Skip to main content
Select Source:

Damocles, Sword of

Damocles, Sword of

Damocles was a member of the court of Dionysius, ruler of the Sicilian city of Syracuse during the 300s b.c. According to a legend passed on by the Roman writer Cicero, Damocles told Dionysius how much he envied his kingly wealth, power, and happiness. In response, Dionysius invited Damocles to come to a magnificent banquet.

imminent about to take place; threatening

Damocles was seated before a marvelous feast, when he happened to glance up in horror. Above his head hung a sharp sword, suspended by nothing more than a single thread. In this way, Dionysius showed Damocles that a ruler's life may appear grand, but it is filled with uncertainty and danger. The "sword of Damocles" has thus come to symbolize imminent danger.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Damocles, Sword of." Myths and Legends of the World. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Damocles, Sword of." Myths and Legends of the World. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/damocles-sword

"Damocles, Sword of." Myths and Legends of the World. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/damocles-sword

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

sword of Damocles

sword of Dam·o·cles • n. see Damocles.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"sword of Damocles." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"sword of Damocles." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sword-damocles

"sword of Damocles." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sword-damocles

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Damocles, Sword of

Damocles, Sword of

Nationality/Culture

Greek/Roman

Pronunciation

DAM-uh-kleez

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

Cicero's Tusculan Disputations

Myth Overview

Damocles was a member of the court of Dionysius (pronounced dye-uh-NIGH-see-us) the Younger, ruler of the Sicilian city of Syracuse during the 300s bce.

According to a legend passed on by the Roman writer Cicero, Damocles told Dionysius how much he envied his kingly wealth, power, and happiness. In response, Dionysius invited Damocles to come to a magnificent banquet.

Damocles was seated before a marvelous feast, enjoying the benefits of a ruler, when he happened to glance up in horror. Above his head hung a sharp sword, suspended by nothing more than a single thread. Damocles was no longer able to enjoy the food, wine, or entertainment before him. In this way, Dionysius showed Damocles that a ruler's life may appear grand, but it is filled with uncertainty and danger.

The Sword of Damocles in Context

Although Damocles appears to be a work of legend, Dionysius the Younger was an actual ruler in fourth-century Sicily. He originally ruled under the guidance of his uncle Dion and his uncle's teacher, the philosopher Plato, but Dionysius grew tired of what he viewed as their attempts to control him. He drove his uncle out of Syracuse, but after years of his unpopular rule, his uncle amassed an army and returned to take over the city. Dionysius fled, and years after his uncle died, returned to reclaim leadership of Syracuse. Still unpopular, he was driven out once again, and lived the last years of his life in Corinth, Greece.

The real-life events of Dionysius the Younger help to illustrate the message of the legend of Damocles: though he ruled Syracuse twice, it is not likely he enjoyed much peace or satisfaction as its leader. Few kings in ancient cultures did. Positions of power were often gained, maintained, or lost by force.

Key Themes and Symbols

One of the key themes of the tale of Damocles is that one should not be envious of another person's position. Although they may appear to have a perfect life, they may also bear burdens that cannot be seen. The “sword of Damocles” symbolizes a threat that can come to pass at any moment; for Dionysius, the sword represented the threat of murder or betrayal by his own followers.

The Sword of Damocles in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The legend of Damocles has endured as a popular tale for centuries. The climax of the tale is famously depicted in Richard WestalPs 1812 painting Sword of Damocles. In modern usage, the phrase “sword of Damocles” is commonly used to refer to a potentially tragic threat or situation that seems inches away.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Because of their unprecedented destructive power, nuclear weapons have been described as a sword of Damocles hanging over modern civilization. Others have argued that nuclear weapons are necessary to keep some nations from attacking peaceful countries without provocation. Do you think nuclear weapons are a necessary enforcement tool or a potentially tragic threat? Can they be both? Explain your opinion.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Damocles, Sword of." U*X*L Encyclopedia of World Mythology. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Damocles, Sword of." U*X*L Encyclopedia of World Mythology. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/damocles-sword

"Damocles, Sword of." U*X*L Encyclopedia of World Mythology. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/damocles-sword

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.