Classics Plautus’s Amphitruo
David M. Christenson, Evelyn Rick
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0296


Though mythical burlesques (comedies in which gods appear as anthropomorphic characters) were frequently performed in Greek Old and Middle Comedy, Plautus’s Amphitruo is our only surviving example of the genre. In that Mercury’s prologue goes to considerable lengths (see especially 50–63) to prepare Plautus’s audience for a performance featuring gods (Jupiter, Mercury) and regal personages of myth (Alcumena, Amphitruo) as well as familiar figures of New Comedy (the slave Sosia), it is likely that audiences were not accustomed to seeing mythical burlesque on the Roman stage. Such an unusual style of comedy—there is nothing similar to Amphitruo in the surviving corpus of New Comedy, in Greek or Latin—has triggered much speculation about Plautus’s possible source(s) for his tragicomoedia (as Mercury dubs it at line 59). Similarly, the play’s unusual mixture of traditionally tragic versus comic elements has engendered wide-ranging discussion of how Amphitruo might have been received by an ancient audience, for example, is the play a kind of sex farce or does it highlight human ignorance and powerlessness in the face of divine caprice? How serious is the prospect of a divorce between Amphitruo and Alcumena, and do we see the former as a cuckold at play’s end? Such questions clearly engaged subsequent adaptors, who offer a rich variety of takes on the play. For all its seemingly unique aspects, Amphitruo nonetheless displays many of the central preoccupations of Plautine comedy, including vigorous and playful language, metrical and musical virtuosity, and self-reflexive theatricality; and despite its mythic setting, the play still deeply engages with contemporary Roman society in often illuminating ways.

Bibliographical Surveys

Two particular bibliographical surveys are especially valuable for their coverage of older scholarship and works not in English, which may be difficult to find using online databases. Hughes 1975 covers scholarship from the mid-19th century to the 1970s; Segal 1981 continues the coverage through 1976.

  • Hughes, J. D. 1975. A bibliography of scholarship on Plautus. Amsterdam: A. M. Hakkert.

    Comprehensive and straightforward bibliography listing books, articles, and some published theses dating to the mid-19th century. Essential for research on scholarship predating modern databases. Entries are chronological and supplemented by an index of authors. Pages 440–498 are devoted to Amphitruo.

  • Segal, E. 1981. Scholarship on Plautus, 1965–1976. Classical World 74:353–433.

    Dated but extensive and still useful general bibliography for this period. Pages 377–378 list works specifically on Amphitruo.

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