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Title: Tyrannicide  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Divine right of kings, Monarchomachs, Policide, William Tell, Murder
Collection: Dictatorship, Murder
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Tyrannicide is the killing or assassination of a tyrant or unjust ruler, usually for the common good,[1] and usually by one of the tyrant's subjects.[2]

The term also denotes those who kill a tyrant (e.g., Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who are called 'the tyrannicides').[3]


  • Political theory 1
  • History 2
  • Literature 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Bibliography 6

Political theory

Tyrannicide can also be a political theory, and as such dates from antiquity.[4] Support for tyrannicide can be found in Plutarch's Lives, Cicero's De Officiis,[5] and Seneca's Hercules Furens.[6] Plato describes a violent tyrant as the opposite of a good and "true king" in the Statesman,[6] and while Aristotle in the Politics sees it as opposed to all other beneficial forms of government, he also described tyrannicide mainly as an act by those wishing to gain personally from the tyrant's death, while those who act without hope of personal gain and only to make a name for themselves are rare.[7]

Various Christian philosophers and theologians also wrote about tyrannicide. In Thomas Aquinas's commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Aquinas gave a defense not only of disobedience to an unjust authority, using as an example Christian martyrs in the Roman Empire, but also of "one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant."[8] The Monarchomachs in particular developed a theory of tyrannicide, with Juan de Mariana describing their views in the 1598 work De rege et regis institutione,[9] in which he wrote, "[B]oth the philosophers and theologians agree, that the prince who seizes the state with force and arms, and with no legal right, no public, civic approval, may be killed by anyone and deprived of his life..."[5]

Benjamin Franklin's suggestion for the Great Seal of the United States included the phrase "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."


  • Borge, Tomás (1982). Sandinistas Speak. Pathfinder Press.  
  • Diederich, Bernard (1990). Trujillo: The Death of The Goat. Waterfront Press.  
  • Graubard, Stephen Richards (1999). A new Europe for the old? 126. Transaction Publishers.  
  • Law, Randall David (2009). Terrorism: a history (illustrated ed.). Polity. p. 18.  
  • Voegelin, Eric; Voegelin, Moulakis, Ellis Sandoz (1989). The collected works of Eric Voegelin. University of Missouri Press.  


  1. ^ Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Tyrannicide." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Thomas Zemanek. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2009. Originally published as "Tyrannicide," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 16:785 (Paris, 1765).
  2. ^  "Tyrannicide".  
  3. ^ a b Webb, E. Kent (October 18, 1997). "The Athenian Tyrannicides: Icons of a Democratic Society".  
  4. ^ Goebel, Julius Ludwig (1915). The recognition policy of the United States.  
  5. ^ a b Beres, Louis Rene (1990–1991), Assassinating Saddam: A Post-War View from International Law 19, Denv. J. Int'l L. & Pol'y, p. 613 
  6. ^ a b Mohamed, Feisal G. (May 11, 2013). "In Syria and Beyond, the Tyrant as Target".  
  7. ^ Aristotle, Politics X
  8. ^ For Aquinas, "when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted ... not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants." One may even be "praised and rewarded" for being the "one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant." Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, trans. J.G. Dawson (Oxford, 1959), 44, 2 in O’Donovan, p. 329-30.
  9. ^  
  10. ^ Ganns, H. G. "The Jesuits and Tyrannicide," The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XXVII, 1902.
  11. ^ Voegelin 1989, pp. 122–123.
  12. ^ A Duty to Kill: John of Salisbury's Theory of Tyrannicide 50, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 365–389,  
  13. ^ C Watner (1986), "Oh, Ye Are For Anarchy!": Consent Theory in the Radical Libertarian Tradition (PDF), Journal of Libertarian Studies 
  14. ^ Luxon, Thomas H., ed. (March 2008). "Milton: The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates". The Milton Reading Room.  
  15. ^ Distinguishing Classical Tyrannicide from Modern Terrorism 50, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 390–419,  
  16. ^ Nick Roberts (1989), In Praise of Jackals: Assassination and Moral Defence Policy (PDF), Libertarian Alliance,  
  17. ^ Johnson, Boyd M. III (1992), Executive Order 12,333: The Permissibility of an American Assassination of a Foreign Leader 25, Cornell Int'l L. J., p. 401 
  18. ^ Law 2009, p. 18.
  19. ^ Booth 2000, p. 17.
  20. ^ Law 2009, p. 23.
  21. ^ a b c d Montefiore, Simon Sebag (October 26, 2011). "Dictators Get the Deaths They Deserve".  
  22. ^ Law 2009, p. 26.
  23. ^ Cassius Dio, Roman History, 71.1, 3; 73.4.4-5.
  24. ^ Graubard 1999, pp. 72–73.
  25. ^ Borge 1992, p. 54.
  26. ^ Diederich 1990, p. 20.
  27. ^ "Hearts and Minds; Without Kim Jae-kyu? The Morality of Tyrannicide".  
  28. ^ Ajami, Fouad (September–October 1995). "The Sorrows of Egypt: A Tale of Two Men".  
  29. ^ "What Price Brutus?".  
  30. ^ McGrail, Mary Ann (2001). "Tyranny in Shakespeare". Utah Valley State College. Retrieved 2008-09-18. 
  31. ^ Gérard Chalian, Arnaud Blin, The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, p.82, 2007


See also

Tyrannicide is a popular literary trope. Many works of fiction deal with the struggle of an individual or group of individuals to overthrow and kill an unjust tyrant. Often the tyranny is caused by an usurper to a royal throne, where the conclusion restores the proper heir. Children's literature frequently deals with the subject. Folk tales like The Nutcracker include the act, as do some video games series, like The Legend of Zelda and Star Fox. Classical examples in Disney animation include The Lion King which both involve the tyrannical takeover of a monarchy and its overhaul. Fantasy works like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Brothers Lionheart, A Song of Ice and Fire and science-fiction series like Star Wars and Doctor Who all deal with the killing of tyrants. Besides Julius Caesar, a number of William Shakespeare's plays deal with the subject, including Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III.[30] Also the Italian dramatist, poet and philosopher Vittorio Alfieri has devoted much of his work on this issue.[31]


Outright revolt was the context for other tyrannicides, and allowed individual killers to escape or remain anonymous. During World War II and the Italian resistance movement, Walter Audisio claimed to have led his team of partisans in the abduction and execution by firing squad of Benito Mussolini in 1945.[21][29] The circumstances remain clouded, though Audisio was later elected to both the Italian Chamber of Deputies and the Italian Senate. In 1996, during their takeover of Afghanistan, Taliban soldiers captured Mohammad Najibullah, the President of the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and dragged him to death. During the 2011 Libyan civil war, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the self-titled "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution," was killed in the Battle of Sirte, amongst uncertain circumstances.[21]

Many assassins were killed in the act, such as [25] Others were prosecuted for the killing. Antonio de la Maza and his conspirators were executed after their shooting of Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic in 1961,[26] as was Kim Jaegyu, who shot South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee in 1979.[27] Khalid Islambouli was one of three members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad executed for the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the autocratic President of Egypt in 1981.[28] Even both Hipparchus's assassins were themselves killed, Harmodius on the spot and Aristogeiton after being tortured, and the major conspirators in the plot to kill Caesar were likewise killed or forced to commit suicide.

[24] Tyrannicide has also been connected to revolution, with many taking place during successful revolutions, and others sparking revolutionary upheavals. In the midst of the

Tyrannicides have a poor record of achieving their intended outcome. Caesar's death, for example, failed to bring a return to republican power, and instead led to the Roman Empire, but it galvanized later assassins like Booth. Several of Caesar's successors were also killed for their tyrannical actions, including Caligula, who was stabbed in 41 by Cassius Chaerea and other Praetorian Guards,[21] and Domitian, stabbed in 96 by a steward of Flavia Domitilla named Stephanus.[22] Many attempts on Commodus's life in the late 2nd century failed, including the one instigated by his own sister Lucilla, but he ultimately fell victim to his own excess by a successful murderous coup.[23] After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, tyrannicide continued in the Byzantine Empire when Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos, was tied to a pillar, beaten, and dismembered by a mob in 1185.[21]

Throughout history, many leaders have died under the pretext of tyrannicide. Hipparchus, one of the last Greek leaders to use the title of "tyrant," was assassinated in 514 BC by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the original tyrannicides.[18][3] Since then "tyrant" has been a pejorative term, lacking objective criteria. Many rulers and heads of state have been considered as such by their enemies but not by their adherents and supporters. For example, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865, he wrote how he considered Lincoln a tyrant while comparing himself to Marcus Junius Brutus,[19] who stabbed the Roman dictator Julius Caesar in 44 BC.[20]

Statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton


terrorism is a form of tyranny of which tyrannicide is a negation.[15] Libertarian Nick Roberts argues, "Top-level assassination hurts only volunteers — the willing tyrants. It leaves the innocent alive. If rulers choose to rule and to go to war, their lives become forfeit because they are acting coercively towards their subjects and intended conquests. As a 'natural rights' libertarian, I do not consider that the Hitlers, the Kennedys, the Gaddafis or the Attilas have any right to mercy. Those who plan and order the deaths of millions deserve to die. After all, who else is there to blame?"[16] Abraham Lincoln believed that assassinating a leader is morally justified when a people has suffered under a tyrant for an extended period of time and has exhausted all legal and peaceful means of ouster.[17]

In 1408 the theologian Jean Petit used biblical examples to justify tyrannicide following the murder of Louis I, Duke of Orleans by Petit's patron John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. Petit's thesis was extensively discussed and eventually condemned by the church. A Shone Treatise of Politike Power, written by John Ponet in 1556, argued that the people are custodians of natural and divine law, and that if governors and kings violated their trust, then they forfeited their power, whether they relinquished their positions voluntarily or whether they had to be removed forcefully.[13] The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates by John Milton in 1649 also described the history of tyrannicide, and a defense of it when appropriate.[14]


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