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Frederick The Monk
62632.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 3:44 am Reply with quote

Question: What was Damocles job?

Forfeits: king/ Sword swallower

Answer: Groupie

Notes: Damocles was a sycophantic courtier at the court of Dionysius I. Having flattered the tyrant that no-one could be happier than him because of his power and wealth Dionysius asked if he would like to give it a go. Damocles eagerly agreed and was laid on a golden bed, surrounded by rich fabrics and feasted by handsome young boys. Just as Damocles was starting to really enjoy himself Dionysius ordered a sword to be lowered, point down, over Damocles head, suspended on a single horse hair. When Damocles noticed this he could no longer enjoy himself, couldn't eat and eventually begged to be released from such 'happiness'.

The moral is that no man, however rich can be happy if he lives in fear.

Dionysius I (c.430 - 367 B.C.) was a tyrant of Syracuse who brought great prosperity to the state but whose rule was hugely expensive due largely to the need to pay large numbers of mercenaries. Plato visited is court and thought he was a bit of a bastard.

Dionysius fancied himself as a bit of a poet and playwright and owned Aeschylus' desk and pen and Euripides' harp but none of this seems to have provided him with much inspiration as his own works were terrible. His poetry was hissed at the Olympic Games.Dionysius was fond of having distinguished literary men about him, such as the historian Philistus, the poet Philoxenus, and the philosopher Plato, but treated them in a most arbitrary manner. Once he had the Philoxenos arrested and brought before him for a poetry reading. Dionysius read his own work and the audience applauded. When he asked Philoxenos how he liked it, the poet replied only "take me back to the prison".

His first wife committed suicide after which he married two women simultaneously - Aristomache of Syracuse and Doris of Locri. He was succeeded by his son Dionysius II who probably poisoned him.

The myth of Damocles is based on a story in Timaeus of Tauromenium's lost history of Sicily. It occurs in Cicero's Tusculan Disputations (Book V, chptr 21)"

This tyrant, however, showed himself how happy he really was; for once, when Damocles, one of his flatterers, was dilating in conversation on his forces, his wealth, the greatness of his power, the plenty he enjoyed, the grandeur of his royal palaces, and maintaining that no one was ever happier, “Have you an inclination,” said he, “Damocles, as this kind of life pleases you, to have a taste of it yourself, and to make a trial of the good fortune that attends me?” And when he said that he should like it extremely, Dionysius ordered him to be laid on a bed of gold with the most beautiful covering, embroidered and wrought with the most exquisite work, and he dressed out a great many sideboards with silver and embossed gold. He then ordered some youths, distinguished for their handsome persons, to wait at his table, and to observe his nod, in order to serve him with what he wanted. There were ointments and garlands; perfumes were burned; tables provided with the most exquisite meats. Damocles thought himself very happy. In the midst of this apparatus, Dionysius ordered a bright sword to be let down from the ceiling, suspended by a single horse-hair, so as to hang over the head of that happy man. After which he neither cast his eye on those handsome waiters, nor on the well-wrought plate; nor touched any of the provisions: presently the garlands fell to pieces. At last he entreated the tyrant to give him leave to go, for that now he had no desire to be happy. Does not Dionysius, then, seem to have declared there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions? But it was not now in his power to return to justice, and restore his citizens their rights and privileges; for, by the indiscretion of youth, he had engaged in so many wrong steps and committed such extravagances, that, had he attempted to have returned to a right way of thinking, he must have endangered his life.

Links to: Democracy/ Doris/ Danger



Richard Westall, The Sword of Damocles, 1812, Ackland Art Museum Note: The young boys of the orginal story ahve been replaced with maidens for a 19th century audience.

Researcher: JP

62647.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 4:34 am Reply with quote

This topic was mentioned at the meeting on Monday and given a bit of a raspberry, but since then I've road-tested it a bit and been quite struck by the number of people who are familiar with the expression 'sword of Damocles' but not with the anecdote - ie it does seem to me that this is legitimate territory for us as part of our mission to inform (not as an attempt to catch anyone out - I think we should expect and hope that someone on the panel will get it right for once).

The question I've been noodling with, in the context of Danger, is:

What danger dangled over Damocles?

and my notes say:

The story of Damocles is a moral anecdote, mentioned by Cicero amongst others, concerning a courtier in the court of the 4th century BC tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius II. When Damocles said how enviable Dionysius' position was, the tyrant offered to swap places for a day. Damocles had a whale of a time, until he saw the sword which had been suspended by a single horsehair directly overhead, whereupon he resigned his position.
Cicero described part of the amenities enjoyed by Damocles thus: "that chosen boys of outstanding beauty should stand by his table and that they, watching for a sign from Damocles, should attentively wait on him". ( )

The Danish for 'dangle' is 'dingle'.

I seem to have got the wrong Dionysius.

Frederick The Monk
62655.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 4:50 am Reply with quote

The Oxford Classical Dictionary says Dionysius I.

Frederick The Monk
62656.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 4:50 am Reply with quote

Although to be honest it's a legend so it's a bit like arguing over which King Cole was the oldest.

62657.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 4:51 am Reply with quote

You see one Dionysius, you've seen 'em both, I always think.

Frederick The Monk
62659.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 4:52 am Reply with quote

In reply to 'what dangled over Damocles' I would immediately say 'a sword' - as have most people I have road-tested this on. What they did all incorreectly assume however was that Damocles was the king. Or is that too complicated?

62662.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 5:03 am Reply with quote

No, I think that's what I mean - they'll get the answer, but perhaps not know why.

Which is not to say that there isn't a better question.


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