Ancient History, No. 11: The Sword of Damocles
Honoré Daumier ( French, 1808 - 1879 )
You aren't sorry to miss on this day
a knife in order to dine,
said the amiable tyrant. I say
said Damocles, if this is a pun
I find that the point is not fine.
According to Greek mythology, the courtier Damocles admired the power and fortune enjoyed by King Dionysius. When the monarch offered to switch places with Damocles, he eagerly accepted and quickly sat in the king's luxurious throne, only to realize a huge sword held by a single hair from a horse’s tail hung above him. Damocles begged permission to depart, as he realized that with great fortune and power comes great responsibility and danger.
Honoré Daumier made this work during a period when censorship became repressive, hanging as the sword of Damocles over the heads of artists and journalists. In this comical scenario, which was published in Le Charivari on June 12, 1842, as part of the Ancient Stories series, Daumier made a not-so-veiled reference to his opinion about the prevailing lack of freedom of the press.
Martha MacLeod, DMA label copy, 2016.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Read a biography of Daumier from the NGA.