THE Sibyls occupy a conspicuous place in the traditions and history of ancient Greece and Rome. Their fame was spread abroad long before the beginning of the Christian era. Heraclitus of Ephesus, some five centuries B. C., compared himself to the Sibyl “who, speaking with inspired mouth, without a smile, without ornament, and without perfume, penetrates through centuries by the power of the gods.” Various oracles, purporting to have been uttered by the Sibyls, are found in the writings of Pausanias, Plutarch, Livy, and other ancient authors of less celebrity. From all which it appears that they were female prophets, believed to be gifted with a knowledge of the future, and inspired to make known the fate of individuals, cities, and kingdoms.

The most ancient and famous of the Sibyls was the one who dwelt in the cave at Cumæ, near Neapolis, on the coast of Italy. To her solemn and sacred place Æneas journeyed when he would learn the destinies of the future, and she opened to him the secrets of the lower world, and served as his guide therein, as Virgil has so finely described in the sixth book of the Æneid. The ancient story about this Cumæan Sibyl is that Apollo became enamored of her, and offered her whatever she might ask of him. She asked that she might be permitted to live as many years as she held grains of sand in her hand. The god at once granted her request, but she refused to reciprocate his love. He thereupon decreed that her long life should be to her a burden rather than a blessing, for she should be without freshness 8and beauty. She is said to have been seven hundred years old when Æneas came to Italy, but she was doomed to live nearly as many more before the number of her years would equal that of the sands she had held, and her ultimate destiny was to wither quite away, and become only a voice. She also bore the names of Herophile, Deiphobe, Demophile, Phenomine, Demo, and Amalthea.

One of the oldest specimens of a heathen oracle is that of Delphi, as preserved in Herodotus (vi, 86). Glaucus, son of Epicydes, is said to have received from the Milesians a large sum of money, and given a pledge to restore it when properly demanded. When, however, the demand was made by the Milesians, Glaucus professed to be ignorant of any such obligation. While the matter was pending he went to Delphi and consulted the Pythian oracle, and received the following response:

Glaucus of Epicydes, greater gain
Immediate is it by oath to overcome,
And take the money as by force; swear then,
Since death awaits the man that keeps his oath.
But Orcus has a nameless son, nor hands
Nor feet are his, but swift he moves along.
Till, having seized a whole race he destroys,
And all the house. But the race of the man
Who keeps his oath is better afterward.

In this response we observe what was so characteristic of the heathen oracles, an element of uncertainty, an enigmatic obscurity. While the answer contains a wholesome word of counsel, it also palters with us in a kind of double sense. Many other examples might be collected from the writings of the ancients. Some of these writers speak as if there were but one Sibyl, others mention several. Pausanias, in his Description of Greece (book x, chap. xii), mentions “the first Herophile” as the most ancient of all the Sibyls, a daughter of Zeus and Lamia; and a second Herophile, who 9was, however, earlier than the Trojan War, and foretold the ruin Helen was destined to bring upon Asia and Europe. He also mentions a woman of the name of Demo, who delivered oracles, and a Hebrew prophetess called Sabbe. He adds to these the names of two women, Phænnis and Peleæ, who prophesied under divine inspiration, but were not called Sibyls. But the fullest account of the Sibyls which we possess is found in the writings of Lactantius, one of the Latin fathers who flourished about the close of the third century of our era, and who refers to Varro as his authority. As this passage seems to have been the principal source of information for later writers, we can do no better service for our readers than to produce it here:

“Marcus Varro, than whom no one more learned ever lived, neither among the Greeks nor even among the Latins, in books on sacred subjects which he wrote to Caius Cæsar, the chief pontiff, when he was speaking of fifteen men,1 says that the Sibylline books were not the work of one Sibyl, but were called by one name, Sibylline, since all female prophets were called Sibyls by the ancients, either from the name of the one at Delphi, or from their announcing the counsels of the Gods. For in the Æolic manner of speaking they call the gods sious (σιούς), not theous (θεούς), and counsel is not boule (βουλή), but bule (βυλή); and so Sibyl is pronounced as siobule (σιοβυλή). But the Sibyls were ten in number, and all these he enumerated under authors who had written of each one. And first there was the Persian of whom Nicanor made mention, who wrote the history of Alexander of Macedon; the second was the Lybian, whom Euripides mentions in the prologue of the Lamia; the third was the Delphian, of whom Chrysippus speaks in that book which he composed on divination; the fourth was the Cimmerian in Italy, whom Nævius in his books of the Punic War and Piso in 10his annals names; the fifth was the Erythræan, whom Apollodorus of Erythræa affirms to have been his own country-woman, and that she prophesied to the Greeks who were moving against Ilium both that Troy would be destroyed and that Homer would write falsehoods; the sixth was the Samian, of whom Eratosthenes writes that he had found something written in the ancient annals of the Samians; the seventh was the Cumæan, by name Amalthea, who is by others called Demophile or Herophile. She brought nine books to King Tarquinius Priscus, and asked three hundred philippics for them, but the king spurned the greatness of the price and laughed at the insanity of the woman. She thereupon in sight of the king burned three of them, and for the rest asked the same price; but Tarquinius all the more thought the woman was insane. But when again, having destroyed three more, she persisted in the same price, the king was moved, and bought what was left for three hundred pieces of gold.2 Afterward their number was increased, the capitol being rebuilt, for they were collected out of all the cities both of Italy and Greece, and especially of Erythræa, and brought to Rome in the name of whatever Sibyl they chanced to be. The eighth was the Hellespontine, born in the Trojan country, in the village of Marpessus, near the town of Gergitha. Heraclides of Pontus writes that she lived in the times of Solon and Cyrus. The ninth was the Phrygian, who prophesied at Ancyra; the tenth was the Tiburtine, by name Albunea, who is worshiped at Tibur as a goddess, near the banks of the river Anio, in which stream her image is said to have been found, holding a book in hand. Her oracular responses the Senate transferred into the capitol.”

So far Lactantius appears to quote substantially from 11Varro, and then he adds, as if contributing further information, the following: “Of all these Sibyls the songs are both made public and held in use except those of the Cumæan, whose books are kept secret by the Romans; neither do they hold it lawful for them to be inspected by any one except the fifteen men. And there are single books of each which, because they are inscribed by the name of a Sibyl, are believed to be the work of one; and there are also confused ones, nor is it possible to discern and assign to each its own except that of the Erythræan, who both inserted her own true name in her song and foretold that she would go by the name of the Erythræan, although she was born in Babylon. . . . All these Sibyls proclaim one God, but especially the Erythræan, who is held among the others to be more distinguished and noble, since indeed Fenestella, a most careful writer, speaking of the fifteen men, says that upon the restoration of the capitol the consul Caius Curio proposed to the Senate to send embassadors to Erythræ, who should search for the songs of the Sibyl and bring them to Rome. And so Publius Gabinius, Marcus Otacilius, and Lucius Valerius were sent, and they brought to Rome about a thousand verses written down by private persons. We have shown above that Varro said the same thing.”3

Lactantius and many other Christian writers of the first four centuries seem to have accepted this tradition as genuine fact, and they cite numerous passages from the Sibyllines current in their time as if they were as authoritative as the Hebrew prophets. Few scholars of the present day, however, regard this tradition as entitled to much credit. It undoubtedly rests upon some foundation of fact, and there is no good reason to question that some such collection of oracles existed in the ancient time. Such books would naturally have been kept at the capitol, and confided to the priestly 12authorities. There is no room to doubt that in times of public peril they were consulted with a superstitious reverence, and not a few instances of the kind are mentioned by the old historians. But the capitol was destroyed by fire in the time of Sylla (B. C. 84), and again in the time of Vespasian (A. D. 69), and whatever Sibylline books were kept therein then doubtless perished in the flames. The subsequent collections, made as Lactantius reports, were doubtless fragmentary, and there is no certainty that any of them are now extant. But, on the other hand, it is not improbable that various temples and cities of the empire possessed some sacred books, and among them oracles purporting to be Sibylline were gathered up and brought to Rome.

The Greek books of Sibylline Oracles, which exist at the present time, and of which this volume furnishes the first complete English translation, are obviously not identical with those of heathen antiquity referred to by the old classic authors. They belong to that large body of pseudoepigraphal literature which originated near the beginning of the Christian era (about B. C. 150 – A. D. 300), which consists of such works as the Book of Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Jubilees, the Assumption of Moses, the Psalms of Solomon, the Ascension of Isaiah, and the Second Book of Esdras. The production of this class of literature was most notable at Alexandria in the time of the Ptolemies. The influence of Greek civilization and culture upon the large Jewish population of the Egyptian metropolis, and the marked favors shown this people in that country, turned them far from the strict usages of their Palestinian brethren. No fact could more strikingly show the results of this foreign influence than the building of the temple and altar at Leontopolis, as described by Josephus (Ant. xiii, 3). If the son of the high-priest Onias saw propriety in converting a heathen temple to the worship of Almighty God, and building it after the pattern of the one in Jerusalem, we need 13not wonder that the religious and literary taste of the Alexandrian Jews found gratification in harmonizing Hebrew traditions and Greek philosophy. The ingenuity that found in Isa. xix, 19, a warrant for the building of such a temple and altar might easily discover among the responses of heathen oracles much that was capable of appearing to great advantage in a Jewish dress. In this way, no doubt, arose the Jewish Sibyl, assuming to be a daughter of Noah, and skilled in all prophetic knowledge. And this passion for reproducing famous oracles spread beyond the land of Egypt, and gathered breadth and volume with its years of growth. Not only were the historical and philosophical productions of the Greeks made use of, but the speculations of the Persians, the mysteries of Egyptian priests, and the poetical myths and legends of all nations contributed to the medley which Hellenistic Jews were fond of turning to a pious purpose. And just as the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture was handed over as a sort of inheritance to the early Christian Church, so the passion for producing pseudonymous books took easy possession of many Christian writers of the first centuries. Hence the large number of apocryphal Gospels and Acts and Apocalypses.

Our Sibylline books are found to contain Greek, Jewish and Christian elements. The oldest portions appear to be the work of an Alexandrian Jew, who probably made use of various fragments of the old Greek and Roman Sibyllines which were current in his day.4 This work was probably enlarged by later writers and then taken up by Christian enthusiasts, who turned it to account in their assaults upon heathenism. The result is that, after various revisions and alterations and additions, we have twelve books, which 14exhibit little coherency. They contain numerous repetitions, and many passages exist only in a mutilated form. “Even at this day,” writes a learned critic, “we might safely undertake to compress into three books all that is distinctive, not to say valuable, and could very well afford to imitate the example of Tarquin, and give the same price for the smaller collection which was asked for the whole. By this procedure we should lose nothing but abridgments, modifications, or repetitions.”5

Very noticeable is the manner in which many of the early Christian fathers refer to these spurious oracles. Justin Martyr cites verses of the Sibyl and treats them with as much regard as if they were a portion of the Hebrew Scriptures. He urges upon the Greeks that their own ancient Sibyl taught the same great truths as the prophets.6 Clement of Alexandria pursues the same method, often quoting passages that served his purpose, and in one place (ad Græcos, vi) he repeats several lines now found in the Proem of our books, and attributes them to a “prophetess of the Hebrews.” Theophilus of Antioch quotes the words of the Sibyl as if they were holy scriptures, and he has preserved in his writings our only copy of the ancient Proem. Tertullian says (ad Nationes, chap. xii) that the Sibyl was earlier than all literature and the prophetess of truth, from whom the priests of the demons borrowed their titles. Eusebius, Augustine, Jerome, and other fathers still later occasionally refer to the writings of the Sibyl as an inspired authority. But of all the fathers Lactantius makes most frequent appeal to the Sibyls, and his writings abound with citations of verses from their books. To him they seemed an invaluable weapon with which to confute the superstition and idolatry 15of the heathen world. He evidently regarded the Sibylline books from which he quoted as substantially identical with those of which Varro wrote.

Some of the fathers, however, as Irenæus and Cyprian, make no use of the Sibylline Oracles. Whether they were ignorant of them, or suspected their genuineness, or found no occasion to cite them, we need not attempt to say. According to Origen (ad Celsus, lxi) Celsus derided the Christians for their belief in the Sibyl, and the learned Alexandrian father undertook no defense of the Sibylline prophecies. But those early years of Christianity were not an age of scientific literary criticism, and whatever certain scholars here and there might think or say, pseudepigraphal books obtained a wide circulation, and in many places met with general credence. About the close of the fourth century the emperor Honorius is said to have issued an order for the destruction of these books and of the heathen temples in which they were deposited. But, whatever the result of this order, many copies probably escaped the flames, and were subsequently multiplied and scattered abroad. Like many other writings, they were lost from sight during the Middle Ages, but were recovered and published at the revival of Greek learning about the beginning of the sixteenth century. Eleven different manuscripts have been discovered, but they exhibit great diversity of matter and arrangement. Whole sections are wanting in some copies which are supplied in others. The language and versification betray the work of different authors and revisers. Some passages are hopelessly mutilated in all the manuscripts. The earlier published copies contained only the first eight books. Angelo Mai found and published a manuscript of the fourteenth book in 1817, and afterward two Vatican Codices, both containing books xi-xiv, and so nearly alike as to show that one must have been copied from the other. The character and condition of the manuscripts are such as to make it impossible 16to construct an edition of the Greek text which will be fully satisfactory. We may, however, sympathize with the critic referred to above, who suggests “that all that is to be learnt from the Sibylline Oracles may be most readily gathered from them in their sluttish and mutilated state as exhibited in the manuscripts. Their rugged wretchedness is more suggestive than they would be in a more purified form. They are the tattered remnants of an ignorant, bigoted, superstitious, and often fraudulent phase of declining civilization; and the Sibyls, who profess to be co-etaneous with the birth of antiquity, and contemporary with Noah, deserve to be lapidated according to the sentence and prayer put forth by one of them on her own behalf.”7

The first printed edition of the Greek text was brought out by Xystus Betuleius at Basel in 1545. A metrical Latin version of this by Sebastian Castalio appeared in 1546, and another edition of the Greek text, emended by the same scholar, in 1555. In 1599 Johannis Opsopœus published at Paris an edition of the Greek text, accompanied with the Latin version of Castalio, and with brief prolegomena and notes. But all these editions were superseded by that of Servatius Gallæus, published at Amsterdam in 1687-89, in two quarto volumes. One volume contains the Greek text, with the Latin version and extensive annotations; the other consists of dissertations on the Sibyls and their oracles.8 This text and translation was republished at Venice in 1765, in the first volume of Gallandius’s Collection of the Fathers, 17and accompanied with numerous notes, largely taken from the work of Gallæus. The next important contribution to the Sibyllines was the discovery in the Ambrosian library at Milan of the fourteenth book, which was published by Angelo Mai in 1817. The same distinguished prelate subsequently found in the Vatican library at Rome four books numbered xi-xiv, and published them in that city in 1828. The first to edit and publish the entire collection of twelve books (books i-viii and xi-xiv) was J. H. Friedlieb, whose single volume, issued at Leipsic in 1852, contains the entire Greek text, with a remarkably close metrical version in German, a valuable introduction, and a collection of various readings. But the latest and most complete edition of the whole work is that of C. Alexandre, whose first volume appeared at Paris in 1841, and contained the Greek text and Latin version of the first eight books, and extensive critical and exegetical notes. Two subsequent volumes (Paris, 1853 and 1856) supplied the remaining books, seven Excursus, and a bibliography of the Sibyllines. A new edition, condensing the former into briefer space, and presenting all in a single volume, appeared at Paris in 1869, and is entitled to the honor of editio optima.9

The critical study of these books makes it evident that 18they are the work of a variety of authors, the oldest of whom were Alexandrian Jewish, but the greater number of whom were Christian, belonging to different times and places. They all assume to speak in the name of the ancient Sibyl, and employ for their purpose a studied imitation of the language and hexameters of Homer. “The collection as we now have it,” says Schürer; “is a chaotic wilderness, to sift and arrange which will ever baffle the most acute criticism. For, unfortunately, it is not the case that each book forms of itself an original whole, but that even the single books are some of them arbitrary aggregates of fragments. The curse of pseudonymous authorship seems to have prevailed very specially over these oracles. Every reader and writer allowed himself to complete what existed after his own pleasure, and to arrange the scattered papers now in one, now in an opposite manner. Evidently much was at first circulated in detached portions, and the collection of these afterward made by some admirer was a very accidental one. Hence duplicates of many portions are found in different places. And the manuscripts which have come down to us exhibit great discrepancies in the arrangement.”10 The oldest portion is believed to be our present book iii, beginning with line 114 (Greek text 97), and including most of the following lines as far as 960 (Greek, 807). To this was formerly attached the Proem preserved to us in Theophilus. This portion was probably the work of an Alexandrian Jew of the second century B. C. Next in the order of time is probably the fourth book. The reference to the burning of the temple (line 159), and the eruption of Vesuvius (lines 165-170), which occurred A. D. 79, make it probable that is was written not far from A. D. 80.

It is not the purpose of the present work to enter upon a detailed criticism of the various elements of the Sibylline 19books as they now exist. Such an essay would necessarily involve much that would be unsuitable for English readers, and needlessly enlarge this volume. A summary of contents is furnished at the beginning of each book, and the foot-notes are believed to be sufficient to help the common reader to an understanding of the various parts. Where no certainty exists as to the meaning the fact is indicated, and sometimes the views of different scholars are briefly stated. The printed texts of Alexandre and Friedlieb have been constantly before us in making the translation, and various readings and conjectural emendations are occasionally mentioned. But these have been sparingly introduced, since they could be of little value to the English reader. The citations made by the Christian fathers are duly noted, and as they have all been verified by means of Migne’s complete collection of the Greek and Latin fathers, the place of citation is designated, not only by the common reference of book and chapter, but also by the volume and column in which the passage appears in Migne’s edition. This latter designation is always put in brackets, the letter G denoting the Greek, and L the Latin patrology; and the numbers which follow these letters refer respectively to the volume and column. The numbers inclosed in parentheses at the foot of each page of the translation indicate the corresponding lines of the Greek text as represented on that page.

As the compiler of our present collection of Sibylline Oracles is believed to be the author of theAnonymous Preface, the readers of this volume are herewith provided with a translation of that document, which, according to Alexandre, belongs to the sixth century of the Christian era.


1   The Quindecemviri, a college, or board of fifteen priests, to whom the care of the Sibylline books was intrusted at Rome.

2   Dionysius Halicarnasseus also records this story of Tarquin and the Sibyl, and adds that, having delivered over the books, she disappeared from among men. — Antiq. Rom., iv, 62.

3   Lactantius, Div. Inst., book i, chap. vi. Migne’s Latin Patrology, vol. vi, 140-147.

4   From this work Josephus quoted the passage which now appears in our book iii, 116-123 (Greek text 99-104). His language in connection with the quotation is: “The Sibyl also makes mention of this tower and of the confusion of the language, when she says thus.” — Ant. i, iv, 3.

5 Methodist Quarterly Review of October, 1854, p. 502.

6   Athenagoras in his Legatio pro christianis quotes a passage from the oldest portion of the third book in the same way as Josephus does the passage mentioned in a foregoing foot-note.

7   See the close of book vii.

8   An English translation from the texts of Opsopœus and Gallæus was published in London, 1713, by Sir John Floyer. This, of course, contains only the first eight books. In a preface of twenty pages the translator maintains the genuineness of the oracles, cites numerous testimonies from the Christian fathers, and finds the papacy and the Turks predicted therein. The book is out of print, and its dissertations attempting to answer the objections of Opsopœus and Vossius (pp. 249-262) are obsolete and worthless.

9   There was published in 1878 at Breslau a very scholarly and valuable dissertation on the fourth book of the Sibylline Oracles, by D. Badt, in which we have, besides critical and exegetical discussions, a revised Greek text of the fourth book. Other special essays are by C. L. Struve,Fragmenta Librorum Sibyllinorum quae apud Lactantium reperiunter.. Regiomonti, 1817. F. Bleek, Die Entstehung und Zusammensetzung der uns erhaltenen Bücher Sibyllinischer Orakel, in Schleiermacher’s, De Wette’s & Lücke’s Theo. Zeitschrift for 1819 and 1820 (vol. i, pp. 120-146; vol. ii, pp. 172-239). R. Volkmann, De Oraculis Sibyllinis Dissertatio (Leipsic, 1853), and Sectiones Sibyllinæ(Phritz, 1861). Hilgenfeld, Die Jüdische Sibylle, in his Jüdische Apokalyptik, pp. 53-90 (Jena, 1857). H. Ewald, Abhandlung über Entstehung, Inhalt, und Werth de Sibyllischen Bücher. Göttingen, 1858.

10 The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, vol. iii, p. 276. English Translation, Edinburgh, 1886.






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



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