A widely-known legend, which comes from classical Greek-Roman history, tells about an unusual or somewhat weird bargain that took place in the court of the fifth king of Rome about 2,500 years ago. According to various accounts of respected historians (among them, The History of Rome by Titus Livius), a spooky-looking old woman comes to Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of the early Roman kingdom, and offers him a set of nine ancient books for which she demands an unusually high price. Tarquinius rejects the offer without hesitation, and the woman silently nods, leaves the palace, burns three of the books and comes back again, this time offering him the remaining six volumes for the same price. The King, probably puzzled by this strange behavior, rejects the offer again; then the woman burns another three volumes, after which she offers the last three books for the price she demanded for the nine volumes in the beginning of the negotiation. Tarquinius suddenly feels that those books have some kind of extraordinary importance and quickly changes his mind, orders his court men to pay the woman what she demanded and buys the three surviving volumes.
Many different accounts of historians tell us that this three-volume-set was kept in three important temples at the Capitoline Hill, those that were dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The copies were preserved in secret chambers of those temples under extreme security measures and two special magistrates were assigned by Tarquinius whose only duty was to protect these books. No one in Rome could access this collection except this special duo, given the name of Duumviri Sacrorum by the king.
The books were kept for consultation only during very important crises, when critical decisions needed to be made by the administration. During those times, the Duumviri were asked to access the books and find the relevant clues by searching through its pages, after which they were expected to come up with the “correct solution” to the problem faced.
The entire story sounds really odd in many ways. First of all, one cannot help wondering about that mysterious woman who was supposed to have the courage to bargain with a mighty king in this way. Her strange method to convince Tarquinius does not make much sense either: Why would the king accept the price to buy the remaining three books after he rejected to buy the entire collection (before six volumes were burned) for the same amount? Then, of course, we cannot avoid asking the obvious question in this odd legend: What were written in these books that made them so important that a king kept them in the most sacred temples under strict security measures?
Accounts by historians do not give us many clues about these questions, but we know one thing for sure: This is not a fairy tale; those books definitely existed and had enormous importance for the administrators of Rome for at least five centuries and could only be accessed by a special magistrate council during times of crisis. Details may vary in different versions of the legend, but the books were real, after all.
Brief research on the subject could help us shed light at least on some parts of this strange story. Let us begin with the identity of the mysterious woman who brought the books to the king and followed an unusual path to bargain. She was known as the “Cumaean Sibyl,” the high priestess of an ancient cult, seemingly centered on the temple of Apollo in Cumae, southern Italy. No one knew her real name or needed to learn it; the title “Sibyl” was self-explanatory enough for the people who lived in ancient times, especially around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. For them, a “Sibyl” meant a very prestigious and respected priestess, who was supposed to have access to a secret wisdom that belonged to an ancient tradition.
The Sibylline Books
Marcus Terentius Varro, the librarian of Julius Caesar in much later times, tells about this mysterious cult which he tends to call a kind of “sacred sorority.” According to some specific accounts in Varro’s works, the Sibyls were the owners and guardians of ancient wisdom which had been preserved and passed through generations for centuries. There were ten Sibyls in various important cities of the ancient world, Varro says, responsible for the temples dedicated either to Apollo or to Demeter, but spending most of their times in their spooky caves around these temples. Other historians say there were nine Sibyls that existed in any given time, and the tenth one was not a real person but a metaphorical one, possibly symbolizing the “Great Mother,” the creator goddess of the oldest faith on this planet.
So, the Cumaean Sibyl in our story was not the only priestess with this title; in fact, she was one of the nine specific wise women who lived in different cities of the ancient world and kept in touch with one another like a network. They regularly paid visits to other “sisters,” and at least once a year, gathered in a secret place, exchanging news and information, making important decisions about future steps of the “sorority.”
Other important cities that hosted a Sibyl were Delphi, Samos, Erythrae, Phrygia, Libya, Palestine, Hellespont and Sicily, although the cities vary in different accounts by historians. But one thing is very certain: There was a tradition among high priestesses in ancient times which created a special cult led by the wise women called “The Sibyls.” Furthermore, most ancient sources refer to Sibyls as the “keepers of ancient wisdom,” and each one kept and protected a single volume of a “secret book,” in total made up a nine-book set, as the one in our story. The entire collection was known as The Sibylline Books, named after the specific title of its keepers.
Nine Sibyls, each one keeping a huge volume on different subjects like geometry, astronomy, medicine, botany and so on, each living in distant cities of the ancient world yet somehow managing to communicate with each other regularly. Considering the “secret sorority” circumstances, there is nothing very unusual here. We know that even thousands of years ago there were temple cults with devoted members who kept secrets of their own and sometimes had a unique collection of scriptures, divided into multiple parts for security. But even if this was the case with the Sibylline Sorority, how could Cumaean Sibyl have all nine volumes in her hands and why did she want to sell this valuable collection to a tyrant like Tarquinius Superbus? Was it a decision made by all nine Sibyls and the task for bargaining assigned to their sister in Cumae? Then why did she destroy two-thirds of a very important book set which she was supposed to protect?
Handbooks of the Republic
The legend about the purchase of The Sibylline Books by Tarquinius have some flaws like those previously stated and also make us argue that those parts of the story were somewhat distorted by later historians and probably do not tell the plain truth. We only know for sure that the three volumes of the collection were brought to Rome in the last days of the ruthless king. It seems, however, Tarquinius could not even get the opportunity to make use of The Sibylline Books because a revolt took place a short time later which resulted in the king being overthrown and exiled. This was the end of the Roman Kingdom.
Two leaders of the rebellion, Brutus and Collatinus, became the first consuls, and the Republic was declared immediately thereafter. It was the beginning of a new era for Roman history while the entire social and political infrastructure of the country was being radically changed. The traditional monarchy was replaced by a government headed by two consuls elected annually by public vote and after the candidates were advised by the Senate. The Separation of Powers became an essential principle in the Republic and several new institutions were formed to organize and rule the social and political life. One of them was among the most important ones: The Decemviri Sacrorum—a council which consisted of ten magistrates who had the privilege to access The Sibylline Books.
So, amid all the turmoil of the revolution, the special books seem to keep their importance for the Republican leaders. There is also a detail that could be of more interest to us: According to the writings of Titus Livius, one of the leaders of the revolt, Brutus, was known to have had good, long-term relations with Cumaean Sibyl. It could be a simple coincidence, but some sources go further and say that Brutus got important clues from Sibyl during one of his last visits to Cumae, which would then help him overthrow Tarquinius. Were the revolt and the establishment of the Republic in Rome a deep conspiracy planned by the Sibylline sorority? It would be mere speculation to suggest that, but we can argue that The Sibylline Books could have been given to Brutus and his friends by Cumaean Sibyl herself, so the story about that strange bargain was a made up myth.
We find solid records about the extensive use of The Sibylline Books during the Republic. Every time Rome encountered a serious problem and the consuls needed to give a critical decision, Senate members advised consulting the books, after which the Decemviri Sacrorum members went to the secret chambers at Capitoline Hill and examined the books carefully to find a solution to the problem. During the Plebian Revolts, the Punic Wars or in times of famine, the records show that The Sibylline Books were consulted by the council, and the Senate acted accordingly.
Interestingly, the books advised either to build new temples dedicated to the Great Mother (Magna Mater) or to take steps that would strengthen the institutions of the Republic by reinforcing social justice, such as giving new privileges to the Plebs or establishing craft organizations (collegia) to help the economic situation of crafts. Fortunately, this was in perfect harmony with a book set obtained from the high priestesses of the mother goddess.
Followers of the Goddess
The etymology of the title gives us many more clues about the character of this mysterious sorority. The origin of the word Sibyl was derived from the great Phrygian goddess Kybele. The Phrygians were an Indo-European people who came from the southern Balkans and settled down in western Anatolia around 1200 BCE. We do not know much about their belief system prior to migration, but like most Indo-European tribes, they were most likely worshipping warrior male deities and storm gods, which could suit well their patriarchal culture.
After they established their kingdom on their new land, the Phrygians seem to have adopted many elements of the native Anatolian culture, essentially matriarchal or more correctly “matrifocal,” and centered on a creator-mother-goddess. Kybele or Kubileya meant “She of the Mountain” and among the most popular names of the Anatolian mother goddess, whose earliest cult could be traced back to the Neolithic town of Çatalhoyuk in Central Anatolia, around eighth millennium BCE.
Phrygians simply called this goddess Matar (Mother), but the ancient name Kybele survived for centuries, even after the Phrygian civilization collapsed. During the Lydian kingdom and the Hellenistic era of western Anatolia, the Great Mother was worshipped under many different names but Kybele remained to be the most popular of all. There appeared many local cults centered on the beloved Mother, each one having similar initiation systems and rituals, not only in Anatolia but also in Greece, Aegean Islands, Near East, Egypt and the Greek colonies in southern Italy, like Croton, Metapontion, Sybaris and Cumae.
The Identity of Sibyl
The Sibyls of the sixth century BCE were actually the descendants of an ancient tradition that exalted Kybele, the Great Mother, so their title was selected in accordance with their creed: The Sibyls were in a way representing the Great Mother herself; they gave up their personal names after elected as the high priestess and only used the title Sibyl with the name of the city they lived in. Cumaean Sibyl was one of the most famous of those wise women in the sixth century BCE, like Delphi Sybil (also known as The Pythia) or the Erythrean Sibyl.
Sibyls were also considered and respected as being “oracles”; they were supposed to have the wisdom of an ages-old goddess tradition—an accumulated treasure of knowledge about the world, the universe and the secrets of life and death. Their wisdom was kept recorded in huge volumes of books which they hid beyond the depths of their spooky caves. That is why many important persons, kings, administrators or noblemen used to try to learn about the secrets of the future by visiting those wise women.
Sibyls would accept those people only to the entrance of their caves, applied a simple “purification” process on them and lead the visitor to a dark cavern after passing through tunnel; thereafter, they would tell them what the near future would bring to their lives. Some of the famous classical poets were deeply inspired by those mysterious women, and certain verses in their best known epic poems reflect the shivering effects in Sibyl’s caves. Among them we must recall Virgilius and his well-known epic “Aeneid”:
A spacious cave, within its far most part,
Was hew’d and fashion’d by laborious art
Thro’ the hill’s hollow sides: before the place,
A hundred doors a hundred entries grace;
As many voices issue, and the sound
Of Sybil’s words as many times rebound.
Now to the mouth they come. Aloud she cries:
This is the time; enquire your destinies.
So, it was this woman who brought the priceless Sibylline Books to Rome, according to the legend. She was a member of the “Mother Goddess High Priestess Network,” using her holy name as a title; she was a soothsayer, an oracle, a woman of wisdom, who had the most important books of history in her hand. Apparently, it seems she was ready to pass this treasure to Rome to help the young intellectuals’ revolt and overthrow the king, to establish the Republic.
The Sibyls were also the most respected “teachers” of their time, and they only accepted a very few, extraordinarily intelligent and talented youngsters for the special education they gave. For example, Pythagoras, son of a priestess in Samos where another important Sibyl lived, was sent to Delphi Sibyl to have this special education which would help him become a “wise man.” The famous mathematician travelled to Egypt after the initial training from her, then went to Croton, southern Italy, where he established a school and started a very effective “fraternity” which eventually held the political power in a couple of cities at Magna Graecia. When a revolt and a civil war brought the end of the Pythagorean Brotherhood, many of his students (“brothers”) fled to nearby cities, including Cumae, where the home of Sibyl became a shelter for them. Brutus, a young nobleman, who later became the leader of the revolt in Rome, was among the people in those days to regularly visit Cumaean Sibyl.
Considering the Republican revolt took place a couple of years after the Pythagorean Brotherhood dissolved, it seems we have too many coincidences here, and The Sibylline Books wink at us at the focal point of these puzzle pieces.
Could the Roman Republic be a “Sibyl conspiracy” initiated by specially educated students of these wise women to establish a more idealistic state with advanced social and political institutions? If this was the case, what kind of role did the famous Sibylline Books play for this conspiracy, since they appear as a very important instrument to develop and fine tune the important Republican elements, such as the Twelve Tables Law, the Plebiscite, Council of Plebs or the collegiums?
Where Are Those Books Now?
Whether there really was such a conspiracy to transform the Roman kingdom to an advanced Republic or not, our main concern remains unchanged: What were written in these books that made them so valuable for a “rising star” like the Roman Republic, and maybe more important than this, where are The Sibylline Books now?
Unfortunately, we do not have enough clues to answer the first question. The Sibylline Books could only be accessed by the members of a select council under only very serious circumstances and the collection was kept under strict security measures. When the council was ordered to consult the books for a solution, they gathered behind closed doors, examined the books and came up with a suggestion to the Senate and the consuls, without giving any citations about the passages they read or discussed. The administrators never questioned the advice of the council, so there were no records to be kept about what the books said or how the Decemviri Sacrorum interpreted it. On the other hand, the historians wrote that the books were written in an “unknown” language, so only a very few, specially educated magistrates could read and understand what they said.
The answer to the second question is rather sad: After being used for almost five centuries, the entire book collection was destroyed in a fire in 83 BCE during the civil war between rival political and military forces—meaning, the original books were lost forever. After order was restored, Decemviri Sacrorum was ordered to collect new scriptures to substitute the original ones; this was rather a symbolic move by the victorious commander Sulla to make people feel safe by assuring them that the important collection was still in the administrator’s hands. Unfortunately, the original book set was completely burned, so the historians tell us.
Ironically, the civil war, or the “social war” as the historians call it, became the beginning of the end for the Republic. After three decades, Rome witnessed much political turmoil, political assassinations, plots and military coups which eventually changed the political character of the Republic. After 30 BCE, it finally became an empire under Augustus’ reign. In other words, the Republic’s life was only slightly longer than the existence of The Sibylline Books in Rome.
Lost Books, Lost Wisdom
After the Christianization of Rome, many copies of papyrus rolls appeared around the cultural centers of the big cities, called the remnants of The Sibylline Books, but these were rather religious Judeo-Christian texts which historians call “the Pseudo-Sibylline Books.” No one knows the contents of the original collection. We can only use our imagination by what was told by some Roman sources about the books, which could probably lead us to think that the original volumes had important knowledge of ancient times on astronomy, geography, history, botany, medicine and so on. But we can never be sure of it.
The Sibylline Books are not the only example of popular myths about “ancient secret books” that once existed but now completely lost to humanity. For example, the legend about the “Emerald Tablets of Hermes Trismegistus” was very popular among the intellectuals in Renaissance Europe. The collection was supposed to keep the wisdom of Thoth, the God of Wisdom in Ancient Egypt.
Another popular one is the Secret Books of the Chaldeans, mentioned in some medieval sources. We even have a relatively very recent special book set, namely, “The Voynich Manuscript” which was written in a completely unknown language and writing system that still cannot be deciphered. You can Google it to access the scanned pages of the manuscript on Yale University’s website for rare books.
The fact that The Sibylline Books really existed make them unique; the collection was such an important “tool” for the Republic’s administrators that a special council of magistrates was assigned responsibility to keep and read it in times of need. The writers or the keepers of the books were not mythical characters or pure fantasy but well-known figures of the era called the Sibyls. The books were extensively in use between ca. 500 – 83 BCE. One cannot help wondering the real contents of those ancient sources of knowledge which helped one of the most important civilizations of history to establish a republic out of a simple kingdom.
We can only hope that some archaeologists working on an excavation somewhere will discover at least some parts of it, and in turn, shed light to our past on this planet.