Libri Sibyllini


THE SIBYLLINE BOOKS

The Libri Sibyllini were a collection of oracular utterances, set out in Greek hexameters, that according to tradition were purchased from the Cumaean Sibyl by by the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, and were consulted at momentous crises through the history of the Republic and the Empire.
Only fragments have survived, the rest being lost or deliberately destroyed.
The Sibylline Books should not be confused with the so-called Sibylline Oracles, twelve books of prophecies thought to be of Judaeo-Christian origin.

The Cumaean Sibyl was the priestess presiding over the Apollonian oracle at Cumae, a Greek colony located near Naples, Italy.
The word sibyl comes (via Latin) from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess.
There were many sibyls in different locations throughout the ancient world.
Because of the importance of the Cumaean Sibyl in the legends of early Rome, as codified in Virgil's Aeneid VI, and because of her proximity to Rome, the Cumaean Sibyl became the most famous among the Romans.
The Erythraean Sibyl from modern-day Turkey was famed among Greeks, as was the oldest Hellenic oracle, the Sibyl of Dodona, possibly dating to the second millennium BC according to Herodotus, favored in the east.
The Cumaean Sibyl is one of the four sibyls painted by Raphael at Santa Maria della Pace. She was also painted by Andrea del Castagno, and in the Sistine Ceiling of Michelangelo her powerful presence overshadows every other sibyl, even her younger and more beautiful sisters, such as the Delphic Sibyl.
THE CUMAEAN SIBYL

The story of the acquisition of the Sibylline Books by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the semi-legendary last king of the Roman Kingdom, or Tarquinius Priscus, is one of the famous storiese of Roman history.
Centuries ago, concurrent with the 50th Olympiad not long before the expulsion of Rome's kings, an old woman "who was not a native of the country" (Dionysius) arrived incognita in Rome.
She offered nine books of prophecies to King Tarquin; and as the king declined to purchase them, owing to the exorbitant price she demanded, she burned three and offered the remaining six to Tarquin at the same stiff price, which he again refused, whereupon she burned three more and repeated her offer.
The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus,
Tarquin then relented and purchased the last three at the full original price, whereupon she "disappeared from among men" (Dionysius).

The books were thereafter kept in the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, on the Capitoline Hill, Rome, to be consulted only in emergencies.
The temple burned down in the 80s BC, and the books with it, necessitating a re-collection of Sibylline prophecies from all parts of the empire (Tacitus 6.12).
These were carefully sorted, and those determined to be legitimate were saved in the rebuilt temple.

Temple of Apollo - Palatine Hill,
The Emperor Augustus (Octavian) had them moved to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where they remained for most of the remaining Imperial Period.
The Books were burned in AD 405 by the General Flavius Stilicho, who was a Christian, and regarded the books as Pagan and therefore evil.
At the time of the Visigothic invasion five years later in AD 410, certain Pagans bemoaned the loss of the books, claiming that the invasion of the city was evidence of the wrath of the Pagan gods over the destruction of the books.
The Cumaean Sibyl is featured in the works of, among others, Virgil (The Eclogues, The Æneid), Ovid (Metamorphoses) and Petronius (The Satyricon).
The Cumaean Sibyl prophesied by “singing the fates”, and writing on oak leaves.
These would be arranged inside the entrance of her cave but, if the wind blew and scattered them, she would not help to reassemble the leaves to form the original prophecy again.
The Sibyl was a guide to the underworld (Hades), its entry being at the nearby crater of Avernus.
Aeneas employed her services before his descent to the lower world to visit his dead father Anchises, but she warned him that it was no light undertaking:
The Sibyl acts like a bridge between the livings' world and the deads' sphere (cf. concept of liminality).
She shows the way to Aeneas, and she teaches him what he has to know facing the dangers of their journey in the underworld.
Although she was a mortal, the Sibyl lived about a thousand years. This came about when Apollo offered to grant her a wish in exchange for her virginity; she took a handful of sand and asked to live for as many years as the grains of sand she held. Later, after she refused the god's love, he allowed her body to wither away because she failed to ask for eternal youth. Her body grew smaller with age and eventually was kept in a jar (ampulla). Eventually only her voice was left (Metamorphoses 14; compare the myth of Tithonus).
Although she was a mortal, the Sibyl lived about a thousand years.
This came about when Apollo offered to grant her a wish in exchange for her virginity; she took a handful of sand and asked to live for as many years as the grains of sand she held.
Later, after she refused the god's love, he allowed her body to wither away, because she failed to ask for eternal youth.
Her body grew smaller with age, and eventually only her voice was left (Metamorphoses 14.)

The LIBRY SIBYLLINI

The Roman Senate kept tight control over the Sibylline Books; Sibylline Books were entrusted to the care of two patricians; after 367 BC ten custodians were appointed, five patricians and five plebeians, who were called the decemviri sacris faciundis; subsequently (probably in the time of Sulla) their number was increased to fifteen, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis.
They were usually ex-consuls or ex-praetors.
They held office for life, and were exempt from all other public duties.
They had the responsibility of keeping the books in safety and secrecy.
These officials, at the command of the Senate, consulted the Sibylline Books in order to discover not exact predictions of definite future events in the form of prophecy but the religious observances necessary to avert extraordinary calamities and to expiate ominous prodigies (comets and earthquakes, showers of stones, plague, and the like).
It was only the rites of expiation prescribed by the Sibylline Books, according to the interpretation of the oracle that were communicated to the public, and not the oracles themselves, which left ample opportunity for abuses.
In particular, the keepers of the Sibylline Books had the superintendence of the worship of Apollo, of the "Great Mother" Cybele or Magna Mater, and of Ceres, which had been introduced upon recommendations as interpreted from the Sibylline Books.
The Sibylline Books motivated the construction of eight temples in ancient Rome, aside from those cults that have been interpreted as mediated by the Sibylline Books simply by the Greek nature of the deity.
Thus, one important effect of the Sibylline Books was their influence on applying Greek cult practice and Greek conceptions of deities to indigenous Roman religion, which was already indirectly influenced through Etruscan religion.
As the Sibylline Books had been collected in Anatolia, in the neighborhood of Troy, they recognized the gods and goddesses and the rites observed there and helped introduce them into Roman state worship, a syncretic amalgamation of national deities with the corresponding deities of Greece, and a general modification of the Roman religion.
Since they were written in hexameter verse and in Greek, the college of curators was always assisted by two Greek interpreters.
The books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, and, when the temple burned in 83 BC, they were lost.
The Roman Senate sent envoys in 76 BC to replace them with a collection of similar oracular sayings, in particular collected from Ilium, Erythrae, Samos, Sicily, and Africa.
This new Sibylline collection was deposited in the restored temple, together with similar sayings of native origin, e.g. those of the Sibyl at Tibur (the 'Tiburtine Sibyl') of the brothers Marcius, and others, which had been circulating in private hands but which were called in, to be delivered to the Urban Praetor, private ownership of such works being declared illicit, and to be evaluated by the Quindecimviri, who then sorted them, retaining only those that appeared true to them.
From the Capitol they were transferred by Augustus (Octavian) as pontifex maximus in 12 BC, to the temple of Apollo Patrous on the Palatine, after they had been examined and copied; there they remained until about AD 405.
According to the poet Rutilius Claudius Namatianus, the general Flavius Stilicho (died AD 408) burned them, as they were being used to attack his government.
Some genuine Sibylline verses are preserved in the Book of Marvels or Memorabilia of Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century AD).
These represent an oracle, or a combination of two oracles, of seventy hexameters in all.
They report the birth of an androgyne, and prescribe a long list of rituals and offerings to the gods.


Consultations of the Books Cited in History

  • 399 BC: The books were consulted following a pestilence, resulting in the institution of the lectisternium ceremony. (Livy 5,13)
  • 348 BC: A plague struck Rome after a brief skirmish with the Gauls and Greeks. Another lectisternium was ordered. (Livy 7,27)
  • 345 BC: The books were consulted when a "shower of stones rained down and darkness filled the sky during daylight". Publius Valerius Publicola was appointed dictator to arrange a public holiday for religious observances. (Livy 7, 28)
  • 295 BC: They were consulted again following a pestilence, and reports that large numbers of Appius Claudius' army had been struck by lightning. A Temple was built to Venus near the Circus Maximus. (Livy 10,31)
  • 293 BC: After yet another plague, the books were consulted, with the prescription being 'that Aesculapius must be brought to Rome from Epidaurus'; however, the Senate, being preoccupied with the Samnite wars, took no steps beyond performing one day of public prayers to Aesculapius. (Livy 10,47)
  • 240/238 BC: The Ludi Florales, or "Flower Games", were instituted after consulting the books.
  • 216 BC: When Hannibal annihilated the Roman Legions at Cannae, the books were consulted, and on their recommendation, two Gauls and two Greeks were buried alive in the city's marketplace.
  • 205-204 BC: During the Second Punic War, upon consultation of the Sibylline Books, an image of Cybele was transferred from Pessinos (or Pergamon) to Rome. An embassy was sent to Attalus I of Pergamon to negotiate the transfer. Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica and Claudia Quinta were said to have received the image of Cybele at Ostia on her arrival in
  • 204 BC. Cybele's image was placed within the Temple of Victory on the Palatine. In honour of Cybele a lecisternium was performed and her games, the Megalesia, were held. The image of Cybele was moved to the Temple of the Magna Mater in 191 BC when the temple was dedicated by Marcus Junius Brutus in the consulship of Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica. A fragment of Valerius Antias from Livy's Ab Urbe Condita 36.36.4 records that Megalesia were again held in 191 BC and that "[they] were the first to be held with dramatic performances."
  • 143 BC: Frontinus relates a story in which the Decemvirs consulted the books on another matter and found that a proposed project for the Marcia Aqueduct was improper, along with the Anio. After a debate in the Senate the project was resumed, presumably the necessity for water outweighed the oracle. Sextus Julius Frontinus, Aqueducts of Rome, Book I, Ch 7.
  • 63 BC: Believing in a prediction of the books that 'three Cornelii' would dominate Rome, Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura took part in the conspiracy of Catiline (Plutarch, Life of Cicero, XVII)
  • ca. 55 BC: As Romans deliberated sending a force to restore Ptolemy XII to the throne of Egypt, lightning struck the statue of Jupiter on the Alban Mount; the oracles were consulted, and one was found to read "If the King of Egypt comes to you asking for assistance, refuse him not your friendship, yet do not grant him any army, or else you will have toil and danger". This considerably delayed Ptolemy's return. (Dio Cassius History of Rome 39:15)
  • 44 BC: According to Suetonius, a sibylline prediction that only a king could triumph over Parthia fueled rumors that Caesar, leader of the then-republic, was aspiring to kingship. (Caesar, 79)
  • 15 AD: When the Tiber river flooded the lower parts of Rome, one of the priests suggested consulting the books, but Emperor Tiberius refused, preferring to keep the divine things secret. (Tacitus, Annales I, 76) 271: The books were consulted following the Roman defeat at Placentia by the Alamanni.
  • 312: Maxentius consulted the Sibylline Books in preparation for combat with Constantine, who had just taken all of Maxentius' northern Italian cities and was marching on Rome.
  • 363: Julian the Apostate consulted the books in preparation for marching against the Sassanids. The response mailed from Rome "in plain terms warned him not to quit his own territories that year." (Ammianus Marcellinus, History of Rome, XXIII 1, 7)
  • 405: Stilicho ordered the destruction of the Sibylline Books, possibly because Sibylline prophecies were being used to attack his government in the face of the attack of Alaric I.

 THE CAVES AT CUMAE AND BAIAE
The famous cave known as the "Antro della Sibilla" was discovered by Amedeo Maiuri in 1932, the identification of which he based on the description by Virgil in the 6th book of the Aeneid, and also from the description by an anonymous author known as pseudo-Justin.(Virg. Aen. 6. 45–99; Ps-Justin, 37). The cave is a trapezoidal passage over 131 m long, running parallel to the side of the hill and cut out of the volcanic tuff stone and leads to an innermost chamber, where the Sibyl was thought to have prophesied. A nearby tunnel through the acropolis now known as the "Crypta Romana" (part of Agrippa and Octavian's defenses in the war against Sextus Pompey) was previously identified as the Grotto of the Sibyl. The inner chamber was later used as a burial chamber during the 4th or 5th century AD by people living at the site. Some archaeologists have proposed an alternative cave site as the home of the sibyl. A tunnel complex near Baiae leads to an underground geothermally-heated stream that could be presented to visitors as the river Styx. The layout of the tunnels conforms to the description in the Aeneid of Aeneas' journey to the underworld and back.

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016


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