11 julio, 2024

Sword of Damocles: what it is, history and meaning

What is the sword of Damocles?

The sword of damocles It is a commonly used metaphor to refer to an imminent and close danger that all those people of power have to face. The expression comes from a legend that the Roman philosopher Cicero supposedly told.

It was about Damocles, a courtier of King Dionysus I, who ruled Syracuse in the fourth century BC.

For several centuries, the expression «being under the sword of Damocles» has been used to symbolize the fragility of positions of power. Other people use this expression in the sense that happiness is always temporary.

Some scholars even believe that the meaning that Cicero attributed to this phrase was that life is very short and death is always stalking us. This metaphor would serve to remind people that they should enjoy the present moment despite what is happening around them.

History of the Sword of Damocles

According to Cicero, Damocles was a courtier in the reign of Dionysus I. Legend has it that Damocles tried to curry favor with the king by constantly flattering him, but deep down he was envious of his wealth and power.

Dionysus had a reputation for being cruel and a tyrant, for which most of his subjects secretly hated him. Damocles, who focused only on the luxuries with which the king was surrounded, could not see the dangers that his position brought with it.

One day, Damocles, corroded by envy, spoke to Dionysus and said:

“You must be very happy! You have everything a man could wish for: fame, money, admirers…”.

The king, tired of the constant flattery of his subject, proposed to change their positions. For a whole day, Damocles would live as he did, reigning and enjoying all the luxuries the palace had to offer. Damocles, who thought that the king’s wealth would make him happy, agreed without hesitation.

The next day, Damocles arrived at the palace, where all the servants went out of their way to fulfill his every wish. They seated him on a throne in the banquet room, where he spent the day surrounded by the best music, exquisite and exotic dishes, women dancing for him, the best entertainment…

Damocles felt like the happiest man in the world, he couldn’t think of anything that could cloud his joy at that moment. However, when he raised his eyes to the ceiling, he saw something that made him uneasy.

Over his head hung a very sharp sword, its point practically touching him. She was suspended from a single horsehair, so at any moment she could break and end her life.

From the moment he saw the sword, Damocles was unable to enjoy the pleasures that the palace offered him. Dionisio, who had been watching him the whole time, asked him what the problem was. Damocles, surprised, pointed out the danger that hung over his head.

“Yes,” said the tyrant, “I know there is a sword threatening your life. But why should that worry you? I am always exposed to dangers that could make me lose my life at any moment”.

At that moment, Damocles realized his mistake, and asked the king to let him go. From that day on, he was aware that wealth and power also had a negative side, and he never again desired money, fame, or the king’s position.

meaning of history

Cicero, the creator of the legend of the sword of Damocles, was an important figure in Roman times. Being an influential person, he received teachings from many different teachers, and one of the currents of thought that most defined his life was that of stoicism.

The Stoics believed that the secret to living a happy life was not in circumstances, wealth, or power. According to them, to achieve happiness you just have to accept the circumstances in which you find yourself and choose to live life according to your own values.

Therefore, Cicero’s main objective in telling this story was to demonstrate that wealth and power do not have the capacity to make us happy more than momentarily. In this sense, the Roman philosopher thought that those in power live under constant pressure, which makes it difficult for them to achieve permanent happiness.

On the other hand, he also used this legend as a criticism of the tyrant Dionysus, one of the most hated monarchs of Antiquity. He was a very intelligent king, but he abused his knowledge and his power to live surrounded by luxuries at the expense of his subjects.

Cicero often compared the life of Dionysus, which according to him could not have led him to happiness, with that of ancient sages, such as Plato or Archimedes.

According to him, these two scholars would have lived a happy life because they had dedicated themselves to being virtuous, without focusing on external riches or power.


Different authors have proposed various interpretations for the moral of the sword of Damocles:

– The most obvious interpretation, and the most generally accepted, is that power and wealth do not have the capacity to make us happy by themselves. This happens because both bring their own problems, sometimes more serious than the ones they solve.

– Another possible interpretation of the story is to warn readers not to judge others without fully knowing the situation in which they find themselves. In the story, Damocles only wanted the position of king until he realized all that it really entailed.

– A third lesson that can be drawn from history is that death can come at any time, so we must try to live in the present moment and enjoy as much as possible. This moral was very common in the teachings of the Stoic philosophers.


What was the sword of Damocles? Retrieved from history.com.
The Sword of Damocles. Retrieved from whisperingbooks.com.

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