Serious Cartooning: The Modern Sword of Damocles

Apr 03, 2014

The Modern Sword of Damocles 

 The modern sword of Damocles, February 4, 1903. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.

“The Modern Sword of Damocles” associates the threat that coal strikes pose to industrial production with the Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles. According to the legend, Damocles was a courtier to Dionysius the Elder of Syracuse, a 4th century BC ruler of the Greek city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. In an attempt to ingratiate himself to his sovereign, Damocles stated that Dionysius must be truly happy due to his great power and authority. Damocles was then invited to a banquet and given a taste of Dionysius’s happiness. He was seated on the throne and surrounded by luxury, but above him hung a sword suspended by a single thread. The sword represented the danger and precariousness of power. Damocles quickly requested to leave.

The legend is clearly reflected in the cartoon by the man’s Greco-Roman garb, his crown indicating power, and the very large sword dangling precariously. The cartoon was published in 1903, the tail end of the Gilded Age robber barons, but their power, both economic and political, isn’t out of place depicted as a classical monarch. This power is threatened by the sword, labeled “coal strikes.” This was a time of considerable industrial strife and Puck readers could easily recall the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. This strike involved over 100,000 miners and was only concluded with the intervention of President Roosevelt, who negotiated with both sides in order to appoint a commission to investigate the strike. There were also major strikes in 1897 and 1900. The cartoon attempts to depict that although industry may have great power and influence, their prosperity will continually be threatened by coal strikes that are barely kept in check and can fall upon them unexpectedly.


“Damocles.” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998. Print.

Posted by Grant Carlson on Apr 03, 2014 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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