the Sibyl in History

Paul V. Hartman

A Long History of Seemingly Correct Forecasts Intrigued the Romans.

The Greek word for prophetess is Sibylla, and the phrase "the Sibyl" was used in antiquity to identify a seeress with unusual talent in forecasting major upcoming events, such utterances being announced at a holy site such as Delphi. Homer does not mention "the Sibyl", but the Greek philosopher Heraclitus did, in the 5th Century, when he wrote:
The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth, uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.
However, the legend is much older, having been identified in the Near East at Sumeria in the 2nd millennium, and in Assyria about 1000 BC.

"Sibyl" is a casual title, not a woman's name's name. Each (there appear to have been several) would be named for the holy site from which they forecast, although a particular sybil might migrate from site to site. So the forecasts made by "the Sybil" come from a collection of females, over many centuries.

The Romans knew these stories, and were most impressed (and grieved) by the forecasts of the Greek woman in nearby Naples. (Virgil has Aeneas consult this woman before descending to the lower world.) She may have been the last of the order, the one who sold the original Sibylline Books to the last king of Rome, Tarquinius *, which the Roman Senate of the Republic locked away in a sealed vault beneath the Capitoline temple of Jupiter. Custodians of the books were appointed for life, and were exempt from other public duties.

The Christian church, as the Renaissance came to flower, was also interested in this particular woman, as she foretold the coming of a savior. Michelangelo preserved this connection for our time by painting five sibyls into the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and they exist in Christian churches elsewhere throughout Italy.

None of the pronouncements of the Sibyl were ever clear-cut. Keeping them a bit cloudy would allow for an opposite interpretation. Nor were the forecasts necessarily fixed in stone: they could be undone by a provident act, and possibly by a nice contribution to the oracle.

The Books were consulted from time to time by Roman authorities. Greek interpreters would be brought in for that, as the books were written in Greek, and in hexameter verse. In 83 BC the temple to Jupiter burned down, and the books were lost. In 76 BC the Romans sent men to collect similar books from Greece, Sicily, and Africa, and these were placed into the rebuilt temple to Jupiter.

In 12 BC they were transferred by Augustus to the temple of Apollo, where they remained until 405 AD, when Stilicho, a general of the Roman army, burned them. However, copies were made before that event and probably kept elsewhere. They have not been found.

The Books (Libri Sibyllini) told of an immense empire unlike the world had ever seen, which would be destroyed. The Romans feared that theirs was the one to be destroyed.

As it came to be.

* This part is pure legend. He was offered nine books for a very large sum. He declined. The sibyl burned three of them, and offered the remaining six at the same high price. Tarquinius declined again. She burned three more, and offered the remaining three at the same high price. Tarquinius then ponied up the gold. If this were a "true" sibyl, she would have had only three to start with, and added six frauds: same scenario.

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