LEGENDS || The Sword of Damocles
According to the story, pandering to his King, Damocles –an obsequious courtier in the court– exclaimed that, as a great man of power and authority surrounded by magnificence, Dionysius was truly extremely fortunate. The King turned to Damocles and said, “If you think I’m so lucky, how would you like to try out my life?” Damocles readily agreed, and so Dionysius ordered everything to be prepared for Damocles to experience what life as Dionysius was like. Damocles was enjoying himself immensely… until he noticed a sharp sword hovering over his head, that was suspended from the ceiling by a horse hair. This, the King explained to Damocles, was what life as ruler was really like. Damocles, alarmed, quickly revised his idea of what made up a good life, and asked to be excused, realizing that with great fortune and power come also great peril and anxiety. He then eagerly returned to his poorer, but safer life. Dionysius had successfully conveyed a sense of the constant fear in which the great man lives.
The great, late-Republican Roman orator and statesman Cicero describes the Sword of Damocles in his Tusculan Disputations 5.61.
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, especially one in which the onset of tragedy is restrained only by a delicate trigger or chance.