Tradition and treason


To Classics students, the word treason is one from the past: a concept that we no longer use, associated with kingship and people’s betrayal of their allegiance to the monarch: an offence punishable by death, and one possibly to be revived in time of war.

The word is from the Latin traditio, which carries our sense of ‘tradition’, or else just the physical act of ‘handing over’.

Students of mine have been interested in how, under the Frankish empire, the word is pidginised into traïson, which becomes the modern French trahison. In Anglo-Norman it is treysoun, then after many forms in Middle English becomes treason: handing over or surrendering, or betraying one’s trust.

I have sometimes asked my students what Latin word is usually translated as ‘treason’. There seem to be two:

  • perduellio – hostile conduct against one’s country:
    qui perduellionis reus est, hostili animo adversus rempublicam vel principem animatus est
    (Digesta 48, 4, 11).
  • majestas (sc. laesa or minuta) – an offence against the majesty or sovereignty of the people:
    majestatem minuere est de dignitate, aut amplitudine, aut potestate populi, aut eorum, quibus populus potestatem dedit, aliquid derogare
    (Cicero, De Inventione Rhetorica 2, 17, 53).

In the first four books of the Annals, Tacitus records how Tiberius revived the offence of majestas, which had fallen into disuse, to prevent people with Republican tendencies, or who were hostile to him personally, from undermining his authority.

I have drawn my students’ attention to Shakespeare’s interest in treason. A memorable instance is Henry V Act II Scene ii, where the word appears eight times. In a scene crafted to produce suspense, the king confronts the three noblemen—Grey, Scroop and Cambridge—who have been bribed by the French king to kill him. They are arrested in his presence, and he says to them,

‘Touching our person seek we no revenge,
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you. Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death…’

Next post: Notes for younger pupils on the origins of money.

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