Dead Links Three: The Sibylline Books

Without a plan, bi-monthly posting schedules go out the window, as you can see. A month of feverish job applications has left me with a gap in my website content, which I am now going to fill. Thank you for your patience.

The Sibylline Books were collections of oracular texts written in Greek hexameter, the oldest of which date to the time of Solon and Cyrus. There were several sibyls – Roman (as opposed to Greek) oracles – throughout the Mediterranean world, at Gergis in Turkey, at Erythrae in Asia Minor, and at Cumae. Indeed, these may have all been a single travelling sibyl, or the location may simply denote where the oracular texts themselves were based at any given time.

It is known that the texts from the Cumaean Sibyl made their way to Rome during the reign of Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud). In a story relayed originally by Varro (1), the Sibyl offered to sell Tarquin nine books of prophecies, but at a price so steep, he refused. She then burned three of the nine books in front of him, offering him the remaining six. When he refused the price again, she set three more alight, and offered him the last three at the original price. Sheepishly, he accepted. For the oracular texts of the Sibyls predicted the future, and foreknowledge was worth dying for, as the god Prometheus well knew (2).

The books, taken to Rome by the king, were housed in the vault of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus where they appear to have remained until around 405 BCE when Stilicho, a Roman general of Vandal origin who attained enormous power under the reign of Honorius, ordered them destroyed.

It is from Livy that we have most of the anecdotes surrounding deeds done at the behest of prophecies in the Sibylline Books, from what to do when one’s royal army is struck by lightning (10.31), to how to deal with pestilence (5.13) and when to schedule games (7.27). One of the most famous stories – likely apocryphal (but when did that ever stop anyone?) – is demonstrative of the panic in Rome during the Hannibalic War; when facing imminent invasion and siege by the Punic general after the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE and, after consultation with the Sibylline Books, two Gauls and two Greeks – a man and a woman each – were selected and buried alive in the Forum (57.6)*.

The Books themselves have vanished, if not destroyed by Stilicho then by some other of the myriad calamities that befell the Empire of Rome throughout the middle of the first millenium CE. It is known that Athenagoras of Athens, in a letter arguing the truth of the Christian faith to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, quoted from the Books verbatim (3), and it is likely that the books were still extant at this time. The fragments collected and translated by Milton Terry in 1899 have been transmitted down to us via the works of other ancient authors. At no point does Terry have access to a verifiable original manuscript copy of the Books themselves.

So we have a collection of books in Greek hexameter that predict the future and were housed in one of the safest and yet most public locations in the Roman World. To a large extent, these books and the prophecies therein dictated Roman public policy, everything from infrastructure to foreign affairs. It was not unusual in the Ancient World for knowledge to be offered through riddles, and there is something to be said for the ongoing obfuscation of information through language. Greek hexameter means that, unless you were a literate Greek, the only people who could read the books were literate, educated Romans (and yes, I do define ‘literate’ and ‘educated’ as two separate but not mutually exclusive states of being). Just as Catholic priests act as the conduit between God and their congregations, so too were the Books separated from the people who consulted them through an oracle, priest, or translator. More importantly, as incendiary as the story of burying people alive in the Roman Forum may be, it is contained in discourse distinctly more historical than mythological.

The irony that prophecy is concealed in language suggests a commentary on the inherent and necessary complexity of knowledge itself. Does this augment the power of language? Of understanding? Does this weaponize it, language wielded as a socio-political tool? Is it a stick to beat you with? Or a window into new ways of seeing the world?

In a world of immediate information and reality TV Presidents, the so-called “liberal elite” – the ‘intelligensia’ of the 21st century – intellectuals trained in and supportive of a more left-wing social agenda – are perverted as unnecessarily obtuse. This is a classic case, so far as I can see it at any rate, of shooting the messenger. As a fictional president once said; “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them”. Often it is the dogged devotion to knowledge, to learning, that offers those “ah-ha” moments that can change the course of history. For example, you would need to understand Greek, poetic metre, metaphor, and imagery to understand the prophecy itself; interpretive style, politics, and diplomacy to understand how it’s presented to you; and strategy, tactics, and intuition in order to do anything with it. Knowledge is complicated. The Sibylline Books are evocative of this knowledge precisely because the idea of the Books is predicated on the background knowledge and education necessary to be able to interpret them. And I find that intoxicating.


(1) The story was alluded to in some of the lost books of Varro, quoted by Lactantius in his Institutiones Divinae I:6 and by Origen. The Sibylline Books are also referred to by Tacitus, Annales VI.12, and by Josephus.

(2) Prometheus was punished for teaching humans the secret of fire by Zeus who had an eagle peck out his liver each day, only to have the liver grow back again overnight for the torturous process to begin again and continue for eternity.

*The large preceding sections of Book 22 of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita is a master class in tragic lament; the Romans really did believe that all was lost after Cannae, and with good reason. One of the largest armies ever sent into the field was not only conquered by annihilated. Some suggest the death toll was up to 70,000 (but more likely less).

(3) Terry, Milton S. The Sibylline Oracles. New York, 1899 – accessed 3rd September 2017 at 10:24 AM EST.