According to ancient Greek myth and legend, Antiope was the daughter of Nycteus—a man who had served as a regent or steward ruler of Thebes and whose brother was King Lycos of Thebes. Although Nycteus did not share his brother’s throne, he nevertheless held great influence in Thebes due to his previous occupation as regent ruler, as well as from the respect and trust given to him by his brother, King Lycos. As for Antiope, even though she was not the daughter of the king, she nevertheless lived under the judgmental gaze of her father, Nycteus, as well as King Lycos and the Theban nobility, who all expected Antiope to behave as the prim and proper niece of the king. A chaste lifestyle was a given expectation for Antiope, since ancient and medieval monarchs all too often saw the women in their family as diplomatic tokens that were useful for creating alliances between royal houses. Suffice it to say, if Antiope had a romantic relationship before her father and uncle arranged a proper marriage for her, the consequences would be dire, and the severity of the punishment would be exponentially higher if Antiope became pregnant before her wedding day. Antiope took her situation seriously, but she unfortunately lived in the age of myth, populated by lusty Greek gods who did not care about the consequences of their actions.
Antiope, according to myth, ended up being raped by the powerful god, Zeus, and she became pregnant with twins after the assault. Regrettably, Antiope had no family support after she was violated. Instead, her father, Nycteus, and her uncle, King Lycos, were both outraged over her premarital pregnancy. Their verbal lashings, as well as threats of punishment, ultimately caused Antiope to flee from her homeland of Thebes. While she was on the run, Antiope eventually found her way to the city of Sicyon, where she was given shelter by King Epopeus. Antiope and her savior hit it off, to say the least, for King Epopeus reportedly married Antiope within months of her arrival.
Back in Thebes, Nycteus and King Lycos were still in a disturbed state of mind over Antiope’s pregnancy, and they had only become more enraged after she fled to King Epopeus of Sicyon. The story of what Antiope’s father, Nycteus, chose to do next differs from storyteller to storyteller, but the common thread is that he died—yet, not before he gave a final wish to his brother, King Lycos, demanding that the Theban king retrieve Antiope from Sicyon. In one version of the story, Nycteus killed himself and left his demand in a suicide note of sorts. The other version of the tale, however, claimed that Nycteus went off on his own to fetch Antiope from Sicyon and died during his mission, leaving his brother with an obligation of seeking vengeance. Whatever the case, Nycteus was dead, and his brother, King Lycos of Thebes, declared war on Sicyon. This series of events was concisely summarized by the ancient mythographer known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), who wrote: “Antiope was a daughter of Nycteus; and Zeus had intercourse with her. When she turned out to be pregnant and her father threatened her, she ran away to Epopeus in Sicyon, and became his wife. Nycteus was thrown into such despondency that he killed himself, ordering Lycos to punish Epopeus and Antiope. So Lycos marched against Sicyon, killed Epopeus, and took Antiope prisoner” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.5.5).
Around nine months had evidently spanned in the time between her encounter with Zeus and her later capture at Sicyon, for Antiope reportedly gave birth to twins (named Zethos and Amphion) while she was being hauled back to Thebes. The children, however, were born into a perilous situation. King Lycos of Thebes was not in a forgiving mood—instead, he still wanted to punish Antiope, and these vicious thoughts also extended to her newborn children. Rather than take in the innocent twins as family, he chose the horrible option of leaving the babies behind, exposing them to nature.
Dragged away from her abandoned newborns, Antiope was brought back to Thebes where she was left imprisoned and was generally mistreated by King Lycos and his wife, Dirce. That dismal status quo, unfortunately, persisted for years, with Antiope being kept under guard all the while. Her treatment caused even the gods to take notice and show pity, and they would eventually arrange for Antiope’s freedom and revenge. Nevertheless, she would have to wait for quite a time.
As Antiope languished in her imprisonment, her abandoned newborn twins fared much better. They were demigods, after all—sons of Zeus—so, of course, being left on the side of a road was not the end of their story. According to myth, Antiope’s twins, Zethos and Amphion, were found and taken in by farmers. The twins, unaware of their real mother’s suffering, were raised in a peaceful existence, occupying themselves with peaceful tasks such as tending to farm animals and learning to play music. When they reached adulthood, however, fate soon yanked them out of their tranquil lifestyles, because at that time in Thebes, a divine intervention was beginning to occur.
Antiope, after years of imprisonment, eventually went through the peculiar experience of having all of her bonds and chains suddenly become miraculously unfastened. Similarly, any doors she came across in her prison were that day unlocked, and all of the guards who were usually tasked with keeping an eye on her were at that time indisposed. Given this perfect set of circumstances, Antiope bolted from her prison and slipped out of Thebes without ever drawing the attention of the Theban authorities. After her escape, divine inspiration continued to pull Antiope, leading her on a particular path into the countryside. Antiope continued to follow the pull of fate until she eventually stumbled upon a very special farm—it was the home where her twins, Zethos and Amphion, were residing. A long-lost family reunion could not have gone smoother; Antiope recognized her sons instantly and they, too, quickly accepted that the newly-arrived guest at their home was their birth mother. After hearing her story and learning of her mistreatment, Zethos and Amphion became furious, vowing to punish King Lycos and claim Thebes for themselves. Antiope’s twins made good on their word, and did so in brutal fashion. The aforementioned mythographer, Apollodorus, described the family reunion of Antiope and her sons, as well as their campaign of revenge: “As for Antiope, Lycos and his wife Dirce kept her in confinement and ill-treated her. One day, however, without her jailers knowing it, her bonds untied themselves of their own accord, and she made her way to her sons’ farmhouse, hoping to find refuge with them. Recognizing her as their mother, they killed Lycos, and bound Dirce to a bull, and then, when she was dead, hurled her body into the spring that bears the name of Dirce on her account” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.5.5).
After killing Lycos and Dirce, the twins successfully seized the throne of Thebes and notably were said to have constructed the city’s walls. Triumph and kingship aside, the brief happiness of Amphion and Zethos would only be temporary. Both of the brothers were wrapped up in tragedy, and each would eventually meet unnatural deaths. Zethos’ death is obscure, with the Greek scholar, Pausanias (c. 2nd century), only saying that “Zethos himself died of a broken heart” (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 9.5.9). Amphion, on the other hand, had a more infamous demise. His wife, as it happened, was the famous tragic figure, Niobe, whose many children were hunted down and killed by the twin-deities, Artemis and Apollo. Niobe’s slain children were also the sons and daughters of Amphion, and just like Niobe perished from sadness after the killing of her offspring, so, too, did Amphion eventually die as a result of his grief and rage. As for Antiope, following the killings of King Lycos and Dirce, the god Dionysus was said to have struck ever-unlucky Antiope with madness. She was aided in her recovery by man named Phocus of Tithorea and eventually married him. Hopefully, after such a long series of unfortunate twists and turns, Antiope finally found some peace.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Engraving of Antiope (figure by Gilles Rousselet, c. 1614–1686) and etching (background by Abraham Bosse, c. 1602,04–1676), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Description of Greece, by Pausanias, translated by W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Omerod (Harvard University Press, 1918), reprint by Delphi Classics, 2014.