Marketing lessons from antiquity


10 July 2009

A story from antiquity involving a king of Rome and a Greek Sibyl has lovely marketing lessons.

Sometime around 576 BC the Cumaean Sibyl arrives in Rome and offer nine books of her prophesies to King Tarquin, the legendary (in both senses of the word) last king of Rome (they had emperors after that).

The king laughs at the enormous sum she is asking for the books and sends her packing. She then burns three of the books and goes back to the king offering the six books at the same high price as the original nine. He rejects her again.

Then she burns three more of the books and offer the last three to the king at the same price.

This time he buys them.

The Sibyl was a good marketing person. She understood scarcity in volume. Three books can be much more valuable than nine.

She understood scarcity in time. If you don’t act now the opportunity is forever gone.

Interestingly, she didn’t try to auction the books to the highest bidder. Ignoring the logistical difficulties of doing that at the time (she was in Naples), it probably wouldn’t have worked. The scarcity in time pressure is so much greater when the consequence of not buying is that the opportunity is lost to all mankind. It isn’t like you can regret your non-purchase and acquire the books later. The Sibyl was very smart.

As a historical aside, the three books of prophesies were finally burnt in AD 405 by General Flavius Stilicho who as a committed Christian considered the pagan books evil.


BibTeX citation:
  author = {},
  title = {Marketing Lessons from Antiquity},
  date = {2009-07-10},
  url = {},
  langid = {en-GB}
For attribution, please cite this work as:
“Marketing Lessons from Antiquity.” 2009. July 10, 2009.