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 p1043  Sibyllini Libri

Unsigned article on pp1043‑1044 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

SIBYLLI′NI LIBRI. 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,  p1044 Cic. de 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 the Quindecemviriº (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 (online in their entirety at Elfinspell) 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.

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