There are three basic types of oracular literature attributed to the legendary prophetesses known as Sibyls. The first type consists of the oracles of classical antiquity, traditionally composed in Greek and arranged in heroic hexameters. Virtually nothing survives of what was once a vast and varied corpus that included the famous Libri Sibyllini of ancient Rome, which were kept in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and officially consulted in times of national emergency. Reconstituted after a fire consumed the temple in 83 BCE, the Libri Sibyllini survived until the early fifth century CE.
The second type of Sibylline literature is the Sibylline Oracles, a heterogeneous compilation of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic prophecies dating from the second century BCE to the seventh century CE. Its Greek text, likewise disposed in heroic hexameters, betrays evidence of many layers of redaction. The text survives in several ancient papyrus fragments and in three groups of late mediaeval MSS, designated Φ, Ψ, and Ω, which modern editions collate into twelve “books” of oracles (= SibOr 1-8 and 11-14).
The third type of Sibylline literature consists of the post-classical apocalyptic oracles. These were written almost exclusively by Christians from the end of the fourth century to the Reformation. They were composed in verse or prose, typically in Latin but also in a wide range of other languages. Two specimens of the type are the Vaticinium Sibyllae Erithraeae and the short prophecies of the ten (or twelve) Sibyls foretelling the advent of Christ, the latter often accompanied by portraits displaying iconography that is distinctive to each Sibyl. Several of these post-classical oracles exist in multiple versions, the result of recurrent textual updating as a response to changing historical circumstances.
Accompanying all three types of Sibylline literature are the writings of early Christian theologians that include information about the classical Sibyls or quote passages from the Sibylline Oracles, and thereafter were copied throughout the Middle Ages, occasionally forming the basis for new Sibylline compositions. Best-known among these patristic writings are Lactantius’s list of the number and names of the Sibyls (D.I. 1.6, based in part on a lost work by Varro) and Augustine’s Latin rendition of the acrostic hymn of SibOr 8.217-250 (Civ. Dei 18.23). For Lactantius, Augustine, and other such theologians, the ‘pagan’ Sibyls presaged Christ as surely as did the prophets of the Old Testament. Mischa Hooker’s 2007 University of Cincinnati dissertation, still unpublished, remains the most thorough investigation of the patristic use of the Sibyls and the Sibylline Oracles.1
This book by Nicoletta Brocca investigates the Sibylline tradition in the patristic writings and the reception-history of these writings in Latin Christendom in the Middle Ages. Chapter One briefly surveys the Sibylline phenomenon in ten early Christian sources: the Shepherd of Hermas, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras of Athens, Theophilus of Antioch, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, the Cohortatio ad Graecos, Lactantius, and Augustine. Chapter Two offers a summary outline of the patristic use of the Sibylline Oracles and an examination of the sources and contents of the so-called “Sibylline Theosophy.” Chapter Three examines the Sibylline acrostic in its Latin translation. Extant in hundreds of MSS copies and often attributed to the Erythraean Sibyl (following Augustine), this short hymn appears in a range of formats and is sometimes appended to other Sibylline texts. Chapter Four discusses two lesser-known Sibylline texts, the cento In manus iniquas infidelium postea veniet (apud Aug., Civ. Dei 18.23) and the Dicta Sibyllae magae. Both texts are indicative of the long afterlife of the patristic understanding of the Sibyls well into the Renaissance and Reformation. Brocca concentrates on philological issues associated with the various texts, which reveals her careful scholarship in this respect. However, she devotes less attention to current literary and cultural issues, such as the proposals of Pier Franco Beatrice regarding the affiliation between the Tübingen Theosophy and the extant version of Greek text of the Sibilla Tiburtina,2 and the use of the patristic quotations of the Sibyls within their late mediaeval contexts.
Six useful appendixes following Chapter Four present critical editions of the central texts: (i) the catalogues of the Sibyls, according to Lactantius (apud Varro), Isidore, the Theosophy, Lydus, the Scholia to the Phaedrus, and the Suda, which are helpfully arranged in parallel columns; (ii) the Sibylline acrostic in its Greek and Latin versions; (iii) the Saeculare Sibyllinum in both Greek (SibOr 8.1-26) and Latin; (iv) the oracle Veniet enim rex omnipotens; (v) the cento In manus iniquas infidelium postea veniet and the Dicta Sibyllae magae; and (vi) a list of citations of the Sibylline Oracles in the patristic writings. One observes several minor inaccuracies in the MS references in this section:
“Il Iudicii signum
” (Brocca pp. 365-66)
Paris, BnF lat. 2832, fol. 123 (should read
Valenciennes, BM 404, fol. 65 (should read
“La traduzione nel Saeculare Sibyllinum
” (pp. 369-71)
Karlsruhe, BLB Aug CLXXII, fol. 35 (should read
‘vv.’ 1-22(26)” (pp. 372-73)
Karlsruhe, BLB Aug CLXXII, fols. 33r-36v (should read
“I Dicta Sibyllae magae
” (pp. 380-81)
Paris, BnF lat. 2773, fol. 24 (should read
Valenciennes, BM 404, fol. 62 (should read
Much of Brocca’s book is essentially derivative, although to some degree this is neither avoidable nor necessarily objectionable. After all, the Sibylline prophecies have, since the Renaissance, been the object of intensive study by antiquarians, classicists, philologists, biblical scholars, and mediaevalists, and it is difficult to say something about them that is wholly brand-new. The only sure recipe for discovery is to return to the manuscript libraries in search of fresh evidence, as Anke Holdenried’s 2006 study of the Latin versions of the Sibilla Tiburtina3 and Christian Jostmann’s 2006 monograph on the Vaticinium Sibyllae Erithraea4 admirably demonstrate. Admittedly, Brocca’s book contains an impressive list of nearly 100 MSS cited (pp. 423-34). Yet the bulk of these are utilised to adduce arguments that have already been advanced by other scholars, and perhaps a telling point is that several of the book’s noted inaccuracies in MS referencing repeat those in a seminal study by Bernhard Bischoff.5 The chief exceptions to the rule appear in the footnotes, which contain such a wealth of manuscript information that one wonders whether some of it could have been incorporated into the book’s main arguments.
In the final analysis, Brocca’s book provides specialists in late antique and mediaeval apocalyptic literature with a fine overview of the patristic use of the Sibylline phenomenon, and of the history of that use into the Middle Ages. It also offers excellent critical editions of some important Sibylline texts and other primary material. For this we are in her debt.
1. Mischa André Hooker, “The Use of Sibyls and Sibylline Oracles in Early Christian Writers” (Ph.D. Dissertation: University of Cincinnati, 2007).
2. Pier Franco Beatrice, Anonymi Monophysitae Theosophia: An Attempt at Reconstruction (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 56 Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2001).
3. Anke Holdenried, The Sibyl and Her Scribes. Manuscripts and Interpretation of the Latin Sibylla Tiburtina c. 1050-1500 (Church, Faith and Culture in the Medieval West; Aldershot/Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006).
4. Christian Jostmann, Sibilla Erithea Babilonica: Papsttum und Prophetie im 13. Jahrhundert (MGH Schriften 54; Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 2006).
5. Bernhard Bischoff, “Die lateinischen Übersetzungen und Bearbeitungen aus den Oracula Sibyllina,” Mélanges Joseph de Ghellinck, S.J. Tome I: antiquité (Museum Lessianum, section historique 13; Gembloux: J. Duculot), 121-47. Reprinted in idem Mittelalterliche Studien. Ausgewählte Aufsätze zur Schriftkunde und Literaturgeschichte. Band I (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1966), 150-71.