Forever Friends: Damon and Phidias

Many know what the phrase “these two are Damon and Phidias” means, but very few remember the historical origin of these two names and how they were established as the synonym of an invincible friendship that defied death. The basic facts of this story are not imaginary; on the contrary, they are historically accurate. References are found in the works of historians such as Cicero, Valerius Maximus, Porphyrios, Diodorus, Sicilian and others: Damon and Phidias were two Pythagorean philosophers who lived or found to live in the Syracuse during the time of the tyrannical Dionysius the Younger, between 367 and 343 BC According to historians, Phidias was accused of participating in a conspiracy to overthrow Dionysius, and was sentenced to death. The sentenced man asked for a few hours of freedom to catch up with his unfinished business before he died.

Dionysius agreed to temporarily let Phidias go, keeping his close friend, Damon, in his place. In some sources, that was an idea of Dionysius himself, knowing that Damon would definitely come back. Other sources tell us that Dionysius proposed this solution, seeking to prove that the famous friendship that the Pythagoreans displayed among themselves was in reality fake.

Whatever the source, however, Damon accepted to take his friend’s place on his own will, and was not forced to. The rest of this story is more or less well known. Phidias left, but as the hour of the execution was approaching, he was nowhere to be seen. Dionysius started to mock Damon by telling him that his friend turned him into ‘an Iphigenia’, sacrificing him while he escaped and was already enjoying life. But right at the time when Damon was led to be executed, Phidias appeared running. He immediately demanded to take his friends place and be executed.

Then right in the presence of Dionysius, the two friends started arguing!
Damon said he had to be executed since his friend had arrived late. Phidias on the other hand claimed that he had kept his word and therefore his friend had to be released and he had to be put to death instead as he was the one who had done the offense.

Dionysius after witnessing this scene was so moved that he decided to pardon them and asked to be accepted as their new friend.

Democracy = Participation

In ancient Athens, contributing to politics -and in extent to your country- was considered the norm and highly desirable. Being apolitical and selfish was frowned upon. All good citizens aspired to be politically active.

It was rare for someone to demonstrate apathy towards what was happening in their state and remain indifferent to common/public issues. The overwhelming majority of Athenians participated in politics to a greater or lesser extent.

Anyone who was interested only in his own affairs and refused to take part in the current affairs was by definition considered a weakly presented member of Athenian society, and therefore a person of low intelligence, apathetic, and almost worthless.

If you did not demonstrate social responsibility and political awareness you were considered uneducated and ignorant. Those who did not contribute to politics and the community were known as “idiotes”, that being the term for a person that chose to remain a private citizen. The opposite of an “idiotes” was a “polites”, an active citizen. It still is…

Women In Sports: The Heraean Games

Hera was the goddess of marriage, family, childbirth and the protectress of women. The Roman counterpart of Hera was Juno. For the Romans, Juno was the protector and special counselor of the State. The month of June is named after Hera’s Roman name.

Hera. Queen of the 12 Gods

Some of the best known temples dedicated to Hera were the Heraion of Samos (that was one of the largest and most famous Greek temples), The Temple of Hera at Agrigento (one of the best preserved in Sicily), The temple of Hera at Olympia (which was one of the oldest monumental temples in Greece), the Temple of Juno in Rome (which stood on the Capitoline Hill, overlooking the Roman Forum)

Perhaps my favorite fact about Hera is that she’s linked with the first official women’s athletic events in History: the Heraean Games.

The Heraean Games. By Prospero Piatti

Few know that the ancient Greeks organized sporting competitions not only for men, but for women too. Men and women competed in separately organized games, exactly as it happens today.

The most prestigious ones held for women were the Heraea (honoring Hera). These women-only athletic events probably took place around the same time as the Olympic Games.

Ancient Olympia


  • The Heraea were held at Olympia, in the Peloponnese.
  • They were held every four years.
  • There were three different age categories for competitors, and young girls competed in a footrace.
  • All sporting, religious and cultural events of the Heraea at Olympia were presided over and organized by a group of sixteen women from Elis.
  • All athletes were unmarried women.
  • All 16 members of the presiding committee were notable women of Elis, representing all 16 cities of the region of Elis, at the Peloponnese.
A group of priestesses in front of the Temple of Hera at Olympia. They carry the Olympic Flame.

It is worth noting that the first recorded games for women, were held by the Ancient Greeks as early as the 6th century BC, and they were probably held in the Olympic year itself, prior to the men’s games. Since the collapse of the ancient world, women were not allowed to participate in events of major importance, such as the Marathon Race, only as late as 1972 (!) This is when the famous Boston Marathon incident, that involved Kathrine Switzer, took place. Since that day, most discriminatory policies were dropped, leading to the first women’s marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Yes. Since the first official women’s athletic competition to be held in Ancient Greece, more than 26 centuries had passed! We could do better. But, still: better late than never.

Bronze figure of a running girl from Sparta (520 BCE-500 BCE) British Museum