Thankfully for us, ancient Romans were avid writers. Poets wrote of Roman mythology and legends. Historians detailed the events of the Roman Republic, the empire and the numerous emperors. Julius Caesar wrote an elaborate autobiography. Emperor Marcus Aurelius left us his book of insightful meditations, and Emperor Julian the Apostate published his learned attacks against Christianity in favor of the traditional gods of Rome. Yet, with all of the abundant information available about the Roman Empire, one subject of immense importance remains infuriatingly mysterious—the Sibylline Books.
The Sibylline Books were a collection of cryptic and poetic prophetic riddles, in which the Romans would search for answers in times of crisis. The Books were well respected and well guarded, for a very long time, in the temple of Jupiter (or Jove) in Rome. One of the known examples of when the Sibylline Books were consulted was when Italy was ravaged by the military genius, Hannibal of Carthage, during the Second Punic War. The Roman Republic surveyed the Sibylline Books and deduced that their fortunes would change if they invited a goddess from Phrygia into the Roman pantheon of gods. They took the prophesy to heart and brought the cult of Cybele, the Magna Mater (Great Mother), into Rome with great honors around 204 BCE.
That, however, is one of the few facts we know about the Sibylline Books. Along with the Punic Wars story, scholars have very loosely deduced that one to twelve Sibyls, or prophetesses, wrote the Sibylline Books. Only one particular Sibyl can be considered historical-ish. A prophetess only known as the Cumaean Sibyl (sometimes named Almathea) reportedly sold a collection of prophetic books to King Tarquin (c. 6th century BCE), the last king of the Romans. She tried to sell nine books of prophesy to the Roman King, but when he refused to pay her price, she burned six books before the king was convinced to buy remaining three (for the price of all nine). The Cumaean Sibyl is even thought to be the sibyl featured in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid.
Regardless of where the Sibylline Books came from, they stayed safe in their guarded temple until they were required in times of crisis. They reportedly were heavily damaged by fire, or completely destroyed, in 83 BCE. That was the tumultuous year when the dictator, Sulla, took Rome by force for a second time in his life, this time against a man named Cinna (who was Julius Caesar’s father-in-law). Nevertheless, it is thought that the Sibylline Books were repaired, or replaced, and lasted until the 5th century CE. What remained of the Sibylline Books, however, is thought to have been completely destroyed by General Flavius Stilcho around 407, when he seized or destroyed pagan objects and properties in an attempt to gain new, anti-pagan, allies—it did not work, for he was assassinated a year later.
Despite this, another collection of ‘prophesies’ called the Sibylline Oracles has managed to survive until the present day. These, however, are not the original Books, but are forgeries of the originals, combined with heavy doses of history, mythology and even Jewish and Christian religious teachings. These hoax Sibylline works have been loosely dated to between the 2nd and 6th centuries CE.
To close this on a fun note, here is a vivid description of a Sibyl from Virgil’s Aeneid:
“But the Sibyl, still not broken in by Apollo, storms
with a wild fury through her cave. And the more she tries
to pitch the great god off her breast, the more his bridle
exhausts her raving lips, overwhelming her untamed heart,
bending her to his will. Now the hundred immense
mouths of the house swing open, all on their own,
and bear the Sibyl’s answers through the air.”
- From The Aeneid by Virgil (Book Six), translated by Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics edition)
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.