During the Roman Empire, the Sibylline Books were used to influence future events through rituals and predictions. Roman rulers consulted the books when important decisions needed to be made. Can’t make up your mind about going to war? Read a prophetic book. The Sibylline books first appeared around the time of Solon and Cyrus. They were handed down from the oracle Hellespontine Sibyl to Erythaea Sibyl, and finally to Cumae Sibyl before making it to Rome.

How the Romans used the books

The Roman Senate used the books to make tough decisions. They didn’t follow the books to make direct predictions about future events. The Sibylline Books provided guidelines about religious observances to follow to avoid disastrous outcomes.

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The theory was that if you executed the right rituals, your people could avoid destruction. Plagues, comets, earthquakes, and wars were no match for the Sibylline Books. Their interpretations were passed through an oracle and Greek translators, leaving plenty of opportunity for abuse and misinterpretation.

Acquiring the books

Getting the Sibylline Books was no easy task. The Cumaean Sibyl who offered them to the Roman king Tarquinius demanded a ridiculously high price. When Tarquinius refused, she burned three of the nine books. She repeated her offer, refusing to adjust the price for the torched books.

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When Tarquinius refused once again, the Cumaean Sibyl burned three more. Tarquinius had one more opportunity to save the remaining three books. He paid the original offer and preserved them in a vault beneath the temple of Jupiter.

Tightly guarded

The Roman Senate guarded the Sibylline Books with a small army of patricians. Initially, only two men were appointed to keep watch over them, but around 376 BC, ten custodians were appointed. The five patricians and five assistants were expected to keep 24-hour watch over the books. It was their sole task.

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The positions were held for life, and the guards were exempt from all other public duties. The temple where the books were kept burned to the ground in 83 BC and the books were lost forever.