The Sibylline Oracles

Translated from the Greek into English Blank Verse
By Milton S. Terry

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The Sibyls occupy a conspicuous place in the traditions and history of ancient Greece and Rome. Their fame was spread abroad long before the beginning of the Christian era. Heraclitus of Ephesus, five centuries before Christ, compared himself to the Sibyl “who, speaking with inspired mouth, without a smile, without ornament, and without perfume, penetrates through centuries by the power of the gods.” The ancient traditions vary in reporting the number and the names of these weird prophetesses, and much of what has been handed down to us is legendary. But whatever opinion one may hold respecting the various legends, there can be little doubt that a collection of Sibylline Oracles was at one time preserved at Rome. There are, moreover, various oracles, purporting to have been written by ancient Sibyls, found in the writings of Pausanias, Plutarch, Livy, and in other Greek and Latin authors. Whether any of these citations formed a portion of the Sibylline books once kept in Rome we cannot now determine; but the Roman capitol was destroyed by fire in the time of Sulla (B. C. 84), and again in the time of Vespasian (A. D. 69), and whatever books were at those dates kept therein doubtless perished in the flames. It is said by some of the ancients that a subsequent collection of oracles was made, but, if so, there is now no certainty that any fragments of them remain.

The twelve books of Greek hexameters, of which a rhythmic English translation is furnished in the following pages, have been in existence for more than a thousand years, and may be properly called the Pseudo-Sibylline. 

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They belong to that large body of pseudepigraphal literature which flourished near the beginning of the Christian era (about B. C. 150-A. D. 300), and which consists of such works as the Book of Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Jubilees, the Assumption of Moses, the Psalms of Solomon, the Ascension of Isaiah, and the Fourth Book of Esdras. 

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The production of this class of literature was most notable at Alexandria in the time of the Ptolemies. The influence of Greek civilization and culture upon the large Jewish population of the Egyptian metropolis, and the marked favors shown this people in that country, turned them far from the strict usages of their Palestinian brethren. No fact could more strikingly show the results of this foreign influence than the building of the temple and altar at Leontopolis, as described by Josephus (Ant. xiii, 3). If the son of the high priest Onias saw propriety in converting a heathen temple to the worship of Almighty God, and building it after the pattern of the one in Jerusalem, we need not wonder that the religious and literary taste of the Alexandrian Jews found gratification in harmonizing Hebrew traditions and Greek philosophy. The ingenuity that found in Isa. xix, 19, a warrant for the building of such a temple and altar might easily discover among the responses of heathen oracles much that was capable of appearing to great advantage in a Jewish dress. In this way, no doubt, arose the Jewish Sibyl, assuming to be a daughter-in-law of Noah, and skilled in prophetic knowledge. And this passion for reproducing famous oracles spread beyond the land of Egypt, and gathered breadth and volume with its years of growth. Not only were the historical and philosophical productions of the Greeks made use of, but the speculations of the Persians, the mysteries of Egyptian priests, and the poetical myths and legends of all nations contributed to the medley which Hellenistic Jews were fond of turning to a pious purpose. And just as the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture was handed over as a sort of inheritance to the early Christian Church, so the passion for producing pseudonymous books took easy possession of many Christian writers of the first centuries.

Like other pseudonymous apocalypses, these Sibyllines contain evidence of being the work of several different authors. They are obviously a composite of Hebraic and Christian elements. The citation from the Sibyl, which appears in Josephus (Ant. i, iv, 3) shows that the oldest portion of our present third book (line 117, ff) must have been current before the beginning of the Christian era. The verses of the Hebrew Sibyl probably originated at Alexandria, and may have incorporated some fragments of more ancient oracles once included in the Sibylline books which were kept at Rome. They presented such a fascinating form of pseudepigraphal composition that not a few other writers followed the successful example and put forth verses of various merit. And so it came to pass that after a few centuries, the later Hebrew and the early Christian literature abounded with poetic oracles purporting to be productions of the ancient Sibyls. Many independent compositions of this kind were accordingly in circulation some time before the task was taken in hand of arranging the entire body of so-called Sibylline Oracles into one connected and orderly series. This task was undertaken by the translator of what is known as the “Anonymous Preface,” who combined the scattered oracles into fourteen books. The repetitions of language and sentiment now found in these different books indicate that already, before this larger task was attempted, other minor compilations had been made, and that the latter compiler and editor left these smaller independent collections intact, not attempting to eliminate the repetitions, nor even to harmonize conflicting statements.

Xystus Betuleius (Sixtus Birke brought the first printed edition of the Greek text out at Basel in 1545. A metrical Latin version of this by Sebastian Castalio appeared in 1546, and another edition of the Greek text, emended by the same scholar, in 1555. In 1599 Johannis Opsopœus (John Koch) published at Paris an edition of the Greek text, accompanied by the Latin version of Castalio, and with brief prolegomena and notes. But that of Servatius Gallæus superseded all these editions, published in Amsterdam in 1687-89, in two quarto volumes. One volume contains the Greek text, with the Latin version and extensive annotations; the other consists of dissertations on the Sibyls and their oracles. This text and translation, accompanied by many notes taken largely from the work of Gallæus, was republished at Venice in 1765, in the first volume of Gallandius’s Collection of the Fathers.

The next important contribution to the Sibyllines was the discovery in the Ambrosian library in Milan of the fourteenth book, which was published by Angelo Mai in 1817.

Vatican library at Rome

The same distinguished prelate subsequently found in the Vatican library at Rome four books numbered xi-xiv, and published them in that city in 1828. The first to edit and publish the entire collection of twelve books (books i-viii and xi-xiv) was J. H. Friedlieb, whose single volume, issued at Leipsic in 1852, contains the entire Greek text, with a remarkably close metrical version in German, a valuable introduction, and a collection of various readings. A still more complete and critical edition is that of C. Alexandre, whose first volume appeared at Paris in 1841, and contains the Greek text and a Latin version of the first eight books, and extensive critical and exegetical notes. Two subsequent volumes (Paris, 1853 and 1856) supplied the remaining books, seven Excursus, and a bibliography of the Sibylline literature. A new edition, condensing the material of his previous dissertations and presenting all in a single volume, appeared at Paris in 1869.

The latest and most improved edition of the Greek text of the twelve books now extant is that of Aloisius Rzach, published at Vienna in 1891. The editor had prepared himself for his task through extensive studies in the department of the later Greek literature. His work has not escaped criticism, especially on account of its many conjectural emendations, but it is to-day undoubtedly, as a whole, the best edition of the Greek text in existence. Whatever improvements future editors may make, this product of indefatigable labor is not likely to superseded.

The following translation is based upon the text of Rzach, and supersedes and displaces earlier translations, which appeared in 1890. The defects of that work and the many improvements made in the Greek text of Rzach warrant this thorough recasting of what appears so far to be the only complete translation of these interesting oracles in the English language. Because one distinguishing feature of the original is the fact that they cast all its parts and fragments in the form of Greek hexameters, the translator was governed by a conviction that the translation ought to be set in some poetic form. It need not be an imitation of the hexameter, which seems somewhat foreign to the genius of the English tongue. The poetic form which in our language holds a position more analogous is that of pentameter blank verse, and the translator accordingly felt that this measure was on the whole best adapted to the purpose of this work. A prose translation would enable one in not a few instances to convey the meaning of the original more accurately, but the consequent loss of that which is enhancing in the matter of poetic form ought not to be ignored. Bayard Taylor, in the Preface to his translation of Goethe’s Faust, argues that “the value of form in a poetical work is the first question to be considered. … Poetry, indeed, may be distinguished from prose by the single circumstance that it is the utterance of whatever in man cannot be perfectly uttered in any other than a rhythmical form. It is useless to say that the naked meaning is independent of the form.” This argument has, of course, a force and relevancy in connection with poetic masterpieces like Goethe’s Faust and the Homeric epics which it cannot have for a version of such a composite of heterogeneous elements as we find in these Pseudo-Sibyllines; and yet we believe that it ought to have great influence in an attempt to translate what exists only in poetic form.


In working out his tasks the author aimed, despite the restrictions involved in maintaining a rhythmic form, to keep very close to the order and sentiment of the Greek verses. Not a few of his renderings may be justly criticized as being too literal, and some may violate the usage of good English style; and he must crave the kindly forbearance of the critical reader. Let the offense of extreme literalism be condoned by the consideration that he is a kind of pioneer in making these oracles accessible to English readers, and that he risked adverse criticism for his occasional too close adherence to the letter of the Greek rather than expose himself to possibly greater error in the opposite extreme. It should be observed, also, that there are not a few very obscure and perplexing passages in these Pseudo-Sibyllines, and in some verses, one can at best only guess at the meaning. There are also many lacunae and mutilations in all existing manuscripts, as, for example, at the conclusion of book xii. They indicate these in the translation just as they appear in the printed Greek texts. In the few places where a list of proper names occurs (for example, iii, 424-430) and English rhythm is impossible, the author simply transferred the names in the order in which they stand in the Greek. For convenience, in comparing the translation with the original, the numbers enclosed in parentheses at the foot of each page of the translation indicate the corresponding lines of the Greek text. 

In the footnotes, the translator supplied such information as a reader of the oracles might wish to find by easy reference. His inability to explain all the obscure allusions did not deter him from supplying as far as practicable such notes and comments as interested students may find to be a help. In the first footnote at the beginning of each book there is a brief statement of the general character and the probable authorship and date of the contents, but he did not attempt the difficult task of a critical analysis, rearrangement, and formal discussion of the various parts of these now heterogeneous books and fragments.

That many of the early Christian fathers cite these pseudonymous oracles as veritable Holy Scripture gives the work an importance in biblical criticism and theology which justifies the attention, the translator addresses this matter in his footnotes. The various citations have been carefully noted, and, for the convenience of students disposed to examine or verify them, the place of each citation is designated not only by the common reference of book and chapter, but also by the volume and column in which the passage appears in Migne’s Complete Collection of Greek and Latin Fathers. This latter designation is always put in brackets, the letter G denoting the Greek, and L the Latin patrology; the numbers which follow these letters refer respectively to the volume and column. The index at the end of this volume also designates, in connection with the name of each of these fathers, the pages of our translation where the various citations may be found.

Those fragments of Sibylline Oracles which are preserved among the citations of Theophilus and Lactantius, but which do not appear anywhere in the twelve books of our collection, were placed in the Appendix to this volume, where the translator also furnishes a translation of the “Anonymous Preface,” together with the passages from Varro and Lactantius which tell the story of the Sibyls, and a bibliography of the Sibylline literature. 

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