The Sword of Damocles is a story I’ve always remembered from my childhood. At first I thought my father shared this with me. But recently I asked him about it and he told me he didn’t. So the mystery of where I heard it is one for the ages. But the story is still one of my favourites and I don’t know why it captivated me this much. Then an amazing thing happened when I decided to read some of Cicero’s works.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero, On the Good Life. Contains the Story of The Sword of Damocles.
Benny Voncken, Cover of On the Good Life – Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was a Roman orator, a statesman, during the tumultuous times of Julius Caesar’s rise to becoming emperor. Cicero was, however, not on the side of Caesar. He attached himself to Gnaeus Pompeius, which turned out to be the losing side. There is an interesting series on Netflix, Roman Empire, which shows you more about this time. Watching it after reading Cicero’s work was a wonderful experience. But Cicero also had his philosophical side. And although he does make plenty of references to Stoicism, he did lean more towards the Academy.

In later writings I’d like to share more about Cicero. Because his writing and thought process is wonderful to read, but also because it gives a beautiful insight in the world at that time. For now, though, I will go back to my story. One day I went to the library and picked up the Penguin edition of Cicero, On the Good Life. A translation by Michael Grant of several of his works. The writing had me and I couldn’t put it down. It engrossed me, and then it happened. I turned to page 84. It  was part of  the Discussions at Tusculum (V).

The tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I

Modern day Syracuse where Dionysius ruled.
Photo by Luca N on Unsplash

Cicero was referring to Dionysius I. This was the infamous tyrant of Syracuse. Who took to power at the age of 25 and reigned for thirty-eight years. (Dionysius I, born c.430 BC, ruled the city from 405 until his death in 367.) There are plenty of horrific stories on this man in this passage. But what stood out was that he got so paranoid, that he didn’t trust any one. He locked himself up and had his daughter shave him, because he didn’t entrust the barber with his throat. He had two wives and whenever he went to either of their rooms, he had them inspected and their rooms searched.

But now we come to where this passage hit me on a personal note. And I remember exactly where I read it. I was living in Dubai and went to my usual reading spot in a coffeeshop in a mall. Once I recognised the name of Damocles, I almost jumped up and looked around me in wonder and excitement. No one paid attention or was able to understand my joy in finding this story. I continued reading and I now would like to share the story here as it was written by Cicero. I do recommend reading Cicero’s work for yourself. But because it has a lot of personal meaning, for reasons I don’t quite know, I’ll quote it here below.

The Sword of Damocles

‘Indeed, Dionysius himself pronounced judgement on whether he was happy or not. He was talking to one of his flatterers, a man called Damocles, who enlarged on the monarch’s wealth and power, the splendours of his despotic régime, the immensity of his resources, and the magnificence of his palace. Never, he declared, had there been a happier man. ‘Very well, Damocles,’ replied the ruler, ‘since my life strikes you as so attractive, would you care to have a taste of it yourself and see what my way of living is really like?

A most elaborate feast

The sword of Damocles, a representation of a sword.
Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

Damocles agreed with pleasure. And so Dionysius had him installed on a golden couch covered with a superb woven coverlet embroidered with beautiful designs, and beside the couch was placed an array of sideboards loaded with chased gold and silver plate. He ordered that boys, chosen for their exceptional beauty, should stand by and wait on Damocles at table, and they were instructed to keep their eyes fastened attentively upon his every sign. There were perfumes and garlands and incense, and the tables were heaped up with a most elaborate feast.

His desire to be happy had quite evaropated

Damocles thought himself a truly fortunate person. But in the midst of all his splendour, directly above the neck of the happy man, Dionysius arranged that a gleaming sword should be suspended from the ceiling, to which it was attached by a horsehair. And so Damocles had no eye for those lovely waiters, or for all the artistic plate. Indeed, he did not even feel like reaching out his hand towards the food. Presently the garlands, of their own accord, just slipped down from his brow. In the end he begged the tyrant to let him go, declaring that his desire to be happy had quite evaporated.’ – Cicero, On the Good Life, Discussions at Tusculum (V), Pages 84-85, Penguin Books.

Do they have a sword dangling over their heads?

What happened was that I heard references to this story during my childhood. And that idea of a sword dangling over someone’s head by a horse’s hair made an impression. But I’d never read or learned the full story. By encountering it here, it made things click. Especially at the time that I read it. During those years living in Dubai, I was going through somewhat of a personal transition. And with all the luxury on display all over that place, it seemed as if everyone was living their happiest lives.

This story, and the timed encounter, made me reflect on the true nature of what was happening around me. We’re prone to make judgements on the state of well-being of others if we see them wrapped in beauty and luxury. But we don’t know what price they might be paying for that lavish lifestyle. Do they have a sword dangling above their necks which keeps them from enjoying what they have? It taught me to focus less on others and more on myself. What price was I paying for my life?

Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?” Starting with your own.

Marcus aurelius, meditations, book 10.37

Examine your situation

Different paths in a forrest. Making a decision means you can't take the other path.
Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

We are making decisions all the time. And as we make a decision, there is something on the other side we can’t have or must reject. Things don’t come for free. If we want shiny objects to brighten our lives, then we usually pay the price in time. Can we put all these riches on display, or are we scared someone might steal it or take it away? When going through the works of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, the warning of who owns who keeps coming back. Are you the master of your possessions or do they own you and determine your life?

To live a happy life, at least in my personal opinion, we don’t need much. Definitely not a sword dangling over our necks. Please examine your situation. Check if your necks are safe or is your happiness suppressed by that what should bring it?

The Sword of Damocles revisted

The Sword of Damocles. "A person who lacks the means, within himself, to live a good and happy life will find any period of his existence wearisome." - Cicero
The Sword of Damocles, Photo by Vadim Mityushin on Unsplash

There you have it. A beautiful accidental rendevous with a story that had a special place in my memory from when I was a little boy, found during a pivotal moment in my life. Found not anywhere, but amongst the words of Cicero. What better way to show the importance of reading and being curious. Because that’s what brought me to Cicero in the first place. Curiosity to explore more of the classic writings.

Pick up a book and read. And if you don’t know what to read, here you can find my list. But there is always Cicero, waiting for you from two millennia ago. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it and revisiting the Sword of Damocles. To leave you with a final quote from another one of Cicero’s writings. In his essay ‘On Old Age’ he describes Cato the Elder’s view on this.

“A person who lacks the means, within himself, to live a good and happy life will find any period of his existence wearisome.”

Cato the elder, according to cicero, On old age, 1 cato and his friends
The Sword of Damocles
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22 thoughts on “The Sword of Damocles

  • 20 August 2022 at 12:06
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    Woosh, living with a sword above one’s head is a high price to pay for living someone else’s life. I had never heard of this story but I loved to learn about it. It reminded me of the importance of observing and seeing beyond the layers of what’s visible. Thanks for sharing, Benny. I can imagine how excited you were when reading the story in the book.

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    • 22 August 2022 at 19:49
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      Glad to hear that you liked this story. You put it very lovely when you mentioned the layers. There is more than meets the eye and we must try to look at our layers first. Thank you for your comment.

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  • 20 August 2022 at 14:58
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    This is interesting, the first time to know about the sword of Damocles. It was a nice read about it. Thank you for sharing!

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    • 22 August 2022 at 19:50
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      Thank you, Fransic, for your comment. I’m glad to see you liked the story.

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  • 20 August 2022 at 17:03
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    I always learn something from your posts. And i do think that true happiness (while it’s rare) is in simplicity rather than possessions.

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    • 22 August 2022 at 19:51
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      Thank you, Julian. The same way I learn a lot from your posts. True happiness is rare and quite fleeting. But it is, as you say, found in the simple things.

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  • 21 August 2022 at 13:57
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    Another great and informative post. And this line is so true, we never know:
    “We’re prone to make judgements on the state of well-being of others if we see them wrapped in beauty and luxury. But we don’t know what price they might be paying for that lavish lifestyle.”

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    • 22 August 2022 at 19:52
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      Thank you for highlighting that phrase and for your comment. Judgements are easy, the truth is covered in many different shades.

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  • 21 August 2022 at 19:25
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    I had never heard of this story before today but it is so true – even today. We don’t know the price the rich pay for their wealth. As is hinted at here, maybe many are prevented from reaping the rewards of their success – possibly not by a sword dangling from a horse’s hair but some other unseen threat. All you need to be happy is warmth, food and love. I hold onto that.

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    • 22 August 2022 at 19:53
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      Thank you Belinda for your kind words. And I agree with you that we don’t need much but the things you mentioned. It is all found within ourselves. It’s great to see that you find the relevance of this story even today. Thank you.

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  • 22 August 2022 at 01:28
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    This is so interesting Benny. Many are living this material life and sadly, are battling with mental health issues as a result. They chase it and lose sight of what’s really important; when they get it, they realise it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and usually resort to dangerous addictive habits…. (From what I’ve seen). Simplicity is the key to happiness. Thanks for sharing. Jade MumLifeAndMe

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    • 22 August 2022 at 19:55
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      Thank you, Jade for your kind words. They do chase it and lose sight of what is important. I’ve done so myself for a long time and sometimes still find myself chasing things. But I try to keep that to a minimum. Usually we need to reach a moment of almost breaking own before we can see our destructive behaviour. Simplicity is the key.

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  • 22 August 2022 at 15:22
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    I’m yet to read ‘On the Good Life’ but its on my bookshelf as wel speak and I have just finished reading the ‘Selected Works’ which was excellent. Im curious to know benner if you have read four thousand weeks by Oliver Burkman as yes and what you thought of it fella?
    I’m currently trying to read Benjamin Franklins Autobiography but the very old style of writing is hurting my brain at times but its clear this fellow had a very happy life and was way ahead of his time.
    Thanks for sharing,

    Phillip Dews

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    • 22 August 2022 at 19:41
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      Thanks for your comment, Phillip. It’s great to read about a fellow enthusiast about these texts. I haven’t read Four Thousand Weeks, but I’ll investigate it and add it to my list. Sounds like an interesting one to read. I understand that some books are difficult to get through. That’s when I use Michel de Montaigne’s advice to just put it down and read something I enjoy. Although I’m also a bit too obsessed by finishing what I read. I only haven’t been able to finish Spinoza. My tiny brain can’t handle that.

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  • 22 August 2022 at 21:01
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    Wow, it’s so interesting how what we are looking for shows up in the most apt timings. A story that resonated as a child showing up in a moment of transition in your life is a message from the universe to pay attention. What a great lesson and reminder this is. We don’t know the cost, the price someone paid to obtain what they have. The grass only looker fresher on the other side because where not the ones watering it and doing the work to maintain it. Only if you walk in the shoes of others can you understand the cost or see the sword dangling by a horse hair. I agree that to live happy lives, we only need a few things, maybe even nothing, but to carry happiness in our hearts for the gift of life and the chance to experience this world with all our senses. Thanks for sharing.

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    • 27 August 2022 at 18:58
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      Thank you for your lovely words and how true they are. It was a great moment to read this story. Great to see that that you find the happy life not in things but in our hearts.

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  • 22 August 2022 at 21:50
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    I first came across the Sword of Damocles by watching anime. They often use a lot of ancient history in the plots of anime.

    There’s one flaw with the Sword of Damocles, most rulers wouldn’t feel like there every waking moment was a risk of someone taking your life. It’s really about the sort of person and ruler you are. Plus, such threats are probably worse for the those in the rulers court, rather than the ruler themselves.

    However, I like the meaning you took from it, turning it into this interesting post. I guess the Sword of Damocles I feel is about life goals, such as buying a property and having children.

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    • 27 August 2022 at 19:01
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      I’d love to know what anime you found this story, if you can remember. I agree that most rulers wouldn’t be the worst of, but if you look back in history and see how many rulers made it old age and died under suspecious circumstances shows that it was also a dangerous job. But what you said stands, they subjects faired far worse. But whether they were happier is a different question.

      Thank you for sharing your views and also seeing what I tried to convey by it. I’m happy that came across.

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  • 30 August 2022 at 00:13
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    Wonderful Benny thank you. Definitely an Epiphany for you… And loving the metaphor of the sword… Dubai and chasing dust definitely induces that very feeling at times. Simplicity becomes craved once again… Family, true home, laughter, sharing time. These things are riches money truly cannot buy and should be cherished as treasures greater than any other. It’s all a real learning curve…

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    • 30 August 2022 at 12:32
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      Thank you, Yvie. It’s always great to hear your views and especially when they are wrapped in such kind words. Chasing dust in Dubai, that made me laugh and think back to what it was like there. But what you state about simplicity and know where true value lies, is something I had as well. Cherishing what really matters. Thank you again!

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  • 4 September 2022 at 17:58
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    I never knew the whole story either but knew the expression. Thanks for this great post. Very good cautionary tale too. Everything has a price, and all that glitters is not made of gold!

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    • 9 September 2022 at 17:20
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      It’s great to hear that you’ve heard of the story and that I got to share the entire one with you. I love your take on it, not everything that glitters is made of gold. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply

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