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The Sword of Damocles, How asymmetric warfare deals with double-edged tyrannies


No one gets out alive. “When the game is finished, the king and the pawn end up in the same box.” –Italian Proverb

Simple Sabotage Field Manual

We thought for sure we had featured this already, but if so, we can’t find it on the site. This is a sabotage manual  dating to 17 January 44 . It was classified SECRET but was declassified long ago — 14 June 76, to be precise.

It is only 32 pages long, typeset but with no illustrations. It’s rather typical of OSS training materials in that it seems to use a sort of Socratic method, where the book, film or other training method is not aimed to teach people simple rote skills, but to spur deeper discussions and thought.

Despite its limits, there is a lot to be had here, including from the introduction by BG William Donovan to the closing suggestions, “General Devices for Lowering Morale and Creat­ing Confusion.” (And yes, it does seem like that last part of the manual has been in use by everyone in DC for quite a few years).

Some of the suggestions border on the whimsical:

Saturate a sponge with a thick starch or sugar solution. Squeeze it tightly into a ball, wrap it with string, and dry. Remove the string when fully dried. The sponge will be in the form of a tight hard ball. Flush down a W. C. or otherwise introduce into a sewer line. The sponge will gradually expand to its normal size and plug the sewage system.

Here is the book in .pdf:


Or, if you want it in .mobi for Kindles and Kindle-reader apps, or, in .epub for iBooks, or several other file formts, you can find it at

Sources: WeaponsMan, and Western Rifle Shooters Association

“Judge no one happy until his life is over” –– Ancient Roman proverb

Dionysius (II) was a fourth century B.C. tyrant of Syracuse, a city in Magna Graecia, the Greek area of southern Italy. To all appearances Dionysius was very rich and comfortable, with all the luxuries money could buy, tasteful clothing and jewelry, and delectable food. He even had court flatterers (adsentatores) to inflate his ego. One of these ingratiators was the court sycophant, Damocles. Damocles used to make comments to the king about his wealth and luxurious life. One day when Damocles complimented the tyrant on his abundance and power, Dionysius turned to Damocles and said, “If you think I’m so lucky, how would you like to try out my life?”

Damocles readily agreed, and so Dionysius ordered everything to be prepared for Damocles to experience what life as Dionysius was like. Damocles was enjoying himself immensely… until he noticed a sharp sword hovering over his head, that was suspended from the ceiling by a horse hair. This, the tyrant explained to Damocles, was what life as ruler was really like.

Damocles, alarmed, quickly revised his idea of what made up a good life, and asked to be excused. He then eagerly returned to his poorer, but safer life.

Cicero describes the Sword of Damocles in his Tusculan Disputations.

Cicero: Tusculanae Disputations 5

Cicero: Tusculan Disputations VXXI. [61] Quamquam hic quidem tyrannus ipse iudicavit, quam esset beatus. Nam cum quidam ex eius adsentatoribus, Damocles, commemoraret in sermone copias eius, opes, maiestatem dominatus, rerum abundantiam, magnificentiam aedium regiarum negaretque umquam beatiorem quemquam fuisse, ‘Visne igitur’ inquit, ‘o Damocle, quoniam te haec vita delectat, ipse eam degustare et fortunam experiri meam?’ Cum se ille cupere dixisset, conlocari iussit hominem in aureo lecto strato pulcherrimo textili stragulo, magnificis operibus picto, abacosque compluris ornavit argento auroque caelato. Tum ad mensam eximia forma pueros delectos iussit consistere eosque nutum illius intuentis diligenter ministrare.

[62] Aderant unguenta coronae, incendebantur odores, mensae conquisitissimis epulis extruebantur. Fortunatus sibi Damocles videbatur. In hoc medio apparatu fulgentem gladium e lacunari saeta equina aptum demitti iussit, ut impenderet illius beati cervicibus. Itaque nec pulchros illos ministratores aspiciebat nec plenum artis argentum nec manum porrigebat in mensam; iam ipsae defluebant coronae; denique exoravit tyrannum, ut abire liceret, quod iam beatus nollet esse. Satisne videtur declarasse Dionysius nihil esse ei beatum, cui semper aliqui terror impendeat? Atque ei ne integrum quidem erat, ut ad iustitiam remigraret, civibus libertatem et iura redderet; is enim se adulescens inprovida aetate inretierat erratis eaque commiserat, ut salvus esse non posset, si sanus esse coepisset.

Other translations are available online.

This translation of Cicero’s Tusculan disputations 5.61 was made by Gavin Betts.

[5.61] Indeed this tyrant himself gave his judgment as to how fortunate he was. For when one of his flatterers, Damocles, mentioned in conversation the wealth of Dionysius, the majesty of his rule, the abundance of his possessions, the magnificence of the royal palace and denied that there had ever been anyone more fortunate, he said, “So, Damocles, since this life delights you, do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune?”

When Damocles said that he desired this, Dionysius gave orders that the man be placed on a golden couch covered with a most beautiful woven rug, embroidered with splendid works; he adorned many sideboards with chased silver and gold; then he gave orders that chosen boys of outstanding beauty should stand by his table and that they, watching for a sign from Damocles, should attentively wait on him; there were unguents and garlands; perfumes were burning; tables were piled up with the most select foods. Damocles seemed to himself fortunate.

In the middle of this luxury Dionysius ordered that a shining sword, fastened from the ceiling by a horse-hair, be let down so that it hung over the neck of that fortunate man. And so he looked neither at those handsome waiters nor the wonderful silver work, nor did he stretch his hand to the table. Now the very wreaths slipped off. Finally he begged the tyrant that he should be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be fortunate.

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