A Greek Myth as retold by Marlin Cwach, based upon the retelling in The Book of Virtues ed. W. J. Bennett; Thirty-three Multicultural Tales to Tell, P. DeSpain
The story that even today sets the standard of absolute friendship took place long ago in the fourth century BC, in the Greek island-state of Sicily. Damon and Pythias had been the best of friends since childhood. Each trusted the other like a brother and each knew in his heart that there was nothing he would not do for his friend. Eventually the course of their lives would put this friendship to the test. It happened like this.
Now, Dionysius, the powerful king who ruled Sicily, was as cruel as he was strong. He ruled with absolute power and had many enemies among the Greeks. He was constantly afraid of being assassinated. And his fears were justified.
Pythias made speeches asserting that no man or king should have such power over others for it would corrupt his rule. Such tyrants or dictators should be overthrown. Indeed, Pythias plotted to murder Dionysius and free Sicily of his dictatorship. The king got wind of it, and Pythias, caught before he could carry out his plan, was sentenced to die.
“Have you anything to say before you meet the executioner?’ asked King Dionysius.
“Yes,” said Pythias, “I would ask that you grant me five more days of life. Let me go home just long enough to say goodbye to my wife and children and to put my household in order.”
“Oh, so you not only think I’m unjust, you think I’m stupid as well,” Dionysius laughed scornfully. “How do I know that you will return in five days?”
“You have my word,” answered Pythias.
“Do you expect me to trust the word of an assassin? I must have someone to pay the death penalty if you do not return. Humph! Do you have such a friend as this?”
“Yes, I have such a friend,” Pythias quietly replied.
From the crowd of people came a strong voice, “YES, HE HAS.” Damon rushed forward to stand by his friend. “I am Damon, friend to Pythias. I will stay in his cell until he returns and, if need be, I will die for him.”
Dionysius studied the two friends silently. “Very well,” he said at last. “But you are a fool, for I will not hesitate to order your death at sunset, five days hence if Pythias isn’t here. You will die in his place if he does not return.”
“He will keep his word,” Damon replied. “I have no doubt of that.”
And so Pythias was allowed to go free, and Damon was thrown into prison. After several days, when Pythias failed to reappear, the king’s curiosity got the better of him. He went to the prison to see if Damon was yet sorry he had made such a bargain. “Your time is almost up,” the ruler of Syracuse sneered. “It will be useless to beg for mercy. What a fool you were to rely on your friend’s promise. Did you really think he would come back once he was free?”
“He has only been delayed,” Damon answered steadily. “The winds must have kept him from sailing, or perhaps he had trouble on the road. If it is humanly possible, he will be here on time. He will keep his word.”
Dionysius was startled at the prisoner’s confidence. “We shall soon see,” he said, and left Damon in his cell.
The fatal day arrived. When the sun had reached its peak and stood high above the execution platform in the town- square, Damon was brought from his cell.
“What do you think of your friend now?” laughed the king. “He has not returned.”
“He is my friend,” Damon calmly answered. “I trust him. He will be here before sunset.”
Three hours passed. King Dionysius returned to taunt Damon. “You were a fool to take his place! See? He loves his own life more than yours!”
“You are wrong, Your Majesty,” said Damon. “He will come.”
Two more hours passed. Damon was led to the chopping block on the platform.
“You see? He failed you, just as I said he would,” taunted Dionysius.
“I trust him even now,” said Damon.
The executioner raised his ax high into the air, but before he could strike the blow, a voice was heard in the distance: “Set Damon free! I am here!”
Pythias ran into the town-square. He was pale and bruised and almost speechless from exhaustion. He rushed to his friend. “Damon, my ship was wrecked in a storm. Bandits attacked me on the road. I ran. I ran as fast as I could. I’m here. I am here.”
Turning toward the king, he said, “Dionysius, free my friend! I am ready to meet my executioner.”
Dionysius stood still. He found himself strangely moved.
“Never have I seen such a friendship as between Damon and Pythias. Never did I know such faith and loyalty could exist between friends. Neither shall die! Their friendship should be allowed to live.”