The Sword of Damocles, 1812 – Richard Westall

In Richard Westall oil painting, The Sword of Damocles, it depicts an ancient moral parable told by the Roman philosopher Cicero dating back to 45 B.C.. Cicero’s interpretation of the tale focuses on Dionysius II, an authoritarian king who was once controlled Sicilian city of Syracuse during the 4thand 5thcenturies B.C. He made more enemies than friends while ruling despite all his money and power. Dionysius was continuously threatened and feared assassination during his reign. Then it was Damocles, a courtier, who proclaimed how delightful and pleasing Dionysius life must be being king. Of course, Dionysius was not pleased with this and said “do you wish to taste it yourself and make a trail of my good fortune?” (Andrews 2016). In Westall painting, it depicts Damocles accepting Dionysius offer being seated on a golden couch. Damocles was living lavishly as he was served by plentiful amount of servants, fed the finest foods and drinks, and being able to admire material riches. The lavish life that Damocles was beginning to fall in love with as king came to an abrupt end when he noticed a razor-sharp sword from the ceiling hanging right over his head. Immediately forgetting about how he was just admiring how “easy” Dionysius life seemed to be upon realizing that sword was only being held up by a single strand of horsehair. That ended his ability to feel as if his time as king was going to be glorious and effortless. After being psyched out by the dangling sword above, Damocles removed himself from the role not wanting to be as wealthy and fortunate as he thought Dionysius had it.

The tale of Dionysius and Damocles was depicted fittingly by Westall. The audience, as well as Damocles, was able to understand how being so high in power brings a lot of physical and mental stress such as anxiety and depression but can do as far as death. There truly is never a sense of happiness and peace when one is centered in such an unstable and energy draining environments. Cicero’s tale had such a lasting impact that the phrase “Sword of Damocles” is used still today in situations where one has an impending threat or insecurity. Another being “hanging by a thread” which is something that I actually use but I was not able to determine where might that statement come from. The phrase explains the danger or unsteadiness of one’s actions to not feel as if they can continue on. Dionysius clearly was able to convey his point by using the sword and one might see this as a little exaggerated or extreme but it ought not to be despite all the riches depicted in the image. Like Damocles it was hard to see through one’s material wealth of gold, servants, performs, foods, drinks, and luxurious clothes which makes Dionysius use of a sword being hung by a horsehair even more insightful on how tiresome and vigilant his position is as ruler. Despite how death is an inevitable event, we should take Dionysius’s advice by encouraging his urgency to make the most of the one life you are given and to not “judge a book by its cover.”


Andrews, Evan. “What Was the Sword of Damocles?”, A&E Television Networks, 17 Feb. 2016,