Would you believe it’s Homer’s Odyssey?
[Originally published in In Medias Res, May 6, 2021]
Sic semper tyrannis (thus always to tyrants) is the most famous Latin slogan around. It’s been the state motto of Virginia since 1776. John Wilkes Booth shouted it the moment he assassinated Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater. And tattoos are everywhere. Who’s in favor of tyranny?
Where did it come from, though?
It’s widely believed — and repeated all over the internet — that the phrase originates in one of two stories from ancient Rome, both of them connected with a freedom-lover named Brutus:
- In the first, in 509 BCE, Brutus overthrows a tyrannical king named Tarquin and founds the Roman Republic.
- In the second, in 44 BCE, Brutus assassinates Julius Caesar, the Roman statesman and general who had been behaving tyrannically, in Pompey’s Theater.
Either candidate seems plausible. In reality, though, the source — get ready for it — is Homer’s Odyssey. Not, however, in its original context, but as quoted by the Roman general and statesman Scipio Aemilianus in 133 BCE, and as reported by Plutarch a few centuries later.
Sound crazy? Read on.
First, the background. The motto apparently comes from George Wythe or George Mason, two influential Founders. There isn’t any evidence in the historical record that either Brutus story was the source. And since both men had much less access to ancient sources than we do today, this is one of those cases where the absence of evidence really is evidence of absence. So both Brutuses are a dead end, a garden path.
What’s more, Google Books and Google ngrams can’t find any uses of the phrase sic semper tyrannis before 1782 or so, in any linguistic corpus, and those early uses are all in an American context. It’s clear, then, that it starts out in English and then enters other languages with the arrival of John Wilkes Booth.
In other words, this is a Latin phrase which was written by an English speaker, and specifically an American. The question then becomes — what was the author modeling it 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 at Rome’s massive and growing inequality. Wealthy aristocrats have started running plantations (latifundia) on the backs of newly enslaved war captives, leaving native citizens with fewer and fewer options to earn a living.
Realizing the situation was unsustainable, Gracchus sought to use his government position to redistribute the land. Some of his maneuvers were not only unprecedented, but illegal. The senate reacted furiously. Gracchus’ own cousin called him a tyrant — he used that word — and demanded action (Plutarch Life of Tiberius Gracchus 19.3):
All the senators, of course, were greatly disturbed, and Nasica demanded that the Consul should come to the rescue of the state and put down the tyrant (tyrannon).
The senators grabbed for clubs and chairs, formed a mob, found Gracchus, and beat him to death.
The assassination of Tiberius Gracchus is one of the most famous stories in ancient Rome. Ancient historians saw it as a pivotal factor in Rome’s slide from republic to autocracy — a slide never to be reversed. As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, “the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus marked the beginning of the ‘Roman revolution.’”
Gracchus’ grandfather, the great general and statesman Scipio Aemilianus, was away in Spain at the time. When word of the assassination reached 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 translates it,
Bring death to all who act like him!
In the original, though, the Greek and Latin exclamations are even closer to each other than they appear in that translation. For 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 she’s alluding to a man named Aegisthus.
As students of Greek mythology know, Aegisthus was the original “Jody” of military legend. When King Agamemnon went off to fight the Trojan War, Aegisthus moved in and seduced his wife.
When Agamemnon returned ten years later, Aegisthus murdered him and became a “tyrant” in the technical Greek sense of one who has become king through extralegal means. (This is the idea behind the title of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.)
Years later, when Agamemnon’s son Orestes grew 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 was not thinking of either Brutus, but of this line of the Odyssey, as quoted by Scipio Aemilianus on that occasion and as reported by Plutarch.
Plutarch’s Lives were widely read in colonial America. Mason owned a copy, and Wythe — the more likely author — himself was a Classicist. (Interestingly, this website says Wythe, just like Tiberius Gracchus, first learned Classics from his mom.)
Nor is it hard to see how the motto got attached to the story of Brutus and Caesar. After all, John Wilkes Booth’s father was named Junius Brutus Booth and he assassinated Lincoln in a theater — just like Julius Caesar. That self-conscious action has made it hard to see that sic semper tyrannis** originally had a different point. But it did:
- The original idea, in Homer, was of a Jody moving in and becoming king: a “tyrant” in the technical Greek sense.
- The second idea, with Scipio, was of government overreach: breaking the law to redistribute property: an abuse of power.
- The third idea, with Wythe or Mason, was America’s colonial relationship with England: again, an abuse of power.
- The fourth idea, with Booth, was again similar to the second — but instead of redistributing land, Booth’s beef was evidently with Lincoln “redistributing” a different kind of property: human beings.
*P.S.: It appears Wythe or Mason got the motto directly from the Greek. At the time, there were only two Latin translations of Plutarch, and neither matches the motto:
- Exitus iste alium quoque idem perdat facientem! (Xylander 1600, p. 631 — ugh, clunky!)
- Sic pereat, quisquis designet talia facta! (Reiske 1776, vol. 4 p. 649 — impressive, and note the sic for hōs!)
**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, sure enough, it’s found its way into printed books and onto tattooed torsos. Alas, it’s gibberish. (It means “That’s how I’ve always been ripping death out of tyrants.”) So let’s just put a nail in that coffin.