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



Credit: Travis S., Flickr, unchanged.

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Where did that come from, though?

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

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

Sound crazy? check out on.

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

What’s more, Google Books and Google ngrams can not find any type of uses that the phrase sic semper tyrannis prior to 1782 or so, in any linguistic corpus, and also those at an early stage uses space all in one American context. The clear, then, the it starts the end in English and then enters various other languages v the come of man Wilkes Booth.

In other words, this is a Latin expression which was created by one English speaker, and also specifically an American. The concern then becomes — what to be the author modeling the on?

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

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

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



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

The assassination of Tiberius Gracchus is just one of the most famed stories in ancient Rome. Ancient historians observed it together a pivotal element in Rome’s slide from republic come autocracy — a slide never to be reversed. Together the Encyclopedia Britannica place it, “the tribunate the Tiberius Gracchus significant the start of the ‘Roman revolution.’”

Gracchus’ grandfather, the great general and statesman Scipio Aemilianus, was away in Spain in ~ the time. As soon as word the the assassination got to him, according to Plutarch (21.4), he reacted by quoting a line from the start of Homer’s Odyssey (1.47):

ὡς ἀπόλοιτο καὶ ἄλλος, ὅτις τοιαῦτά γε ῥέζοι.

As Emily Wilson converts it,

Bring fatality to all that act choose him!

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

What around the “tyrant,” though?

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

As student of Greek mythology know, Aegisthus was the original “Jody” of military legend. As soon as King Agamemnon went turn off to fight the Trojan War, Aegisthus moved in and seduced his wife.

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

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

I submit that when George Wythe (or Mason) devised the motto sic semper tyrannis, he to be not thinking of one of two people Brutus, but of this heat of the Odyssey, together quoted through Scipio Aemilianus on that occasion and also as reported by Plutarch.



George Wythe

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

Nor is it difficult to see how the motto gained attached to the story the Brutus and Caesar. After all, John Wilkes Booth’s dad was called Junius Brutus Booth and also he assassinated Lincoln in a theatre — just like Julius Caesar. That self-conscious activity has make it difficult to watch that sic semper tyrannis** originally had actually a various point. Yet it did:

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

*P.S.: It shows up Wythe or Mason acquired the motto directly 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 translation of the Odyssey, but it ain’t indigenous 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 its wisdom, the internet offers an accused “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 found its way into printed books and also onto tattooed torsos. Alas, that gibberish. (It means “That’s exactly how I’ve always been ripping death out the tyrants.”) so let’s simply put a nail in that coffin.