As I’ve mentioned (or will mention at some point), I am creating a dataset of scent-related references from literature, mostly Roman, from circa 100 BCE to 100 CE. In Tusculan Disputations I came across the Cicero’s retelling of still-used anecdote of the sword of Damocles.
In reading the translation by J E King (1927), I was struck by the description of Damocles’ new wealth and how sensual and multi-sensory it is:
“…Dionysius had him seated on a couch of gold covered with beautiful woven tapestries embroidered with magnificent designs, and had several sideboards set out with richly chased gold and silver plate. Next a table was brought and chosen boys of rare beauty were ordered to take their places and wait upon him with eyes fixed attentively upon his motions. There were perfumes, garlands; incense was burnt; the tables were loaded with the choicest banquet…”
(Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, V., XXII)
This is a sensory story if ever there was one!
The anecdote is said to have first appeared in the lost history of Sicily by Timaeus of Tauromenium (c. 356–260 BC, and there is some speculation that Cicero adapted the story from a version in the texts of Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE), the author of the 40-book universal history Bibliotheca historica, of which only 15 books survive.
The bones of the story
In the 4th-century BCE, Syracuse in Sicily was ruled by Dionysius II. The man had power and wealth and was admired, envied, and probably despised in equal measure. Damocles, an obsequious flatter of the court, one day mentioned Dionysius’ authority, magnificent wealth, and the wonder of his palaces, ending with the comment that no one had ever been happier.
Dionysius offered to trade places for a day and his offer was quickly accepted. Damocles found himself seated on a golden couch which was covered with richly woven tapestries. Garlands of flowers, cutlery and crockery of gold and silver, and beautiful women and boys surrounded him. Perfume filled the air, incense was burned, and a mouth-watering banquet appeared. Damocles was delighted. Delighted until, that is, Dionysius hung a razor-sharp sword above Damocles’ head from a single horse hair, which, if snapped, would result in the blade biting into the neck of Damocles.
Damocles found it hard to enjoy the wealth and finery and power that he had accepted for the day, distracted by the possibility of his death by sword, and asked Dionysius if he could switch places once again. It turned out that Damocles had no wish to be as happy as Dionysius anymore.
What was the message of the sword? Some interpretations link the sword to the idea that “with great power comes great responsibility” and that this “great responsibility” distracts from the apparent delights of power. Others point to Dionysius’ rise to power being full of cruelties, meaning that in spite of appearances, he had to constantly remain vigilant to his enemies. Others offer this as a moral tale akin to “walk a mile in my shoes before you judge” or the idea that appearances can be deceptive: be careful what you wish for, in other words!
Can you relive the experience?
Perhaps. If you’re willing to try something. You are? Lovely. Here we go…
Imagine yourself seated on a couch of solid gold.
It’s cool to the touch, hard beneath your body, but that’s okay because you are reclining on soft tapestries and pillows. The air is heavy with perfume and incense and delicious scents waft from the trays of food being carried by beautiful young slaves. You reach out a hand and touch the silken hair of a young girl, and you notice how beautiful the people are around you: firm skin, big smiles, luscious fabrics, heads crowned with garlands of flowers.
Birdsong floats across the court, and musicians play a melody that reminds you of the joys of spring and childhood. You take a sip of wine, feel it warming you as it travels down your gullet. You pop a grape into your mouth and savour its firm, round form, relish the burst of sweetness as it burst between your teeth…
If you allowed your imagination to take over, you may have been transported to a different place thanks to the sensory journey. In this short description, you (and Damocles) would have explored the senses of touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste.
How the senses bring the past to life
This short story and the accompanying multi-sensory deep-dive show just how effective sensory descriptions can be in bringing history to life, and that’s something that British artist Herbert Gandy shows in his painting of The Sword of Damocles. The resolution isn’t brilliant, but you can see the whole picture, along with close-ups of Dionysius sitting aside an incense burner, surrounded by beautiful people wearing garlands. In the background, delicious food is being brought in to be eaten from “golden plate”, and in the background, a glorious peacock is a visual treat (and perhaps an edible treat, too!)
Not all artists capture the multi-sensory experience, however. In Gomberville’s illustration of the story, food and drink and song and beautiful people seem to be dominant, but smell is conspicuous by its omission, although the medium may well be the cause of this. Auvray’s painting reintroduces the wafting incense.
A tiny sensescape. Now back to work!
Although I am focusing on larger sensescapes at the moment, I thought this was an interesting example of a localised sensescape and how effective it was in transporting us back to ancient Syracuse.
- Cicero (no date), Tusculan Disputations, translated by King, J.E. (1927), Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press
- Gomberville, M. Le Roy ( 1600-1674), in La doctrine des moevrs, tiree de la philosophie des stoiques, representee en cent tableavx et expliqvee en cent discovrs pour l’instruction de la ieunesse
- Auvray, Felix (1800-1833), Épée de Damoclès
- Gandy, H. (?–1920), The Sword of Damocles
Images from Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Sword_of_Damocles
XXI. For when one of his flatterers, named Damocles, dilated in conversation upon his troops, his resources, the splendours of his despotism, the magnitude of his treasures, the stateliness of his palaces, and said that no one had ever been happier: “Would you then, Damocles,” said he, “as this life of mine seems to you so delightful, like to have a taste of it yourself and make trial of my good fortune?” On his admitting his desire to do so Dionysius had him seated on a couch of gold covered with beautiful woven tapestries embroidered with magnificent designs, and had several sideboards set out with richly chased gold and silver plate. Next a table was brought and chosen boys of rare beauty were ordered to take their places and wait upon him with eyes fixed attentively upon his motions. There were perfumes, garlands; incense was burnt; the tables were loaded with the choicest banquet: Damocles thought himself a lucky man. In the midst of all this display Dionysius had a gleaming sword, attached to a horse-hair, let down from the ceiling in such a way that it hung over the neck of this happy man. And so he had no eye either for those beautiful attendants, or the richly-wrought plate, nor did he reach out his hand to the table; presently the garlands slipped from their place of their own accord; at length he besought the tyrant to let him go, as by now he was sure he had no wish to be happy. Dionysius seems (does he not?) to have avowed plainly that there was no happiness for the man who was perpetually menaced by some alarm.
(Translated by J E King, 1927)