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SIBYLLI´NI LIBRI The books known by this name at Rome down to the destruction of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in B.C. 82, were said to have been offered to Tarquinius Superbus (or, according to Varro, to Tarquinius Priscus: cf. Lactant. Inst. Div. 1.6, 10; Isid. Orig. 8.8, 5) by a Sibylla, i. e. a prophetess, who presented herself before the king with nine books for sale. Upon his refusing to purchase them, she went away and burnt three, and then returning asked the same price for the remaining six. Thinking her mad, the king again declined the purchase; on which she retired once more, burnt another three, and still asked the same price for the three that remained. Tarquin now consulted the augurs, who urged him to buy the books, and give the full price. This he did, and the woman vanished. He then appointed two citizens of rank to keep the books in the temple on the Capitol, with two public slaves to assist them (who were probably Greek interpreters, Zonaras, 7.11). This is the account given by Dionysius (4.62); it is found with slight variations in some other authors (see Marquardt, Staatsverw. 3.353, and notes); Livy, however, does not tell the story. Whatever truth there may be in the details of the legend, it is probable that it was in the reign of the second Tarquin that these books were actually acquired. Tradition is unanimous in ascribing to that reign changes of great importance in the religious history of Rome, the centre point of which changes is the Capitoline temple of Jupiter, where these books were stored. That temple expressed the union in a religious centre of the entire populus of Rome, comprising both patricians and plebeians, and foreshadowed the gradual equalisation of the two orders in all matters of religion, as well as in political rights. (Cf. esp. Ambrosch, Studien, p. 196 foil.; Marquardt, 3.40.) All members of the state, whether Latin, Sabine, or Etruscan, might worship in it; and not only from the sacred triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, but any god might be the object of worship there. To this Tarquin, then, as well as to his two predecessors, we may ascribe a broad and catholic religious policy, in striking contrast with the narrow civic traditions of the Roman patrician priesthood; and this policy was recognised by the prevailing Roman tradition, which also connected with this king the introduction of the Sibylline books. For these books were not, like some others presently to be mentioned, of Roman or even of Italian origin: they were beyond doubt Greek, and their importance in Roman history is almost wholly concerned with the introduction of foreign and chiefly Greek worship into the Roman religious world.

Whence these books came, and how they were originally compiled, are questions of great obscurity. Sibylla was no doubt a Greek word signifying a certain type or ideal of that common phenomenon in antiquity, the inspired prophetess. [See DIVINATIO; ORACULUM.] The earliest mention of a Sibylla is in a fragment of Heracleitus of Ephesus (ap. Plut. Pyth. Orac. 6; Bywater, fragm. 12, and note), who knew of one only; but in course of time, as in the case of divinities, the type became localised in various cities, and Varro (ap. Lact. l.c.) knew of no less than ten Sibyllae--Persica, Libyca, Delphis, Cimmeria, Erythraea, Samia, Cumana, Hellespontica, Phrygia, Albunea (or Tiburtina). If we look on these local Sibyllae as merely mythical, but at the same time as suggesting, in some cases at least, localities in which floating prophecy was, as it were, caught and fixed, we cannot be very far wrong; and there is not much doubt as to which of these places it was from which the books came to Rome. The mere tradition that Tarquinius, on his expulsion from Rome, took refuge at Cumae, would in itself be sufficient evidence of an actual connexion between that Greek city and the Roman tyrant (Dionys. A. R. 6.21); and the great majority of ancient authorities directly [p. 2.669]derive the books from Cumae (cf. Verg. Ecl. 4.4; Aen. 6.42 ff.;--Ov. Fast. 4.158, 257: other references will be found in Schwegler, Röm. Gesch. 1.802, note, and Marquardt, 3.352, note 5). Varro, on the other hand, seems to have believed that their origin was to be found at Erythrae, the reputed home of the most renowned of all the Sibyllae (cf. Serv. ad Aen. 6.36 and 72), arguing that a prophetess who was consulted by Aeneas, according to the Roman form of the legend, could not have lived on till the time of the Tarquinii. The truth seems to be that these oracles came to Rome from Cumae, but had previously found their way thither from Erythrae, in the neighbourhood of which, at Gergis in the Trojan Mt. Ida, we seem to be able, since the researches of Klausen (Aeneas und die Penaten, p. 203 foll.), to discern the localisation of the earliest collection of oracles. This collection, according to Heraclides Ponticus (Lactant. l.c.; Schol. Plat. Phaedr. p. 315; Isid. Orig. 8.8, 6), was formed in the first half of the sixth century B.C., a time when oracles were in great request, and when also the conquest by the Lydians and Persians of the Greek cities of Asia Minor was causing a considerable migration from those parts to Italy and Sicily. For further information on this difficult subject the student may consult Klausen, l.c., and Bouché--Leclercq, Histoire de la Divination dans l'Antiquité, vol. ii. pp. 133 ff. The evidence for the Erythraean origin of the Cumaean oracles will be found collected in Marquardt, 3.352, note 7; the most striking fact in this connexion being the selection of Erythrae, Ilium, and Samos, among other places, for the search for a new collection, after the burning of the Capitoline temple in 83 B.C.

It is naturally impossible to determine how and with what motive these collections were originally formed. At all times in Greece it is likely that there were wandering prophets (χρησμολόγοι) and floating prophecies, in connexion with Dionysiac and Orphic rites, and distinct from the ancient and localised oracles of Dodona, Delphi, and others. It was the theory of Klausen that these were at the height of their influence in the sixth century B.C., and that they represented a kind of “protestant” reaction against the fame, credit, and wealth of the local oracular shrines; and thus came at that time to be collected and arranged. Of late, Bouché--Leclercq, on the ground that the northern coast of Asia Minor is the true home of the Sibylla, has sought to show that the Sibylline type of oracular utterance may be traced to a Trojan origin in the form of Cassandra and Manto, “both victims of Apollo, and both attached by most intimate ties to the worship of that god.” But these are no more than hypotheses, and it is not possible to arrive at any certainty in the matter.

As little can be determined about the nature of the collection which found its way to Rome. Something, indeed, is known of the later collection formed after the destruction of the original one, but it is unsafe to argue back from the one to the other. The oracles were said to have been written on palm-leaves (Serv. ad Aen. 3.444), a tree, as Bouché--Leclercq remarks (4.289), which was not to be found in Campania; and it is quite possible that this may be merely a fragment of an old mythical tradition of which the substance is lost. Virgil makes use of it when he makes Aeneas urge the Sibylla to foretell his fate in words, instead of committing them to leaves, alluding, however, at the same time to the Roman collection and its guardians:

Te quoque magna manent regnis penetralia nostris:

Hic ego namque tuas sortes, arcanaque fata,
Dicta meae genti, ponam, lectosque sacrabo,
Alma, viros: foliis tantum ne carmina manda: Ne turbata volent rapidis ludibria ventis.

According to this tradition, it has been supposed that they were referred to in the same way as Eastern nations refer to the Koran and Hafiz: that they did not search for a passage and apply it, but only shuffled the leaves and then drew one (cf. Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, 1.506 foil.). But it is probable that, owing to the secrecy with which all such transactions were guarded by the Roman priests, the method of consultation was unknown even to the Romans themselves. That these prophecies were in the Greek language is almost beyond doubt, and probably they were written in hexameters, like other Greek oracular sayings, and like those of the later collection of which we have remains. Their application to the matter inquired about was no doubt entirely accidental, or subject to the arbitrary dealings of their interpreters; we may perhaps conjecture that it resembled that of the Biblical and Virgilian “sortes” of the Middle Ages, a verse being taken at chance, and twisted in any way so as to suit the circumstances. [SORTES] And there need be little doubt that the interpreters frequently invented not only the application, but the response itself; as when, in order to drive Hannibal out of Italy, the Magna Mater Idaea was ordered to be brought to Rome (Liv. 29.10, 5), or for party purposes, as when Cinna and six tribunes were to be expelled from Italy in order to restore peace and order. (Granius Licinianus, p. 35, Bonn ed.) Another instance occurs in Liv.38.45, 3.

They were deposited, as we have seen, in the temple on the Capitol, and placed in charge of duo viri sacris faciundis, a title which clearly implies the introduction of new rites (Liv. 5.13, 6). These officials, or priests, were self-electing, retained office for life, were free from military service, and remained patrician until by the Licinian rogations (B.C. 367) their number was increased to ten, and half the number were thenceforth to be of plebeian birth. As was natural, they were the first priesthood opened to the plebeians, their functions having no connexion with the “sacra” of the old patrician gentes (Liv. 6.37, 12). The number ten held good till towards the end of the Republic, when, probably under Sulla's government, they were again increased to fifteen, which number is first mentioned by Cicero in 51 B.C. (ad Fam. 8, 4, 1). [See DECEMVIRI; SACERBOS.] This college of fifteen lasted until the time of Stilicho, who in A.D. 405 burnt the Sibylline books; it is mentioned frequently in inscriptions of the Empire. (See Marquardt, 3.381, note 7.)

It would seem that the decemviri were not competent to consult the books on their own [p. 2.670]account, but that every such consultation was ordered by a decree of the senate. The books were the property of the state, the decemviri only their guardians and interpreters; and, like the pontifices and augurs, they were in constitutional practice only the skilled assistants and advisers of the magistrates and senate. (The strictly state character of the oracles is well seen in the story that Tarquin himself punished a duumvir with the death of a parricide for divulging their secrets to a foreigner: Dionys. A. R. 4.62; V. Max. 1.1, 13.) The senate ordered the decemvirs to inspect (adire, inspicere) the books, and to interpret the oracle they found applicable, which was rarely if ever made public, but only the general tenor of the reply of the experts. This at any rate seems to have been the case down to B.C. 82, with which period only we are at present dealing; after that time, and the destruction of the original books, the whole system may be said to have become vulgarised. (Marquardt, 3.382; Liv. 7.27, 21.62; Dionys. A. R. 4.62; Cic. de Div. 2.5. 4, 110.)

It was not on any ordinary occasion that the senate took the important step of ordering a consultation. On examining the passages of Livy in which such consultations are mentioned, it will appear that the books were only had recourse to in the face of alarming prodigies, pestilences, and other such disasters. (Cp. e. g. Liv. 3.10; 5.13; 10.47; 21.62; 22.1, 9; 29.10; 36.37; 41.21.) Rarely do we hear of anything like a definite prophecy (Liv. 29.10; 38.45); the result of the consultation is almost always an admonition to adopt a certain ritual, in order to expiate evil or avert calamity. It is through this ritualistic authority, and in the corresponding introduction of new forms of worship into the state, that the immense influence on the Roman religion of the Sibylline books, and their interpreters, made itself felt; and it will be necessary here to summarise the innovations due to them.

These momentous changes will be better understood if we recall the character of the purely Italian element in the religion of the early Romans. Their religious ideas were sober, practical, and unimaginative. Their deities were abstract conceptions rather than concrete forms: they were not worshipped in temples with florid ritual, or presented to view in the forms of statues. All worship had an immediate practical object, and the complications of Roman ritual were occasioned by nothing more than the intense desire to make no mistake which might defeat that object. All warmth of religious emotion, such as elsewhere favoured the growth of myth, or choric song and dance, or sacramental mysteries, was absent from the Italian religious mind; the legal side of ritual took its place, and at Rome was at all times maintained by the paramount authority of the pontifices. But it was an entirely new aspect of religion which the Sibylline books and their keepers introduced; and though the pontifices were wise in their generation, and antagonism between the two colleges is rarely apparent, they may be regarded historically as rivals--the one as champioring the ritus Romanus, the other the ritus Graecus--through the remainder of Roman history.

First, we have the introduction of a series of new deities: either entirely Greek, as Apollo, Latona, Mater Magna, Aesculapius; or Greek deities attached to a Latin name and a preexisting Roman idea, as Diana (= Artemis), Ceres (= Demeter), Proserpina (= Persephone), and Hercules, who, originally a form of Jupiter (= Semo Sancus), or possibly the Genius of Jupiter, now absorbed the characteristics of the Greek Hercules. The immediate cause of these introductions was, as we saw, the occurrence of pestilence, famine, or defeat (Liv. 5.13; 10.47; 21.62); the motive was the feeling, stimulated by the growing intercourse with foreigners and especially Greeks, that where the home deities did not suffice, or declined their aid, strangers whose worship would be open to all, and not only to patrician gentes, might be found efficacious. Their immediate connexion with the Sibylline books may easily be traced: e. g. Apollo is not only the god of prophecy, but a god of pestilence; Aesculapius comes in on the same ground; Ceres and Persephone may be connected with the famines and distress of the first half of the sixth century B.C., and it may be noted that the worship of the former had always a plebeian character, which illustrates the anti-patrician tendency of the Tarquinian policy, marked as we saw by the introduction of the books. Cybele or the Magna Mater Idaea, the great earth-deity of the original home of the oracles, was invoked to Rome in order to secure the expulsion of Hannibal from Italy, and so end a long series of disasters. (The new cult will be found examined in detail in Marquardt, 3.358 foll., of which Bouché--Leclercq's account is only an abstract.)

Equally important was the change in ritual. This may be traced in the great development, resulting directly or indirectly from the books and the decemviri, in the Roman institution of ludi, whether circenses or scenici [see LUDI]; and especially noteworthy are the two sets of Apolline games, the Ludi Apollinares instituted in time of pestilence in 212 B.C. (Liv. 25.12; Macrob. 1.17, 29, “Bello Punico hi ludi ex libris Sibyllinis primum sunt instituti” ), and the Ludi Saeculares, the history of which, though obscure, can be distinctly traced to the worship of Dis and Proserpina, and to the influence of these oracles. (Augustine, Civ. Dei, 3.18, writing with Varro before him, so explains their origin. Cf. Marquardt, 3.387.) The importance of this line of development in the social and religious life of the Romans cannot well be exaggerated. But the character of the new religion is best seen in the lectisternia, where the anthropomorphic appearance of the gods, the emotional and individual character of the cult, and the comparative absence of legal restraint and orderly procedure, are in marked contrast with the earlier forms of Roman worship. (See LECTISTERNIUM; and for the details of the Graecus ritus in all these ceremonies, Marquardt, 3.44 foll., 186 foll.) The student who wishes to understand this contrast fully, should study the accounts of the lectisternia carefully, and compare them with the ritual of the Fratres Arvales or that of any of the purely Roman festivals.

The Sibylline books had fairly done their work when they were destroyed by fire in [p. 2.671]B.C. 83; in combination with other tendencies and circumstances, they had wrought a revolution in Roman religious ideas, in morals, as well as indirectly in literature and art. The history of the new collection formed in B.C. 76 is far less interesting, and must be briefly summed up here.

While the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was rebuilding, envoys were sent to various towns in Asia Minor, Greece, and Sicily (and especially to Erythrae, where about 1000 verses were collected), to gather a fresh supply of oracles, which were deposited, like the old ones, in the vaults of the temple on its completion, and given into the charge of the collegium, increased to fifteen previously by Sulla. Whether any fragments of this collection are still imbedded in the “ Oracula Sbyllina ” which have come down to us, is an exceedingly difficult question, and beyond the scope of this article. (Alexandre, Oracula Sibyllina, ed. 2, Paris, 1869, with Sibylline bibliography: cf. Bouché--Leclerq, 2.133, 200;--Marquardt, 3.351, note 10; 383, note 9. According to Ewald, the earliest extant verses are as early as 124 B.C.; but the great mass are of Jewish and Christian origin. The collection is a strange medley. Cf. also Fabricius, Bibl. Graec. 1.227 foll.) Their influence may be traced here and there in subsequent years, as in the famous oracle (real or forged) which forbade Ptolemy Auletes to be restored to Egypt by force of arms (Cic. Fam. 1.7; D. C. 39.15), or that which prophesied in B.C. 44 that a rex was needed to overcome the Parthians (Suet. Jul. 79). Augustus, finding spurious verses in circulation, ordered a close inspection, which resulted in the burning of 2000 socalled prophetic books, and in the removal of the genuine ones to the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, which he himself had dedicated (Suet. Aug. 31; Tac. Ann. 6.12). Dio Cassius also states that he had some of them, which had faded, written over again by the priests (54.17). Others were rejected in the time of Tiberius, who also refused to allow a new volume to be added, as proposed in the senate by Caninius Gallus (Tac. l.c.). This later collection was certainly written in Greek hexameters, and, if we interpret Cicero rightly (de Div. 2.54, 111: cf. Varro ap. Dionys. A. R. 4.62), some at least of the verses were in the form of acrostics (ἀκροστιχίς); this is not likely, however, to have been the case with all.

Under the Empire the books were rarely consulted: the duties of the quindecimviri were confined chiefly to the superintendence of the Cybele-worship, which now gained ground rapidly, especially in the month of March (Lucan 1.599; C. I. L. 6.488 foll.); and their influence was lessened by the arrival of other new cults in which they had no official part, and by the personal supervision of religion by the emperors. Occasional instances, however, of consultation occur. Tiberius, in spite of his proneness to ritual and superstition, had declined to allow an inspection of the books during an inundation of the Tiber in A.D. 15 (Tac. Ann. 1.76); but Nero ordered them to be consulted after the great fire in A.D. 64, and the old ceremonies were gone through (ib. 15.44). In the period of intelligent government which followed, we do not seem to hear of them; but in 241, under Gordian, certain serious earthquakes were stopped by their means (Capitolinus, Gordian, 26). Again, under Aurelian in 270, when the Marcomanni had crossed the Alps, they were consulted by order of the emperor; and Vopiscus (Aurel. 20) gives an interesting account of the manner of this consultation, which shows that the quindecimviri were no longer indispensable, inasmuch as the senators themselves went to the temple of Apollo, and made the necessary search. Julian, as might be expected, was one of the last to make use of them (Ammian. Marc. 23.1, 7). They were in existence in 391 (Symmachus, Epist. 4.34, who was himself a quindecimvir; Claudian, Bell. Get. 231); but in the year 400 they were burnt by Stilicho, and Prudentius shortly afterwards alludes triumphantly to the dead superstition of paganism: “ Mortua jam mutae lugent oracula Cumae.
Apoth. 439 ff.

Lastly, it should be noticed that there are other collections of prophecies mentioned by our authorities, some of which at least were kept with the Sibylline books in the Capitoline temple, and may have been included in the general term Sibyllini libri. This was the case with the Etruscan oracles of Begoe or Vegoe (Serv. ad Aen. 6.72), and with the sortes of the nymph Albunea of Tibur (Lactant. Inst. 1.6, 12). In B.C. 213 the senate ordered the praetor urbanus to investigate a variety of current prophecies, with the result that the Carmina Marciana of an unknown Marcius (or of two brothers, according to Cic. de Div. 1.4. 0, 89; 50, 115; 2.55, 113) were declared genuine and given into the charge of the decemvirs. This Marcius was probably a mythical or ideal personage, the name being connected with Mars, in whose worship some of the oldest traces of native Italian oracles are to be found. Livy has preserved the substance of two of these carmina, which were probably written in Saturnian verse (Liv. 25.12: cf. Macr. 1.17, 28). All these books and others, such as those of Veii (Liv. 5.15, 11; Cic. de Div. 1.4. 4, 100), are included in the general expression “libri fatales,” which frequently occurs (Liv. l.c.; 22.9, 8, where it is synonymous with libri Sibyllini; 22.57, 6; and other passages). Libri alone is almost as common (3.10, 7; 22.1, 16); and thus it is impossible to draw any distinct line of demarcation between Greek and Italian collections. Even in regard to their usage this is to some extent so; for while, e.g., the Marcian oracles recommend the cult of the Greek Apollo (Liv. 25.12), that of genuine Roman deities as well as Greek is found prescribed by the Sibylline books (as in Liv. 21.62 and 23.1). The fact seems to have been that the overwhelming prestige of the latter acted by attraction on lesser local collections; and as Rome became the focus of all Italy, so the temple on the Capitol tended more and more to become the centre-point of the floating Italian divination.


hide References (28 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (28):
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 1.7
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 79
    • Tacitus, Annales, 1.76
    • Tacitus, Annales, 6.12
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 31
    • Lucan, Civil War, 1.599
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 11
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 13
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 15
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 6
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 7, 27
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 38, 45
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 6, 12
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 6, 37
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 25, 12
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 21, 62
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 1
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 9
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 29, 10
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 29, 5
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 36, 37
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 41, 21
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 10, 47
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 10
    • Cicero, De Divinatione, 1.4
    • Cicero, De Divinatione, 2.5
    • Ovid, Fasti, 4
    • Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, 1.1
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