Can you trust Xerxes to be your friend? Friendship and Autocracy in Herodotus

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The paper draws on Aristotle’s remarks on philia in different political systems (EN 1161a10-1161b11) and aims to explore the complex dynamics of friendship in the context of autocracy and the unequal relationship between an authoritarian ruler and his subject. While the first part of the Pythius story seems to elevate Pythius to a position higher than the rest of the King’s subjects and to bring him closer to Xerxes by making him his xeinos, Herodotus’ language in the second part emphasizes the master-slave relationship between the two men (7.38-39) and thus marks them as categorically different. Pythius’ misguided belief that he is in a position to ask a favour from Xerxes, and the gruesome outcome of the story, question the very possibility of philia between an autocrat and his subjects. Hence, in a book resonating with the contrast between freedom and autocracy (cf. 7.104), Herodotus in the Pythius story is not merely offering another example of autocratic cruelty. Rather, he is making the stronger claim that only a free community ruled by law can protect from the capriciousness of powerful individuals and thus provide the framework of trust in which philia, the foundation of social life (cf. Pol. 1280b38-39), can be created.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPhilia
Subtitle of host publicationFriendship in Ancient Greek Thought and Literature
EditorsA Efstathiou, J Filonik, Ch Kremmydas, E Volonaki
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 17 Nov 2021


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