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Sword of Damocles by Felix Auvray

Damocles (Greek: Δαμοκλῆς, "fame of the people"[1]) was a legendary courtier during the reign of the 4th century B.C. tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse, who offered to change places with the king for a day, only to discover that with unbridled luxury and rule comes the threat of imminent death.


The evidence for Damocles - if indeed he may have lived at all - comes from the Roman politician and philosopher Cicero. In his Tusculan disputations he wrote that Dionysius was surrounded by flatterers, and during a banquet one of them, Damocles, stated that he was impressed with the extravagance and the magnificence, and impressed upon all that no one else could have been as fortunate. Dionysius then asks a pointed question:

"'So, Damocles, since this life delights you, do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune?"

Eagerly, Damocles accepts the offer and is made king for a day. According to Cicero, Dionysius gave orders that

"the man be placed on a golden couch covered with a most beautiful woven rug, embroidered with splendid works; he adorned many sideboards with chased silver and gold; then he gave orders that chosen boys of outstanding beauty should stand by his table and that they, watching for a sign from Damocles, should attentively wait on him; there were unguents and garlands; perfumes were burning; tables were piled up with the most select foods."[2]

As he is enjoying himself he sees the other object of the king's order: a sword hanging over his head, attached to the ceiling by a horsehair. Forgetting about the material wealth before him, Damocles begged the king to be excused; "Are you surprised?" said Dionysius. "I came to power by violence, and I have many enemies. Every day that I rule this city, my life is in as much danger as yours is at this moment."

Near the ancient site of Syracuse is a cave carved out of a hillside by prisoners of Dionysius, who were also "housed" within the cave itself while they worked on it. This "Ear of Dionysius" as it is called has acoustics so fine that someone standing outside of it could hear the prisoners' conversations within, and report anyone making plots against the king.[3]