The Sibylline Books

Inc B-720 Lot of tighty whiteys riding high and bunching up these days over the idea of a woman president. It’s funny how this remains a distinctly American hangup. Britain, Germany, and a dozen other countries have been led by women in the modern era without collapsing or erupting into civil war. Some are even better off for it. Alas, American vision has always been rather myopic with regards to the female of the species. Truth is, putting the fate of a nation in the hands of a woman, hell even a crazy woman, has a long and colorful history. Today’s entry concerns one of the most entertaining examples.

You don’t hear about it much (probably because hard proof is impossible to come by), but according to legend Rome was initially led by a series of seven kings. The first was Romulus, the wolf-suckled, brother-slaying OG and founding father. The last was a guy with the wicked name of Lucius Tarquinus Superbus, aka Tarquin the Proud. In addition to being the Chief Executive, Judge, and Legislator, Roman kings were also Chief Augurs, so MC Superbus got to spit prophetic rhymes or at least interpret the flight of birds and decree for all of Rome which way the wind was blowing.

Uneasy sits the crown that not only has to rule the realm but also accurately tell its future, so Superbus got himself a little backup Magic Eight Ball in the form of the Sibylline Books. The Sibyls were famous oracles from sacred sites all over the Mediterranean world, and their books were a collection of prophetic writings in Greek hexameter. Superbus allegedly bought them from Amaltheia, the Cumaean Sibyl, who had some pretty badass negotiation skills. Nine books in all were originally offered, but when Superbus refused her high price, Amaltheia threw three of them into the fire. Superbus again refused, whereupon the saucy Sibyl burned three more. Desperate to get something out of the deal, Superbus was not too proud to pay the original price for the remaining three.

Thereafter the Sibylline books (or the three left unburned) were kept in Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus which, as its name implies, was the mostest bestest temple they had. Ten custodians called the sacris faciundis (the number was eventually bumped to fifteen) were appointed for life to safeguard and consult them and for the next EIGHT HUNDRED YEARS they were the go to source/last resort in times of national crisis. With few exceptions, whatever remedy the books coughed up was followed to the letter, no matter how strange or extreme. When plague or pestilence struck, new religious ceremonies were instituted. When Hannibal routed the Roman Legions at Cannae, they buried alive two Greeks and two Gauls beneath the marketplace. When Hannibal threatened again, they stole the goddess Cybele in the form of the Black Rock of Pessinus from her temple in Phrygia and built her a new one on the Palatine Hill. Oddly enough, most of these prescribed tactics seemed to achieve their aim. Ain’t no prophecy like a self-fulfilling one. Eventually tiring of the slavish obeisance they commanded, a general named Flavius Stilicho finally destroyed the books in 405 AD (nowadays only a few fragments remain). By then Christianity was firmly entrenched and female utterances were heavily frowned upon, let alone those by pagan harlots. Within a hundred years the Western Roman Empire was in serious decline. I’ll leave it to the augurs among you to determine whether there’s any connection.