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Mary Macgregor

The Books of the Sibyl

One day, when Tarquin the Proud was at the height of his power, a woman came to the city and demanded to see the king. She was a stranger, and carried in her arms nine books.

When she was brought before the king she asked him to buy the books, telling him that they were the sacred prophecies of the inspired Sibyl of Cumæ. Cumæ was in the Campania, and was the most ancient of the Greek towns in Italy. The prophecies were written on loose leaves, and in them, said the strange woman, the king would read the destiny of Rome, and how to fulfil it.


She carried in her arms nine books.

But the stranger asked so large a sum of money for the nine books that the king laughed and refused to buy.

Quietly, before the king's eyes the woman burned three of the nine books. Then, turning to him again, she offered the six books for the same price as she had before demanded for the nine.

Tarquin laughed still more scornfully, and refused to buy the six as he had already refused to buy the nine books.

Quietly as before the woman burned three more books before the eyes of the king. Then turning to him she offered the three books that were left for the same sum.

Then the king laughed no more. He began to wonder if perhaps the gods had sent the books to Rome. So he consulted the augurs, and by their advice he now bought the three books for the sum which would have bought the nine.

The strange woman, having done her work, disappeared and was seen no more, while the books were put in a chest and kept in the Capitol, which was now complete.

Two Greeks were appointed to guard the Sibylline books, for they were written in the Greek language. And ever when death, pestilence, or war threatened the city, the books were consulted by the augurs, if perchance Rome might be saved from destruction.

Many years after the reign of Tarquin the Capitol was burned, and the sacred books were destroyed in the fire.

To the Romans the loss of the books was a greater blow than even the destruction of the Capitol.

The Senate sent ambassadors to Greece and to Asia Minor to beseech the sibyls there to find fresh oracles, that calamity might still be averted from Rome.

And the ambassadors were successful, for when they returned they brought with them new scrolls, which, when a new Capitol was built, were placed within its sacred precincts.

During the reign of Augustus, the oracles were removed to the temple of Apollo, which stood on Mount Palatine.

But long after the time of Augustus, in a.d. 400, they were burned in public by a famous Roman, for he was a Christian, and cared little for the ancient oracles, believing them to be but a useless relic of the old pagan days.