Events and Theme
At its core, "Damon and Pythius" is a tale about the power of friendship. Damon and Pythias are such close friends that it was said that one would never betray the other. Even if such a betrayal had occurred, the friends shared such an intimate bond that neither of them would have believed or accepted the truth. It is this very bond that is tested when the cruel tyrant Dionysius falsely accuses Pythius of treason. After sentencing Pythius to execution, the man begs for a few days to settle his affairs and ensure that his family will be taken care of. Dionysius agrees only under the condition that Pythius will send a hostage to be executed in his place if he flees.
Without hesitation, Damon arrives to serve in his friend's place as Dionysius' prisoner. Dionysius at first believes that Damon is a fool who is being taken advantage of, but the other man insists that his friend would never betray him. As the days pass, the hour to the execution grows nearer, but Damon's confidence in his friend never waivers. Dionysius is moved by Damon's devotion but still believes him to be a fool. At the last moment before the execution, Damon arrives after having gone through multiple trials in order to save his friend. Dionysius is so moved by this mutual display of devotion that his heart softens and he spares the lives of both men under the condition that they become his friend as well.
The Author's Message
Through this compelling narrative, the author is trying to get across the message that friendship and devotion can conquer even the hardest heart. Dionysius is known for his cruelty and capriciousness, but the author also shows that the root of his behavior is loneliness. The tyrant has become cynical and paranoid due to his isolation and power, but the realization that true friendship exists inspires him to become something more.
Loyalty is another major message presented throughout this short story. The loyalty between Damon and Pythius is unparalleled. Not only is Damon willing to take his friend's place under the penalty of execution, but his faith in Pythius' loyalty is such that he never doubts that he will return. For his part, Damon overcomes great obstacles to return in time to honor his promise to his friend. Even though Damon would die in Pythias' place without hesitation, Pythius would never allow him to sacrifice his life. Loyalty is a major theme throughout Greek literature and mythology, and the author uses a friendship tested by the threat of death to showcase it.
A more subtle theme that runs throughout this narrative is the idea that people always have the capacity to change. Even though Dionysius was cruel enough to have someone executed simply because he dreamt that he had been betrayed, he still had the capacity to change in the end. This follows the Greek ideal that human compassion and virtue at its finest can triumph over human weakness and cruelty at its most extreme. The tale of Damon and Pythias has been echoed in many subsequent works and translations with variations on the main theme. In one story, called Der Seele Trost, the tyrant simply pardons the offender without requesting to join their friendship.
The Greek theater at Syracuse in Sicily
According to the Greek story, Damon and Pythias grew up in Sicily, and they were always best friends. One day when the two of them were visiting the city of Syracuse Pythias said some things against the king of Syracuse, and the king got very angry. The king had Pythias arrested and he was going to kill Pythias (PIH-thee-ahs).
Pythias said, “Couldn’t I just go home and tell my family what happened and get ready before I am killed?” But the king said, “Oh sure, like you would ever come back again to be killed.” Damon said, “I will stay with you while Pythias goes home to say goodbye. If he doesn’t come back, you can kill me instead.” The king couldn’t believe anyone would trust their friend so much. He thought this was really dumb. But he agreed to let Pythias go. He was supposed to be back in one month. If he wasn’t back by the end of the month, the king would kill Damon instead.
Pythias went home, and said goodbye to his family, and left to come back to the city and be killed. He wouldn’t leave Damon to be killed! But on the way back, his ship was attacked by pirates. Pythias tried to explain to the pirates that it was really important for him to get to Sicily, but they just threw him overboard. Pythias swam to shore, but then he didn’t have any money or a horse or any way of getting back to Damon. He was so worried that Damon would be killed! He started to run as fast as he could towards the king’s palace.
Meanwhile the king was telling Damon, “See! Pythias has abandoned you. I told you he’d never come back.” But Damon knew his friend would never leave him to be killed. Damon knew Pythias would come back to be killed himself.
A Greek ship with a man standing on deck
On the last day, the king had Damon tied up and took him outside into the courtyard of the palace to be killed. But Damon was still not worried. He knew Pythias would come. And sure enough, just as Damon was about to be killed, Pythias came running in. He was filthy dirty and his clothes were all in rags from swimming in the ocean. And he had lost his shoes and had to run barefoot the whole way, and his feet were all bloody. But he was so happy to have come on time! He cried out, “See! I have come back. Let Damon go! I am ready to be killed now.” And he put his own head on the block.
But the king was so impressed by this great friendship that he did not kill Pythias after all. Instead, he kept both the friends at his court so they could give him good advice.
(We know this story from Cicero, and from a book by a Roman named Valerius Maximus, called De Amicitiae Vinculo (On the Chains of Friendship), from about 25 AD)