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


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Credit: Travis S., Flickr, unchanged.

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Where did that come from, though?

It’s widely thought — and also repeated almost everywhere the internet — the the expression originates in one of two stories from old Rome, both the them associated with a freedom-lover named Brutus:

Either candidate appears plausible. In reality, though, the resource — gain ready because that it — is Homer’s Odyssey. Not, however, in its original context, yet as quoted by the roman general and statesman Scipio Aemilianus in 133 BCE, and also as reported by Plutarch a couple of centuries later.

Sound crazy? read on.


First, the background. The motto apparently comes from George Wythe or George Mason, two prominent Founders. There isn’t any type of evidence in the historical record that either Brutus story to be the source. And also since both men had much less accessibility to ancient sources 보다 we execute today, this is just one of those situations where the lack of proof really is proof of absence. For this reason both Brutuses are a dead end, a garden path.

What’s more, Google Books and Google ngrams can not find any uses of the expression sic semper tyrannis before 1782 or so, in any etymological corpus, and those early uses room all in an American context. It’s clear, then, the it starts the end in English and also then enters other languages through the come of man Wilkes Booth.

In other words, this is a Latin expression which was created by one English speaker, and also specifically one American. The question then i do not care — what to be 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 called Tiberius Gracchus is shocked in ~ Rome’s massive and growing inequality. Well-off aristocrats have started to run plantations (latifundia) top top the backs of recently enslaved battle captives, leaving aboriginal citizens with fewer and also fewer alternatives to earn a living.

Realizing the situation was unsustainable, Gracchus seek to use his government position come redistribute the land. Some of his maneuvers were not just unprecedented, but illegal. The senate reaction furiously. Gracchus’ own cousin dubbed him a tyrant — he supplied that indigenous — and also demanded action (Plutarch Life of Tiberius Gracchus 19.3):

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


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The senators got for clubs and chairs, developed a mob, found Gracchus, and beat him to death.

The assassination the Tiberius Gracchus is one of the most famous stories in ancient Rome. Old historians witnessed it together a pivotal element in Rome’s slide from republic to autocracy — a slide never ever to be reversed. Together the Encyclopedia Britannica place it, “the tribunate of 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. When word the the assassination reached him, according to Plutarch (21.4), he reaction by quoting a line from the begin of Homer’s Odyssey (1.47):

ὡς ἀπόλοιτο καὶ ἄλλος, ὅτις τοιαῦτά γε ῥέζοι.

As Emily Wilson converts it,

Bring death to all who act favor him!

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

What about the “tyrant,” though?

Well, in the initial quote, in the Odyssey, the speak is the goddess Athena, and she’s alluding come a man named Aegisthus.

As student of Greek mythology know, Aegisthus to be the initial “Jody” of military legend. As soon as King Agamemnon went off to hit the Trojan War, Aegisthus relocated in and seduced his wife.

When Agamemnon went back ten years later, Aegisthus murdered him and also became a “tyrant” in the technological Greek sense of one that has become king with extralegal means. (This is the idea behind the location of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.)

Years later, once Agamemnon’s child Orestes flourished up, he returned and murdered Aegisthus. In Athena’s view, the serves him right.

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


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George Wythe

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

Nor is it tough to see just how the motto acquired attached come the story that Brutus and Caesar. After all, John Wilkes Booth’s dad was called Junius Brutus Booth and he assassinated Lincoln in a theatre — as with Julius Caesar. The self-conscious action has made it tough to view that sic semper tyrannis** originally had a various point. Yet it did:

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

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

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

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**PPS: In that is wisdom, the internet offers an allegedly “fuller” version of the phrase: sic semper evello mortem tyrannis. This beauty beauty originates in a Wikipedia chat page from 2008 but, certain enough, it’s discovered its means into printed books and also onto tattooed torsos. Alas, that gibberish. (It means “That’s just how I’ve always been ripping fatality out that tyrants.”) therefore let’s just put a nail in that coffin.