Language … The Sword of Damocles
Damocles was said to be a courtier of Dionysius 1, a fourth century BC ruler of Syracuse, Sicily. Dionysius exchanged roles with Damocles, for a day, but arranged for a sword secured by a single horse hair, to be suspended over the throne. Damocles begged to be relieved of his substitution.
Dionysius – who had many enemies and rivals – sought to demonstrate to all that what looks like an enviable life of wealth, power and luxury of a ruler, in fact, is fraught with anxiety, terror and possibly death.
Thus, hanging over the head of any person in power – often by a thread – is the prospect of displacement. Ergo, “The Sword of Damocles”.
Dionysius was real; Damocles and the sword almost certainly were fictitious. So much, however, does not detract from the moral parable. Such parable was popularised by the Roman orator philosopher Cicero in his writings in the first century BC.
In modern idiom, to say a person has “the Sword of Damocles hanging over them” means that they confront a circumstance of imminent peril, whether personal, economic, political or vocational. For example, the CEO of a listed company suffering successive years of corporate losses may well be said to have the “Sword of Damocles” hanging over their tenure.
“Sword of Damocles” was a song from the theatrical and cinematographic productions of the “Rocky Horror Show” in the 1970s. The music and lyrics were composed by Richard O’Brien. The opening verse is this:
The Sword of Damocles
Is hanging over my head
And I’ve got the feeling someone’s going to be cutting the thread
Oh woe is me
My life is a misery
Oh can’t you see
That I’m at the start of a pretty big downer.