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Aulus Gellius 1.19

Translation copyright 2000 Neil W. Bernstein; all rights reserved.

The story about the Sibylline books and king Tarquinius Superbus.

  1. The ancient annals (1) offer the following anecdote concerning the Sibylline books:
  2. A foreign and unfamiliar old woman came to king Tarquinius Superbus bringing nine books which she said were divine oracles. She wanted to sell them to him.
  3. Tarquinius inquired as to their price. The woman asked for an exorbitantly immense amount.
  4. The king laughed at the old woman as if her old age had made her childish.
  5. Then she lit a stove in front of him, burned three of the nine books, and asked the king if he wanted to buy the remaining six at the same price.
  6. But Tarquinius laughed even more at this and said that now the old woman was mad without a doubt.
  7. On the spot the woman burned three more books and calmly asked him the same question once more: would he buy the three remaining books at the same price?
  8. Tarquinius's expression now grew serious and his mind more attentive. He understood that he should not ignore her steadfastness and confidence. He bought the three remaining books for a price no less than the one she had asked for all nine.
  9. But it is agreed that after the woman left Tarquinius she was never seen anywhere thereafter.
  10. The three books, called "Sibylline," were placed in a temple.(2)
  11. The Council of Fifteen Men (3) examine the books as if seeking advice from an oracle whenever they consult the immortal gods concerning public matters.

Notes:

  1. Cf. Dionysius of Halicarnassus 4.62, Varro apud Lactantius Divinae Institutiones 1.6.10, Servius, Commentary on Vergil's Aeneid 6.72, among other testimonia.
  2. Originally in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; Augustus transferred them to the temple of Apollo Palatinus (cf. Suetonius, Augustus 31.1).
  3. This college of Roman priests (quindecemviri sacris faciundis) had grown to 15 by the late Republic. In Tarquinius' day there were only two priests appointed to consult the Sibylline books; the Licinian laws of 367 BC expanded the number to 10 and organized them into a college.

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