Shield of Achilles

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The shield's design as interpreted by Angelo Monticelli, from Le Costume Ancien ou Moderne, ca. 1820.

The Shield of Achilles is the shield that Achilles uses in his fight with Hector, famously described in a passage in Book 18, lines 478–608 of Homer's Iliad. The intricately detailed imagery on the shield has inspired many different interpretations of its significance, with no definitive answer.

In the poem, Achilles lends Patroclus his armor in order to lead the Achaean army into battle. Ultimately, Patroclus is killed in battle by Hector, and Achilles' armor is stripped from his body and taken by Hector as spoils. The loss of his friend prompts Achilles to return to battle, so his mother Thetis, a nymph, asks the god Hephaestus to provide replacement armor for her son. He obliges, and forges a shield with spectacular decorative imagery.

Homer’s description of the shield has garnished attention from historians in the 21st century, as it provides one of the first known uses of ekphrasis in ancient Greek poetry. Ekphrastic poems provide detailed commentaries about the creation of art. The intended goal is to add deeper meaning to artwork by reflecting on the process of its creation, in turn, allowing the audience to envision artwork that they can't see. The ability of Homer to produce such a vivid image of a mythological object is a true statement to his skill and creativity as a storyteller. Ekphrastic texts are of high importance for historians, due to their reflection of historical thought during ancient time periods.[1]

The passage in which Homer describes the creation of the shield has actually influenced many later poems, including the Shield of Heracles once attributed to Hesiod.[2] Virgil's description of the shield of Aeneas in Book Eight of the Aeneid is clearly modeled on Homer.[3] The poem The Shield of Achilles (1952) by W. H. Auden reimagines Homer's description in 20th century terms. Of other significance, this passage is recognized as the first example of cosmological mapping in the history of Greece.[4]


The Shield of Achilles, from an 1832 illustration.

Homer gives a detailed description of the imagery which decorates the new shield. Starting from the shield's centre and moving outward, circle layer by circle layer, the shield is laid out as follows:

  1. The Earth, sky and sea, the sun, the moon and the constellations (484–89)
  2. "Two beautiful cities full of people": in one a wedding and a law case are taking place (490–508); the other city is besieged by one feuding army and the shield shows an ambush and a battle (509–40).
  3. A field being ploughed for the third time (541–49).
  4. A king's estate where the harvest is being reaped (550–60).
  5. A vineyard with grape pickers (561–72).
  6. A "herd of straight-horned cattle"; the lead bull has been attacked by a pair of savage lions which the herdsmen and their dogs are trying to beat off (573–86).
  7. A picture of a sheep farm (587–89).
  8. A dancing-floor where young men and women are dancing (590–606).
  9. The great stream of Ocean (607–609).[5]


The Shield of Achilles can be read in a variety of different ways. One interpretation is that the shield represents a microcosm of civilization, in which all aspects of life are shown. The depiction of law suggests the existence of social order within one city, while feuding armies depict a darker side of humanity. The imagery of nature and the universe also reinforce the belief that the shield is a microcosm of Greek life, as it can be seen as a reflection of their perception of the world. Also, the sun and the moon are shown shining simultaneously, which some consider representative of a general understanding of the universe and awareness to the cosmological order of life [6] and as such, its akin to a mandala of antiquity.

The shield shows images of conflict and discord by depicting the shield’s layers as a series of contrasts – i.e. war and peace, work and festival. Wolfgang Schadewaldt, a German writer, argues that these intersecting antitheses show the basic forms of a civilized, essentially orderly life.[7] This contrast is also seen as a way of making “us…see [war] in relation to peace.".[8] Another interpretation is that various scenes shown on the shield represent an overwhelmingly aristocratic way of life. Some interpret the beauty and the festive continuity within the shield as an emphasis on the benefits of an aristocratic lifestyle, as the shield juxtaposes images of happiness and order, with images of violence and chaos.[9] The shield’s description falls between the fight over Patroclus’ body and Achilles’ reentry into battle, the latter being the impetus to one of the poem’s bloodiest parts. Consequently, the shield could be read as a “calm before an impending doom,” used to emphasize the brutality of violence during the Trojan War. It could also be read as a reminder to the reader of what will be lost once Troy ultimately falls.[10]


  1. ^ James A. Francis. (2009). Metal Maidens, Achilles' Shield, and Pandora: The Beginnings of "Ekphrasis". American Journal of Philology.
  2. ^ The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1989 ed.) p.519
  3. ^ Joshua Kotin. (2001). Shields of Contradiction and Direction: Ekphrasis in the Iliad and the Aenid, 11-16.
  4. ^ Germaine Aujac. (1987). The Foundations of Theoretical Cartography in Archaic and Classical Greece. The History of Cartography, volume 1 (pp. 130-147) University of Chicago Press.
  5. ^ Homer, The Iliad trans. E.V. Rieu (Penguin Classics, 1950) pp.349–53
  6. ^ Germaine Aujac. (1987). The Foundations of Theoretical Cartography in Archaic and Classical Greece. The History of Cartography, volume 1 (pp. 130-147) University of Chicago Press.
  7. ^ Wolfgang Schadewaldt, “Der Schild des Achilleus,” Von Homers Welt und Werk (Stuttgart 1959).
  8. ^ Oliver Taplin, “The Shield of Achilles within the Iliad,” G&R 27 (1980) 15.
  9. ^ Calvin S. Byre. (1992). Narration, Description, and Theme in the Shield of Achilles. The Classical Journal, 88(1), 33-42.
  10. ^ Stephen Scully, “Reading the Shield of Achilles: Terror, Anger, Delight,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 101. (2003), pp. 29–47.

External links[edit]

Iliad 18. 490–508 [1]

Book 8 of The Aeneid. Available in English. [2]

W.H. Auden's The Shield of Achilles. [3]