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In Richard Westall's Sword of Damocles, 1812, the boys of Cicero's anecdote have been changed to maidens for a neoclassical patron, Thomas Hope.

Damocles (pronounced ['dæməkli:z] Greek: Δαμοκλῆς; literallty: "Fame of the People") is a figure featured in a single moral anecdote concerning the Sword of Damocles,[1] which was a late addition to classical Greek culture. The figure belongs properly to legend rather than Greek myth.[2] The anecdote apparently figured in the lost history of Sicily by Timaeus of Tauromenium (c. 356260 BC). The Roman orator Cicero may have read it in Diodorus Siculus. He made use of it in his Tusculan Disputations, V. 61–62,[3] by which means it passed into the European cultural mainstream.

Contents

The story

The Damocles of the anecdote was an obsequious courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, a fourth century BC tyrant of Syracuse. Damocles exclaimed 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 directly above his head by a single horse-hair. Immediately, he lost all taste for the amenities and asked leave of the tyrant, saying he no longer wanted to be so fortunate.[1][4]

Dionysius had successfully conveyed a sense of the constant fear in which the great man lives. Cicero uses this story as the last in a series of contrasting examples for reaching the conclusion he had been moving towards in this fifth Disputation, in which the theme is that virtue is sufficient for living a happy life.[5] Cicero asks

"Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?"[6]

A slightly different moral to the story of the Sword of Damocles is that, "The value of the sword is not that it falls, but rather, that it hangs." Recent history has given weight to this variation when compared to, for example, mutual assured destruction (MAD).

In culture, art, and literature

The Sword of Damocles is frequently used in allusion to this tale, epitomizing the imminent and ever-present peril faced by those in positions of power. More generally, it is used to denote the sense of foreboding engendered by a precarious situation,[7] especially one in which the onset of tragedy is restrained only by a delicate trigger or chance. Shakespeare's Henry IV expands on this theme: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown";[8] compare the Hellenistic and Roman imagery connected with the insecurity offered by Tyche and Fortuna.

Woodcut images of the Sword of Damocles as an emblem appear in sixteenth and seventeenth-century European books of devices, with moralizing couplets or quatrains, with the import METUS EST PLENUS TYRANNIS, lit. "Fear is plentiful for tyrants", i.e., "A tyrant's fear is complete fear" — as it is the tyrant's place to sit daily under the sword.[9] In Wenceslas Hollar's Emblemata Nova (London, no date), a small vignette shows Damocles under a canopy of state, at the festive table, with Dionysius seated nearby; the etching, with its clear political moral, was later used by Thomas Hobbes to illustrate his Philosophicall Rudiments concerning Government and Society (London 1651).[10]

The Sword of Damocles appears frequently in popular culture including novels, feature films, television series, videogames and music.[11]

Notes

  1. ^ a b "The sword of Damocles". Articles on Ancient History. http://www.livius.org/sh-si/sicily/sicily_t11.html. Retrieved 2008-01-26. 
  2. ^ It belongs to legend in that is an anecdote allegedly of actual persons, taking place in a specific time and place. It is not myth because it bears no relation to cultus, justifies no ritual and explains nothing beyond its immediate didactic purpose.
  3. ^ Tusculan Disputations: Cicero on the sword of Damocles (in English).
  4. ^ "(painting) The Sword of Damocles". Ackland Art Museum. http://www.ackland.org/tours/westall.html. 
  5. ^ "virtutem ad beate vivendum se ipse esse contentam" (5.1); Mary Jaeger, "Cicero and Archimedes' Tomb" The Journal of Roman Studies 92 (2002:49-61) discusses the Damocles anecdote p 51f.
  6. ^ Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.1.
  7. ^ "Evil foreboded or dreaded," was the succinct remark of William Rose Benet, in The Reader's Encyclopedia, 1948, s.v. "Damocles".
  8. ^ Shakespeare, Henry IV. Part II (1597): on-line quotation in context).
  9. ^ Some examples on the Internet: Guillaume La Perrière, Morosophie (1553), emblem 30; Claude Paradin, Devises heroïques (1557), "Coelitus impendet" ("It hangs from Heaven"); Jean Jacques Boissard, Emblematum Liber (1593), emblem 45.
  10. ^ Richard Pennington, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etched Work of Wenceslaus Hollar, 1607-1677, (Cambridge University Press) 1982: cat, no. 450.
  11. ^ For example: Literature - Wodehouse's Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963), Too Loud A Solitude (1990); Film - Half-Wits Holiday (1947),The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Escape from L.A. (1996); TV series - The Simpsons (1991; "Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk", S3E11), The Office (2001; "Work Experience", S1E2), Reno 911! (2008; "Jumping the Shark", S5E1), Code Geass (2008, R2, E24); Videogames - Damocles (1990), Tomb Raider (1996); Music - Sword of Damocles Externally by Lou Reed (1992), Oh My Lord by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (2001).

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Wiktionary

Up to date as of January 15, 2010
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Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

English

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Noun

sword of Damocles

  1. A thing or situation which causes a prolonged state of impending doom or misfortune.

Translations


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