Titus Maccius Plautus used plots from Greek New Comedy for his own plays. The actors wore costumes and masks fashioned in the Greek style. His actors even portrayed the typical archetype characters: dirty old men, clever slaves, prostitutes, and young men in love. Though indebted to the Greeks, Plautus managed to infuse his plays with his own Latin quality, incorporating elements that appealed to the Romans: drunkenness, gluttony, and womanizing. Plautus wrote for the masses and became a very popular playwright in Rome. The Amphityon, a tragic comedy, was one of his most famous works. It includes Amphitryon’s jealous and confused reaction to Alcmena’s seduction by Jupiter, and ends with the birth of Hercules.
Amphitryon begins with a prologue given by the god Mercury, in which he gives some background information to the audience. The crowd is seeking a return on their investments and they need the luck of Mercury to guarantee their sales, but Mercury is there to deliver a message from Jupiter:
“That you assign inspectors in each row, To hunt and mark down any hired claque And (as security) remove his toga, Or one who's canvassed for his favorite, By letter, messenger, or word of mouth. And if the aediles give the prize unfairly, Jove would have these men punished just as those, who seek an office for themselves or others”1.
The speech is essentially a distraction for his father’s indiscretions.Amphitryon and his slave Sosia have been away at war and are returning to Thebes. Meanwhile, the god Jupiter is sleeping with Amphitryon’s wife Alcmena. Jupiter is disguised as Amphitryon so Alcmena is unaware that he is not her husband. Mercury's job is to buy his father Jupiter some time by deceiving those who would interfere. He changes his appearance to look like the slave Sosia, and when the real Sosia arrives, he beats him up and sends him away from the house.
Sosia returns to the ship to relay what happened to his master Amphitryon, confused as to why he had beaten himself. The following morning, Amphitryon heads home, irritated by his slave's story. Jupiter leaves only moments before he arrives, and when Alcmena sees her real husband, she is confused as to why he has returned. Amphitryon is confused and then proceeds to get angry. He is jealous after learning that she has slept with a man who is not he, but he still does not understand her defense, saying that it was he that she was sleeping with.
Alcmena and Amphitryon argue for some time until Alcmena is ready to leave her untrusting husband. Jupiter then stops her. The aftermath is even more extraordinary. Alcmena gives birth to twin boys. One is the son of Amphitryon, the other is Hercules, the son of Jupiter. To repress Amphitryon’s anger, Jupiter explains to him what he did, and Amphitryon is then honored to have shared his wife with a god.
- Plautus, Amphitryon, I. 60-70.
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