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by Adam Garside
Amphitryon was a great Theban general, who was originally from Tiryns in the eastern part of the Peloponnese. As Hesiod tells us, in the Shield of Heracles, he fled to Thebes after killing Electryon, the father of his sweetheart Alcmene, over a cattle dispute. Though they both went to Thebes, Amphitryon, whose name in Greek means "harassing on both sides", was unable to consummate his love for Alcmene until he had avenged the death of Alcmene's brothers. While this end was being pursued, Zeus, disguised as Amphitryon, came to Alcmene and seduced her. The real Amphitryon soon returned and was finally able to lay with his Alcmene. Two sons were born by Alcmene, one to Zeus, the other to Amphitryon. To the former was born Hercules, greatest of heroes, and to the latter, his twin brother Iphicles.

Amphitryon is an interesting and unique character, as the tales surrounding him bear witness. His name, as defined above, flows thematically throughout the material we have about him. Not only is he harassed by unrequitable love and duty, he is also harassed by Zeus, who sends him on an errand and then uses his wife to bear Hercules. Furthermore, though Zeus was disguised as Amphitryon while he seduced Alcmene, the real Amphitryon cannot lay claim as progenitor to the great Hercules, who often berates him for offending the gods.

An interesting source for this tale is Amphitryon by Plautus, the Roman Comedian. Plautus uses this tale to present a Mythological Burlesque, very much in line with latter Aristophanic plays, though with an almost tragic side. For this reason, Amphitryon, is possibly one of the only extant examples of Middle Comedy that we have. Furthermore, the long night motif that is prevalent in many of Zeus' seductions is fully exemplified in this Plautine comedy and traces itself through Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.

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  • Etymology:
    Harassing on either side

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