Sword of Damocles
If someone says the sword of Damocles is hanging over them or that something or other is hanging over them like the sword of Damocles, it means that something bad is going to happen to them. This reference to the sword of Damocles derives from the story of Dionysius, ruler of Syracuse from 405-367 BC, as related by Cicero some three hundred years later. Damocles was a courtier who always commented on how fortunate Dionysius was to be king. Dionysius asked him if he would like to live like a king for a while and Damocles jumped at the prospect. At a subsequent banquet, with Damocles sitting in the king’s place, everything was going well until Dionysius told Damocles to look upwards. There, directly above Damocles’ head, was a heavy sword suspended by a single thread of hair. It was a perilous situation. Dionysius said that Damocles now knew what is was really like to be a king, i.e. living under constant threat. The story was well known throughout history but its first figurative usage in English is recorded from the mid-1500s. It is sometimes expressed without specifically mentioning the ‘sword of Damocles’, as in disaster or fate ‘hanging by a single hair or thread’ but this derives from the same source.