The Story of the Sword of Damocles

How the story goes: In Ancient Greece the tyrant Dionysius reigned. He was wealthy and powerful beyond imagining. Once one of his courtiers, Damocles, was flattering the king about his wealth and power, and Damocles said if he could live like Dionysius for even one day, he would be happy. So Dionysius made arrangements for all the best and pleasant parts of a king’s life to be made available to Damocles for a day. Damocles enjoyed himself immensely, until, in the middle of a banquet, he happened to look up and see a sword suspended in the air directly over his head, point down, hanging by a single horse hair. According to Baldwin’s retelling:
“The smile faded from the lips of Damocles. His face became ashy pale. His hands trembled. He wanted no more food; he could drink no more wine; he took no more delight in the music. He longed to be out of the palace, and away, he cared not where.

“What is the matter?” said the tyrant.

“That sword! that sword!” cried Damocles. He was so badly frightened that he dared not move.

“Yes,” said Dionysius, “I know there is a sword above your head, and that it may fall at any moment. But why should that trouble you? I have a sword over my head all the time. I am every moment in dread lest something may cause me to lose my life.”

“Let me go,” said Damocles. “I now see that I was mistaken, and that the rich and powerful are not so happy as they seem. Let me go back to my old home in the poor little cottage among the mountains.”

And so long as he lived, he never again wanted to be rich, or to change places, even for a moment, with the king.”

In some retellings, the moral is that being a fearful person is like living with a sword over your head, in others, the point is that Dionysius is a tyrant and tyrants rightfully must fear assassination. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, said… Shakespeare, I think.

Where it comes from: “The Roman politician and philosopher Cicero tells the famous story about the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse and his courtier Damocles, which he had read in the History of Timaeus of Tauromenium.”( Here)

About Timaeus of Tauromedium- we cannot compare the original with Cicero’s retelling because Timaeus’s histories are lost, except for a few fragments and references. “Timaeus of Tauromenium’s Italian and Sicilian History (Italika kai Sicelika, FGrHist 566 T 1) was widely known, praised, and despised in antiquity, and to this very day its loss may be seen as the most acute of all of western Greek historiography.” (more here)

Cicero retold it in his ‘Tusculan Disputations,’ and countless authors and educators have retold it themselves over the years. It was particularly popular as a children’s morality tale in the Victorian era.

About the Tusculan Disputations:
“The sword of Damocles is from Book V of Cicero’s Tusuclan Disputations, a set of rhetorical exercises on philosophical topics and one of the several works of moral philosophy that Cicero wrote in the years 44-45 BC after he had been forced out of the Senate.

The five volumes of the Tusuclan Disputations are each devoted to the things that Cicero argued were essential to a happy life: indifference to death, enduring pain, alleviating sorrow, resisting other spiritual disturbances, and choosing virtue. The books were part of a vibrant period of Cicero’s intellectual life, written six months after the death of his daughter Tullia, and, say, modern philosophers, they were how he found his own path to happiness: the blissful life of a sage.

Book V: A Virtuous Life
The Sword of Damocles story appears in the fifth book, which argues that virtue is sufficient for living a happy life… ”


Is it true?
I have always assumed it was along the lines of a parable or one of Aesop’s fables, but a while back, just out of curiosity I looked it up, and I was surprised.  No honest historian can state with authority that it never happened. Cicero is our oldest surviving, full reference to it, but he was retelling the story he had read in an older history book and that book is gone.   Cicero seems to have believed it was true, although I don’t know that for the purposes he was using it, fact or fiction were relevant at all. He was making a point.  Cicero and Timaeus both sometimes got things wrong, but they also both often got things right. It might just be a story, but it might also be something that really happened.  There doesn’t seem to be any reasons to be dogmatically doubtful about its pedigree as a historical tale, although there’s also enough reason to be cautious about claiming it as an absolutely known fact. It could easily have been true, and Dionysius was certainly a real person.

Should we tell it to our kids?

Why-ever not?

But what if they think it’s true?  So what?

Miss Pennethorne, of Charlotte Mason’s training college, asks what we can expect of secular history:


“What do we ask of it that it should do for our children?
Surely, that it shall give them heroic ideas, hearts full of fraternity, patriotism, and the desire to do and be for the good of others!
That the past shall for them be peopled with noble examples, dear friends, and awful warnings–not for nothing did “Boney” take the place of “bogey” in the nursery. [Note: for those who don’t know, this is Napoleon Bonaparte, would be world emperor, dictactor, accomplished general, failed in his ambitions, became scourge of the nursery used to frighten naughty children into being quiet little mice].
“We want the children to learn their history lessons, not “William the Conqueror, 1066,” but God’s dealings with humanity, the sequence of cause and effect; we want to train their moral judgment, that they may put the motive before the deed, nor dub all men with neat little labels of good or bad.”

I am in favor of children’s first history tales being full of heroic ideas, notions of patriotism, the desire to do and be for the good of others, noble examples and dear friends.   The Story of Damocles works as one such tale.

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