THE APENNINE SIBYL
A MYSTERY AND A LEGEND
WORLD OF THE SIBYL: THE ITALIAN APENNINES AND
THE SIBILLINI MOUNTAIN RANGE1
1. A Sibyl in the Apennines
What is a "Sibyl"? In the classical world, Sibyls were women bestowed
with the gift of prophecy. They actually spoke on behalf and with the words
of a god. Inspired by Apollo, the Sibyl of Delphi chanted the visions that
seized her when asked for oracular responses. In Cuma, near Naples,
another Sibyl had passed the wisdom contained in her books on to a Roman
Fig. 1 - Delphic Sibyl as painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome
1 Articles released in year 2017
The Sibyls were generally considered as priestesses of Cybele, the
Phrygian goddess worshipped as a life-giving mother to the earth, amidst
the precipitous slopes and ravines of the mountains. The answers they
provided were cryptic and easily misunderstood, as men liked to catch of
their words just what they craved for within their own soul.
Quoting from Varro, an ancient scholar whose work has gone lost, another
renowned Latin author, Lactantius, reports that the Sibyls added up to ten.
This is the classical list of Sibyls, including the Delphic, the Cumaean, the
Tiburtine and others.
Early Christian writers, like Isidore of Seville, claimed that the Sibyls,
pagans as they were, had anticipated the coming of Jesus on earth, by
predicting the birth of the Son of God. That they would have achieved by
using their foretelling faculties.
Yet something seems to be at variance with the classical list of oracular
priestesses: in the fifteenth century, another Sibyl, apparently a new one,
had made her appearance in a barren region of Central Italy.
That was the Apennine Sibyl. An enduring mystery whose spell is still alive
in our present days.
2. The Sibyls who chanted the Incarnation
In early Christianity, the Sibyls – pagans as they were – were considered as
witnesses of the Incarnation. Owing to their vaticinating powers, early-
Christian authors reported that the Sibyls had divined the coming of the
Son of God, before the actual birth of Jesus in Betlehem. Isidore of Seville,
who lived between the sixth and seventh century, wrote in his Etymologiae
sive Originum (Book VIII, Chapter 8) the following sentence about the
«Quarum omnium carmina efferuntur, in quibus de Deo et de Christo et
gentibus multa scripsisse manifestissime conprobantur» («Songs by all of
them are published in which they are attested to have written many things
most clearly even for the pagans about God and Christ»).
Fig. 2 - The excerpt by Isidore of Seville on the Sibyls from an ancient edition of the Etymologiae sive
And that's why the myth of the Sibyl has survived the coming of the new
Christian era and the disappearance of the old gods: they were part of God's
greater design for the salvation of the world.
In the fifth century A.D., Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian and
philosopher, included the Sibyls in the Christian theological system,
conferring further life to their legend for the centuries to come. In Book
XVIII, Chapter XXIII of his The City of God he wrote the following
statements about the Sibyls:
«Of the Erythræan Sibyl, Who is Known to Have Sung Many Things About
Christ More Plainly Than the Other Sibyls
This sibyl of Erythræ certainly wrote some things concerning Christ which
are quite manifest, and we first read them in the Latin tongue in verses of
bad Latin, and unrhythmical, through the unskillfulness, as we afterwards
learned, of some interpreter unknown to me. For Flaccianus, a very famous
man, who was also a proconsul, a man of most ready eloquence and much
learning, when we were speaking about Christ, produced a Greek
manuscript, saying that it was the prophecies of the Erythræan sibyl, in
which he pointed out a certain passage which had the initial letters of the
lines so arranged that these words could be read in them in Greek language
"Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour." […]
But this sibyl, whether she is the Erythræan, or, as some rather believe, the
Cumæan, in her whole poem, of which this is a very small portion, not only
has nothing that can relate to the worship of the false or feigned gods, but
rather speaks against them and their worshippers in such a way that we
might even think she ought to be reckoned among those who belong to the
city of God».
Fig. 3 - Augustine of Hippo, the quote on the Sibyl from his The City of God
[in the original Latin text] « Eodem tempore nonnulli Sibyllam Erythraeam
vaticinatam ferunt. Sibyllas autem Varro prodit plures fuisse, non unam.
Haec sane Erythraea Sibylla quaedam de Christo manifesta conscripsit;
quod etiam nos prius in latina lingua versibus male latinis et non stantibus
legimus per nescio cuius interpretis imperitiam, sicut post cognovimus.
Nam vir clarissimus Flaccianus, qui etiam proconsul fuit, homo facillimae
facundiae multaeque doctrinae, cum de Christo colloqueremur, graecum
nobis codicem protulit, carmina esse dicens Sibyllae Erythraeae, ubi
ostendit quodam loco in capitibus versuum ordinem litterarum ita se
habentem, ut haec in eo verba legerentur: , quod est latine: Iesus Christus
Dei Filius Salvator. […] Haec autem Sibylla sive Erythraea sive, ut quidam
magis credunt, Cumaea ita nihil habet in toto carmine suo, cuius exigua ista
particula est, quod ad deorum falsorum sive factorum cultum pertineat,
quin immo ita etiam contra eos et contra cultores eorum loquitur, ut in
eorum numero deputanda videatur, qui pertinent ad civitatem Dei».
3. An Apennine Sibyl in a fifteenth-century chivalric romance
In Andrea da Barberino's Guerrino the Wretch (Guerrin Meschino in
Italian) is a fifteenth-century romance recording for the first time in history
the presence of a sibilline oracle on a remote peak of the Sibillini Mountain
Range, set in the Italian Apennines, with a description of the cave and its
In Italy, the tale of knight Guerrino and his amazing adventures was known
and familiar to everybody: storytellers used to narrate his deeds in public
squares, at the corners of the streets, in village fairs and open-air markets,
and during town festivals. People were enthralled by the description of the
knight's bravery, and the depiction of the eerie cavern and magical kingdom
hidden beneath the rocky crest. And the fame of the cave travelled far and
As narrated by Andrea da Barberino in his romance, the main character
Guerrino, a valiant knight, ascended the eerie mountain in the Apennine
while engaged in a long and hazardous quest, in search of his lost parents.
He had come to know that a Sibyl resided in a cave on the mountain-top,
and he was determined to reach her abode and interrogate her on his
parents' identity and wherabouts:
«the mountains where the Sibyl is found are in the middle of Italy, where
strong winds blow for the mounts are high and there is the abode of griffins
[...] so he went across the mountains of Aspromonte and travelled to the
town of Norcia, which is in the midst of the great mountain of Apennine
[...] And an elderly man, who had listened to their words, replied to him:
"Sir, he said the truth, that a Sibyl actually dwells beneath our mountain
fastnesses, for I remember that three young men came to this land: they
went there, two of them came back and the other never returned"».
Fig. 4 - An excerpt from the chivalric romance Guerrino The Wretch
[In the original Italian text: «le montagne dove è la Sibilla è in mezo de
Italia dove sono tuti venti per ché sono alte e za lì stavano li grifoni; e la
più pressa cità che li sia se chiama Norza [...] e passò le montagne de
Asperamonte e vene a la cità de Norza la qual è in mezo de la grande
montagna d'pinino [...] Respose uno homo anticho che se fermò audire
parlare e disse o gentilhomo lo è vero quelo che dice costui e che la Sibilla
è in questa nostra montagna per ché io me recordo venire tre gioveni in
questa terra: che ando[ro]no lì, doi tornono e l'altro non tornò mai»]
In the chivalric romance Guerrino the Wretch, a connection between the
Apennine Sibyl and the Nativity is mentioned, with a peculiar overlapping
between the pagan priestess and the Holy Mary. One of the men asked by
Guerrino for information on the Sibyl so replies to him:
«I heard that the wise Sibyl was a virginal maid, so that she had hoped that
God would enter into her when the Incarnation occurred in the Holy Mary.
Because of that different choice she grieved and was then sentenced amid
these mountainous ridges».
The Sibyl, a virgin like the Holy Mary, had aspired to be the chosen one to
bear the Jesus in her womb. Yet, God's design was not hers: Mary was
chosen and the Sibyl was punished for her overambitious wish and sent to a
remote confinement among the Apeninnes.
Is that a reminiscence of the oracular role of the Sibyls, who had foretold
the coming of Jesus on earth, as attested in the works by Isidor of Seville
and Augustine of Hippo? Maybe. Nonetheless, it is the same Apennine
Sibyl who denies any connection to the Holy Mary, by choosing for herself
a different lineage, as we will see later on.
4. The Apennines as an abode of the classical Sibyls
A Sibyl and the Apennines, a link that seems to become apparent, for the
very first time, during the early fifteenth century, with a romance such as
Guerrino the Wretch. Is there any evidence of this connection in earlier
Actually there are references to the Apennines as a suitable setting for
Sibyls and their oracular powers. Mentions of thiscan be retrieved in earlier
works, as we will show in the next paragraphs.
4.1 The Sibyl and the Apennines in a most precious manuscript dating to
the twelfth century
It is not so widely known that the connection between a Sibyl and the
Apennine range has not been established in the fifteenth century with
Guerrino the Wretch and Antoine de La Sale: earlier links exist, and the one
of them dates back to more than two centuries earlier, as is attested in the
valuable manuscript n. 25407 residing in the Bibliothèque Nationale of
The manuscript contains Le Livre de Sibile (The Book of the Sibyl), an
antique work attributed to Philippe de Thaon, an anglo-norman author of
Middle-Age treatises on stones and animals.
In the account reported in Le Livre de Sibile (sheet 162), a tale is told about
a hundred Roman senators who, during the same night, had the same
inexplicable dream, featuring nine multi-coloured suns. The puzzled
senators decided to summon the Tiburtine Sibyl to Rome and ask her the
meaning of their dream.
Fig. 5 - Le Livre de Sibile in manuscript 25407 of the Bibliothèque Nationale of France
But the “regine Sibille” (Queen Sibyl, a title that is also widely used by
Andrea da Barberino in his Guerrino The Wretch) refused to explain the
dream right there in Rome, a place that was unclean; she invited the
senators to move to another place more fit to the disclosure of an oracular
response: in the anglo-norman text, “ki apenin anun”, all of them should
move “to the apennines”.
Fig. 6 - An excerpt of Le Livre de Sibile where the Sibyl is bestowed the title of “Queen”
Thus, here is a first amazing connection between a Sibyl and the
Apennines. It is a link established around year 1120. The Apennines, as a
proper place for magic and prophecies.
Fig. 7 - The Apennine mentioned in Le Livre de Sibile as a suitable place for the Sibyl to render her
4.2 An Apennine Sibyl from the early Middle Ages?
However, the anglo-norman chronicle from Philippe de Thaon (Le Livre de
Sibile, XII century) is not the earliest mention of a Sibyl in the Apeninnes.
From the earliest centuries of Middle Ages and possibly ever since late
Roman times, the Italian Apennines had been connected to Sibyls. Many
manuscripts (e.g. Oxford Bodleian Library, manuscript Laud n. 633, XIII
sec.), which report older versions of the “Prophecy of the Tiburtine Sibyl”
in Latin, drawn from very ancient manuscripts now lost, speak clearly and
plainly of the Apennine. Such older versions were collected in a later work,
the “Mirabilis Liber” (1522), which states the following:
«The Sibyl replied to them: it is not convenient, in this unclean place and
so polluted by conflicts, to unveil the sacred secrets of this dream. You
rather come with me, I will climb the Apennine mount, and there I will
foretell to you the fate of Roman citizens; and the Romans did what she
had asked them to».
[In the original Latin text: «Respondens Sibila dixit ad eos: Non est equum
in loco stercoribus pleno, et diversis certaminatiationibus polluto,
sacramentum huius visionis detegere. Sed venite ascendam in montem
apennin, et ibi vobis pronunciabo que ventura sunt civibus Romanis, et
fecerunt, ut dixit»].
Fig. 8 - The Mirabilis Liber reporting the prophecy rendered by the Tiburtine Sibyl in the Apennine
So the Tiburtine Sibyl had spoken to the Roman senators: there was a
mount among the Apennines, a special place where she could prophesize
Could that place be what we know today as “Mount Sibyl”?
5. The origin of the Apennine Sibyl: Cuma or Tivoli?
The Apennine Sibyl seems to have suddenly popped up in the fifteenth
century, when she was mentioned for the first time ever in the romance
Guerrino the Wretch and in De La Sale's The Paradise of Queen Sibyl. Did
she appear from nothing? Or possibly, is she the heir of the classical Sibyls
of the Roman age?
The latter might be the right answer, and we may find at least two different
ancestors for the Sibyl of the Apennines: both are Sibyls, and both are
Fig. 9 - The possible lineage of the Apennine Sibyl, connecting the fifteenth-century oracle to the
Cumaean Sibyl or the Tiburtine Sibyl
5.1 Did the Cumaean Sibyl flee to the Apennines?
A first lineage takes us back to the Cumaean Sibyl, the most illustrious
Italian Sibyl in antiquity. Publius Vergilius Maro writes, in his Aeneid, that
«Cumaea Sibylla - horrendas canit ambages antroque remugit - obscuris
vera involvens»: terrific riddles she yells, as she sings in her cave, the truth
enshrouded in darkness. The Sibilline Books containing the Cumaean
Sibyl's prophecies were carefully preserved in a shrine at the Capitoline
Hill in Rome.
But why the Cumaean Sibyl should have fled from her famous cave in
Cuma to a remote Apennine peak?
Ancient lore reports two different reasons. According to one legendary
tradition, the Cumaean prophetess had been a teacher and tutor of the
young Holy Mary: in this role she had entertained the idea to take the place
of the maiden and become herself the mother of the Son of God. Because
of her vile, haughty desire she had been punished and sentenced amid the
cliffs of the Apennine.
When Guerrino the Wretch meets the Sibyl, he questions her on this very
topic: «O much wise Sibyl, the Divine Grace accorded to you the favour of
being the teacher of that virgin who was the mother of the Saviour in his
human flesh; how it happened you insanely did not succeed in saving your
soul owing to the affliction that overwhelmed you when the deity did not
incarnate in your womb?»
But she stops him abruptly and replies angrily that «I was no teacher to our
lady. Sir Guerrino, I see you are not so smart as I thought; who ever told
you such piece of infomation?». And she continues: «I want you to know
my name. I was called 'Cumaean' by the Romans for I was born in a town
in the countryside whose name is Cuma: before I was sentenced to this
place I lived in the world one thousand two hundred years. When Aeneas
came to Italy, I led him through the nether world: and I was seven hundred
years old at that time».
Despite all her irritated replies, the Sibyl admits she has been “sentenced”
to the craggy fastnesses of the Apennines. If not with relation to the Holy
Mary, the reason for that may also be found in the persecutions carried out
by early-Christian followers against the Greek and Roman deities, whose
temples and shrines were ravaged after the fourth century A.D. Ludovico
Ariosto, the author of Orlando Furioso, refers to this very lore when he
writes «the Cumæan Sibyl [...] who fled, in antiquity, to a Cavern in the
territory of Norcia, placed on a mountain-top amidst a gloomy forest, from
the charming abode she used to live in at earlier times». A safe den, against
the growing threat by the new emerging religion.
The Cumaean Sibyl and the Apennine Sibyl: we just saw that a close link
existed between them, so much so that in ancient maps the Lakes of Pilatus,
at the very core the Apennine Sibyl's kingdom, bore the same name as the
Cumaean prophetess' magical lake: the Lake of Avernus.
Yet, this is not the only lineage up to an ancient Sibyl we can spot today.
Another ancestral link does exist to another classical Italian Sibyl: the
5.2 A Tiburtine ancestor for the Apennine Sibyl?
Beside the Cumaean, there is another classical Sibyl as to whom a sort of
connection to the Apennine Sibyl might be highlighted: the Tiburtine Sibyl.
The tiburtine oracle is included in the famous list of ten Sibyls reported by
Latin author Lactantius in his Divinae Institutiones, as a quote from Varro:
«the tenth of Tibur, by name Albunea, who is worshipped at Tibur as a
goddess, near the banks of the river Aniene, in the depths of which her
statue is said to have been found, holding in her hand a book».
In early-Christian times, the Tiburtine Sibyl was known for the prophecy
and legend of the nine suns: a visionary dream made by a hundred Roman
senators at the same time, which the Sibyl explained as a succession of
historical ages from the Roman empire to the advent of Christianity, future
wars and finally the end of the world. The legendary account was copied in
dozens of manuscripts across Europe.
The peculiar aspect about this Sibyl is that she is linked to mountains and
the Apennines: in some manuscripts reporting the prophecy of the Tiburtine
oracle on the nine suns, she tells the senators that she will provide them
with a response «in apenninnum», on the Apennine mountains, considered
as a sacred and unblemished place as opposed to corrupted Rome. This
same indication is present in “Le Livre de Sibile” (The Book of the Sibyl),
a thirteen-century anglo-norman work attributed to Philippe de Thaon,
which reports the same Tiburtine Sibyl's episode by saying that the senators
should move «ki apenin anun». An old manuscripted French version of the
same prophecy dating to 1300 states «alons en la montagne ancyene» ('let's
move to the old mountain'). Finally, in the “Liber Mirabilis”, a sixteenth-
century book containing a collection of prophecies, the Tiburtine Sibyl
invites the Roman senators «in monte apennin».
Fig. 10 - Tiburtine Sibyl, Anna Bacherini Piattoli, 1750, Collezione Alessandro Marabottini, Palazzo
Baldeschi, Perugia (Italy), and excerpts drawn from ancient books and manuscripts all mentioning the
Apennines as the abode of the Tiburtine Sibyl
Could the Tiburtine Sibyl have chosen a remote Apennine peak as her
oracular shrine of choice? Could all that refer to the cliff of Mount Sibyl?
The surmise is truly fascinating. However, we must stick to facts (at least
literary ones) and there is no evidence of any direct connection between
Mount Sibyl and the Apennines mentioned in the Tiburtine oracle's nine-
Furthermore, we must consider the illuminating words that Servius Marius
Honoratus, a fourth-century scholar, wrote in his Commentary on Virgil's
Aeneid: «Albunea. [...] quia est in Tiburtinis altissimis montibus». It is clear
that the “high mountains” where the Tiburtine (or Albunea) Sibyl used to
live are plainly the mountainous ridges at Tivoli, near Rome: they are not
as high as Mount Sibyl, nonetheless they are fully impressive and
picturesque, with ravines and waterfalls celebrated throughout the centuries
by scores of artists and men of letters.
So, the Apennine Sibyl is not the Tiburtine one (if we want to explore a
more promising connection, we will have to study the story of the
Cumaean). And yet, there is no doubt that by this focus on the oracular
Apennines we have shown that in antiquity those lofty mountainous ridges
in Italy were considered as a pure and unblemished place: a convenient
location for oracles and prophetical responses, as we will also see in the
5.3 The Tiburtine Sibyl and her relation to a picturesque mountain setting
We have seen that, in antiquity, the Tiburtine Sibyl was reputed to live amid
“high mountains” and rendered her oracular responses in the “apennines”.
However, this does not imply any direct link to the Apennine Sibyl.
As a matter of fact, and as attested in an excerpt from Servius Marius
Honoratus, the Tiburtine Sibyl just had her shrine in Tibur (modern Tivoli):
a place whose picturesque setting with waterfalls and ravines, encircled by
high mountains, has beguiled not only ancient Roman, but also scores of
Grand Tour travellers starting from the sixteenth century and as far as our
In the pictures below, you can see the Temple of the Tiburtine Sibyl as it
appears today: the Aniene river plunges its rushing waters down into the
precipice opening its jaws just below the shrine, in a sinister gorge called
“Valley of Hell”; from there, the water has broken its way further down
through a sheer wall of rock, and it is swallowed by a devilish crack where
no living being would ever survive if thrown into it.
Fig. 11 - The shrine of the Tiburtine Sibyl at Tivoli, near Rome
Fig. 12 - Another view of the shrine of the Tiburtine Sibyl at Tivoli
In classical time, the vista was even more picturesque than today: the
“Valley of Hell” was thoroughly flooded with large waterfalls and countless
small rivulets oozing from innumerable crevices in the rock wall, like a sort
of inhuman kingdom of natural powers (today, the new nineteenth-century
waterfall has almost cancelled this liquid show).
Fig. 13 - The waterfall beneath the Tiburtine Sibyl's shrine at Tivoli in the centuries of the Grand Tour
«Quae forma beatis ante manus artemque locis!», writes Publis Papinius
Statius in his work 'Silvae', containing a portrait of the place, «largius
usquam indulsit Natura sibi. Nemora alta citatis incubuere vadis: fallax
responsat imago frondibus, et longas eadem fugit umbra per undas. Ipse
Anien - miranda fides - infraque superque saxeus hic tumidam rabiem
spumosaque ponit murmura, ceu placidi veritus turbare Vopisci Pieriosque
dies et habentes carmina somnos» [How kindly the temper of the soil! How
beautiful beyond human art the enchanted scene! Nowhere has Nature
more lavishly spent her skill. Lofty woods lean over rushing waters; a false
image counterfeits the foliage, and the reflection dances unbroken over the
long waves. Anio himself — marvellous to believe — though full of
boulders below and above, here silences his swollen rage and foamy din, as
if afraid to disturb the Pierian days and music-haunted slumbers of tranquil
That's why the Tiburtine Sibyl was considered as a “mountain”, “apennine”
Sibyl. But this had nothing to do with the Apennine Sibyl, hidden in her
den in the Sibillini Range area, a very different mountain and natural
6. An oracle in the Apennines: the “Historia Augusta”
In our effort to trace back the origin of the Apennine Sibyl, we cannot miss
a well-known excerpt drawn from the Historia Augusta, an antique
collection of biographies of Roman Emperors written in the fourth century.
For the first time ever, I will show here the full text of the excerpt, with
pictures of the Historia Augusta's oldest manuscript (ninth century), written
in a beautiful carolingian script.
Fig. 14 - The manuscript of the Historia Augusta, with superimposed a statue of Emperor Claudius II
In the section “Divus Claudius” (deified Claudius) written by Latin author
Trebellio Pollio and dedicated to Claudius II Gothicus, a soldier of
barbarian origin who was proclaimed Emperor by his legions in 268 A.D.,
we found another important link to an oracle set in the Apennines.
After having asked an oracular response about the fortunes of his lineage in
Comagena, a Roman outpost at the frontier with the Noricum (Danube
region), Emperor Claudius moves to another oracle. Here is how the
excerpt narrates the full story:
«Similarly, when once in the Apennines he asked about his own future, he
received the following reply: "Three times only shall summer behold him a
ruler in Latium". Likewise, when he asked about his descendants: "Neither
a goal nor a limit will I set for their power". Likewise, when he asked about
his brother Quintillus, whom he was planning to make his associate in the
imperial power, the reply was: "Fate shall display him to people on earth
not for long”».
Fig. 15 - The excerpt from the Historia Augusta mentioning an oracle in the Apennines
(In the original Latin text: «Item cum in Appennino de se consuleret,
responsum huius modi accepit: "Tertia dum latio regnantem viderit aestas”.
Item cum de posteris suis: "His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora ponam".
Item cum de fratre Quintillo, quem consortem habere volebat imperii,
responsum est: "Ostendent terris hunc tantum fata"»).
Once again, we have an oracle who delivers his/her prophecies amid the
rugged peaks of the Apennines (the last prophetical statement is a verse
from Vergilius' Aeneid). For Romans, Italy's mountainous backbone
appears to be a special place, as we have already seen for the Tiburtine
Sibyl, who in the legend of the nine suns tells the senators to move with her
to the Apennines so as to render her oracular response in a fit, unblemished
Has the story of Claudius II Gothicus anything to do with the Apennine
Sibyl? Nobody knows: the text provides no further clues, and it might just
convey a reference - for instance - to the Tiburtine Sibyl. Yet, it is
undeniable that the ancient tale found in the Historia Augusta is a
confirmation of the fact that the Apennines were a magical place. A most
convenient abode for a Sibyl of the Apennines.
7. The ritual vigil of a Roman Emperor: Suetonius and the Apennines
We have shown in previous paragraphs that the Apeninnes in Italy have
something to do with classical Sibyls (Cumaean, Tiburtine) and oracular
shrines (Historia Augusta). We can even retrieve a further quote which
goes in that same direction: a quote from first-century Latin writer
Suetonius, the author of the celebrated work The Twelve Ceasars.
Let's fly through the pages of the most ancient known manuscript handing
down to us Suetonius' stories about twelve Roman emperors: it is preserved
at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, under the registration
number “Lat 6115”, a treasure coming down straight from the ninth century
(see pictures). In his work, Suetonius recounts the life and deeds of Aulus
Vitellius Germanicus Augustus, who reigned as an Emperor after the short-
lived Galba and Otho: his rule lasted for nine months only to the end of 69
A.D. when he was slain by partisans of Vespasian.
Fig. 16 - The section about Vitellius in Suetonius' The Twelve Ceasars
Aulus Vitellius was a descendant of a «stirpem ex Sabinis», a family
originating from the province of Sabina, in central Italy, sitting right on the
Apennines. And he probably knew well that this mountainous chain was a
When his legions defeated his rival-Emperor Otho, who finally committed
suicide by stabbing himself with a knife, he actually selected the Apennines
for a special night of revelling and celebration. In Suetonius' words:
«He openly drained a great draught of unmixed wine and distributed some
among the troops. With equal bad taste and arrogance, gazing upon the
stone inscribed to the memory of Otho, he declared that he deserved such a
Mausoleum, and sent the dagger with which his rival had killed himself to
the Colony of Agrippina, to be dedicated to Mars. He also held a ritual vigil
throughout the night on the heights of the Apennines. Finally he entered the
city (Rome) to the sound of the trumpet, wearing a general's mantle and a
sword at his side...».
(in the original Latin text: «plurimum meri propalam hausit passimque
divisit. Pari vanitate atque insolentia lapidem memoriae Othonis inscriptum
intuens, dignum eo Mausoleo ait, pugionemque, quo is se occiderat, in
Agrippinensem coloniam misit Marti dedicandum. In Appennini quidem
iugis etiam pervigilium egit. Urbem denique ad classicum introiit paludatus
Fig. 17 - The Apennines as mentioned in Suetonius' The Twelve Ceasars
According to Suetonius, Aulus Vitellius left Gaul and, in his course to
Rome to be acclaimed as the new victorious Emperor, he stopped one full
night with his troops amid the Apennines - his ancestral homeland - for a
sacred festival, a sort of thanksgiving to the divine favor.
Again, for ancient Romans the Apennines seemed to be a special place for
rites and celebrations. Which mount or valley did Aulus Vitellius exactly
select to carry out his vigil? Nobody knows. But sure enough the
Apennines had a special attractiveness for oracles, shrines and ritual,
devotional practices. The Apennine Sibyl was about to come.
8. In the name of the Sibillini: the "Tetrica rupes"
After having considered the role of the Apennines in the sibilline tradition,
let's consider a specific portion of it, whose name bears the veritable stamp
of a Sibyl: the Sibillini Mountain Range.
Today, 'Sibillini Mountain Range' in Italy is a well-known name, describing
a territory sitting between the provinces of Umbria and Marche, where the
magnificence of nature harbours a number of mysterious legends. But what
was the name of the Sibillini in ancient times?
Fig. 18 - Landscapes in the Sibillini Mountain Range fully convey the impression of a magical place,
suspended in time and history
Romans used to call the region “gloomy, frightful mountain” ('Tetrica
rupes' in Latin), as mentioned by Vergilius in Book VII of his poem Aeneid,
when describing the Italian troops that were being sent against Aeneas:
«Ecce Sabinorum prisco de sanguine magnum Agmen [...] postquam in
partem data Roma Sabinis [...] qui Tetricae horrentis rupes [...] quos frigida
(«Here comes the great Army of the ancient lineage of the Sabines [...] after
Sabines were given a part of Rome [...] those who live at the dreadful
Tetricus cliff [...] and those who come from cold, wintry Norcia»)
Fig. 19 - The excerpt from Vergilius'Aeneid containing the sentence on the “Tetricae horrentis rupes” -
British Library, manuscript Harley n. 2772, eleventh century
Servius Marius Honoratus, a fifth century scholar, provides his own
comment to the above line by Vergilius (Commentarii in Vergilii Aeneidos
libros, Book VII), by specifying that «the Tetricus mountain is a barren,
towering mountain, where stern men are said 'tetricos', sullen and gloomy»:
«Tetricus mons in Sabinis asperrimus, unde tristes homines tetricos
And Isidore of Seville, in Book X of his Etymologiarum sive Originum
(sixth century A.D.), adds to Servius' text the following additional remark
on the men living at the Tetricus: «inclined to silence, persistently taciturn»
(«Taciturnus, in tacendo diuturnus»).
The same name 'Tetricus' for the Sibillini Range is also mentioned by Silius
Italicus, a Roman consul and poet who lived in the first century A.D. In his
work Punica (Book VIII), he lists the Italian warriors summoned by the
Romans to confront Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae (216 B.C.):
«Hunc Foruli magnaeque Reate dicatum Caelicolum Matri necnon habitata
pruinis Nursia et a Tetrica comitantur rupe cohortes»
(«With him come the soldiers of [...] Reate sacred to the great Mother of
the Gods, and Nursia the abode of snow, and warriors from the Tetricus
Furthermore, Marcus Terentius Varro, in Book II of his De re rustica (first
century B.C.), writes that «even now there are several species of wild cattle
in various places. [...] For there are many wild goats in Italy in the vicinity
of Mount Fiscellum and Mount Tetrica» («Etiam nunc in locis multis
genere pecudum ferarum sunt aliquot. [...] Sunt enim in Italia circum
Fiscellum et Tetricam montes multae»).
But what does Varro mean by 'Mount Fiscellum'? The answer is in Pliny
the Elder, who in his Naturalis Historia (Book III) states that «Velinos
accolunt lacus [...] Nar amnis exhaurit illos sulpureis aquis Tiberim ex his
petens, replet e monte Fiscello Avens iuxta Vacunae nemora et Reate in
eosdem conditus» («in the vicinity of the Lakes of the Velinus [...] the Nar,
with its sulphureous waters, exhausts these lakes running towards the Tiber;
the river Avens flows from Mount Fiscellus near the groves of Vacuna and
So Pliny, in the above excerpt - which is most probably corrupt - seems to
confuse the River Nera (which actually originates in the Sibillini Range)
with the River Velino ('Avens'), flowing in and out the Lake of Piediluco,
and whose source is found in the area of Mount Terminillo, together with a
number of sulphurous springs. Thus the 'Fiscellus Mons' should be better
identified with Mount Terminillo.
'Tetrica rupes', gloomy, frightful mountains: such was the name of the
Sibillini Mountain Range in antiquity. And - as we will see in a subsequent
paragraph - its name will later turn into something different and
mysterious: a straight, unequivocal “Mount Sibyl”.
9. In the name of the Sibillini: the Sibyl's Mountains
We don't know why, we don't know when, yet at a certain point in time
across the centuries the “Tetrica rupes” (the name of the Sibillini Range in
antiquity) seems to turn into something different: the whole mountainous
fastness becomes “The Sibyl's Mountains”.
In Chapter 137 of the fifteenth-century romance Guerrino the Wretch, the
hero is told that the Sibyl «was to be found amid the mountains of the
Apennine in the middle of Italy high up a town called Norza, some say it is
called Norsia» («li iera in li monti de pinino i[n] lo mezo de Italia sopra una
cità chiamata Norza, alcuni dicono como la è chiamata Norsia»); only a
few lines ahead, Guerrino asks people «on where is located the Sibyl's
mount» («dove era il monte de la Sibilla»). Antoine de La Sale, at the very
beginning of his The Paradise of Queen Sibyl, reports of a «mount of
Queen Sibyl's lake» («mont du lac de la royne Sibille» - today's Mount
Vettore) and a «mount of Queen Sibyl» («mont de la royne Sibille»), facing
So, in the fifteenth century no reference to a “Mount Tetricus” can be
traced anymore: the Sibillini Range, a portion of the Italian Apennines, is
already identified as a mount or group of mounts related to a Sibyl. In
addition, no reference to the peak we know today as Mount Vettore can be
found at this late Medieval age.
If we jump further ahead in time, we find another clue dating back to 1566:
it's the astounding map contained in Vatican manuscript n. 5241, where the
whole mountainous massif is referred to with the following sentence: «this
mount is called the 'chiavetoie' (Vettore?), also known as The Mountain of
the Sibyl» («questa montagna dicono de chiavetoie, altramente La
montagna della Sibilla»). Again, no “Tetrica rupes” is present anymore: the
drawing shows a mountain range named “of the Sibyl” as a whole; and a
first, early reference to something that might be our modern Mount Vettore
is now present.
Fig. 20 - Vatican manuscript n. Lat 5241 including a map of the Sibillini Mountain Range
In the subsequent century, Father Fortunato Ciucci, a monk residing in
Norcia, concentrates his attention on Mount Vettore. In his Chronicles of
the antique town of Norsia, written in 1650, he clearly mentioned the
«great Mount Vettore [...] its name is Victor owing to his being the greatest,
and the best as to magnificence and other qualities» (il «gran Monte Vittore
[...] si chiama Vittore per essere di tutti il maggiore, così egli l'istessa
qualità ritiene in bellezza ed altre prerogative»). He does not mention a
specific mount for the Sibyl, as he rather says that «on the very same
Mount Vettore a ghastly Cavern opens its mouth where [...] a mendacious
Sibyl has her abode» («nell'Istesso Monte Vittore s'apre un'orrenda
Spelonca dove [...] abita una mensogniera Sibilla»).
Nonetheless, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all the maps of the
region show an isolated Mount Sibyl only, with no reference to a Mount
Vettore nearby, nor to any larger massif surrounding the renowned peak.
Fig. 21 - The magical setting of the Sibillini Mountain Range
To come full circle, we must get as far as year 1869, when a local scholar,
Feliciano Patrizi-Forti, writes his On the Historical Essays about Norcia.
And here is what he states at page one of his seven-hundred-page work:
«The Apennine massif at whose base Norcia was founded is called 'Mount
Sibyl', or 'Mons Tetricus' in antiquity» («Il gruppo appenninico alle falde
del quale fu Norcia fondata, è detto 'Monte della Sibilla', anticamente
In a single sentence, we find the whole transmutation path from the
“Tetrica rupes” of the Romans to our modern “Sibillini Range”.
Somewhere along the way, a Sibyl has magically appeared, giving her
legendary name to a whole Italian mountainous region: an amazing
occurrence that still needs to undergo further investigation and research.