Sword of Damocles
Learn the story of the legendary Damocles sword and the lesson of humility as experienced by Damocles in the court of King Dionysius
The Sword of Damocles has been a legend since the ancient times yet its lesson endures without end. Historians first attribute it to Timaeus of Sicily in the 3rd century BC although it is believed to be much older than that. It was included in his forty-book history of Sicily, now unfortunately lost.
The Roman statesman, lawyer, and orator Cicero used the anecdote in his book Tusculan Disputation. Europe got wind of the story and never let go of it since then.
The legendary famous sword story opens in the court of King Dionysius, strongman and tyrant of Syracuse in 4th century BC. King Dionysius ruled with an iron fist on the citizens; his cruelty was known far and wide in the kingdom.
His palace’s halls were great in splendor, sprawling in majesty, and lavish in ornaments. The King was not moderate in his lifestyle. He bedecked his court with the trappings of wealth—sparkling jewelry, opulent clothing, sumptuous and choicest food.
He was surrounded with servants ready to spring to his side to do his trivial biddings. He was considered at that time by his contemporary the luckiest man on earth.
King Dionysius liked to hear praises offered onto him for his ego was without any satisfaction. He asked that flatterers be hired to compliment him day in and day out. One of these flatterers was Damocles. He was seized by the magnificence of the palace and the extravagance of the court so much that he so desired to live like a king, like King Dionysius, even just for a day.
Upon hearing this King Dionysius called Damocles and offered him to be king for a day. Damocles agreed right away.
Damocles a king for a day
King Dionysius ordered that Damocles be given the best of everything. A table filled with delectable food was prepared before him. He was placed in a couch wrought from gold, covered with the most expensive fabric, and adorned with beautiful needlework.
His tableware was made from purest of silver, glinting in gemstones. Perfumed incense was burning, flowers were arrayed grandly, and winsome boys were waiting for his orders. With luxury all around him, Damocles ate his festive repast.
Sword of Damocles
Damocles however, in the middle of his meal, noticed a sword hanging over his head. To his terror, it was fastened only by a single hair of the horse! His appetite was immediately gone. He could no longer touch his plate, look at his handsome attendants, or reach the table. At that very moment, Damocles understood how great men and kings and tyrants were in constant threat of death in spite of their power and affluence.
He begged King Dionysius for his leave and wanted no more to be a king.
The Sword of Damocles in art and culture
The legendary fantasy sword of Damocles is now considered a classic. Many allusions to the story are made across various popular mainstream media.
For instance, sixteenth century woodcut emblems came into vogue carrying a depiction of Damocles in a banquet with a sword over his head. Leading philosophers and learned men, like Thomas Hobbes, have used the legend to illustrate a point in their treatises.
English painter Richard Westall, in 1812, painted the now iconic “The Sword of Damocles,” replacing nubile maidens instead of attendant boys in the story.
It has also been used in films (1975 The Rocky Horror Show), TV series (1991 the Simpsons), literature (1963 Wodehouse’s Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves), music (Jumping the Shark), and even videogames (1990 Damocles).
The Sword of Damocles was also the first virtual reality system invented in 1968 by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland.
The Sword of Damocles: the legendary fantasy sword
Richard Westall’s The Sword of Damocles is a neoclassical painting showing a dumbfounded Damocles, a towering King Dionysius, courtiers, and servants. It also interpreted the legendary fantasy sword of Damocles, which has become almost its standard interpretation.
In the painting, the Damocles sword has a golden hilt, pommel, and guard. The blade tapers to a very rigid point, has a fuller running its whole length and along the centerline, and is leaf-shaped. Clearly, this is a Greek xiphos. For more information on xiphos, please read the article what is a Greek sword.
Recreating Sword of Damocles
Reenactment groups, like Hoplite Association and Hoplitikon of Melbourne, have been few of the organizations buying Greek sword replicas. They use the replicas in order relive famous Greek historical events like the Battle of Marathon and the Battle of Thermopylae. They have staged mock battles in open fields regularly each year.
If you want reenact the scenes of the Sword of the Damocles, you can follow Richard Westall’s interpretation by buying the Greek sword xiphos. Throw in some Greek goddess gowns, white tunics, and sandals and you’ll be all set!