Damocles (pronounced DAM-uh-kleez) is a figure featured in a single moral anecdote concerning the Sword of Damocles, which was a late addition to classical Greek culture. The figure belongs properly to legend rather than Greek myth. The anecdote apparently figured in the lost history of Sicily by Timaeus of Tauromenium (c. 356 – 260 BC). Cicero may have read it in Diodorus Siculus. He made use of it in his Tusculan Disputations V.61–62, by which means it has passed into the European cultural mainstream.
The Damocles of the anecdote was an excessively flattering courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, a fourth century BC tyrant of Syracuse. He exclaimed that, as a great man of power and authority, Dionysius was truly fortunate. Dionysius offered to switch places with him for a day, so he could taste first hand that fortune. In the evening a banquet was held, where Damocles very much enjoyed being waited upon like a king. Only at the end of the meal did he look up and notice a sharpened sword hanging by a single horsehair directly above his head. Immediately, he lost all taste for the fine foods and beautiful boys, and asked leave of the tyrant, saying he no longer wanted to be so fortunate.
Dionysius had successfully conveyed a sense of the constant fear in which the great man lives. Cicero uses the story as the last in a series of contrasting examples towards the conclusion he had been building towards in this fifth Disputation, in which the theme is that virtue is sufficient for living a happy life. Cicero asks
"Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?
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 the precarious situation, especially one in which the onset of tragedy is restrained only by a delicate trigger or chance. Moreover, it can be seen as a lesson in the importance of fully understanding another person's situation or experience.
Woodcut images of the Sword of Damocles as an emblem appear in sixteenth and seventeenth-century European books of devices, with moralizing couplets or quatrains, with the import METVS EST PLENA TYRANNIS, "The tyrant is filled with fear"— as it is the tyrant's place to sit daily under the sword. In Wenceslas Hollar's Emblemata Nova (London, no date), a small vignette shows Damocles under a canopy of state, at the festive table, with Dionysius seated nearby; the etching, with its clear political moral, was later used by Thomas Hobbes to illustrate his Philosophicall Rudiments concerning Government and Society (London 1651).