Tarquin the Proud and the Cumaean Sybil

Imagine this: your father-in-law is the king of Rome. You and your brother are married to his two daughters, but you’re sure you married the wrong sister.

What do you do?

Well, you both plot to kill your respective siblings.

Now if this was a police drama, there would be an interrogation scene with a good Roman cop and a bad Roman cop, but these were simpler times (roughly the late 5th century B.C.E.), so this isn’t going to be an episode of CSI: Rome.

No, to the contrary, you both get away with it, and go on to get happily married. In time you have three sons and a daughter. Of those three, one in particular, Sextus, will be a key player in your overthrow – but more in the follow up post, the Rape of Lucretia.

Having now committed fratricide, what’s a young, ambitious man to do? Well, kill your father-in-law, and take over the throne.

Seating yourself on the throne, you slander the king before senators loyal to your grandfather, who had also once been king. You accuse your father-in-law of several “crimes”: being born of a slave, for receiving the throne from a woman, for favoring the lower classes, for wealth and land redistribution to the poor, and for making the rich publicly declare their wealth in the census.

Sounds like some of the charges hurled against a former U.S. President, me-thinks…

After restating your charges, you hurl the old man out of a window.

To add insult to injury, your wife intentionally runs her chariot over the corpse as it lies in the street, and remember, this was her own father. The road where this happened was memorialized in Rome as the Vicus Sceleratus, meaning the Street of Crime).

You followed with a reign of terror and conquest, killing your opponents, and demanding that the surrounding cities become vassals to Rome.

Your name is Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, otherwise known as Tarquin the Proud, and you will be the last king of Rome.


Now, from here, we enter the realm of mythology, first by retelling the tale of the Cumaean Sibyl, followed with a follow post about the Rape of Lucretia.


The Sibyls were Oracles who channeled the God Apollo, virgin priestesses who could foretell the future.

While the most famous Sibyl was stationed at Delphi, other temples had Sibyls as well, including the one centered at Cumea, near the modern city of Naples.

The story goes that one day, this Sibyl showed up in Rome, and offered nine books of prophecies to King Tarquin. When he balked at the high price she was demanding, she burned three of the books.

She then offered the king the remaining six books, for the exact same price that she had asked for before.

He refused again.

Undeterred, she burned three more of the books.

She then demanded the same high price for the remaining three books.

Tarquin, realizing his foolishness, purchased the three books, and the Sibyl vanished into thin air.

The books were placed in the Temple of Jupiter, in the capitol, which he had constructed, and were guarded by two keepers.

These books were consulted for many subsequent generations, until they perished in a fire that destroyed the temple as well, nearly four hundred years later.

However, these prophesies were so vital to Roman culture that a nationwide search of Sibyl prophecies was undertaken; those that were deemed genuine were reworked into a new set of restored Sibylline Prophecies, which the emperor Augustus had moved to the Temple of Apollo, also in the capital.


What happened to Tarquin the Proud?

Well, he might have been wise to purchase all nine books.

They might have described how his son Sextus would rape Lucretia, an act that would end his reign, and mark the beginning of the Roman Republic.

There’s a moral here – never cross an Oracle…


And, what happened to the Sybil of Cumea?

Well, in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, we hear this of her fate:

She offered her virginity to the God Apollo in exchange for one wish.

When asked what her wish was, she picked up a handful of sand, and asked to live for as many years as the grains she held.

She lived for over a thousand years…

Except, when she later rebuked Apollo’s advances, he punished her in the following way…

Consider this: she had asked to live for a very long time, but she had said nothing about staying young.

And so, she grew old, she withered, and she shrank. Eventually she was small enough to fit in a jar. As the centuries passed, only her voice remained.

There’s a moral here as well: never cross a God…


“For I indeed once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in her jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die’.”

(from the Epigraph to T.S. Eliot’s the Wasteland, itself a quote from Petronius’ Satyricon)

 The Cumaean Sibyl, Elihu Vedder, 1876

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