Translation copyright 2000 Neil W. Bernstein; all rights reserved.
The story about the Sibylline books and king Tarquinius Superbus.
- The ancient annals (1) offer the following anecdote concerning the Sibylline books:
- A foreign and unfamiliar old woman came to king Tarquinius Superbus bringing nine books which she said were divine oracles. She wanted to sell them to him.
- Tarquinius inquired as to their price. The woman asked for an exorbitantly immense amount.
- The king laughed at the old woman as if her old age had made her childish.
- Then she lit a stove in front of him, burned three of the nine books, and asked the king if he wanted to buy the remaining six at the same price.
- But Tarquinius laughed even more at this and said that now the old woman was mad without a doubt.
- On the spot the woman burned three more books and calmly asked him the same question once more: would he buy the three remaining books at the same price?
- Tarquinius’s expression now grew serious and his mind more attentive. He understood that he should not ignore her steadfastness and confidence. He bought the three remaining books for a price no less than the one she had asked for all nine.
- But it is agreed that after the woman left Tarquinius she was never seen anywhere thereafter.
- The three books, called “Sibylline,” were placed in a temple.(2)
- The Council of Fifteen Men (3) examine the books as if seeking advice from an oracle whenever they consult the immortal gods concerning public matters.
- Cf. Dionysius of Halicarnassus 4.62, Varro apud Lactantius Divinae Institutiones 1.6.10, Servius, Commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid 6.72, among other testimonia.
- Originally in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; Augustus transferred them to the temple of Apollo Palatinus (cf. Suetonius, Augustus 31.1).
- This college of Roman priests (quindecemviri sacris faciundis) had grown to 15 by the late Republic. In Tarquinius’ day there were only two priests appointed to consult the Sibylline books; the Licinian laws of 367 BC expanded the number to 10 and organized them into a college.
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