Damocles is a figure featured in a single moral anecdote which was a late addition to classical Greek culture.

The figure belongs properly to legend rather than Greek mythology. The anecdote apparently figured in the lost history of Sicily by Timaeus of Tauromenium (c. 356 - 260 BC). Cicero may have read it in Diodorus Siculus. He made use of it in his Tusculan Disputations V.61 - 62.

Greek Mythology

The sword of Damocles, Richard Westall

Damocles it seems was an excessively flattering courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, a 4th Century BC tyrant of Syracuse, Italy. He effused that, as a great man of power and authority, Dionysius was truly fortunate. Dionysius offered to switch places with him for a day, so he could taste first hand that fortune. In the evening a banquet was held, where Damocles very much enjoyed being waited upon like a king. Only at the end of the meal did he look up and notice a sharpened sword hanging by a single piece of horsehair directly above the throne. Immediately, he lost all taste for the fine foods and beautiful boys and asked leave of the tyrant, saying he no longer wanted to be so fortunate.

The Sword of Damocles is a frequently used symbolic allusion to this tale, epitomizing the insecurity of those with great power due to the possibility of that power being taken away suddenly, or, more generally, any feeling of impending doom. Woodcut images of the sword of Damocles appear in 16th and 17th century European books of devices. The Sword of Damocles is the title of a song in the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, first released in 1975.

Compare the imagery connected with Tyche and Fortuna.

The asteroid 5335 Damocles bears his name.

Greek Mythology

Sword of Damocles, from James Baldwin , Fifty Famous Stories Retold


Greek Mythology

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