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


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Credit: Travis S., Flickr, unchanged.

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Where did the come from, though?

It’s widely thought — and also repeated all over the web — that the phrase originates in among two story from old Rome, both the them connected with a freedom-lover named Brutus:

Either candidate appears plausible. In reality, though, the resource — get ready for it — is Homer’s Odyssey. Not, however, in its original context, but as quoted by the roman general and also statesman Scipio Aemilianus in 133 BCE, and also as report 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 significant Founders. Over there isn’t any type of evidence in the historic record that either Brutus story to be the source. And since both men had actually much less access to ancient sources than we perform today, this is one of those situations where the absence of proof really is evidence of absence. So both Brutuses room a dead end, a garden path.

What’s more, Google Books and Google ngrams can not find any uses the the phrase sic semper tyrannis before 1782 or so, in any etymological corpus, and also those early uses are all in one American context. The clear, then, that it starts out in English and also then enters other languages with the come of john Wilkes Booth.

In other words, this is a Latin expression which was created by one English speaker, and specifically one American. The question then becomes — what was the writer modeling that on?

Here’s my new evidence. The year is 133 BCE and we’re in the roman inn Republic. A young firebrand called Tiberius Gracchus is shocked at Rome’s massive and also growing inequality. Affluent aristocrats have started to run plantations (latifundia) on the backs of newly enslaved war captives, leaving indigenous citizens through fewer and also fewer options to earn a living.

Realizing the instance was unsustainable, Gracchus search to use his government position to redistribute the land. Few of his maneuvers were not just unprecedented, but illegal. The senate reaction furiously. Gracchus’ very own cousin referred to as him a tyrant — he used that word — and demanded activity (Plutarch Life that Tiberius Gracchus 19.3):

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


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The senators grabbed for clubs and chairs, created a mob, uncovered Gracchus, and also beat him come death.

The assassination that Tiberius Gracchus is among the most famous stories in old Rome. Old historians experienced it as a pivotal variable in Rome’s on slide from republic come autocracy — a slide never to be reversed. Together the Encyclopedia Britannica place it, “the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus significant the start of the ‘Roman revolution.’”

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

ὡς ἀπόλοιτο καὶ ἄλλος, ὅτις τοιαῦτά γε ῥέζοι.

As Emily Wilson equates it,

Bring death to all who act like him!

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

What about the “tyrant,” though?

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

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

When Agamemnon went back ten year later, Aegisthus murdered him and became a “tyrant” in the technical Greek sense of one that has end up being king through extralegal means. (This is the idea behind the location of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.)

Years later, as soon as Agamemnon’s child Orestes prospered up, he returned and murdered Aegisthus. In Athena’s view, that serves him right.

I submit that once George Wythe (or Mason) devised the motto sic semper tyrannis, he was not reasoning of one of two people Brutus, yet of this line of the Odyssey, together quoted by Scipio Aemilianus on the occasion and as report by Plutarch.


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George Wythe

Plutarch’s Lives were widely check out in early american America. Mason owned a copy, and also Wythe — the an ext likely author — himself was a Classicist. (Interestingly, this website claims Wythe, just like Tiberius Gracchus, very first learned standards from his mom.)

Nor is it hard to see exactly how the motto got attached to the story that Brutus and also Caesar. ~ all, John Wilkes Booth’s dad was named Junius Brutus Booth and he assassinated Lincoln in a theater — just like Julius Caesar. That self-conscious action has made it difficult to see that sic semper tyrannis** originally had a different point. However it did:

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

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

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

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**PPS: In that is wisdom, the web 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, sure enough, it’s discovered its means into published books and onto tattooed torsos. Alas, the gibberish. (It method “That’s exactly how I’ve constantly been ripping fatality out that tyrants.”) therefore let’s simply put a pond in that coffin.