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The Sibylline Oracles and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra

By Cynthia Finlayson

Abstract: Lactantius, quoting from the works of the Classical historian Varro, claimed that the Apocalyptic prophesies of the Sibyls (The Sibylline Oracles) were kept secret by the Romans and could only be read by specialists called the quindecimviri. Presumably, this was to forestall public panic, and/or self-fulfilling actions that would contribute to the eventual cataclysmic fall of Rome alluded to within numerous chapters of the Sibylline texts. It is obvious, however, that some Sibylline prophesies were known by many beyond the elite quindecimviri of Rome. Contrary to inciting panic, the Sibylline Oracles were utilized by a number of famous individuals in Roman history as venues to power. A few of these important opportunists included Cleopatra VII, as well as Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Both of these powerful women attempted to fulfill roles predicted in the Sibylline texts characteristic of the return of an Alexander-like leader (somehow associated with a widow) who would usher in an age of brotherly harmony (Homonoia) and hope (Elpis). This paper explores how predictions of Apocalypse in the Sibylline Oracles were utilized by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, the last in a long line of opportunists to exploit such prophecies as venues of power, rather than as omens of despair. Such a study assists us in earmarking a number of the Sibylline Oracles in existence during Zenobia’s era before the corruption of the texts in the Christian period. This study also allows us to better understand the cultural importance of the Sibylline Oracles among the general populace of the Late Roman Empire, thus also illustrating the differences existing between perceptions of Apocalyptic literature in the ancient world, versus modern Western misperceptions of this ancient genre.

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(H/T History of the Ancient World)

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