The story of the acquisition of the Sibylline Books by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the semi-legendary last king of the Roman Kingdom, or Tarquinius Priscus, is one of the famous mythic elements of Roman history.
Centuries ago, concurrent with the 50th Olympiad not long before the expulsion of Rome’s kings, an old woman “who was not a native of the country” (Dionysius) arrived incognita in Rome. She offered nine books of prophecies to King Tarquin; and as the king declined to purchase them, owing to the exorbitant price she demanded, she burned three and offered the remaining six to Tarquin at the same stiff price, which he again refused, whereupon she burned three more and repeated her offer. Tarquin then relented and purchased the last three at the full original price, whereupon she “disappeared from among men” (Dionysius).
The books were thereafter kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, Rome, to be consulted only in emergencies. The temple burned down in the 80s BC, and the books with it, necessitating a re-collection of Sibylline prophecies from all parts of the empire (Tacitus 6.12). These were carefully sorted and those determined to be legitimate were saved in the rebuilt temple. The Emperor Augustus had them moved to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where they remained for most of the remaining Imperial Period.
The Books were burned in AD 405 by the General Flavius Stilicho, who was a Christian and regarded the books as Pagan and therefore evil. At the time of the Visigothic invasion five years later in AD 410, certain Pagan apologists bemoaned the loss of the books, claiming that the invasion of the city was evidence of the wrath of the Pagan gods over the destruction of the books.
The Cumaean Sibyl is featured in the works of, among others, Virgil (The Eclogues, The Æneid), Ovid (Metamorphoses) and Petronius (The Satyricon).
Stories recounted in Virgil’s ÆneidThe Cumaean Sibyl prophesied by “singing the fates” and writing on oak leaves. These would be arranged inside the entrance of her cave but, if the wind blew and scattered them, she would not help to reassemble the leaves to form the original prophecy again.
The Sibyl was a guide to the underworld (Hades), its entry being at the nearby crater of Avernus. Aeneas employed her services before his descent to the lower world to visit his dead father Anchises, but she warned him that it was no light undertaking:
Trojan, Anchises’ son, the descent of Avernus is easy.
All night long, all day, the doors of Hades stand open.
But to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven,
That is labour indeed. (Aeneid 6.126-129.)
Stories recounted in Ovid’s MetamorphosesAlthough she was a mortal, the Sibyl lived about a thousand years. This came about when Apollo offered to grant her a wish in exchange for her virginity; she took a handful of sand and asked to live for as many years as the grains of sand she held. Later, after she refused the god’s love, he allowed her body to wither away because she failed to ask for eternal youth. Her body grew smaller with age and eventually was kept in a jar (ampulla). Eventually only her voice was left.