The sword of Damocles

August 20, 2019 3:58 pm

How a historical figure of the 4th century B.C. reminds us of life’s unpredictability 

The sword of Damocles was a real sword, hung over the head of Damocles in the palace of King Dionysius II, in the city of Syracouse, in Sicily, in the 4th century B.C.  Nowadays, it is a phrase used to depict life’s unpredictability and possible existence of imminent danger.

The use of the phrase as an indicator of possible dangers is actually originated in the real sword of the 4th century and the incident which took place within the palace of King Dionysius.

The Roman orator Cicero in the fifth book of his written collection work „Tusculanae Disputationes“ mentions the incident of this moral anecdote. Cicero used the story of Damocles in his fifth book as part of a series of stories, which all demonstrated that the feeling of fear cannot exist in parallel with the feeling of happiness, “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?” („Satisne videtur declarasse Dionysius nihil esse ei beatum, cui semper aliqui terror impendeat?“, (Cicero,5.62)

Damocles, who was a courtier in the palace of Dionysius II, kept complaining to his King Dionysius II about his bad luck, which condemned him to living a life of poverty and deprivation. He used to tell to Dionysius II how lucky he should consider himself to be for all the luxuries he had and the privilege of holding the most superior authority among all.

So, according to the story of this moral anecdote, Dionysius II proposed to Damocles to switch their roles just for one day, so that Damocles could have the opportunity to look first hand at the happiness of holding the most superior authority and power.

Damocles could not believe in his luck. Putting on the luxurious, formal attire of the King, sat on the throne and started leaving himself enjoy the paradise of feeling so powerful. While enjoying the vast variety of foods and drinks offered to him by the servants, he suddenly saw a big sword hanging above his head. Terrified and looking closer at the sword, he realized that the sword was held at the pommel, hung only by a single hair of a horse’s tail.

When addressed to Dionysius looking for a logical explanation he was said that this sword always stayed like that above the throne. According to Dionysius II, the responsibility of being a king was so high, that he had to find a way to never forget it. Therefore, he had decided to have this sword hung over his head, as an indicator of the danger threatening him in case he made a wrong decision.

Damocles is said to have begged the King for getting back his older role of being a courtier. He preferred having his calmness rather than the feeling of authority or luxury.

Nevertheless, the story passed on to the European literary and cultural legacy through Cicero. It has inspired artists, writers, and politicians when they want to depict their ideas on what the dangers lying under powerful roles or critical decisions may be.

One of the most well-known paintings is the one of the English painter Richard Westall, made in 1812, titled „Sword of Damocles“.


Sword of Damocles definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary. Sword of Damocles definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary. Accessed June 27, 2019.

Dowd J. Sword of Damocles Powerful Message. The AME Magazine. Published June 17, 2015. Accessed June 27, 2019.

Tusculanae Disputationes. Wikipedia. Published February 12, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2019.

Written by Maria Papamargariti, Greek and English Philologist, Substitute Teacher in ISL School (Luxembourg) and Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament in Luxembourg. She holds a Bachelor in Greek Language and Literature (Philology) and a Bachelor in English Language and Literature, both from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She has published three books in the field of children’s literature, Books publication link. She speaks English, French and Greek. At present, she is completing her Master Studies in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts in the University of Luxembourg.

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