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The Sword of Damocles: Why Great Power Comes with Great Danger

sword of Damocles
A painting illustrating the story of the Sword of Damocles by Westall. Credit:Public Domain

The story of the “Sword of Damocles” is one of the most well-known from ancient Greek history, and it perfectly illustrates the dangers that come with taking on a massive amount of power.

The story, which may or may not be based on actual events, was first recorded by ancient Greek historian Timaeus of Tauromenium but has since been lost. It was later rewritten by ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero in 45 BC.

Dionysius of Syracuse was an ancient Greek tyrant who ruled the colony of Sicily with an iron fist in the fourth and fifth centuries BC.

Under his brutal rule, he conquered territories across the island of Sicily and southern Italy, making his colony one of the most powerful and vital in the Greek world at the time.

Despite his success as a ruler, the tyrant was constantly anxious and could never enjoy his wealth and power, as he was constantly paranoid about being assassinated by one of his many enemies.

The Sword of Damocles and the dangerous nature of being a ruler

According to the story, Dionysius was so concerned about his life that his bedroom had a moat surrounding it to thwart potential assassins, and he only allowed his own daughters to shave his beard.

One day, Damocles, a member of the ruler’s court, complimented Dionysius a bit too profusely. Damocles complimented the tyrant on his riches and power and even speculated about how easy his life must have been.

Dionysius, being as anxious and paranoid as he was, was taken aback by the comments. He decided to teach Damocles a lesson about the weight of power.

Hence, the ruler asked his subject if he would be interested in trading places with him for only a single day. Damocles couldn’t believe his luck and enthusiastically took Dionysius up on his offer.

Dionysius ordered his many servants to wait on Damocles, who was seated on the ruler’s luxurious golden couch. He was fed countless gourmet delicacies and covered in lotions and perfumes.

The humble courtier was basking in the luxury of being a king. Dazzled by the sumptuous throne room, the beauty of Dionysius’s servants, and the countless sparkling objects surrounding him, Damocles hardly noticed the sharp blade hanging just inches above his head.

Dionysius had strung up the blade above the courtier’s head by using just one hair from a horse’s tail.

When Damocles noticed the sword, he quickly became overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. Unable to enjoy the luxuries of his newfound power, he ran from the room, begging to be freed from position as king for the day.

According to Cicero, the tale was the ultimate example of the great amount of danger, pressure, and paranoia that inevitably comes with wielding immense power. He also claimed that those in power were in persistent fear of dying and therefore could not truly be happy.

Throughout history, particularly in medieval times, the Sword of Damocles has been a popular story illustrating the duality of being a ruler and the immense responsibility that accompanies that power. In English, the phrase “sword of Damocles” is used and referenced frequently when discussing power and the fears of rulers.

Perhaps most famously, former US President John F. Kennedy cited the tale when discussing the danger of nuclear war to the United Nations, stating that: “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”

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