Tell Me a Story

The Fire of Wisdom (An Ancient Roman Tale)

For many years, beneath the temple of Jupiter in Rome, the sibylline books were protected in a closely guarded vault. These were books that the priests consulted, especially during times of natural disaster, when earthquakes and floods and hurricanes swept down on their world, when disease struck and when hardship came. These books contained great wisdom and predictions of what the future held for their land and people. The sibylline books, the priests said, were precious beyond any treasure.

Many people believed in the books and their predictions, but others did not. The priests, though, told the tale of the books, of how the people of Rome received such wisdom, and how they failed to learn all they might have learned.

It happened this way.

There once was a woman who lived near a spring at Cumae, in southern Italy. She was a sibyl, that is, a great prophetess who could read the future.

She was known as the Cumaean Sibyl, a woman who could change her features at will. She was wild-eyed, wild-haired and wild-tongued. One day, she came to see the king, Tarquin the Elder. She brought with her an offer.

"I have nine books to sell to you," she told the king.

"What books would those be?" the king asked. She was an odd-looking woman, and the king did not believe she was the prophetess she claimed to be.

"In these nine books," she said, "is contained the destiny of Rome."

Tarquin the Elder laughed at the old woman. He had heard of her, of course, but he did not believe she could predict the future, and he did not, for one moment, believe that these books she carried contained the destiny of the world. Her voice, after all, was more like a croak, and when she spoke, foam gathered on her lips.

Tarquin had heard that she wrote her predictions on oak leaves and that she laid these leaves at the edge of her cave. When the wind came and blew the leaves, they drifted this way and that, hither and yon, so that those who received the woman's messages often were confused by the words.

Tarquin did not believe she was as wise as she claimed, but he was curious about her offer. "How much money do you want for your books?" he asked.

"Nine bags of gold," she answered.

The king and his advisers roared with laughter. "Nine bags of gold? How could you ask such a fortune?"

"The future of your world lies within them," she repeated, but seeing that he did not wish to buy her books, she started a fire, and into this fire she hurled three of her books.

Within moments they were burned to ash, and the sibyl of Cumae set off for home, leaving behind the king and his advisers.

It was another year before the sibyl returned. This time, she arrived with six books.

"What do you want now?" Tarquin asked her.

"I offer six books for sale," she answered. "Six books that contain the rest of the destiny of Rome."

"How much?" the king asked her.

"Nine bags of gold," she said.

"What?" asked the king. "Nine bags for fewer books? Are you mad? You asked nine bags for nine books, but now you offer only six for the same price?"

"Think what they contain before you refuse," the sibyl said. "The rest of the future of Rome."

"Too much," Tarquin answered, and so, once again, the woman built a fire and tossed into it three more books. Then she turned and walked away, crossing the wide farmlands that separated Rome from Cumae.

The roads between the two cities were long and treacherous in those days. The woman's journey was difficult. Still, the next year, she returned to see the king once again. This time she brought with her the three remaining books.

"Three books remain," she said, "and I will sell these to you for nine bags of gold."

Now the king's advisers gathered around, and they consulted among themselves. They were worried that the old sibyl would burn the very last of the predictions. What if what she said were true? What if they might know their future? What if they were throwing away their opportunity to read their destinies?

"You must buy these books," the advisers told their king, and so he did, paying the old sibyl nine bags of gold.

When the king and his advisers had read the three books that remained, they understood that this odd old woman was truly a great sibyl, prophetess of the future. The king sent at once for her and had her returned to his court. "Please," Tarquin begged her, "will you rewrite the other six books?"

"No," she said, refusing to discuss the matter. "You have chosen your destiny, and I cannot change that."

Rome did rise to be a great kingdom, and for years and years it flourished as a powerful republic, conquering Gaul under the famed Julius Caesar. But when the Roman Empire collapsed, people wondered what wisdom they might have learned in those six books burned by the sibyl of Cumae.

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