiah's kingdom will crush all the former empires, without leaving a trace. After Jesus' coming in the first century AD, the eastern part of the Roman Empire lasted a further 1,420 years until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. It definitely was not destroyed without trace in the first century AD. So the second option seems to be unsupported.

The idea that there is a time gap between the legs and the feet, and that the feet represent a restored fourth empire - is not obvious from Daniel's visions. But it is spelled out in Revelation:
Revelation 17: 8 The beast you saw was, and is not, but is about to come up from the abyss and then go to destruction. The inhabitants of the earth – all those whose names have not been written in the book of life since the foundation of the world – will be astounded when they see that the beast was, and is not, but is to come. (NET)
It is also reasonable to question the assumption that the fourth empire ever represented the Roman Empire in the first place. It is important to note that although the vision was interpreted by Daniel, the Jewish prophet, it was first given to Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. This suggests the vision has relevance to both Babylon and Israel, and we should only relate it to empires that ruled both. Such is the case of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian and Greek Empires, but not of the Roman Empire. Although the Roman Empire ruled Israel for several centuries, in all its 1,500 year existence, it only ruled Babylonia for about a year from 116 to 117 AD. Babylon was part of the Parthian empire at that time. Emperor Trajan advanced through Babylonia in 116 AD and made it as far as the Persian Gulf, but he never fully conquered the Parthian empire. On his return through Babylonia in 117 AD, the Parthians forced him to retreat. He died later that same year, and Rome never again succeeded in expanding eastwards beyond the Euphrates. Because Rome's rule over Babylon was only a temporary incursion, with Babylon being quickly restored to the Parthian empire, I believe it is overlooked in Daniel's timelines.

From a western or Jewish perspective, the Greek Empire was replaced by the Roman Empire. From a Babylonian perspective, the Greek Empire was replaced by the Parthian Empire. The next empire that ruled both Israel and Babylon was the Islamic Empire.
  • 605 - 539 BC

    Babylonian -1st Empire, 605 - 539 BC

    Represented in Nebuchadnezzar's vision as the head of gold (Daniel 2:32), and in Daniel's vision as a winged lion (Daniel 7:4)
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  • 539 - 333 BC

    Medo-Persian - 2nd Empire, 539 - 333 BC

    Represented in Nebuchadnezzar's vision as the chest and arms of silver (Daniel 2:32), and in Daniel's vision as a bear (Daniel 7:5). The bear was raised up on one of its sides, representing the fact that the Median empire arose first (in about 590 BC) and was then conquered and absorbed by the Persians (in 550 BC). The Persian empire became larger than the Median empire had been, and conquered the Babylonian empire in 539 BC. The Persian empire is also known as the Achaemenid Empire.
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  • 333 - 129 BC

    Greek - 3rd Empire, 333 - 129 BC

    Represented in Nebuchadnezzar's vision as the belly and thighs of bronze (Daniel 2:32), and in Daniel's vision as a four-winged leopard with four heads (Daniel 7:6). The wings represent the speed with which Alexander the Great sped across Asia, conquering his empire. After Alexander's death, the Greek Empire was divided up between his four generals, Seleucus, Ptolemy, Cassander and Antigonus (known as the Diadochi or 'successors'). The four heads represent the resulting four kingdoms or empires. The eastern part of the Greek empire, including both Israel and Babylonia, continued as the Seleucid Empire.

    The Seleucid Empire ended in 129 BC when Antiochus VII Sidetes was killed in battle by the Parthians. The Parthians then ruled the eastern part of his former empire, including Babylonia and Persia. The Maccabean revolt had given Israel a brief period of independence from 166 BC until Seleucid control was restored briefly in 142 BC.
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Empires overlooked in the vision
  • 509 BC - 1453 AD

    Roman Republic and Empire, 509 BC - 1453 AD

    Rome existed first as a republic for nearly 500 years (509 - 27 BC), and then as an empire for nearly 1,500 after that (27 BC - 1453 AD).

    It became a republic in 509 BC after the overthrow of the Roman monarchy. Initially just a small city state, in the 4th century BC it expanded throughout the whole of the Italian peninsula. The 3rd century BC saw it expand eastward into the realm of the Greek kingdoms and along the south of the Mediterranean into the realm of the Carthaginian empire. In 63 BC Rome invaded Israel, and in 37 BC fully imposed Roman rule by replacing Israel's last Hasmonean ruler with Herod the Great. Herod was an Idumean (Edomite). In 55 and 54 BC, Julius Caesar made two expeditions into Britain, but withdrew without establishing a settlement. Before his assassination in 44 BC, Julius Caesar managed to curb the powers of the Roman Senate, and to elevate his own powers to become Rome's dictator. In 27 BC, the imperial status of the Roman ruler was officially recognised when Julius Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, was given the title of Emperor Augustus.
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    By the time of Jesus' ministry in Israel in the 1st Century, Israel had been under Roman occupation for over 60 years. Understandably, looking at history from a purely Jewish perspective, the Jews identified the Roman Empire with the fourth empire of Daniel 2 and 7. So they expected that if Jesus were the Messiah, he would overthrow the Roman Empire and replace it with his own Messianic Kingdom. But with hindsight, they seem to have overlooked the significance of the timeline being revealed first to Nebuchadnezzar. The Roman Empire had never ruled Babylon, and was irrelevant from a Babylonian perspective. In Mesopotamia, the Greek Seleucid Empire had been replaced by the Parthian Empire, who had been ruling Babylon for over 200 years. Although the Roman Empire was huge, it was mostly located to the west of the first three empires in Daniel's timeline. Its area of overlap was quite minimal.

    If you look at a map of the Roman Empire at its largest extent in 117 AD, it does appear that the Roman Empire ruled both Israel and Babylon:
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    In reality, it only ruled Babylonia for a very brief period in 116-117 AD. Emperor Trajan launched a campaign against the Parthians in 116 AD. He crossed the Euphrates, advanced through Babylonia and made it as far as the Persian Gulf. But on his return through Babylonia in 117 AD, he was forced to retreat by Parthian rebels, and died later that same year. Rome never again attempted to expand eastwards beyond the Euphrates. Because Rome ruled Babylon for such a short time, I believe the Roman Empire is overlooked in Daniel's timelines.

    In 395 AD, the Roman Empire split into the Western Roman Empire with its capital in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire) with its capital in Constantinople. The Western Empire ended in 476 AD with the fall of Rome, but the Eastern Empire lasted until 1453 AD with the fall of Constantinople.
  • 247 BC - 224 AD

    Parthian Empire, 247 BC - 224 AD

    The Parthian Empire arose in the 3rd Century BC, taking territory from the Seleucid Empire. During the 2nd Century BC it expanded to cover the regions of modern-day Iran and Iraq, including the region of Babylonia.

    Although this empire ruled Babylonia, I believe it is overlooked in Daniel's timelines because it never ruled Israel.
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  • 140 - 37 BC

    Hasmonean kingdom of Israel, 140 - 37 BC

    The Hasmonean dynasty was a semi-independent theocratic Jewish kingdom that ruled Israel from 140 BC, with some ongoing interference from the Seleucids until 129 BC, and later interference from the Romans after 63 BC. It ended in 37 BC when the Romans installed Herod the Great as its new ruler. Herod was an Idumean (Edomite).
  • 637 - 1924 AD

    Islamic - 4th Empire, 637 - 1924 AD

    Represented in Nebuchadnezzar's vision as the legs of iron (Daniel 2:33), and in Daniel's vision as the fourth and most terrifying beast (Daniel 7:7).

    Islamic armies conquered Israel and Babylonia in 636 / 637 AD, just a few years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, during the period of the Rashidun Caliphate (see Wikipedia's History of Islam). Israel and Babylonia continued to be under joint Islamic rule during the Umayyad Caliphate (661 to 750 AD) and the early part of the Abbasid Caliphate. In 909 AD the Fatimid Caliphate arose in Tunisia and gradually spread across North Africa, taking Egypt in 969, and later expanded up into Syria. In 1037, the Turkish Seljuk Empire arose and spread across the north and eastern parts of the Islamic Empire. In 1099, the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem, and Israel became a crusader kingdom until it was retaken by Saladin in 1187. So the Islamic empire fragmented into regional powers during the latter part of the Abbasid Caliphate, and remained so until being re-united again in the 16th Century under the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire arose in Eastern Turkey in 1299. In 1453, the Ottomans captured Constantinople, marking the end of the eastern Roman empire, now known as the Byzantine Empire. In 1517, they conquered Israel, and Baghdad in 1534. So from 1534 until 1917, the Ottomans ruled the regions of both Israel and Babylonia. The Ottoman Empire was defeated by Britain in World War I with the help of an Arab insurgency. After the Turkish War of Independence (1919-22), the sultanate was abolished in 1922, and the Islamic caliphate was abolished by Ataturk in 1924. Turkey became an independent secular state, and the rest of the Ottoman Empire was divided up into modern Middle Eastern nations by the British and the French.

    Although the history of the Islamic Empire is somewhat complex and at times fragmented, because it ruled over the regions of both Israel and Babylonia, I believe it is reasonable to identify it as the fourth empire in Daniel's timelines.
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  • End times

    Restored 4th Empire, (End-times)

    Represented in Nebuchadnezzar's vision as the feet of iron mixed with clay (Daniel 2:33), and in Daniel's vision as the horns of the fourth beast (Daniel 7:7-8). If the 4th empire is the Islamic Empire, then in the end-times we should expect a Restored Islamic Empire.
    Daniel 7:7 After these things, as I was watching in the night visions a fourth beast appeared – one dreadful, terrible, and very strong. It had two large rows of iron teeth. It devoured and crushed, and anything that was left it trampled with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that came before it, and it had ten horns. 8 As I was contemplating the horns, another horn – a small one – came up between them, and three of the former horns were torn out by the roots to make room for it. This horn had eyes resembling human eyes and a mouth speaking arrogant things. (NET)
    For a full analysis of these verses, it is important to also consider the beast in Revelation 17, which also has ten horns. But in brief, horns represent rulers. The end-time Islamic Empire will arise as a coalition of ten rulers. After some time, an eleventh ruler will arise who will take over the Empire and depose three rulers. This eleventh ruler is the person whom the Bible calls the Antichrist.