Works, by Lucian

The Tyrannicide

A man forces his way into the stronghold of a tyrant, with the intention of killing him. Not finding the tyrant himself, he kills his son, and leaves the sword sticking in his body. The tyrant, coming, and finding his son dead, slays himself with the same sword. — The assailant now claims that the killing of the son entitles him to the reward of tyrannicide.

Two tyrants — a father advanced in years, a son in the prime of life, waiting only to step into his nefarious heritage — have fallen by my hand on a single day: I come before this court, claiming but one reward for my twofold service. My case is unique. With one blow I have rid you of two monsters: with my sword I slew the son; grief for the son slew the father. The misdeeds of the tyrant are sufficiently punished: he has lived to see his son perish untimely; and — wondrous sequel! — the tyrant’s own hand has freed us from tyranny. I slew the son, and used his death to slay another: in his life he shared the iniquities of his father; in his death, so far as in him lay, he was a parricide. Mine is the hand that freed you, mine the sword that accomplished all: as to the order and manner of procedure, there, indeed, I have deviated from the common practice of tyrannicides: I slew the son, who had strength to resist me, and left my sword to deal with the aged father. In acting thus, I had thought to increase your obligation to me; a twofold deliverance — I had supposed — would entitle me to a twofold reward; for I have freed you not from tyranny alone, but from the fear of tyranny, and by removing the heir of iniquity have made your salvation sure. And now it seems that my services are to go for nothing; I, the preserver of the constitution, am to forgo the recompense prescribed by its laws. It is surely from no patriotic motive, as he asserts, that my adversary disputes my claim; rather it is from grief at the loss of the tyrants, and a desire to avenge their death.

Bear with me, gentlemen, for a little, while I dwell in some detail upon those evils of tyranny with which you are only too familiar; I shall thus enable you to realize the extent of my services, and to enjoy the contemplation of sufferings from which you have escaped. Ours was not the common experience: we had not one tyranny, one servitude to endure, we were not subjected to the caprice of a single master. Other cities have had their tyrant: it was reserved for us to have two tyrants at once, to groan beneath a double oppression. That of the old man was light by comparison, his anger mildness, his resentment long-suffering; age had blunted his passions, checked their headlong impetus, and curbed the lust of pleasure. His crimes, so it is said, were involuntary; resulting from no tyrannical disposition in himself, but from the instigations of his son. For in him paternal affection had too clearly become a mania; his son was all in all to him; he did his bidding, committed every crime at his pleasure, dealt out punishment at his command, was subservient to him in all things; the minister of a tyrant’s caprice, and that tyrant his son. The young man left him in possession of the name and semblance of rule; so much he conceded to his years: but in all essentials he was the real tyrant. By him the power of the tyrant was upheld; by him and by him alone the fruits of tyranny were gathered. He it was who maintained the garrison, intimidated the victims of oppression, and butchered those who meditated resistance; who laid violent hands on boys and maidens, and trampled on the sanctity of marriage. Murder, banishment, confiscation, torture, brutality; all bespeak the wantonness of youth. The father followed his son’s lead, and had no word of blame for the crimes in which he participated. Our situation became unbearable: for when the promptings of passion draw support from the authority of rule, then iniquity knows no further bounds.

We knew moreover (and here was the bitterest thought of all) that our servitude must endure — ay, endure for ever; that our city was doomed to pass in unending succession from master to master, to be the heritage of the oppressor. To others it is no small consolation that they may count the days, and say in their hearts: ‘The end will be soon; he will die, and we shall be free.’ We had no such hope: there stood the heir of tyranny before our eyes. There were others — men of spirit — who cherished like designs with myself; yet all lacked resolution to strike the blow; freedom was despaired of; to contend against a succession of tyrants seemed a hopeless task.

Yet I was not deterred. I had reckoned the difficulties of my undertaking, and shrank not back, but faced the danger. Alone, I issued forth to cope with tyranny in all its might. Alone, did I say? nay, not alone; I had my sword for company, my ally and partner in tyrannicide. I saw what the end was like to be: and, seeing it, resolved to purchase your freedom with my blood. I grappled with the outer watch, with difficulty routed the guards, slew all I met, broke down all resistance, — and so to the fountain-head, the well-spring of tyranny, the source of all our calamities; within his stronghold I found him, and there slew him with many wounds, fighting valiantly for his life.

From that moment, my end was gained: tyranny was destroyed; we were free men. There remained the aged father, alone, unarmed, desolate; his guards scattered, his strong protector slain; no adversary this for a brave man. And now I debated within myself: ‘My work is done, my aim achieved, all is as I would have it. And how shall this remnant of tyranny be punished? He is unworthy of the hand that shed that other blood: the glory of a noble enterprise shall not be so denied. No, let some other executioner be found. It were too much happiness for him to die, and never know the worst; let him see all, for his punishment, and let the sword be ready to his hand; to that sword I leave the rest.’ In this design I withdrew; and the sword — as I had foreseen — did its office, slew the tyrant, and put the finishing touch to my work. And now I come to you, bringing democracy with me, and call upon all men to take heart, and hear the glad tidings of liberty. Enjoy the work of my hands! You see the citadel cleared of the oppressors; you are under no man’s orders; the law holds its course; honours are awarded, judgements given, pleadings heard. And all springs from one bold stroke, from the slaying of that son whom his father might not survive. I claim from you the recompense that is my due; and that in no paltry, grasping spirit; it was not for a wage’s sake that I sought to serve my country; but I would have my deed confirmed by your award; I would not be disparaged by slanderous tongues, as one who attempted and failed, and was deemed unworthy of honour.

My adversary tells me that I am unreasonable in asking for reward and distinction. I did not slay the tyrant; I have not fulfilled the requirements of the statute; there is a flaw in my claim. — And what more does he want of me? Say: did I flinch? did I not ascend into the citadel? did I not slay? are we not free men? have we a master? do we hear a tyrant’s threats? did any of the evil-doers escape me? — No; all is peace; the laws are in force; freedom is assured; democracy is established; our wives, our daughters are unmolested, our sons are safe; the city keeps festival in the general joy. And who is the cause of it all? who has wrought the change? Has any man a prior claim? Then I withdraw; be his the honour and the reward. But if not — if mine was the deed, mine the risk, mine the courage to ascend and smite and punish, dealing vengeance on the father through the son — then why depreciate my services? why seek to deprive me of a people’s gratitude?

‘But you did not kill the tyrant; the law assigns the reward to him who kills the tyrant.’ And pray what is the difference between killing him and causing his death? I see none. The law-giver had but one end in view — freedom, equality, deliverance from oppression. This was the signal service that he deemed worthy of recompense; and this service you cannot deny that I have rendered. In slaying one whom the tyrant could not survive, I myself wrought the tyrant’s death. His was the hand: the deed was mine. Let us not chop logic as to the manner and circumstances of his death, but rather ask: has he ceased to exist, and am I the cause? Your scruples might go further, and object to some future deliverer of his country, that he struck not with the sword, but with a stick or a stone or the like. Had I blockaded the tyrant, and brought about his death by starvation, you would still, I suppose, have objected that it was not the work of my own hand? Again there would have been a flaw in my claim? The increased bitterness of such a death would have counted for nothing with you? Confine your attention to this one question: does any of our oppressors survive? is there any ground for anxiety, any vestige of our past misery? If not, if all is peace, then none but an envious detractor would attempt to deprive me of the reward of my labours by inquiring into the means employed.

Moreover, it is laid down in our laws (unless after all these years of servitude my memory plays me false) that blood-guiltiness is of two kinds. A man may slay another with his own hand, or, without slaying him, he may put death unavoidably in his way; in the latter case the penalty is the same as in the former; and rightly, it being the intention of the law that the cause should rank with the act itself; the manner in which death is brought about is not the question. You would not acquit a man who in this sense had slain another; you would punish him as a murderer: how then can you refuse to reward as a benefactor the man who, by parity of reasoning, has shown himself to be the liberator of his country?

Nor again can it be objected that all I did was to strike the blow, and that the resulting benefits were accidental, and formed no part of my design. What had I to fear, when once the stronger of our oppressors was slain? And why did I leave my sword in the wound, if not because I foresaw the very thing that would happen? Are you prepared to deny that the death so occasioned was that of a tyrant both in name and in fact, or that his death was an event for which the state would gladly pay an abundant reward? I think not. If then the tyrant is slain, how can you withhold the reward from him who occasioned his death? What scrupulousness is this — to concern yourself with the manner of his end, while you are enjoying the freedom that results from it? Democracy is restored: what more can you demand from him who restored it? You refer us to the terms of the law: well, the law looks only at the end; of the means it says nothing; it has no concern with them. Has not the reward of tyrannicide been paid before now to him who merely expelled a tyrant? And rightly so: for he too has made free men of slaves. But I have done more: banishment may be followed by restitution: but here the family of tyrants is utterly annihilated and destroyed; the evil thing is exterminated, root and branch.

I implore you, gentlemen, to review my conduct from beginning to end, and see whether there has been any such omission on my part as to make my act appear less than tyrannicide in the eye of the law. The high patriotic resolve which prompts a man to face danger for the common good, and to purchase the salvation of his country at the price of his own life; this is the first requirement. Have I been wanting here? Have I lacked courage? Have I shrunk back at the prospect of the dangers through which I must pass? My enemy cannot say it of me. Now at this stage let us pause. Consider only the intention, the design, apart from its success; and suppose that I come before you to claim the reward of patriotism merely on the ground of my resolve. I have failed, and another, following in my footsteps, has slain the tyrant. Say, is it unreasonable in such a case to allow my claim? ‘Gentlemen,’ I might say, ‘the will, the intention, was mine; I made the attempt, I did what I could; my resolve entitles me of itself to your reward.’ What would my enemy say to that?

But in fact my case stands far otherwise. I mounted into the stronghold, I faced danger, I had innumerable difficulties to contend with, before I slew the son. Think not that it was a light or easy matter, to make my way past the watch, and single-handed to overcome one body of guards after another and put them to flight: herein is perhaps the greatest difficulty with which the tyrannicide has to contend. It is no such great matter to bring the tyrant to bay, and dispatch him. Once overcome the guards that surround him, and success is ensured; little remains to be done. I could not make my way to the tyrants till I had mastered every one of their satellites and bodyguards: each of those preliminary victories had to be won. Once more I pause, and consider my situation. I have got the better of the guards; I am master of the garrison; I present you the tyrant stripped, unarmed, defenceless. May I claim some credit for this, or do you still require his blood? Well, if blood you must have, that too is not wanting; my hands are not unstained; the glorious deed is accomplished; the youthful tyrant, the terror of all men, his father’s sole security and protection, the equivalent of many bodyguards, is slain in the prime of his strength. Have I not earned my reward? Am I to have no credit for all that is done? What if I had killed one of his guards, some underling, some favourite domestic? Would it not have been thought a great thing, to go up and dispatch the tyrant’s friend within his own walls, in the midst of his armed attendants? But who was my victim? The tyrant’s son, himself a more grievous tyrant than his father, more cruel in his punishments, more violent in his excesses; a pitiless master; one, above all, whose succession to the supreme power promised a long continuance of our miseries. Shall I concede that this is the sum of my achievements? Shall we put it, that the tyrant has escaped, and lives? Still I claim my recompense. What say you, gentlemen? do you withhold it? The son, perhaps, caused you no uneasiness; he was no despot, no grievous oppressor?

And now for the final stroke. All that my adversary demands of me, I have performed; and that in the most effectual manner. I slew the tyrant when I slew his son; slew him not with a single blow — he could have asked no easier expiation of his guilt than that — but with prolonged torment. I showed him his beloved lying in the dust, in pitiable case, weltering in blood. And what if he were a villain? he was still his son, still the old man’s likeness in the pride of youth. These are the wounds that fathers feel; this the tyrannicide’s sword of justice; this the death, the vengeance, that befits cruelty and oppression. The tyrant who dies in a moment, and knows not his loss, and sees not such sights as these, dies unpunished. I knew — we all knew — his affection for his son; knew that not for one day would he survive his loss. Other fathers may be devoted to their sons: his devotion was something more than theirs. How should it be otherwise? In him, and in him alone, the father saw the zealous guardian of his lawless rule, the champion of his old age, the sole prop of tyranny. If grief did not kill him on the spot, despair, I knew, must do so; there could be no further joy in life for him when his protector was slain. Nature, grief, despair, foreboding, terror — these were my allies; with these I hemmed him in, and drove him to his last desperate resolve. Know that your oppressor died childless, heartbroken, weeping, groaning in spirit; the time of his mourning was short, but it was a father mourning for his son; he died by his own hand, bitterest, most awful of deaths; that death comes lightly, by comparison, which is dealt by another.

Where is my sword?

Does any one else know anything of this sword? Does any one claim it? Who took it up into the citadel? The tyrant used this sword. Who had it before him? Who put it in his way? — Sword, fellow labourer, partner of my enterprise — we have faced danger and shed blood to no purpose. We are slighted. Men say that we have not earned our reward.

Suppose that I had advanced a claim solely on my sword’s behalf: suppose that I had said to you: ‘Gentlemen, the tyrant had resolved to slay himself, but was without a weapon at the moment, when this sword of mine supplied his need, and thereby played its part in our deliverance.’ Should you not have considered that the owner of a weapon so public-spirited was entitled to honour and reward? Should you not have recompensed him, and inscribed his name among those of your benefactors; consecrated his sword, and worshipped it as a God?

Now consider how the tyrant may be supposed to have acted and spoken as his end approached. — His son lies mortally wounded at my hand; the wounds are many, and are exposed to view, that so the father’s heart may be torn asunder at the very first sight of him. He cries out piteously to his father, not for help — he knows the old man’s feebleness — but for sympathy in his sufferings. I meanwhile am making my way home: I have written in the last line of my tragedy, and now I leave the stage clear for the actor; there is the body, the sword, all that is necessary to complete the scene. The father enters. He beholds his son, his only son, gasping, blood-stained, weltering in gore; he sees the wounds — mortal wound upon wound — and exclaims: ‘Son, we are slain, we are destroyed, we are stricken in the midst of our power. Where is the assassin? For what fate does he reserve me, who am dead already in thy death, O my son? Because I am old he fears me not, he withholds his vengeance, and would prolong my torment.’ Then he looks for a sword; he has always gone unarmed himself, trusting all to his son. The sword is not wanting; it has been waiting for him all this time; I left it ready for the deed that was to follow. He draws it from the wound and speaks: ‘Sword, that but a moment past hast slain me, complete thy work: comfort the stricken father, aid his aged hand; dispatch, slay, make an end of the tyrant and his grief. Would that I had met thee first, that my blood had been shed before his! I could but have died a tyrant’s death, and should have left an avenger behind me. And now I die childless: I have not so much as a murderer at my need.’ Even as he speaks, with trembling hand he plunges the sword into his breast: he is in haste to die; but that feeble hand lacks strength to do its dread office.

Is he punished? Are these wounds? Is this death? A tyrant’s death? Is there reward for this?

The closing scene you have all witnessed: the son — no mean antagonist — prostrate in death; the father fallen upon him; blood mingling with blood, the drink-offering of Victory and Freedom; and in the midst my sword, that wrought all; judge by its presence there, whether the weapon was unworthy of its master, whether it did him faithful service. Had all been done by my hand, it had been little; the strangeness of the deed is its glory. The tyranny was overthrown by me, and no other; but many actors had their part to play in the drama. The first part was mine; the second was the son’s; the third the tyrant’s; and my sword was never absent from the stage.

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49