The Original Damocles
Damocles lived around 400 B.C. in
Siracusa (Syracuse), on the island of Sicily, a part of modern-day Italy.
Damocles was an attendent in the royal court of the Greek tyrant Dionysius
of Syracuse. Damocles talked so incessantly about the happiness of Dionysius
that the tyrant decided to teach Damocles a lesson. Dionysius held a
grand banquet, and invited Damocles to sit at the place of honor. Just
as Damocles was beginning to enjoy himself, he was horrified to discover
a sword hanging over his head, suspended by a single hair. In so doing,
Damocles learned from Dionysius the perilous nature of his life. In
modern language, "the sword of Damocles" has come to mean
a dreaded tragedy that may strike at any moment. The story is related
in Cicero's Tusculanae disputationes, 5.61.
©1999-2000 Britannica.com Inc
image shows the Greek theater in Siracusa, where Damocles undoubtedly
sat, contemplated, and complained. The city of Siracusa sits beyond
the trees in the right-rear, with the Ionic Sea coast directly to the
right (not shown).
next image shows the entrance to a man-made, teardrop-shaped cave called
the "Ear of Dionysius".
This cave, which is near the Greek theater, was carved into the wall
of a quarry by prisoners. For their efforts, the prisoners also got
to occupy the cave. As a result of the acoustics of the cave, Dionysius
could stand outside the cave and hear prisioners talking within. Any
prisioner who spoke out against Dionysius was thereby found out, and
quickly put to death.
Dionysius The Elder
b. c. 430 BC d. 367 BC
Tyrant of Syracuse from 405 who, by his conquests in Sicily and southern
Italy, made Syracuse the most powerful Greek city west of mainland Greece.
Although he saved Greek Sicily from conquest by Carthage, his brutal
military despotism harmed the cause of Hellenism.
After working as a clerk in a public office, Dionysius distinguished
himself fighting in the war with Carthage that broke out in Sicily in
409. He took advantage of a crisis in the war to make himself tyrant
in 405. Over the next eight years he ruthlessly consolidated and expanded
his power. He built a wall around Syracuse and fortified Epipolae. The
Greek citizens of Naxos, Catana, and Leontini were removed from their
cities; many of them were enslaved and their homes were given to Sicilian
and Italian mercenaries.
Dionysius was then ready to lead his vast army against Carthage, which
had occupied western and southern Sicily. His first war with Carthage
(397-396), during which the Greeks besieged Motya and the Carthaginians
Syracuse, ended with a notable victory for Dionysius, who confined his
enemy's power to an area of northwest Sicily. A second conflict ended
in 392 with a treaty advantageous to Dionysius. After 390 he led an
expedition against Rhegium and other Greek cities of southern Italy,
and with the aid of the Lucanians he devastated the territories of Thurii,
Croton, and Locri. By the time Rhegium fell (386), Dionysius had become
the chief power in Greek Italy. He sent colonists to Illyria and possibly
to northeast Italy. Although the Athenian writer Isocrates hailed him
as a champion of Hellenism, the brutality of Dionysius' conquests made
him unpopular in Greece, and his literary pretensions were deplored.
When he sent a splendid embassy to the Olympic festival of 388, a crowd
pillaged the tents of his envoys.
Dionysius' third war with Carthage (383-c. 375) proved disastrous; he
suffered a crushing defeat at Cronium and was forced to pay an indemnity
of 1,000 talents and cede the territory west of the Halycus River. Nevertheless,
he was engaged in yet another conflict with the Carthaginians at the
time of his death.
© 1999-2000 Britannica.com Inc.
Return to top