Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) is the only classical writer to have passed onto us this memorable tale about the paradox of political power: that those who possess it have everything but the peace to enjoy it.
DIONYSIUS, lord of Syracuse, listened willingly enough as Damocles praised the king’s army, the splendour of his court, and the lavish hospitality of his table. But when the gushing courtier declared that Dionysius was the happiest of men, the king stopped him.
‘Would you like’ he asked ‘to experience for yourself this happiness in which I live each day?’ At once, he ordered a couch of gold and soft cushions for Damocles. Plates came from the kitchen, and cups from the cellars, and flowers from the gardens. Courteous and handsome servants awaited his command, and Damocles gazed all around this scene with unconcealed joy.
Then he noticed the ceiling.
There, directly over his head, he saw a heavy sword suspended from a single hair. In an instant, all else was wiped from his mind. All but that long, bright blade.
Presently, Damocles managed to whisper that he would like permission to move. It seemed he had no desire to be ‘happy’, after all.