History of Friendship: From Ancient Times To The XXI Century

The notion of friendship has always been in the spotlight. Dozens of studies written by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, historians, and philosophers demonstrate the need of humans to define and explain what friendship is exactly and what role it plays at different times. One attempt of this kind is a book of essays edited by Barbara Caine, titled Friendship: A History. The book covers the last 2500 years, starting in classical Athens and extending to modern times, which gives readers an opportunity to see how the concept of friendship has altered and evolved through a rather long period time.

Philia is another name for love between friends

Ideas about how friendship was conducted in Classical Greece and Rome especially by Aristotle and Cicero. Influenced the conduct of friendship during the many centuries that followed, all the way to the 18th century.

In the classical Republic of Athens, friendship was interpreted in light of its social significance, its moral basis, and the ethical rules it implied. The Greek word philia is usually translated as friendship, when in fact its meaning is broader and far more complex. In that sense, philoi was a Greek term that meant – people we are close to, but also our family members, acquaintances, and business associates.

Aristotle distinguishes three types of friendship:

  • friendship for the sake of a benefit,
  • friendship for mutual pleasure,
  • friendship founded on shared values.

This last one is the rarest and therefore the most precious. Within this framework, there are many different philias. They can be divided into four great fields:

  • hospitality,
  • associates,
  • relatives,
  • political connections.

More about the hospitality 

Hospitality is something that is of exceptional importance in Ancient Greece. It is known as xenia and it was under the protection of Zeus himself. It implies relationships of great honor between the host and the guest or traveler. When it comes to associates, it is a relationship that is formed because there is a mutual interest in it.

It lasts just as long as there are benefits for both sides. There is a strong sense of reciprocity in these relationships and even an implied premise of an eye for an eye:

It is a principle where it is understood to help your friends or hurt your enemies. Someone becomes your friend and you should help him, properly because he himself helped you, or because you already helped him in the past. Likewise, some people become your enemies because of something they’ve done to you, your other friends or your ancestors. In a family, enemies can be inherited, just like friends.


When it comes to relatives and family, it is interesting that friendship here was implied. Being friends with your parents as well as respecting them highly was something understood. That can give us occasion to think about the quality and steadiness of families in ancient times, in comparison to modern families today.

When it comes to political connections, there was a special kind of political friendship called hetaireia. If you were a politician in ancient times, these allies would be the supporters who would help you to gain the trust of the people (demos) and establish a warm-hearted relationship with them, too.


It is interesting that, in the classical concept, the idea of friendship was mainly tied to the world of men. Many great thinkers and philosophers thought that only men were capable of having virtues, and therefore only men were capable of forming honorable connections and making friends.

Many philosophers of the Greek polis had different ideas of friendship and its goals. For example, Socrates thought that only people of virtue could be capable of being a friend to someone. Also, friends should be united mainly in the sacred search for truth and wisdom. Plato thought that people from different social classes could never be friends.


In the early Middle Ages, religious beliefs played an important role in how friendship was perceived. There was a whole new set of values centered on the figure of Christ. Friendship and love were united in the care of thy neighbor. A new morality was personified in Christ, and sometimes it led to alienating people from one another.

With a new set of moral rules, relationships that were too firm and close were considered dangerous and were an insult to faith. It was thought that loving another human too much would come at the expense of love of Christ.


But, in the 12th century, there were some changes in the concept of friendship in the west. For example, in Germany were found writings about close relationships, even with erotic subtexts. This was the time of reconstructing friendship as an earthly relationship, not something that was necessarily directed towards Christ.

In the centuries to follow, we witness the renewal of ancient times. Cicero was the one who talked about the significance of friendship by relying on Aristotle’s writings, and his work On friendship influenced the upcoming era of the Renaissance. Cicero’s ideas found their way to the 18th century, a time when his aforementioned work was studied and quoted.

People of the Renaissance continued living with ancient values in mind, although they modified them and adapted them to their own spirit and time. Between the years 1300 and 1600, men and women discussed what friendship was, and they experienced a more intimate and human form of friendship.


People started feeling a much bigger need for consolation and support, especially in times of war and political upheaval. These events made hostility, as an antagonism for friendship – more visible, as people started feeling unsafe and uncertain in terms of whom they could trust:

One enemy could hurt you more than four friends could help you at that time. People started talking about enemies more exactly because their friends were important in these crucial days. […] One Florentine chronicler named Francesco Giovanni noted in his work Remuneratorio (or Book of Reconciliation) all the names of his friends, but also the names of his enemies who hurt him. He did it not to take revenge in his mind, but to justify his actions, to have a sort of reminder.


The humanistic idea of friendship was visible, especially in the works of Francesco Petrarch. This was a time of warm letters addressed to friends, where honest emotions about special relationships were revealed and discussed. Later, Desiderius Erasmus became famous for his phrase amicorum communia omniafriends have everything in common, which again was a renewal of Cicero’s ideas.

The Age of Enlightenment brought new changes in concepts of friendship. Many historians believe that religious wars contributed to developing new governing structures. Royal palaces became centers of political and cultural life. With the sudden blossoming of trade and the expansion of empires, a financial boom occurred, which led to the further development of industry.

The literacy rate rose, and more and more people became educated. All of this left a mark on what friendship was considered to be at the time.


Some of the main values of this epoch were philanthropy, cosmopolitanism, and humanitarianism, but still – people couldn’t just shake off old ideas about individual and collective identity.

Secularization played an important role, especially in terms of developing critical thinking about people. In the French Encyclopedia, the belief that friends needed to be equal in order to truly be friends – was confirmed. Many writers and scientists thought that an ideal friendship had to be based on closeness and honesty. But you can find skeptical currents of thought, too. Take La Rochefoucauld, for example:

What people call friendship is nothing more than a trade, in which personal interests always prevail and people manage to secure additional benefits for themselves.


The religious perception of friendship shifted. Nicolas Malebranche, for example, thought that a religious man should demonstrate his affection for God by loving his friend and neighbor, and not expecting anything in return.

There were no sudden shifts in core understandings in the transition between the 18th and 19th centuries. A friend was someone with whom we shared similar interests and who could help us in a time of need.


Industrialization and urbanization brought about changes in the social lives of people. The number of cafes and the variety of shopping increased, different associations started developing, offering the middle class new ways to entertain and socialize.

The working class recognized the importance of uniting in their shared goals, so the first unions were established, similar to the medieval guilds. Women also formed special communities and started strengthening their voices, acknowledging that they must stick together in order to fight for equality. The first seeds of modern feminism were planted. In 19th century literature, the topic of friendship was very popular and widely discussed: both its values and significance, but also the limits of it were in the focus.


In the beginning of the 20th century, friendship becomes the most important part of one’s life. It becomes treasured, sometimes even more than family or religion. The support that people find in others becomes vital as it helps them to endure difficult times.

People are starting to develop relationships mainly with others of their age, since it gives them a sense of someone who understands what they are going through. Reciprocity is again very important. Friends are valued more than ever before, since people understand you can always make new friends and strengthen yourself and others by socializing.

The new century brings new dangers, which make everyone realize how important it is to have someone who can be relied upon. Empathy does its part, since people start feeling the need to help and return a favor, as they themselves received support when they were in need. Heterosexual men are a bit uncomfortable with this more emotional concept of friendship, whereas women and homosexuals find it compatible:

According to Stacey Oliker, women were more willing to let themselves go in an emotional sense, to enjoy close socializing, tenderness, and being honest in front of others. It was quite common even before the 20th century. In 1907, one American writer noticed how women were capable of constructing more intimate friendships than men. So, in the 20th century, this type of friendship was mainly a woman’s territory.


The new century also broke the rules about being friends with someone outside your social class. This way, people helped those who were treated as lower class by the dominant strata. People stood united in solidarity.

Still, sometimes it was hard to obtain these relationships with people who belonged to other nations, since they were jeopardized by conflicting political and territorial interests. This led to a new form of friendship: it was a kind of relationship where borders played no role; instead – people were united under the same ideals in the form in political ideologies, such as socialism or antiracism.


The end of the 20th century gave birth to a special kind of friendship: warm, emotional, and intimate relationships, where questions of utility were set aside. According to the British sociologist Ray Pahl:

In the modern world, friendship has reached a new level of firmness and complexity; it has started suppressing family relationships like never before.


Just like any other time in history, the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of 21st century have created different kinds of friendship: the friendship that is tightly connected to wealth, the friendship that is sort of a pact and created out of shared beliefs, and the friendship that exists between a man and a woman.

True friends in modern times are considered like family, even more than that. Especially in the time of adolescence, young people turn more to their friends than to their families.

In an age of new communication, the ways of making close connections are wider. People who have never met in person can start communicating and developing friendly relationships. Mobile phones and social networks have created a new kind of friendship – a virtual one.

It is highly debatable whether technology has brought us together or alienated us. There is no definite answer to this question, but it is certain that this new form of friendship never existed before in history.

More about friendships you can read it here.

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