Kenneth S. Sacks
Erich S. Gruen
The Sibylline Oracles had a long life. The Sibyl was in origin a single Greek prophetess, renowned for the accuracy of her forecasts, divinely inspired, but portrayed as mad or raving, and regularly spewing forth dire forebodings. Additional Sibyls gradually sprang up in a variety of locations in the Mediterranean world, including the renowned Cumaean Sibyl whom Aeneas reputedly consulted. Sibylline prophecies were eventually collected in written form in Rome and used by Roman authorities to provide interpretation of unusual prodigies or natural disasters or to offer advice on significant matters of foreign entanglements and wars. Although that collection (insofar as it is historical) has long since disappeared, the voice of the Sibyl was reproduced in literary form. The extant Sibylline verses, composed in Homeric Greek hexameters, constitute twelve books of oracles, fashioned over a period of several centuries by numerous different and no longer identifiable hands. They constitute a motley assemblage of grim forecasts, historical references, apocalyptic visions, and denunciations of various peoples, especially Romans, for their abandonment of piety and indulgence in evil. The genre was appropriated by anonymous Jewish authors, speaking through the voice of the Sibyl, and employed to convey condemnation of cities and nations for the sins of idolatry, licentiousness, and a range of vices. Vivid portrayals of the end time and eschatological conflagration feature many of the texts. Subsequent Christian writers interpolated verses, added exaltations of Christ, and appropriated Sibylline pronouncements for their own ends. Others manipulated the oracles to record historical personages and events in the framework of prophetic pronouncements. The result was a complex and unsystematic compilation of reconstructed or fabricated prophecies ascribed to Sibyls but largely representing the ingenuity of Jewish and Christian compilers.