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


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Credit: Travis S., Flickr, unchanged.

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Where did it come from, though?

It’s widely thought — and also repeated almost everywhere the internet — the the phrase originates in one of two story from old Rome, both the 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, 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? check out on.


First, the background. The motto apparently comes from George Wythe or George Mason, two influential Founders. Over there isn’t any evidence in the historical record that either Brutus story was the source. And also since both men had much less access to old sources 보다 we do today, this is one of those instances where the absence of evidence 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 type of uses the the phrase sic semper tyrannis before 1782 or so, in any linguistic corpus, and also those early uses space all in one American context. The clear, then, the it starts out in English and also then enters various other languages v the arrival of john Wilkes Booth.

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

Here’s my brand-new evidence. The year is 133 BCE and we’re in the roman Republic. A young firebrand called Tiberius Gracchus is shocked at Rome’s massive and also growing inequality. Wealthy aristocrats have started running plantations (latifundia) top top the backs of freshly enslaved battle captives, leaving indigenous citizens v fewer and also fewer choices to knife a living.

Realizing the instance was unsustainable, Gracchus search to use his federal government position come redistribute the land. Some of his maneuvers were not just unprecedented, however illegal. The senate reacted furiously. Gracchus’ very own cousin referred to as him a tyrant — he supplied that native — and also demanded activity (Plutarch Life that Tiberius Gracchus 19.3):

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


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The senators ordered for clubs and also chairs, formed a mob, found Gracchus, and also beat him to death.

The assassination of Tiberius Gracchus is one of the most renowned stories in old Rome. Ancient historians saw it together a pivotal element in Rome’s on slide from republic come autocracy — a slide never to be reversed. As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, “the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus marked the start of the ‘Roman revolution.’”

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

ὡς ἀπόλοιτο καὶ ἄλλος, ὅτις τοιαῦτά γε ῥέζοι.

As Emily Wilson translates it,

Bring death to all that act choose him!

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

What about the “tyrant,” though?

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

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

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

Years later, once Agamemnon’s kid Orestes prospered up, the returned and also murdered Aegisthus. In Athena’s view, that serves that right.

I submit that when George Wythe (or Mason) devised the motto sic semper tyrannis, he was not reasoning of either Brutus, however of this line 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 were widely check out in colonial America. Mason owned a copy, and also Wythe — the more likely writer — self was a Classicist. (Interestingly, this website claims Wythe, as with Tiberius Gracchus, very first learned classics from his mom.)

Nor is it difficult to see how the motto gained attached come the story the Brutus and Caesar. After all, John Wilkes Booth’s father was called Junius Brutus Booth and also he assassinated Lincoln in a theatre — as with Julius Caesar. That self-conscious action has make it difficult to see 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, through Scipio, to be of government overreach: breaking the legislation to redistribute property: one abuse that power.The third idea, v Wythe or Mason, was America’s colonial relationship through England: again, an abuse that power.The fourth idea, v Booth, to be again comparable to the 2nd — but instead the redistributing land, Booth’s beef was evidently with Lincoln “redistributing” a various kind the property: person beings.

*P.S.: It shows up Wythe or Mason gained the motto directly from the Greek. In ~ the time, there were just two Latin translations of Plutarch, and neither matches the motto:

There’s also a Renaissance translation of the Odyssey, however it ain’t native 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 its wisdom, the internet offers an allegedly “fuller” version of the phrase: sic semper evello mortem tyrannis. This beauty originates in a Wikipedia chat 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 how I’ve constantly been ripping fatality out the tyrants.”) for this reason let’s just put a pond in the coffin.