Sword of Damocles: What Is This Saying and How Can I Use It in Russian?

Sword of Damocles: What Is This Saying and How Can I Use It in Russian?
27 August 2021

You may have heard the saying Sword of Damocles being used in English, for example when somebody says that there is a Sword of Damocles hanging over their head. This saying can be directly translated into Russian as дамоклов меч, and can be found in journalism and literature. But what does it mean, and how can you use it in Russian?

What does this saying refer to?

The Sword of Damocles links to a tale involving King Dionysius II, who ruled over Syracuse, a Sicilian city, in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. He was an extremely powerful man, but his power came with the cost of accumulating many enemies. He therefore lived in a constant state of fearing that he would be assassinated. One day, the courtier Damocles was telling the King that he envied his life, and that it must be wonderful to be surrounded by such fortunes. In a moment of resentment, King Dionysius II told the courtier Damocles that he could take the King’s place for some time, in order to experience what it is like to be in his position. Damocles was delighted, and initially enjoyed the luxuries granted only to royalty. 

However, Damocles soon noticed that a sword was hanging about his head, and was held only by a single horse’s hair. Suddenly, the joy of the comforts associated with being King was removed, and Damocles could only feel the fear invoked by the hanging sword. Eventually the dread caused by the threat of the sword became too much for Damocles, and he begged to be relieved from his position. Therefore, the Sword of Damocles refers to the uncertainty faced by those in positions of power, or the idea that everything hangs on a thread. 

How can this be used in Russian?

As previously mentioned, Sword of Damocles has the Russian translation of дамоклов меч, with меч being the Russian word for sword. To use it in a sentence, you may wish to combine it with the verb висеть над– to hang over. For example:

Этот дамоклов меч висит над моей головой (This Sword of Damocles hangs over my head)

Эта ситуация висит над нами как дамоклов меч (This situation is hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles)

Remember: Here, the instrumental case must be used after над (above).


Not only is the story behind the idiom fascinating, but adding idioms like this one to your written and spoken Russian will sound incredibly impressive to native speakers. To learn more obscure idioms, you can read our articles “Шапочное знакомство: The Russian Idiom for ‘A Nodding Acquaintance” and “Potemkin Villages (Потемкинские деревни): The Story Behind the Russian Idiom”. 


Leila, currently studying at Liden & Denz St. Petersburg

Posted by Leila Shannon

Привет! I'm Leila, and I study Russian and Spanish at Durham University. I am currently studying with Liden & Denz in St. Petersburg. I have been studying Russian for almost 3 years, and I love learning about Russian history and culture.

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