Sic semper tyrannis (thus always to tyrants) is the most famed Latin slogan around. It’s to be the state motto that Virginia because 1776. John Wilkes Booth shouted the the moment he assassinated Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater. And tattoos space everywhere. Who in donate of tyranny?



Credit: Travis S., Flickr, unchanged.

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Where did it come from, though?

It’s widely believed — and also repeated everywhere the internet — the the expression originates in among two stories from ancient Rome, both that them associated with a freedom-lover called Brutus:

Either candidate seems plausible. In reality, though, the resource — get ready for it — is Homer’s Odyssey. Not, however, in its initial context, however as quoted by the roman general and also statesman Scipio Aemilianus in 133 BCE, and also as reported by Plutarch a few centuries later.

Sound crazy? review on.

First, the background. The motto apparently comes from George Wythe or George Mason, two significant Founders. There isn’t any type of evidence in the historic record the either Brutus story to be the source. And since both men had much less accessibility to ancient sources 보다 we carry out today, this is among those cases where the lack of proof really is proof of absence. So both Brutuses room a dead end, a garden path.

What’s more, Google Books and also Google ngrams can not find any kind of uses that the expression sic semper tyrannis prior to 1782 or so, in any linguistic corpus, and also those early on uses room all in an American context. That clear, then, the it starts out in English and also then enters other languages v the arrival of john Wilkes Booth.

In various other words, this is a Latin phrase which was created by an English speaker, and specifically an American. The inquiry then i do not care — what was the writer modeling the on?

Here’s my new evidence. The year is 133 BCE and we’re in the roman Republic. A young firebrand named Tiberius Gracchus is shocked in ~ Rome’s massive and growing inequality. Well-off aristocrats have started running plantations (latifundia) top top the backs of recently enslaved battle captives, leaving indigenous citizens with fewer and also fewer choices to earn a living.

Realizing the case was unsustainable, Gracchus search to use his government position to redistribute the land. Few of his maneuvers to be not only unprecedented, however illegal. The senate reacted furiously. Gracchus’ very own cousin dubbed him a tyrant — he offered that native — and also demanded activity (Plutarch Life that Tiberius Gracchus 19.3):

All the senators, the course, were significantly disturbed, and Nasica demanded the the Consul should concerned the rescue the the state and also put under the tyrant (tyrannon).



The senators got hold of for clubs and also chairs, created a mob, found Gracchus, and also beat him come death.

The assassination of Tiberius Gracchus is one of the most famed stories in ancient Rome. Ancient historians witnessed it as a pivotal aspect in Rome’s on slide from republic to autocracy — a slide never to be reversed. As the Encyclopedia Britannica put it, “the tribunate the Tiberius Gracchus significant the beginning of the ‘Roman revolution.’”

Gracchus’ grandfather, the great general and statesman Scipio Aemilianus, to be away in Spain in ~ the time. Once word that the assassination reached him, follow to Plutarch (21.4), he reacted by quoting a heat from the start of Homer’s Odyssey (1.47):

ὡς ἀπόλοιτο καὶ ἄλλος, ὅτις τοιαῦτά γε ῥέζοι.

As Emily Wilson equates it,

Bring fatality to all that act choose him!

In the original, though, the Greek and also Latin exclamations are also closer to each various other than they show up in that translation. Because that example, Greek ὡς = Latin sic.*

What around the “tyrant,” though?

Well, in the original quote, in the Odyssey, the speaker is the goddess Athena, and also she’s alluding to a male named Aegisthus.

As college student of Greek mythology know, Aegisthus was the original “Jody” of army legend. Once King Agamemnon went turn off to struggle the Trojan War, Aegisthus moved in and also seduced his wife.

When Agamemnon reverted ten years later, Aegisthus murdered him and became a “tyrant” in the technological Greek feeling of one that has end up being king with extralegal means. (This is the idea behind the title of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.)

Years later, as soon as Agamemnon’s son Orestes flourished up, the returned and murdered Aegisthus. In Athena’s view, the serves the right.

I submit that as soon as George Wythe (or Mason) devised the motto sic semper tyrannis, he to be not reasoning of either Brutus, yet of this heat of the Odyssey, as quoted by Scipio Aemilianus on the occasion and also as report by Plutarch.



George Wythe

Plutarch’s Lives to be widely check out in colonial America. Mason owned a copy, and Wythe — the more likely author — self was a Classicist. (Interestingly, this website says Wythe, as with Tiberius Gracchus, an initial learned classics from his mom.)

Nor is it tough to see exactly how the motto acquired attached to the story of Brutus and also Caesar. After ~ all, John Wilkes Booth’s dad was called Junius Brutus Booth and he assassinated Lincoln in a theatre — as with Julius Caesar. That self-conscious activity has do it tough to see that sic semper tyrannis** originally had actually a different point. Yet it did:

The original idea, in Homer, to be of a Jody relocating in and also becoming king: a “tyrant” in the technical Greek sense.The second idea, with Scipio, was of government overreach: break the legislation to redistribute property: one abuse of power.The third idea, through Wythe or Mason, was America’s colonial relationship through England: again, an abuse the power.The fourth idea, through Booth, was again similar to the 2nd — yet instead of redistributing land, Booth’s beef to be evidently v Lincoln “redistributing” a different kind of property: human beings.

*P.S.: It appears Wythe or Mason obtained the motto straight from the Greek. At the time, over there were just two Latin translations that Plutarch, and neither matches the motto:

There’s also a Renaissance translate in of the Odyssey, yet it ain’t from there, either: …sua sed pereant ob facta nefanda or scelesti (Volaterranus 1510, p. Aiii, amendment by Lemnius 1581, p. A2).

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**PPS: In that wisdom, the net offers an accused “fuller” version of the phrase: sic semper evello mortem tyrannis. This beauty, beauty originates in a Wikipedia chat web page from 2008 but, certain enough, it’s found its way into published books and onto tattooed torsos. Alas, it’s gibberish. (It method “That’s exactly how I’ve constantly been ripping death out the tyrants.”) so let’s simply put a pond in the coffin.