Rome’s triumph over Egypt before her decimation by God, and the arrival of a “holy prince”
The Sibylline oracular tradition is ancient and extremely complex, and the product of constant redaction, reinvention and appropriation by different groups. The tradition was laid claim to over the centuries by communities interpreting and adding to the oracles according to their own worldviews (on the development of the Sibylline tradition, see Herbert Parke, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy, David Potter, Prophecy and History, chapter 3, and Rieuwerd Buitenwerf, Book III, p. 92-123). John Collins argues that the earliest references to a “Sibyl” are from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and refer to the proper name of a prophetess (“Sibylline Oracles,” p. 317). A reference from Heraclitus in around 500 BCE describes the Sibyl’s words as timeless and having of divine authority, and by Plato’s time her words are understood to be widely known and taken seriously (see Phaedrus 244B). Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities IV.62, describes the acquisition of the Sibylline Books by the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus (535-509 BCE), and aims to show that the possession of these books by the Romans is evidence of their continued favour in the eyes of the gods. Dionysus states that his main source of information was the writings of Varro (quoted in Lactantius, Divine Institutions I.6), which taught that the earliest compilation of Sibylline prophecies dated to the sixth century BCE, and was ascribed to the Hellespontine Sybil, who resided in the Temple of Apollo at Gergis. Subsequently, the collection travelled to Erythrae, and then on to Cumae. Virgil (writing in the time of Augustus) attributes to the Cumaean Sybil the task of guiding Aeneas through the underworld (Virgil, Aeneid VI.98-903). After 367 BCE, a magistrature of ten, and later fifteen individuals of the patrician and plebeian senatorial aristocracy was created (the decemviri sacris faciundis), who were responsible for the upkeep of the Sibylline Books. The books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, which caught fire in 83 BCE. What remained of the books were brought to the Temple of Apollo Palatinus by Augustus (Apollo was his personal god) in 12 BCE. This symbolic act indicated that the prophecies were now firmly the property of the emperor, and served him.
Because of the popularity enjoyed by these pagan oracles, and their influence on the religious views of the period, Hellenistic Jews during the second century BCE wrote verses mirroring their form, and attributed them to the Sibyls in order to diffuse Jewish ideologies, doctrines, and prophecies, and Jewish and later Christian authors continued to compose and redact existing oracles in this manner until the second century CE. The Sibylline Oracles are preserved in twelve books, which vary in length from 162 to 829 hexameters. In all of these, the Sibyl is presented as speaking in the first person, maintaining a predominantly future tense. The collection stems from two separate collections: 1) books 1-8, extant in a collection made by a fifth-century CE redactor, and 2) seven texts which came to light in the early-nineteenth century, labelled as books 9-15, but with only books 11-14 of these representing different material from that in the first collection. For this reason, modern editions of the corpus do not contain books labelled 9 and 10.
The third book of oracles contains the earliest of the Jewish Sibyllines, and is also the longest in the collection. Most scholars agree that the book is composite (Valentin Nikiprowetzky, La Troisième Sibylle, is an exception). John Collins identifies three main stages of composition (The Sibylline Oracles, p. 28): 1) the main corpus: verses 97-349 and 489-829; 2) oracles against various nations: verses 350-488; and 3) verses 1-96, which of course contain the verses of concern to us here, and may be the end of what was once a different book. Verses 1-96 praise God and denounce idolatry, and predict the universal rule of Rome as well as cosmic upheaval during Cleopatra’s reign. Most scholars agree that verses 1-96 were not originally part of the book, but Valentin Nikiprowetzky maintains that they were, and dates the entire book to the first century BCE(La Troisième Sibylle, p. 60-66, 208-217). It is argued by most scholars that the entire third book of Sibylline Oracles has an Egyptian provenance (although see Rieuwerd Buitenwerf, Book III of the Sibylline Oracles, p. 64, 130-who argues that verses 93-829 cannot be so safely attributed to Egyptian provenance, as there were Greek-speaking Jews all over the Hellenistic and Roman world, and the reverence for the Ptolemies which scholars such as John Collins – see most recently “The Third Sibyl Revisited,” p. 17-18 – identify is not so obvious). The manuscript evidence suggests that the first 96 verses of the third book were originally separate, indicating that it was originally part of a “second book” (for a concise explanation, see John Collins, “Sibylline Oracles,” p. 359).
This section of the third oracle anticipates the arrival of the “great kingdom of the immortal king,” and can be dated to shortly after the Roman conquest of Egypt following the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. From this logic, the “three” who will “destroy Rome with piteous fate” in verse 52 can be understood as a reference to the second triumvirate – Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian (John J. Collins, “Sibylline Oracles,” p. 363). However, for Nikiprowetzky the identity of the three figures is less certain, and could also allude, for instance, to the three men sent by God to Abraham in Genesis 18 prior to the destruction of Sodom, with the author using the number three symbolically to describe a scenario of divine judgement (La Troisième Sibylle, p. 150-151). Of course, it is possibly that the author/editor had more than one symbolic image in mind here, and intends to be deliberately ambiguous. As Niliprowetzky highlights, the destruction of Rome described in this passage is extremely reminiscent of the numerous accounts of God’s destruction of sinful places in the Hebrew Bible. For instance, the description of the smell of brimstone in verse 60 draws on the motifs of divine retribution seen, for example, in Deuteronomy 29:23; Isaiah 1:7, 9:18-19, 10:17; Ezekiel 38:22; Psalms 11:6, which mention destruction by fire, burning sulphur, or brimstone (La Troisième Sibylle, p. 151).
Verse 49 tells us that an unidentified “holy prince” will be given rulership over the “scepters of the earth” (a reference to his dominion over earthly kings), and given that he is not identified as a Roman or Egyptian leader, it seems likely that this figure is imagined as a Jewish Messianic figure (later on, Christians of course could interpret this oracle as predicting the coming of Christ) (see John Collins, The Sibylline Oracles, p. 103). The coming of the kingdom of God is here described as being ushered in by a “fiery cataract” sent down from heaven, which acts as the judgment of the great and immortal God (verse 56). The fifth book of Sibylline Oracles (which was likely composed just before the great Diaspora revolt in 115 CE; see John J. Collins, Seers, Sibyls and Sages, p. 104) is also replete with predictions of violent judgment. Verse 108 of the fifth oracle, for instance, speaks of a king “sent from God” who brings judgment, and verses 414-428 detail a soteriological figure from heaven whom God has granted rulership over all the world so that he might return wealth to those whom have had it stolen from them (see also the discussion of Sibylline Oracle V.155-178, where Rome’s utter decimation by God is detailed in retribution for her many sins, which include impiety, adultery, and murderous instincts). The heaven-sent figure of both the present passage and oracle five, however, must still be understood in his proper place in the divine hierarchy, which places God at the top (verse 56 asserts that the judgement comes ultimately from the “great king immortal God”; see also Sibylline Oracle V.499).
If, as the majority of scholars argue, the third book of oracles should be understood to have come out of Egypt (on the problems with Buitenwerf’s challenge to this argument, see John Collins, “The Third Sibyl Revisited,” p. 18), then the impression that we get from reading the book as a whole is that the Egyptian Jewish community was concerned amongst other things with affirming the crucial role of the Jewish people in history (for John Bartlett, this was partly about combatting the notion that this was something that Greek-speakers had the monopoly on; Jews in the Hellenistic World, p. 38-39), and establishing that the Hellenistic world was under the control of the God of the Jews. Rome’s growing power presented new political challenges, and while the book as a whole discusses numerous conflicts between nations, as well as God’s destruction of them, the present passage represents a Jewish response to the defeat of Cleopatra at Actium. As John Collins identifies, the portrayal of the saviour figure as holding influence over the whole world indicates that the author is extending imagination from only Egypt to a more universal setting. This portrayal of the saviour figure could, then, be a response to Roman propaganda which forwarded ideas of universality and the eternity of Rome’s empire (The Sibylline Oracles, p. 65).
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English: