Definition: (1) a metaphor for an impending threat or blow that robs an individual of his or her enjoyment of wealth, luxury, or safety; or more precisely, that an enviable life is fraught with anxiety and danger (2) a situation that threatens imminent harm or danger; an imminent disaster.
Variant: to hang by a thread
Origin: The story of Damocles is found in a book, Tusculanae Quaestiones (45 BC), written by Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC), a sagacious Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher, recounting a story he had read in an earlier work, The Histories written by the great ancient Greek historian Timaeus (345 BC – 250 BC). In this legendary story, Dionysius II, a tyrant who ruled Syracuse, Sicily (from about 367 BC to 344 BC), tires of the flattery by a courtier named Damocles. Damocles endlessly praises Dionysius’s royal palace, his power, his great fortune, and lifestyle. Finally, Dionysius asks Damocles: “So, Damocles, since this life delights you, do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune?” Of course, Damocles the royal wannabe (and royal pain in the arse) consents, feeling he has won the ultimate lottery. Dionysius orders that Damocles be placed on a golden couch, surrounded by a bounty of food, gold, silver, perfumes, and dutiful attendants. However, in the midst of all this luxury, Dionysius orders that a very sharp sword be hung from the ceiling with a single horse-hair right over Damocles’s neck. Horrified at this menacing dagger (to borrow from Macbeth: “Is this a dagger which I see before me? “), Damocles cannot enjoy the wealth and banquet within arm’s reach. No longer wanting to live with so much anxiety and peril, and no longer wishing the very fortune he so desperately desired, Damocles begs Dionysius to let him go.
The real moral of the story is not that there is always danger for a powerful individual, but rather that happiness is quite fragile, and it is indeed relative. As Cicero asks in the fifth Disputation: “Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?” In an interview with NPR, classics scholar Daniel Mendelsohn dismisses the modern simplistic interpretation of “impending danger”: “The real point of the story is very clearly a moral parable. It’s not just — oh, something terrible is going to happen — but it’s about realizing that what looks like an enviable life — a life of wealth, a life of power, a life of luxury — is in fact, fraught with anxiety, terror and possibly death. And so that’s the moral lesson of the original story, which has completely, I would say, gotten lost in the common [modern] usage. We all use that expression — it’s a sword of Damocles. But the point was [that] all this stuff is meaningless — power, luxury and wealth — and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll be happy to be a much lesser kind of person.”
This sentiment of “the grass is always greener on the other side” can be found in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:
“Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, / Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope, / With what I most enjoy contented least;
… That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
For further reading: It’s Greek to Me: Brush Up Your Classics by Michael Macrone, Harper Collins (1991)