In Greek mythology, the legend of Damon and Pythias (or Phintias) symbolizes trust and loyalty in a true friendship.

The legend

Around the 4th century BC, Pythias and his friend Damon, both followers of the philosopher Pythagoras, travelled to Syracuse. Pythias was accused of plotting against the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I. As punishment for this crime, Pythias was sentenced to death.

Accepting his sentence, Pythias asked to be allowed to return home one last time, to settle his affairs and bid his family farewell. Not wanting to be taken for a fool, Dionysius refused, believing that once released, Pythias would flee and never return.

Risking his own freedom for his best friend, Damon proposed that Dionysius hold him hostage until Pythias returned. Dionysius agreed, on the condition that, should Pythias not return when promised, Damon would be put to death in his place. Damon agreed, and Pythias was released.

Dionysius was convinced that Pythias would never return, and as the day Pythias promised to return came and went, Dionysius prepared to execute Damon. But just as the executioner was about to kill Damon, Pythias returned.

Apologizing to his friend for his delay, Pythias told of how pirates had captured his ship on the passage back to Syracuse and thrown him overboard. Dionysius listened to Pythias as he described how he swam to shore and made his way back to Syracuse as quickly as possible, arriving just in the nick of time to save his friend.

Dionysius was so taken with the friends' trust and loyalty, that he freed both Damon and Pythias, and kept them on as counsel to his court.

Other versions

The story is told in several variants by numerous classical authors, among them Cicero, Diodorus, Hyginus and Polyaenus. Details that differ are:

  • which one of the two friends is initially sentenced to death
  • reason for the death sentence
  • reason for requesting the reprieve
  • duration of the reprieve
  • cause of the delay in returning
  • whether the two accept Dionysius as their friend

Works based on the legend

The best-known modern treatment of the legend is the German ballad Die Bürgschaft, written in 1799 by Friedrich Schiller. (In this work, Damon is sentenced to death, not Pythias.)

In 1564, the material was made into a tragic-comic play by the English poet Richard Edwards (Damon and Pythias).

In Japan, the short story Hashire Meros by Osamu Dazai and a nursery tale by Miekichi Suzuki were based on the legend.

In 1821, the Irish poet John Banim wrote a play based on the legend (Damon and Pythias). Familiarity with this play lead Justus H. Rathbone to found the fraternal order Knights of Pythias.

The 2003 animated film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas shares a plot similar to this legend, replacing Pythias with Sinbad, and Damon with Proteus. Sinbad, a pirate with questionable morality at the beinging of the film, is falsely accused of stealing the Book of Peace (being framed by the Eris, goddes of chaos and disorder), and Proteus, his boyhood friend and heir to the throne of Syracuse, takes his place as prisoner. The plot differs in that it largely centers on the fantastic events that transpire on Sinbad's quest to reclaim the book.

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