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.
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