The Sibyl
One of ancient Rome’s mysterious prophets, the Sibyls. Painting (c. 1654) in the public domain at metmuseum.org (citation below).

A few months ago, I dropped a note into the Twitter Sea with news from my history class. I had just given my students a fun assignment, I wrote. I had assigned them a “Mystery Text,” something they had never seen before, and I wanted to them play with it, tear it apart, and dissect it to see if they could make any sense of it.

When I revealed the title of the mystery poem online, the so-called Fifth Sibylline Oracle, I found out very quickly that (a) at least three people actually read my Tweets and (b) some were eager to hear how the experiment was going. I finally had some time to come back to this topic, so here goes.

The text I used is not exactly a bestselling piece of classical literature. If you go hunting for it, you have to start by finding a copy of Rome’s “Oracles of the Sibyls.” It’s number five in the collection. Scholars usually call it the Fifth Sibylline Oracle, but even that title obscures more than it reveals. The Sibyls were renowned ancient prophets, scattered throughout the Mediterranean, respected by the Roman government. The author, or authors, of the Fifth Sibylline Oracle—the poem, as we have it, was probably compiled from several smaller poems—was not one of these women. “She” was a fraud, and “her” goal was to pass off “her” poem as a state-supported prophecy.

It can’t have been an easy task. Parts of the text talk about the downfall of Roman Egypt and Mesopotamia. Other lines express an urgent anxiety about the return of the beastly emperor Nero. Still others frame the author’s current social struggle as if it were a battle taking place in the stars—a cosmic war with dimensions being fought on earth. Several times throughout the poem, the writer stresses that punishment is coming to Rome, soon, for destroying the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The text even encourages its readers, or those who heard it, to see themselves as God’s true people. They would rebel against Rome, and they would win! (Things did not quite turn out as they had planned).

What on earth did I hope to achieve by assigning such a text in an intro history class when we should have been talking about aqueducts, not the apocalypse?

To be honest, the latter is exactly what I wanted my students to be talking about. My class had just finished their unit on the birth of the Jesus Movement, the emergence of the Jewish Revolt, and the rise of Flavian dynasty of emperors. They had also just read excerpts from Revelation, a Christian text written at the end of the first century C.E., which uses similar motifs of spiritual battle and themes of the coming end time to rally Christians in a time of social strife (perhaps real, perhaps perceived).

And so, each group in class was assigned a portion of the “mystery.” They were asked to work with each other to find details or formulate questions which might help give the poem some context like where, when, or by whom it had been written. Each group made presentations about their section. As we went, a picture began to emerge and then change. At first, the class thought the poem had to have been written by a Christian because it sounded like Revelation. Later, they realized that the author was likely Jewish (the current scholarly consensus, by the way). Many were even able to identify Egypt and Mesopotamia as potential locations for where its writer may have lived.

In the end, I think the “Sibyl” taught them something much broader. “She” showed them that, by the start of the second century C.E., some pockets of the empire—some Jews and some Christians; certainly not all—were drawing upon highly combative imagery, rooted in notions of spiritual warfare, to express their political resistance to the Roman authorities. Students learned that this rhetoric crossed the theological aisle and, most important of all, that significant traces of it can be found in the historical record outside the pages of what we call “The Bible.”

That’s a lesson of Roman history which I have been (and still am) very keen to emphasize because the words and the worldview associated with these texts traveled much farther in time than we usually think. Now that the semester’s come to an end, I can say it was certainly an eye-opening exercise for my students.

Thanks, “Sibyl.” Be hearing more from you soon!

The image, once thought to have been painted by the Dutch master Rembrandt, is now attributed to his fellow countryman Willem Drost. Titled The Sibyl (c. 1654), it is currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and as of December 6, 2014, has been placed in the public domain and made available for fair use at www.metmuseum.org.