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What is the Sword of Damocles?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Sword of Damocles is an object in a Greek legend that is designed to illustrate the perils of being in a position of power. The term is often used in popular culture to talk about an imminent threat or peril, with the idiom used in reference to such a threat dating back to around 1747, along with the related concept of “hanging by a thread.” The story of Damocles is relatively brief, and as a result, many people are familiar with it.

According to legend, Damocles was a courtier in the palace of Dionysius II, a king who ruled Syracuse in the 4th century BCE. Like many courtiers, Damocles constantly flattered the king, in the hopes that he would be given a position of greater power in the court. Apparently, Dionysius tired of the constant flattery, and he asked Damocles if the courtier would like to switch places for a day, to see what it would be like to be a ruler.

Damocles eagerly assented, and spent a day being waited on by the king and other attendants. Towards the end of the day, while seated at dinner, Damocles looked up to see a heavy sword suspended directly over his head, hanging by a hair. In a panic, he asked Dionysius about the meaning of the sword, and the ruler explained that he wanted to show Damocles what it was like to be in a position of power, which might seem privileged from a distance to the casual eye but was actually quite dangerous.

The sword terrified Damocles into fleeing the court, with no more thoughts of power in his head, and the parable about the Sword of Damocles became a symbol for the hidden dangers of power. Timaeus, an Ancient Greek historian, recounted the parable, and it was picked up by Cicero several centuries later, entering popular culture in Europe. In the 17th century, the concept appeared in many works by popular authors and artists, making many people in the West familiar with the idea even if they hadn't read Cicero.

The concept of hanging by a thread as a leader is very poignant. It illustrates the incredible danger that many leaders find themselves in, as they are often beset on all sides both literally and figuratively, making their positions far from enjoyable. The Sword of Damocles is a somber reminder that power comes with many dangers attached.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon999909 — On Apr 13, 2018

@Envelope1, you're also missing the fact that the King put the sword there himself to terrify the stupid courtier and to prop up the illusion that 'with great power comes great responsibility'.

By anon262431 — On Apr 19, 2012

@Envelope 1: What president and his cabinet ever worried about reducing the deficit. Certainly not the present one.

By anon158776 — On Mar 08, 2011

My "shrink" told me that the inhuman treatment I've lived under for 22 years now is my Sword of Damocles. This from a government I trusted, and paid for my compensation benefits. My innocent blood will be on their hands if it falls. My insanity will remain, as it began while it hovers above me.

By anon139405 — On Jan 04, 2011

How about the Sword of Damocles also being a parable about life itself? Most people cannot enjoy life to the full because our mortality "hangs over us".

By anon135043 — On Dec 16, 2010

My memory of the Sword of Damocles is from an episode of the Three Stooges where a pie is stuck to the ceiling and Moe is dancing with a lady who says to Moe "You act as if you have the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head" to which Moe says, "Lady you must be psychic" and at that, Moe takes off and she looks up to get the pie in the face. (Funny and educational).

By anon130032 — On Nov 26, 2010

cool. lots of help. i needed it for homework. it is used as an allusion.

By gregg1956 — On Aug 28, 2010

The Sword of Damocles myth also shows up a lot in popular culture. For example, there's an online gaming community called Mount and Blade which references the Sword of Damocles, and it even shows up in the Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Office.

Of course, historically there are a ton of references to the Sword of Damocles too, from paintings to literary tropes. I'm pretty sure Wodehouse used the Sword of Damocles allusion in one of his Jeeves books, come to think of it.

By FirstViolin — On Aug 28, 2010

@littleman -- I don't think so -- I've never heard of the Sword of Damocles being mentioned in conjunction with a heavenly sword, but of course, that's just me.

I don't see why it would be a heavenly blade though -- more of a scary blade or threatening blade, nothing heavenly about it!

By LittleMan — On Aug 28, 2010

Do you know, I had always heard Sword of Damocles allusions and never knew what it really meant -- thanks for this article, it really cleared that up for me.

By the way, is the Sword of Damocles the same as the Heavenly Sword?

By envelope1 — On Aug 19, 2010

That is a common misconception that those who hold higher position is society have it much easier. When in fact it can be totally opposite because, as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben put it, with great power comes great responsibility.

For example, becoming the President of the United States is the dream of many Americans. Although the position has many benefits, I could only imagine the daily tasks and decisions that weigh heavy on his mind. I worry about our monthly family budget while he and his cabinet worry about lessoning the deficit and what budget cuts to make that could affect millions of Americans.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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