Greek story that describes the perfect friendship. When Pythias was condemned to death by Syracusan tyrant Dionysius the Elder for plotting against his life, Damon volunteered to stay in his stead as he finalized his affairs. Pythias made it back just in time to prevent his friend’s execution, and Dionysius was so impressed by his loyalty that he freed them both.
The story has been told many times, and has been updated to various more modern settings. Here, for example, is the complete version by Valerius Maximus, from the early 1st century, as translated by Edward Carpenter:
The History of Damon and Pythias
Damon and Phythias, initiates in the Pythagorean mysteries, contracted so faithful a friendship towards each other, that when Dionysius of Syracuse intended to execute one of them, and he had obtained permission from the tyrant to return home and arrange his affairs before his death, the other did not hesitate to give himself up as a pledge of his friend's return. (For the two men lived together, and had their possessions in common.) He whose neck had been in danger was now free; and he who might have lived in safety was now in danger of death. So everybody, and especially Dionysius, were wondering what would be the upshot of this novel and dubious affair. At last, then the day fixed was close at hand, and he had not returned, every one condemned the one who stood security, for his stupidity and rashness. But he insisted that he had nothing to fear in the matter of his friend's constancy. And indeed at the same moment and the hour fixed by Dionysius, he who had received leave, returned.
The tyrant, admiring the courage of both, remitted the sentence which had so tried their loyalty, and asked them besides to receive him in the bonds of their friendship, saying that he would make his third place in their affection agreeable by his utmost goodwill and effort. Such indeed are the powers of friendship: to breed contempt of death, to overcome the sweet desire of life, to humanize cruelty, to turn hate into love, to compensate punishment by largess; to which powers almost as much veneration is due as to the cult of the immortal gods. For if with these rests the public safety, on those does private happiness depend; and as the temples are the sacred domiciles of these, so of those are the loyal hearts of men as it were the shrines consecrated by some holy spirit.
- There have also been a number of filmed versions of the story, the earliest in 1912 and the most recent that I know of in 1962.
- Richard Edwards wrote a popular play based on the story in 1571. This play is probably the source for William Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona.
- John Banim, Irish poet and dramatist, wrote a play based on this friendship, which was first produced in London in 1825
- Many versions made their way into children's books, including one in 1821 by Charlotte M. Yonge in her Book of Golden Deeds.
- Ditto for James Baldwin, in Fifty Famous Stories, 1896.
At one time, all educated people in Western Europe and the English-speaking world would have known the story and recognized the names. With the general decline in knowledge of classical stories, Damon and Pythias are being forgotten.
Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition