Friends were very important to people in the ancient and medieval world. Because there were not so many police or lawyers or judges then, people often had to rely on their friends to protect them or help them get justice. Also there was no welfare then, so people relied on their friends for money or food if they became poor. And people also had to trust their friends in other cities with their business, because it was so hard to travel from one place to another.
Because of this, many poems and stories from the ancient world show us examples of great friendships. From West Asia, we have the story of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. When Enkidu died, Gilgamesh tried to go to the land of the dead to get him back. Also from West Asia is the Bible story of friendship between David and Jonathan. Jonathan saved David’s life when Jonathan’s father wanted to kill David, even though he knew this meant that David would be king in his place.
From Greece, we have the story of Achilles and Patroclos in the Iliad, where after Patroclos dies Achilles gives his life to avenge him. Sappho, in her poems, tells us about close friendships among teenaged girls. And from later Greece, we know of many close friendships among young men that lasted through their whole lives. Alexander the Great, for instance, had a very close friend whose name was Hephaistion. The story of Damon and Pythias is also the story of a great friendship.
The Romans also thought that friendship was very important. Cicero wrote essays about friendship. Early Christians also lived together in groups of friends, instead of in families. The story of Perpetua and Felicitas, for instance, shows us how two Christian women stuck together even while the Roman judge was killing them.
In medieval Europe, friendships continued to be important. In Chaucer‘s stories, friends help each other out. But the many complicated relationships between people in the Middle Ages may have made friendships seem less important than the relationship between lord and peasant, or between abbess and nun. Romance also became more important at this time, and many stories deal with romantic friendships between men and women, like the story of Tristan and Isolde or Lancelot and Guenivere.
In the Islamic world, at the same time, the same ideas appear. Many stories deal with the king and his advisers, or the king and his servants. Other stories are romances, like Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.
Bibliography and further reading about the history of friendship: