Tyrannicide from Ancient Greece and Rome to the Crisis of the Seventeenth Century

Authored by: Johannes Dillinger

The Routledge History of Terrorism

Print publication date:  April  2015
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415535779
eBook ISBN: 9781315719061
Adobe ISBN: 9781317514879


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This chapter surveys the development of the doctrine of tyrannicide from its earliest beginnings in the ancient world until the early seventeenth century. It will discuss the interrelation between theoretical debates and concrete political violence. Since the loaded terms “tyrant” and “tyrannicide” are not objectifiable and are unsuitable as categories of historical analysis, I will use them only in order to investigate the origins and changes in the concept that an unjust ruler (a “tyrant”) could or should be killed legitimately (“tyrannicide”). I will not address the objectivist or moral questions concerning whether some concrete person should be seen as a “tyrant” or if killing any such person could be excusable. The idea of tyrannicide is relevant for a discussion of the history of terrorism, which I define as asymmetrical conflict including the partisan use of media in which an actor without official government mandate employs violence or the threat of violence against some state in order to further political change. At least in the initial stage of their fight, terrorists – in contrast to the organizers of a coup d’état, insurrectionists, or guerrilla fighters – do not yet aim at exercising military control over a certain region. 1 Terrorist tactics include assassinations of rulers, which the terrorists sometimes present as legitimate tyrannicides. This definition implies that terrorism is not necessarily a modern phenomenon. Such a recognition might help us to acquire a deeper understanding of terrorism if we allow that the roots of the phenomenon reach into the remote past. 2 The fact that we tend to see persons who fought pre-modern monarchs in a positive light does not contradict that suggestion: the old and unsolvable problem that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter is, after all, an integral part of the discussion of terrorism.

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