Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Sword of Damocles

Across the stride of human history, many things do not change. Man has always had to eat, to breathe, has always known pride, humility, envy, joy and grief and has always grumbled about taxes. Some things, however, do change. Sometimes even words.

Photograph taken by the author
Take the word 'tyrant' for example, a label of condemnation frequently deployed in the world of today. Originally, however, the word 'tyrant' held no negative connotations at all. The Greek word τύραννος (tyrannos) simply means 'lord of a city'. The most common usage of 'tyrant' in antiquity referred to a ruler of a city state who had come to power unconventionally, neither through inheritance nor election, and does not refer to character. It was a completely neutral word, and 'tyranny' was a relatively common system of government in the world of Classical Greece, especially in Greek colonies. No Greek colony was so famous for tyranny than the great city of Syracuse, arguably the most prestigious and powerful colony of old Greece. Throughout much of their five centuries of independence, the Syracusans rejected democracy in favour of tyranny, and under the Tyrants, Syracuse became a great power in the central Mediterranean, bordered to the West by the maritime superpower of Carthage, and to the East by the growing power of Rome. High were her walls, mighty her navy and rich her coffers. It was said that the majesty of the Syracusan court rivalled that of any Kingdom, the wealth of her treasury that of any Eastern despot. The Tyrants were great patrons of the arts and sciences, and indeed one of Syracuse' citizens was none other than Archimedes himself. Strong authoritarians, the Tyrants for five hundred years kept foreign powers at bay, and when at last the great city fell to the Romans in 212 BC, it did so only after one of the most legendary sieges in history. Here is the story of a Syracusan Tyrant, and a flatterer who longed for power.

Long ago, when the power of Syracuse waxed strongest, and her treasuries earned the envy of the world,  their ruled over the city a man who had been a student of Plato himself. Dionysius II of Syracuse was a man of philosophical intent, yet alas weary with the apparent failure of men to live up to this ideal. Ever in the shadow of his father, who had warred down Carthage and raised his city to the height of its glory, he groaned under the weight of the greatest tyrant of all - expectation. For fear of any treacherous hand felling him by blade or poison, young Dionysius was restricted as a boy to the Syracusan Acropolis, forbidden from ever leaving, lest evil men seek to take advantage of him. The close instruction of Plato, most learned of men alive in the world, not merely then, but perhaps of all time, rigorously conditioned the mind of the boy. With Dionysius, it seemed, Plato's dream may come true at last, that the world would be ruled by the finest governmental system of them all - the philosopher king. An absolute ruler, firmly endowed with virtues and a solid grasp of ethics, immune to flattery and an inspiration to his people.

Down below in the city by the waterfront, a man of quite different spirit and birth had grown up. Damocles was a man who lived ever in want, and knew only envy. Where Dionysius held virtue, Damocles held vice; ambition tempered with greed, a most dangerous combination. From a young age he had set his sights high. Not on wealth, nor military prowess, but on the tyranny itself, and worked his life towards his treacherous goal. Through connections, flattery and other corrupt endeavours, he was enrolled as courtier to the tyrant himself. Triumph, it seemed, loomed close now.

Damocles stepped into the audience chamber of the royal palace, and stood breathless, robbed of words by
the awesome spectacle that greeted his eyes. A traveller of distant lands might enter this grand chamber and believe inside that he had crossed the threshold of Heaven itself. Lavish decoration abounded, in the gold that gilded the walls and ceiling, the marble columns and triumphant statues, silken damask and priceless stones from all corners of the Syracusan trade empire. Never in his life had Damocles truly believed all he had heard of this place, that it really was true. Laughter abounded, banquets prevailed and merriment thrived. But there at the head of it all, seated in resplendent glory, was Dionysius himself, neither smiling nor frowning, a stoic figure in a sea of riches. Damocles rejoiced, though confused in his foolish mind as to why the tyrant rejoiced not too at his merry lot in life.

One day, when the tyrant was not at business, Damocles approached his master. Weaving his sycophancy as he had many a time before, but never upon so mighty a target, he eulogised the tyrant. "Fortunate art thou my tyrant, in the majesty of thy rule, the bounty of thy riches, the magnificence of thy palace and all other things, for never hath there been a man more blessed by Heaven". Dionysius, well educated and philosphically conditioned, despaired of the naive ignorance of the man before him. Thus did the tyrant vow to teach the man a valuable lesson:

                           " So, Damocles, since this life delights you,
                             do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune? "
                                   - THE OFFER OF DIONYSIUS

Difficult it was, to determine who stood more shocked, Damocles himself or the tyrant's advisers who looked on. The tyrant's retinue protested, but Dionysius bade them stay their words. Damocles, faced more openly than ever he wished with that which he sought, was overcome with joy and fervour. Replying immediately that he did wish this, Dionysius at once gave command that the royal power be bestowed upon Damocles, that he be laid upon the golden throne, set upon the finest woven rug embroidered with the feats of great heroes and kings of the past. He ordered the fineries of silver and gold be laid out before the new tyrant, hither and thither, to frame the new ruler. He ordered him clad in robes of the most decadent crimson, and the sceptre of rule placed in his hand. He ordered chosen courtiers to dote upon him and pander to his every whim, to place a garland upon his head and await with perfumes and unguents. He ordered the kitchens bring forth their finest produce and most envied dishes. The last command of Dionysius seemed a peculiar one, he ordered a shimmering sword be fastened to the glittering ceiling, and be held firm not with rope nor cord robust, but by a single horse hair, and that the blade's point should be poised over the neck of the one who sits upon the throne.  It was then that Dionysius stepped back, and the new tyrant was seated upon the Syracusan throne.

The Sword of Damocles
Painting by Richard Westall
Thus was Damocles triumphant at last, as well he thought. Bathed in all the riches of which he had dreamed there seemed no limit to his power or pleasure. He admired the finery in which he was clad. His eyes burned with the fulfilled ambitions of a vice ridden man. His gluttony arose when he cast a glance at the magnificent plates of gold. His pride welled when he saw his entourage, bowing before him. His greed conquered the most towering of pinnacles when he saw the gold, silver and gemstones overflowing from the coffers of the world. "Fortunate am I", he softly said. But then the sycophant caught a glimpse of a glint of metal in the corner of his greedy eye. Intrigued, he cast his newly royal gaze to the Heavens. With a gasp he saw the sharp, silver point hanging over his neck. Further up, there it was, the pommel held fast, or not so fast, by a single hair from the tail of a horse. The sword swayed gently in the rafters, silent as the grave. It was then that Damocles looked not at the abundance of his possessions. He looked not at the oils and unguents nor at the bowing courtiers. Neither did he look at the burnished gold nor shining silver. The woven rug might have been the coarsest hemp now, the crimson robes tattered cloth. The wreath slipped from his head.

Dionysius approached. "You see now the folly of your wish? See now the thread upon which a ruler's life hangs at every moment? The one who rules in an imperfect world has everything to lose, and those around him, everything to gain. The riches of the world are naught compared to the danger a ruler at all times is faced with, only with virtue may we stay fate's blade. Do you still consider yourself a fortunate man, Damocles?"

"No!", wailed Damocles, "I beg you, my tyrant, grant me leave, take back this burden, for I no longer wish to be fortunate!". Thus Dionysius relieved the changed man of his terror, and released him from the fear of fate. To Dionysius the sceptre was returned, to Damocles relief. So Damocles learned that day that power, even absolute, is not the rosy bliss it seems...

United Kingdom

The Tusculan Disputations (Loeb Classical Library):
Philosophical Treatises: Tusculan Disputations v. 18 (Loeb Classical Library)
(The philosophical work which contains the story of the sword of Damocles, the version with the original Latin and English side by side)

The Tusculan Disputations (Digireads):
Tusculan Disputations
(The philosophical work which contains the story of the sword of Damocles, the cheap and cheerful version!)

United States

The Tusculan Disputations (Loeb Classical Library):
Tusculan Disputations (Loeb Classical Library) (v. 18)
(The philosophical work which contains the story of the sword of Damocles, the version with the original Latin and English side by side)

The Tusculan Disputations (Forgotten Books):
The Tusculan Disputations of Cicero (Classic Reprint)
(The philosophical work which contains the story of the sword of Damocles, the cheap and cheerful version!)

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