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The Sword of Damocles


The sword of Damoclea (damocles2.jpg--436x548)

Richard Westall, The Sword of Damocles (1812), the Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Japanese version (japanv.gif--100x36) October 14, 2003


The Sword of Damocles

This story might have come from a historical event because King Dionysius (431?~367BC) actually governed the ancient Italian city during the 4th century BC as a tyrant (405~367BC) of Syracuse—the richest city in Sicily. A host of servants attended his every need and wish.

Though swathed in luxuries of a spectacular palace, with rich clothing and jewelry, rare perfumes and spices and the best foods, and surrounded with beautiful women, King Dionysius felt so insecure—so much so that he employed court flatterers or ass-kissers to buoy his ego.

Damocles was one of such sycophants, constantly praising King Dionysius. Indeed, many in Syracuse envied Dionysius his wealth and power.

Damocles would regularly say to Dionysius, “How lucky you are! You have everything that anyone could wish for. You must be the happiest man on the face of the earth.”

One day this persistent comment made Dionysius come up with an idea. The king thought that it was about time for him to teach Damocles something. Dionysius said to Damocles, “Look, perhaps you’d like to trade places with me.”
      “Your Majesty, you are certainly making fun of me.”
      “Oh, no. I’m quite serious.”
      “Are you?” Damocles looked into his gleaming eyes, and sensed his seriousness. So the sycophant said, “Well, if I could only enjoy the riches and pleasures of the palace for only one day, I would never want any greater happiness.
      King Dionysius therefore said, in effect, “you’re right on.”

The next day, in the midst of enjoying the ultimate in royal treatment, Damocles became deliriously happy, entertained by beautiful women while enjoying the sumptuous dinner.

Female entertainers at palace (women99.jpg--456x239)

As he raised his cup to his lips, his face beaming with mirth, his eyes looked to the ceiling and then he stiffened. There above him was a razor sharp sword, its edge glistening in the light, suspended by the haft with a single horse hair. It pointed at right between his eyes. He’d have bolted from the room unless any sudden movement might send the sword falling.
      “What’s the matter?” Dionysius asked. “You seem to have lost your appetite.”
      “The sword,” he whispered, ashen-faced “The sword . . . don’t you see it?”
      “Of course I see it,” said the king. “I see it every day. It always hangs over my head. Perhaps some day one of my advisors will grow jealous and try to kill me. Or someone may spread lies about me, turning the people against my rule. Or a neighboring king may send an army to seize my throne. Or I might make an unwise decision that will bring my downfall. If you want to be a leader, you must be willing to accept these risks. The weight of responsibility comes with leadership.”
      “I see,” said Damocles. And never again would he want to trade places with the king. Realizing that he had been mistaken, Damocles rejected riches and fame, and was glad to go back to his own humble home.

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How come Syracuse was so rich?
    - Sandra McKay

Strabo, the Greek historian and man of letters born in Amasea, Pontus (c 64 BC), spent long years in Rome during the first Imperial Age between Augustus and Tiberius, and then wrote about the foundation of Syracuse in his “Geography”:

Syracuse was founded by Archias, who sailed from Corinth about the same time that Naxos and Megara were colonised. It is said that Archias went to Delphi at the same time as Myscellus, and when they were consulting the oracle, the god asked them whether they chose wealth or health; accordingly, the god granted to the former to found Syracuse and to the latter Croton. The Crotoniates took up their adobe in a city that was exceedingly healthful, and Syracuse fell into such exceptional wealth. The name of the Syracuse was spread abroad in a proverb applied to the excessive extravagance.

As you see in the above explanation, the god apparently made Syracuse rich. I know. I know. This doesn’t answer your question.

Well, actually, Syracuse was located in a strategically important place in terms of international trade so that Carthaginians badly wanted to conquer the city. Naturally, the Syracusans made a fortune through trade. If you take a look at the Mediterranean map, you can easily grasp that Syracuse was indeed located at the crossroads of Mediterranean seaways. They took advantage of its location and made a lot of profits as intermediary trader.
    - Akira

Copyright Akira Kato
About this author:
  • Educated both in Canada and Japan
  • Traveled extensively in Europe, Far East, and North America
  • Worked as management consultant, computer systems analyst, college instructor and freelance writer.
Akira Kato


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