One of the most amusing books in Latin must be the Noctes Atticae of Attic Nights by Aulus Gellius (125 – after 180). It is a compendium of anecdotes, which he started writing spending the nights during a winter at Attica. He tells how the last Roman king Tarquinius Superbus got the Sibylline Books. These books contained oracles written in Greek hexameters and were consulted during times of dangers and distress. An old woman, the Cumaean Sybil Amalthea, in disguise, offered nine books with these oracles. Tarquinius refuses twice, whereupon the old woman each time burned three books. Finally Tarquinius buys the remaining three. What would have happened to the Roman Empire having had the possession of nine such books?
Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 1.19 Historia super libris Sibyllinis ac de Tarquinio Superbo rege.
1 In antiquis annalibus memoria super libris Sibyllinis haec prodita est: 2 Anus hospita atque incognita ad Tarquinium Superbum regem adiit novem libros ferens, quos esse dicebat divina oracula; eos velle venundare. 3 Tarquinius pretium percontatus est. Mulier nimium atque inmensum poposcit; 4 rex, quasi anus aetate desiperet, derisit. 5 Tum illa foculum coram cum igni apponit, tris libros ex novem deurit et, ecquid reliquos sex eodem pretio emere vellet, regem interrogavit. 6 Sed enim Tarquinius id multo risit magis dixitque anum iam procul dubio delirare. 7 Mulier ibidem statim tris alios libros exussit atque id ipsum denuo placide rogat, ut tris reliquos eodem illo pretio emat. 8 Tarquinius ore iam serio atque attentiore animo fit, eam constantiam confidentiamque non insuper habendam intellegit, libros tris reliquos mercatur nihilo minore pretio, quam quod erat petitum pro omnibus. 9 Sed eam mulierem tunc a Tarquinio digressam postea nusquam loci visam constitit. 10 Libri tres in sacrarium conditi "Sibyllini" appellati; 11 ad eos quasi ad oraculum quindecimviri adeunt, cum di immortales publice consulendi sunt.
super (+ abl.): about
prodo prodidi proditum: to transmit
anus (f.): old woman
venundo = venum-do: to put for sale, to sell
percontor percontatus: to inquire
nimius: too great, excessive
posco poposci: to ask, demand
desipio ( -ere): to act silly
derideo derisis derisum: to laugh at, deride
coram (adv.): before the eyes
deuro deussi deustum: to burn up
emo emi emptum: to buy
procul dubio: without doubt
ibidem: at the same place
denuo: a second time
os oris: facial expression (the ablatives are ablatives of description)
non insuper habendem: must not be regarded as superfluous, not be despised
mercor mercatus: to buy
nusquam loci: litt. nowhere of place (loci gen. partitivus) = at no place
constitit: it is certain
sacrarium: shrine (in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. Augustus transferred them to the temple of Apollo on the Palatine.)
quindecimviri: the 15 (originally 10) priests who were appointed to consult the Sibylline
Translation by J.C. Rolfe (1927)
19 The story of king Tarquin the Proud and the Sibylline Books.
1 In ancient annals we find this tradition about the Sibylline Books. 2 An old woman, a perfect stranger, came to king Tarquin the Proud, bringing nine books; she declared that they were oracles of the gods and that she wished to sell them. 3 Tarquin inquired the price; 4 the woman demanded an immense p91 and exorbitant sum: the king laughed her to scorn, believing her to be in her dotage. 5 Then she placed a lighted brazier before him, burned three of the books to ashes, and asked whether he would buy the remaining six at the same price. 6 But at this Tarquin laughed all the more and said that there was now no doubt that the old woman was crazy. 7 Upon that the woman at once burned up three more books and again calmly made the same request, that he would buy the remaining three at the original figure. 8 Tarquin now became serious and more thoughtful, and realising that such persistence and confidence were not to be treated lightly, he bought the three books that were left at as high a price as had been asked for all nine. 9 Now it is a fact that after then leaving Tarquin, that woman was never seen again anywhere. 10 The three books were deposited in a shrine and called "Sibylline"; 11 to them the Fifteen resort whenever the immortal gods are to be consulted as to the welfare of the State.