These books are said to have been obtained in the reign of Tarquinius Priscus, or according to other accounts in that of Tarquinius Superbus, when a Sibyl (Σίβυλλα), or prophetic woman, presented herself before the king, and offered nine books for sale. Upon the king refusing to purchase them she went and burnt three, and then returned and demand the same price for the remaining six as she had done for the nine. The king again refused to purchase them, whereupon she burnt three more and demanded the same sum for the remaining three, as she had done at first for the nine: the king’s curiosity now became excited, so that he purchased the books, and then the Sibyl vanished (Dionys. IV.62; Varro, ap. Lactant. I.6; Gell. I.19; Plin. H. N. XIII.27; respecting the different Sibyls mentioned by ancient writers see  Divinatio, p416B). These books were probably written in Greek, as the later ones undoubtedly were, and if so consequently came from a Greek source, though it is doubtful from what quarter: Niebuhr (Hist. of Rome, vol. I p506) supposes them to have come from Ionia, but they were more probably derived from Cumae in Campania (Göttling,Gesch. der Röm. Staatsv. p212). They were kept in a stone chest under ground in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, under the custody of certain officers, at first only two in number, but afterwards increased successively to ten and fifteen, of whom an account is given under Decemviri, p387A. The public were not allowed to inspect the books, and they were only consulted by the officers, who had the charge of them, at the special command of the senate (ad libros ire, Div. I.43; Liv. XXII.57). They were consulted in the case of prodigies and calamities, but it is difficult to ascertain whether they contained predictions, or merely directions as to what was to be done for conciliating or appeasing the gods, in consequence of the mystery which enveloped them from the time that one of their keepers was put to death for divulging their secrets (Dionys. l.c.; Valer. Max. I.1 § 13). Niebuhr remarks from the instances in Livy, that the original books were not consulted, as the Greek oracles were, for the purpose of getting light concerning future events; but to learn what worship was required by the gods, when they had manifested their wrath by national calamities or prodigies. Accordingly we find that the instruction they give is in the same spirit; prescribing what honour was to be paid to the deities already recognized, or what new ones were to be imported from abroad. They were probably written on palm-leaves (Serv. ad Virg. Aen. III.444, VI.74), and it is not unlikely that the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl described by Virgil were designed as an allusion to the form of the Sibylline books. Their nature being such, Niebuhr supposes that they were referred to in the same way as Eastern nations refer to the Koran and to Hafiz: they did not search for a passage and apply it, but probably only shuffled the palm leaves and then drew one.

When the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was burnt in B.C. 82, the Sibylline books perished in the fire; and in order to restore them, ambassadors were sent to various towns in Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor, to make fresh collections, which on the rebuilding of the temple were deposited in the same place that the former had occupied (Dionys. l.c.). But as a great many prophetic books, many of them pretending to be Sibylline oracles,a had got into general circulation at Rome, Augustus commanded that all such books should be delivered up to the praetor urbanus by a certain day and burnt, and that in future none should be kept by any private person. More than 2000 prophetic books were thus delivered up and burnt, and those which were considered genuine and were in the custody of the state were deposited in two gilt cases at the base of the statue of Apollo, in the temple of that god on the Palatine, and were entrusted as before to theQuindecemviriº (Suet. Aug. 31; Tac. Ann. VI.12). The writing of those belonging to the state had faded by time, and Augustus commanded the priests to write them over again (Dion Cass. LIV.17). A fresh examination of the Sibylline books was again made by Tiberius, and many rejected, which were considered spurious (Dion Cass. LVII.18). A few years afterwards, also in the reign of Tiberius, it was proposed to add a new volume of Sibylline oracles to the received collection (Tacit. l.c.).

The Christian writers frequently appeal to the Sibylline verses as containing prophecies of the Messiah; but these in most cases are clearly forgeries. A complete collection of Sibylline oracles was published by Gallaeus, Amst. 1689: fragments of them have also been published by Mai, Milan 1817, and Struve, Regiomont. 1818 (compare Heidbreede, de Sibyllis Dissertat., Berol. 1835).

The Sibylline books were also called Fata Sibyllina (Cic. Cat. III.4), and Libri Fatales (Liv. V.15, XXII.57). Those that were collected after the burning of the temple on the Capitol, were undoubtedly written in Greek verses, and were acrostics (ἀκροστιχὶς, Cic. de Div. II.54; Dionys. l.c.). Along with the Sibylline books were preserved under the guard of the same officers the books of the two prophetic brothers, the Marcii (Serv. ad Virg. Aen. VI.72; Cic. de Div. I.40, II.55), the Etruscan prophecies of the nymph Bygoe, and those of Albuna or Albunea of Tibur (Lactant. I.6). Those of the Marcii, which had not been placed there at the time of the battle of Cannae, were written in Latin: a few remains of them have come down to us in Livy (XXV.12) and Macrobius (Sat. I.17). See Niebuhr, vol. I p507, Göttling, Gesch. d. Röm. Staatsv. p213; Hartung,Die Religion d. Römer, vol. I p129, &c.

Thayer’s Note:

a One set of such oracles in particular should be mentioned, since it has come down to us, and is often confused with the Sibylline Books, which were — Smith’s article fails to mention it — undoubtedly destroyed in Late Antiquity; according to one source (Rutil. de Reditu suo II.51‑52) by Stilicho. The Sibylline Oracles  are among the many fevered products of late Roman Alexandria; in them Jewish and Christian authors, mixing ex post facto prophecy, numerology, apocalyptic writing and sundry mystical conceits, brought forth a work of enormous interest to scholars of Late Antiquity and to the incurably credulous.

Unsigned article on pp1043‑1044 of  William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.




THE Sibylline Oracles are a collection of pseudoepigraphal poems, venerable for their antiquity, and valuable for their exhibition of the spirit and thought of the early Christian centuries. In assuming to be the utterances of the most ancient Sibyls they are obviously spurious, but, like the Book of Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, and the Ascension of Isaiah, these Jewish-Christian poems possess a permanent value for the theologian and the student of history. They represent a notable phase of ancient religious life and sentiment, and their very imperfections as literary productions reveal to the critical reader tendencies in human civilization and intellectual activity which he can nowhere else so clearly trace.

These Sibylline books are quoted by Josephus, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius, and other Christian fathers, and are treated by some of them as if they were as authoritative as the Holy Scriptures. The relation, accordingly, of these and similar books to current discussions in the department of biblical criticism and canonics is of a very noteworthy character. They have also acquired no little importance in the modern study of apocalyptics. Lücke and Stuart give them much space and attention in their learned works on the Revelation of John, and a considerable literature has grown up around them, as will be seen in the following Introduction.

It seems very desirable that these oracles should be made accessible to English readers. The old version of Floyer has long been out of print, contains only the first eight 4books, and is given to discussions which have become obsolete by the progress of scientific criticism. The present work is an attempt to put these famous Sibyllines into as readable English as is consistent with accuracy of translation. The form of heroic blank verse has been chosen as on the whole best representing to English readers the spirit of the Greek hexameters. It would not have been difficult in numerous passages to have made better poetry and better sense than can be found in the Greek original, but such a liberty would violate the obligations and proprieties of a work that assumes to be a faithful translation.

It must be remembered that the Greek text of these books has come down to us in a very corrupt state, mutilated in a number of places, and notable for its imperfect meters. Many of the geographical and historical allusions are obscure and uncertain, and the several books contain numerous repetitions. For the convenience of the critical reader the corresponding lines of the Greek text are indicated at the foot of each page of the translation, and in the notes references are furnished to the places in the writings of the Christian fathers and other ancient authors where the Sibyl is quoted, or where similar sentiments occur. It is hoped that our Introduction and foot-notes will also supply the information which readers in general will desire; but it should be observed that there are many passages which all the learning and ingenuity of scholars have hitherto failed to make clear.

I desire, in conclusion, to acknowledge my indebtedness to Professor Joseph R. Taylor, of the North-western University, for his very helpful co-operation in the preparation both of the translation and the notes; also to Professor Charles Horswell for assistance in the translation of the third book. My thanks are also due to Professors Baird and Bradley for valuable suggestions.

M. S. T.

EVANSTON, September, 1890.



Copyright, 1890, by  HUNT & EATON,NEW YORK.




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