Sic semper tyrannis

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Sic semper tyrannis is a Latin phrase meaning "thus always to tyrants". In contemporary parlance, it means tyrannical leaders will inevitably be overthrown.

The phrase also suggests that bad but justified outcomes should, or eventually will, befall tyrants. This is also the state motto of Virginia.


Tarquin attacking nude Lucretia with a dagger
Tarquin and Lucretia, a 1571 portrait by Titian.

Before 509 BC, Rome was ruled by kings. The last was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. The king's son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped a noblewoman, Lucretia, who revealed the offense to various Roman noblemen and then died by suicide. The noblemen obtained the support of the aristocracy and the people to expel the king and his family and to institute the Roman Republic. The leader of the noblemen was Lucius Junius Brutus, who became one of the first consuls of the Republic. It has been suggested that the phrase was used at this event, but the suggestion is not based on any Latin surviving literature of the time.[1]

Senator Marcus Junius Brutus, a descendant of Lucius Junius Brutus and who also took part in the assassination of Julius Caesar on 15 March 44 BC,[2][3] is sometimes credited with originating the phrase.[1] Plutarch suggests he either did not have a chance to say anything, or if he did, no one heard it:

Caesar thus done to death, the senators, although Brutus came forward as if to say something about what had been done, would not wait to hear him, but burst out of doors and fled, thus filling the people with confusion and helpless fear.[4]

Mike Fontaine, professor of Classics at Cornell University, proposes that the expression is likely a Latin translation by the U.S. founder George Wythe of what Tiberius Gracchus’ brother-in-law, the general and statesman Scipio Aemilianus, said when he heard of the assassination of Gracchus. This is also reported by Plutarch in his Life of Gracchus (21.4), where he reacted by quoting Homer’s Odyssey (1.47): ὡς ἀπόλοιτο καὶ ἄλλος, ὅτις τοιαῦτά γε ῥέζοι.[1] Gracchus was assassinated due to the land reforms he had made a major priority of, which Aemilianus was opposed to.[1]

The phrase has been invoked as an epithet about one allegedly abusing power, or as a rallying cry against abuse of power.

Usage in the United States[edit]

The Insignia of the 149th Fighter Squadron

The phrase was recommended by George Mason to the Virginia Convention in 1776, as part of the commonwealth's seal. The Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia shows Virtue, spear in hand, with her foot on the recumbent form of Tyranny, whose crown lies nearby. The Seal was planned by Mason and designed by George Wythe, who signed the United States Declaration of Independence and taught law to Thomas Jefferson.[5] A joke referencing the image on the seal that dates as far back as the Civil War, is that "Sic semper tyrannis" actually means "Get your foot off my neck."[6]

"Happy While United" was the slogan on a medal coined by the State of Virginia in 1780. First envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, the medal was minted and designed to be given to Indian signatories to the treaties Jefferson planned with the Indians of Virginia. The medal portrays a Virginia colonial, sitting, enjoying a peace pipe with a Native American. The obverse portrays a variation of the Virginia state seal of the state symbol standing triumphant over a slain enemy with the legend: "Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God".

The phrase is the motto of the United States Navy attack submarine named for the state, the USS Virginia. Before that, it was the motto of the nuclear-powered cruiser USS Virginia.

The phrase appears on the Insignia of the 149th Fighter Squadron which is located at Joint Base Langley–Eustis, Virginia.

John Tyler's father, John Tyler Sr., uttered the phrase to a schoolteacher who had been tied up by the younger Tyler and his fellow pupils.[7]

In her non-fiction polemical A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe noted the irony of runaway slave ads appearing in Southern newspapers with nameplate mottos like Sic semper tyrannis and "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to god".[8]

During the Civil War, at least one regiment of the United States Colored Troops used it as their motto.[9]

John Wilkes Booth wrote in his diary that he shouted "Sic semper tyrannis" after shooting U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, in part because of the association with the assassination of Caesar.[10][11][12]

The phrase was also in the pro-Confederate Civil War song "Maryland, My Maryland", which was popular at the time with Southern sympathizers in Maryland, such as Booth. The song, containing the phrase, was the official state song of Maryland from 1939 until its removal in 2021.[13]

After Thomas Lawrence Higgins pied anti-gay activist Anita Bryant on live television in October 1977, he remarked "thus always to bigots" as a reference to the phrase.[14]

Timothy McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt with this phrase and a picture of Lincoln on it when he was arrested on April 19, 1995, the day he carried out the Oklahoma City bombing.[15]

The phrase is also the motto of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the third largest city in Pennsylvania.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Fontaine, Mike (2022-07-28). "The Real Source Behind "Sic Semper Tyrannis"". In Medias Res. Medium. Archived from the original on Dec 1, 2023.
  2. ^ Mitgang, Herbert (12 April 1992). "Booth Speech Reveals a Killer's Mind". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  3. ^ Mulvihill, Amy (13 April 2015). "The Fault in His Stars". Baltimore Magazine. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  4. ^ Plutarch, "Caesar", Plutarch's Lives, with an English Translation by Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1919. ch. 67. On Line text.
  5. ^ Rowland, Kate Mason (1892). The Life of George Mason, 1725–1792. G.P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 264–265.
  6. ^ von Borcke, Heros (April 1866). "Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence". Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. American edition, vol. 62. New York: Leonard Scott & Co. 99 (606): 462. Retrieved 21 August 2010. ...the coat of arms of the state of Virginia, bearing the motto, Sic semper tyrannis, which the soldiers translated, "Take your foot off my neck", from the action of the principal figure ... representing Liberty, who, with a lance in her right hand, is standing over the conquered and prostrate tyrant, and apparently trampling on him with her heel.
  7. ^ Longo, James McMurtry (28 November 2011). From Classroom to White House: The Presidents and First Ladies as Students and Teachers. McFarland. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-7864-8846-9.
  8. ^ Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1853). "Chapter IX: Slaves as They Are, on Testimony of Owners". A key to Uncle Tom's cabin: presenting the original facts and documents upon which the story is founded. Boston: J. P. Jewett & Co. LCCN 02004230. OCLC 317690900. OL 21879838M.
  9. ^ "USCT Regimental Flag – 22nd United States Colored Infantry". Jubilo! The Emancipation Century. 3 May 2011.
  10. ^ "Diary Entry of John Wilkes Booth". Archived from the original on 2010-12-29.
  11. ^ "TimesMachine April 15, 1865 – New York Times". The New York Times.
  12. ^ "Ford's Theater Historic Site Visit".
  13. ^ "On bill-signing day, Hogan officially legalizes sports betting, repeals state song". WJLA-TV. Associated Press. May 18, 2021. Retrieved May 18, 2021.
  14. ^ Lane, Stephen (2019). No Sanctuary Teachers and the School Reform That Brought Gay Rights to the Masses. University Press of New England. p. 55.
  15. ^ Kilzer, Lou; Flynn, Kevin (1997-12-19). "Did McVeigh Plan to get Caught, or was he Sloppy?". Denver Rocky Mountain News.
  16. ^ "What Does 'Sic Semper Tyrannis' Mean?",, July 10, 2018, retrieved October 27, 2022]

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