Damocles (Template:Pron-en, Template:Lang-el; literally: "Fame of the People") is a figure featured in a single moral anecdote concerning the Sword of Damocles,[1][2] which was a late addition to classical Greek culture. The figure belongs properly to legend rather than Greek myth.[3] The anecdote apparently figured in the lost history of Sicily by Timaeus of Tauromenium (c. 356260 BC). The Roman orator Cicero may have read it in Diodorus Siculus. He made use of it in his Tusculan Disputations, V. 61–62,[4] by which means it passed into the European cultural mainstream.

The storyEdit

The Damocles of the anecdote was an obsequious courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, a fourth century BC tyrant of Syracuse, Italy. Pandering to his king, Damocles exclaimed that, as a great man of power and authority, Dionysius was truly fortunate, as it was "good to be the king." Realizing the folly of this courtier, Dionysius offered to switch places with him for a day, so he could taste first hand that fortune, albeit without the real authority of being king. (That is, Damocles could not start wars, etc.) The King required only that Damocles sit in the king's throne for the entirety of the day. Damocles could think of no other place he would rather be and quickly accepted the King's proposal. The day finally came with Damocles having invited all his friends to the table to impress them with his one day of serving as king. He arrived fashionably late and, having received homage from his friends, sat down in the king's throne at the head of the table to enjoy his day. While his friends were dutifully servile to their "one day king," they appeared uneasy. Damocles sensed the uneasiness and looked about the room. Soon he looked up and realized there was a huge sword hanging above the throne, and his head, held at the tip only by the single hair of a horse's tail. Damocles immediately stood up and moved away from the throne. Dionysius, standing nearby, quickly reminded Damocles of the contingency that he agreed to remain on the throne for the full day. Damocles sat back down in the throne, but only for a few moments, unable to overcome the threat of the hanging sword. Finally, Damocles left the royal chamber in fear and shame.

From this story are two morals: First, "Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown." Second, and perhaps more prophetically, "The value of the sword is not that it fall, but rather, that it hangs." The first moral supports the age-old understanding that, while it may appear to be enviable to wear a crown of power, there are threats--at all times--to the one who wears the crown. The second moral is more relevant particularly to the 20th century and beyond; namely, it blends the theory of MAD (mutually assured destruction) as it relates to those with a nuclear potential, and that of terrorism; namely, that the threat of terrorism is greater than the act thereof.[5][6]

Dionysius had successfully conveyed a sense of the constant fear in which the great man lives. Cicero uses this story as the last in a series of contrasting examples for reaching the conclusion he had been moving towards in this fifth Disputation, in which the theme is that virtue is sufficient for living a happy life.[7] Cicero asks

"Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?"[8]

In culture, art, and literatureEdit

The Sword of Damocles is frequently used in allusion to this tale, epitomizing the imminent and ever-present peril faced by those in positions of power. More generally, it is used to denote the sense of foreboding engendered by a precarious situation,[9] especially one in which the onset of tragedy is restrained only by a delicate trigger or chance. Shakespeare's Henry IV expands on this theme: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown";[10] compare the Hellenistic and Roman imagery connected with the insecurity offered by Tyche and Fortuna.

The phrase has also come to be used in describing any situation with a sense of impending doom, especially when the peril is (or should be, to the astute observer) visible and close at hand--regardless of whether the victim is in a position of power.

Woodcut images of the Sword of Damocles as an emblem appear in sixteenth and seventeenth-century European books of devices, with moralizing couplets or quatrains, with the import METUS EST PLENUS TYRANNIS, lit. "Fear is plentiful for tyrants", i.e., "A tyrant's fear is complete fear" — as it is the tyrant's place to sit daily under the sword.[11] In Wenceslas Hollar's Emblemata Nova (London, no date), a small vignette shows Damocles under a canopy of state, at the festive table, with Dionysius seated nearby; the etching, with its clear political moral, was later used by Thomas Hobbes to illustrate his Philosophicall Rudiments concerning Government and Society (London 1651).[12]

The Sword of Damocles appears frequently in popular culture including novels, feature films, television series, videogames and music.[13]


  1. Template:Cite web
  2. Template:Cite web
  3. It belongs to legend in that it is an anecdote allegedly of actual persons, taking place in a specific time and place. It is not myth because it bears no relation to cultus, justifies no ritual and explains nothing beyond its immediate didactic purpose.
  4. Tusculan Disputations: Cicero on the sword of Damocles (in English).
  5. Template:Cite web
  6. Template:Cite web
  7. "virtutem ad beate vivendum se ipse esse contentam" (5.1); Mary Jaeger, "Cicero and Archimedes' Tomb" The Journal of Roman Studies 92 (2002:49-61) discusses the Damocles anecdote p 51f.
  8. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.1.
  9. "Evil foreboded or dreaded," was the succinct remark of William Rose Benet, in The Reader's Encyclopedia, 1948, s.v. "Damocles".
  10. Shakespeare, Henry IV. Part II (1597): on-line quotation in context).
  11. Some examples on the Internet: Guillaume La Perrière, Morosophie (1553), emblem 30; Claude Paradin, Devises heroïques (1557), "Coelitus impendet" ("It hangs from Heaven"); Jean Jacques Boissard, Emblematum Liber (1593), emblem 45.
  12. Richard Pennington, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etched Work of Wenceslaus Hollar, 1607-1677, (Cambridge University Press) 1982: cat, no. 450.
  13. For example: Literature - Wodehouse's Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963), Too Loud A Solitude (1990); Film - Half-Wits Holiday (1947),The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Escape from L.A. (1996); TV series - The Simpsons (1991; "Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk", S3E11), The Office (2001; "Work Experience", S1E2), Reno 911! (2008; "Jumping the Shark", S5E1), Code Geass (2008, R2, E24); Videogames - Damocles (1990), Tomb Raider (1996), Mechwarrior 3 (1999) Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003); Music - Sword of Damocles Externally by Lou Reed (1992), Zealots by the Fugees and Wyclef Jean (1996), Oh My Lord by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (2001).

External linksEdit

az:Damokl qılıncı ca:Dàmocles cs:Damoklův meč da:Damokles de:Damokles et:Damokles es:Damocles fa:شمشیر داموکلس fr:Épée de Damoclès ko:다모클레스의 칼 hr:Damoklov mač it:Damocle he:חרב דמוקלס ku:Şûrê Damokles hu:Damoklész nl:Damocles ja:ダモクレス no:Damokles pl:Miecz Damoklesa pt:Dâmocles ru:Дамоклов меч fi:Damokles sv:Damokles tr:Demokles uk:Дамоклів меч zh:达摩克里斯

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