The Sibylline Books

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Podcast Transcript

What do you do when you are facing a crisis? Perhaps you might consult a friend, or maybe some sort of expert?

Well, the ancient Romans had a go-to source for advice whenever they a major problem. 

And the advice they got was……different. 

Learn more about The Sibylline Books, and how they gave the Romans advice during times of crisis, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The ancient Romans had a lot of ideas and traditions which would sound really weird to us today. 

For example, before they did anything really important they would need to determine the will of the gods through interpreting omens. How they did this was rather odd. 

One method was by taking auguries. Auguries were the interpreting of fortunes by looking at birds. An augur would analyze the flight of birds to determine if fortunes for something were good or bad. An augur was actually a really important position and regardless if you were starting a new business, or going on a trip, you would first consult the augur.  You wouldn’t want to start something without a positive auspicium. 

Auspicium is the root of the word auspicious. 

Another way they would take omens is through haruspices. Haruspices are omens taken from the entrails of sacrificed animals. They would look at the intestines and the livers of animals and from that, they could predict the future. 

So, once you’ve accepted that your fortunes can be determined by animal intestines and birds flying, then it is a short step to believing almost anything else. 

If you remember back to my episode explaining the various eras of Rome, before it was an empire it was a republic, and before it was a republic it was a kingdom.

This story starts with the last king of Rome, Tarquinius.  All in all, he wasn’t a great guy, and that’s why Rome stopped having kings. 

During the reign of Tarquinius, an old woman appeared in Rome who offered to sell the king nine books of prophecies for a large sum of money. 

The king, not needed a bunch of expensive prophecy books, said no to the deal. 

In response, the woman burned three of the books and offered them to the king again at the same price. 

The king once again said no, so the woman burned three more of the books and offered the remaining three to the king, again at the same price.

At this point, the king goes to visit one of the augurs and asks him about the books, and the augur tells the king that it is very important for Rome to have these books.

So, the king eventually gave in and paid the full price for the three remaining books. 

This is easily one of the most interesting bargaining strategies in world history, and I guess what makes it historic is the fact that it worked. 

The books were written in Greek. They were tomes of poems written in hexameter. 

The woman, it is believed, was probably a Greek prophetess or oracle. Greek female oracles were known as sibyls, and the books became known as the Sibylline Books.

The king placed the books in a vault in a temple and the books could only be consulted in the event of a major crisis. 

After the kingdom collapsed and the republic was declared, control of the books was placed in the hands of the Senate. 

At first, there were two patricians who were given responsibility for the books. That was eventually expanded to 10 people, five patricians, and five plebeians. Their job was to keep the books safe, and hidden. This was eventually expanded to 15 people, plus two Greek interpreters.  

At first, the books were stored in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.  However, in 83 BC, the temple burned down and the books were lost. 

In 76 BC, the senate then collected other sayings from Greek oracles from around the Mediterranean and deposited these new books in the rebuilt Temple of Jupiter. Only books that were consistent with the previous lost books, as determined by the guardians of the books, were permitted to be in the collection. 

In 12 BC they were copied and transferred to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill by Emperor Augustus. They are believed to have remained there until the year 408 when they were destroyed by General Flavius Stilicho.

So, when were the books consulted? Basically anytime things looked bad, or when something like a comet appeared in the sky. Plagues, famines, fires, floods, invasions were all reasons for the Romans to consult the books. 

This wasn’t something that they did every year. This would have been something that was done maybe a few times a decade, however, there is no comprehensive list of times when the books were consulted. 

The contents of the book were not prophecies like you might think of Nostradamus prophecies. The books weren’t trying to predict future events per se. It mostly consisted of prescriptions for what to do, and what rites to perform, to appease the gods, and to forestall bad fortunes from befalling Rome. 

Perhaps one of the best-known Sibylline consultations was used during the Second Punic War in 216 BC. If you remember back to my episodes on the Fabian Strategy and the Battle of Cannae, the Romans were desperate. Hannibal was running all over Italy, and the Romans couldn’t stop him. 

They consulted the books and did what the books told them to do. The advice of the books was to bury alive two Greeks and two Gauls in the middle of the Forum… that is exactly what they did. 

Burying people alive to stop a foreign army might sound crazy to us, but as I mentioned, it isn’t that far of a step if you are using goat entrails to try to predict the future. 

From 241 to 238 BC, Rome suffered from a severe drought. A consultation of the books told the Romans to build a temple to Flora, the goddess of Flowers, and to hold annual games in her name….so that’s what they did. It became the festival of Floralia, which was an ancient precursor to the holiday we call May Day. 

The books may have had a hand in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Supposedly, the books said that only a king could conquer Parthia, the empire in what is today modern Iraq and Iran. Caesar was planning on going to campaign against Parthia before he was killed, and many people thought that the prophecy meant that Caesar was going to declare himself king.

While the Romans did take the books seriously, it is pretty easy to interpret prophecy to whatever you want. Because nothing in the books was very specific, it was easy to use the prophecies for political purposes. 

Also, while most people did give lip service to the books, there clearly were limits as to when to take the advice of the books. 

In 143 BC, the books were consulted on another matter, and they found something that didn’t bode well for the Aqua Martius, which was one of the largest aqueducts bringing water to Rome. After much debate, the Senate decided they needed water more than the prophecy and just ignored it. 

Likewise, in the year 15, the Tiber River flooded and Emperor Tiberius refused to let the books be consulted, probably because he didn’t want a prophecy getting in the way of his efforts. 

I’ve done several episodes talking about ancient Rome. In many respects, especially in terms of things like civil engineering and social complexity, the Romans were more advanced than we might think. 

But then you have to remember the other things in their society like the Sibylline Books and taking haruspices, and how they made actual policy decisions based on these things, and you realize just how different from us they really were. 


The associate producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Thor Thomsen.

Today’s review comes from Listener Matt in Port Fairy Australia on Apple Podcasts. He writes:

Pub quiz champion

Fantastic series which will make me the pub quiz champion. He was great as a travel blogger and can do great podcasts as well. I look forward to any long drive so I can catch up on the Everything Everywhere back catalogue.

Thanks, Matt. I’ve done many a long road trip in Australia. From Port Fairy, I’d recommend driving up to Port Douglas, then jot on over to Darwin, head down the Perth, and then back home.

By my estimate, and by my I mean Google Maps, that should take you a good 135 hours. Enough to listen to every episode about 5 times. 

Remember if you leave a review, you too can have your review read on the show.