Fahrenheit CCCLI: Roman Book-Burning and Literary Persecution
By L. A. Curchin
Labyrinth: An online journal published by the Classical Studies Department of the University of Waterloo, Issue 44 (1989)
Introduction: Public burnings of The Satanic Verses and the sensational threats against author Salman Rusdie are likely to attract media attention for some months to come. Yet what is newsworthy is not necessarily new. The ancients had also to deal with objectionable literature, and the obvious remedy was to burn the book and punish the author. Despite the Romans’ incessant praise of libertas (civic rights), the political realities of the Late Republic and Empire made free speech dangerous or impossible, and there was no Amnesty International to rescue literary offenders from prison, death or exile.
Then as now, religious writings were the likeliest to inflame passion. The Sibyl of Cumae reportedly offered to sell nine volumes of Apollo’s prophecies to Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, but he thought the price too high. Indignant, she burned three of the books, then offered the remaining six at the original price. Tarquinius again refused, so the Sibyl burned another three books but still demanded the initial sum. Finally Tarquinius realized that the books were invaluable and bought three for the price of nine. This example of book-burning is unique in that it punished the purchaser rather than the publisher! The three surviving books were destroyed by fire (accidental this time) in 83 BC, but their oracles had often guided Rome in the interval.