Legend says that the Sibylline Books came to Rome in the sixth century BC, when the Sibyl herself demanded an outrageous price for them from Tarquinius Priscus, king of Rome. He thought she was trying to sell him nine scrolls of dubious writings for a colossal sum and believed that nobody in their right mind would do anything but refuse.
Hearing his decision, the Sibyl promptly burnt three of the scrolls. She then offered him the remaining six at the same price she had asked for the nine. To this Tarquinius retorted that she was mad.
The woman burnt another three scrolls and then made the same offer yet again – the original asking price, but now for only three scrolls. Finally, Tarquinius realized that the writings must be something quite out of the ordinary. He paid up, whereupon the woman departed and was never seen again.
Although ‘Sibyl’ was a general name for numerous prophetesses in antiquity, the one who visited Tarquinius came from Cumae, a city of southern Italy that had originally been founded by the Greeks. Fact and legend about the Cumaean Sibyl are difficult to disentangle. The prophetess lived in a cave and, in an ecstatic trance, wrote her prophecies on leaves, which then were then mixed up by the wind. Although a number of women must have held the post over the centuries, folklore had it that there was only one Sibyl. The Roman poet Ovid recorded in his Metamorphoses that Apollo, the god of prophecy, had offered the Sibyl a gift of her choosing. She had asked to live for as many years as the grains of sand she held in her hand. Unfortunately, she forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. She eventually became so terribly old and shriveled that her only wish was to die.
Despite the myths surrounding them, the Sibylline Books undoubtedly existed. They were consulted, only by order of the Roman Senate, whenever the state was believed to be threatened. These mysterious books were destroyed in a fire in 83 BC.