Tadeusz Mazurek

University of Notre Dame

Though mentions of the Sibylline Books appear in other authors (Dion. Hal., Augustine, Dio, Pliny, et al), Livy provides us with by far the most extensive picture of how, why and when the Sibylline Books were consulted during the Republic and what resulted from each of these consultations.  Close examination of the evidence in Livy reveals two important observations regarding the nature and use of Rome’s treasured Sibylline Books:  the books were indeed occasionally used to make predictions regarding the future and there is a glaring hiatus of 23 years (216-193 BCE) during which no supplicationes were prescribed by the decemviri sacris faciundis.

When prodigies revealed a potential breach in the pax deum, the books were consulted in an effort to restore good relations with the gods.  Contrary to prevailing wisdom, in approximately a dozen cases the keepers of the books (for ease here referred to as the decemviri, though originally they were a board of two and after Sulla a board of fifteen) issued predictive statements, and not just prescriptions for expiation.  Granted these predictions (which do not rise to the level of prophecies) constitute a minority of all Sibylline proclamations, yet their existence is important per se in appreciating the function of the books in the Roman state religion; it suggests that some 5th century consultations may not be spurious after all; and it also helps us better understand the political machinations surrounding the infamous Sibylline predictions concerning the Marcian Aquaduct (143 BCE), Cinna’s banishment (87 BCE), Lentulus’ attempt to fabricate a prophetic oracle (63 BCE) and Ptolemy’s restoration to the throne (56 BCE).  Taken as a whole, the evidence calls into question the prevailing wisdom that Sibylline consultations only prescribed expiations [Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Romer (1912) 539-41; Rzach in RE (1923) v. II,A,II 2109; Parke, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity (1988) 192-93; and most recently Orlin, Temples, Religion and Politics in the Roman Republic (1997) 92].  Boyce and McBain are more conscious of the full scope of the evidence, but they do not elaborate on this important aspect of decemviral influence [Boyce, “The Development of the Decemviri Sacris FaciundisTAPA 49 (1938) 162-63; McBain, Prodigy and Expiation (1982)].

The evidence in Livy regarding decemviral activity provides some further insights into the functioning of Roman religion during the traumatic years of the Second Punic War.  Here the evidence centers on the priestly college’s failure to recommend a supplication for 23 years (216-193 BCE), despite the fact that the decemviri prescribed four such supplications immediately prior to this period (218-17 BCE).  This hiatus is especially noteworthy because right after 193 BCE, the college resumes its predilection for expiatory supplications, recommending 16 during the next 26 years.  This evidence raises several important questions, addressed in this paper, regarding both Livy’s narrative as well as Roman religion.  Why did the decemviri not recommend supplications during these trying years, despite the fact that they were still regularly consulted (witness the importation of the cult of Magna Mater in 205 BCE)?  Did the disaster of Cannae in 216 BCE force a shift in religious procedure?  Why did other colleges, including the pontiffs and haruspices, continue to recommend supplications during this period, e.g., 214, 210, 207, 199 BCE?  Is this evidence of political infighting amongst the priestly colleges?  Why did the decemviri resume their recommendations for supplications in 193 BCE?  What do these statistics tell us about Livy’s account of religious practices?  Is he meticulously following his sources or is he simply careless with details?

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