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.