The Sword of Damocles Legend

The legend of the sword of Damocles originated in Rome, about four centuries ago. However, despite its antiquity, we still tend to reference it in our everyday language today.
The Sword of Damocles Legend

Last update: 14 April, 2021

Experts say that the historian, Timaeus of Tauromenium, created the legend of the sword of Damocles. However, it was the famous philosopher, Cicero, who turned it into a narrative. In fact, he’s still cited today as its writer.

They say that the legend of the sword of Damocles contains some real characters. However, much of the story is imagined. Furthermore, it’s a moralistic tale. Cicero included it in his works Tusculan Disputations. From that time onwards, the story became popular in the West.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was one of the great Roman philosophers and thinkers. In fact, he was a great defender of the Roman Republic. However, he had to live through the dictatorship of Dionysius I or Dionysus the Elder. He was known as “The tyrant of Syracuse”. The legend of the sword of Damocles is also an allusion to this dictator.

“In the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

-John Fitzgerald Kennedy-

A statue of Marco Tullio Cicero.
A statue of Marco Tullio Cicero.

The tyranny of Dionysius I

Dionysius I came to power thanks to a conspiracy. He had great powers of persuasion, which certainly helped him in his rise to power. This is how it happened. At that time, it wasn’t customary for heads of state to have escorts. However, Dionysius wanted to have warriors under his command. Therefore, he invented a conspiracy against himself and the people agreed that he should have 600 men to take care of him.

He enjoyed being a conqueror, as it allowed him to extend his territories. Furthermore, he exerted great power over his people and was ruthless with his enemies. He also enjoyed a lot of sensual pleasures. Indeed, food, drink, and women were an integral part of his daily life. His son, also named Dionysius, was exactly the same.

Dionysius I had great power. However, he wasn’t happy. He lived completely fenced off from the world because he was so afraid that his enemies might kill him. In fact, they say he slept in a bedchamber that was surrounded by a moat so nobody could creep up on him. Furthermore, he only trusted his daughters to shave his beard and serve him food.

The legend of the sword of Damocles

The story goes that there was a courtier named Damocles who constantly flattered Dionysius. Damocles told everyone that Dionysius was a great man. He even praised his lifestyle. He also claimed that excesses of food and drink were absolutely fitting for any great ruler.

However, many thought that Damocles was actually envious of Dionysius. One day, they both met and, as usual, the courtier proceeded to flatter Dionysius excessively. Dionysius had grown rather fed up with this and suggested that they change places for a day. This was so that Damocles could experience what it was like to have the weight of power and all that went with it on his shoulders.

Damocles accepted delightedly. The next day, he came very early to the government offices to take Dionysius’ place. He sat on the throne and a multitude of servants catered to his every whim.

Suddenly, Damocles looked up and saw that right above his head was a sharp sword. Furthermore, it was only held up by a single hair of a horse’s tail. Therefore, it was obvious that if that thin thread broke, the sword would fall and chop off his head. Once Damocles realized that fact, he no longer enjoyed the rest of his day, even though it was filled with food, drink, and women. In fact, later in the day, he asked Dionysius to end the experiment.

A representation of the sword of Damocles.

The history behind the legend

Cicero, who wrote the most famous version of the legend of the sword of Damocles, belonged to the philosophical school known as the Stoics. They advocated a life without any excess because they believed that excess led to suffering. Consequently, it’s thought that Cicero wanted to show the other side of luxury and grandeur.

However, others believe that the legend was a direct critique of the dictator himself. That’s because the story emphasized Dionysius’s weak point, that of the fear of being betrayed and harmed by those close to him. Indeed, history does have a tendency to show that power in itself carries risks that make it impossible for those in power to enjoy an ordinary life.

“He whom many fear, has himself many to fear.”

 -Publilius Syrus-

They also say that Cicero’s version is an allegory that could apply to all humans. In this regard, the sword would represent death, which is always lurking and from which nobody escapes. That we all live under the constant threat of death and at any moment the thread might break and chop off our head.

Today, the term “sword of Damocles” is used to refer to situations in which a mistake could lead to very serious consequences. For example, John F. Kennedy said in one of his speeches that all mankind is threatened by the same sword of Damocles. That being the threat of nuclear war.

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  • Markaris, P. (2012). Espada de damocles e-88.