The Shield of Achilles

By Owain Williams

Of all the memorable moments in the Iliad, from Apollo’s arrows striking the Achaeans to the funeral games for Patroclus, no description is more evocative than that of Achilles’ shield. The 130-line description creates a clear image of the intricately decorated shield in one of the most effective moments of ekphrasis – the literary description of visual art – in literature. It is no surprise that it has captured the imagination of many throughout history.

Despite being a literary creation, the description of the shield did not spring fully formed from the poet’s mind. Instead, scholars have identified some objects from the Iron Age that resemble the Shield’s description, objects – or ones like them – that the poet may have been familiar with. For example, there is a bronze shield from the Idaean Cave on Crete that is decorated with concentric rings of hunting scenes. However, Phoenician bowls provide much closer examples, with more intricate scenes that more closely resemble those decorating the Shield of Achilles. The Phoenicians are known as expert craftspeople in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, especially for their bowls, for example, a Sidonian bowl is a prize during Patroclus’ funeral games (Iliad 23.740–4) and a bowl given to Menelaus by the king of Sidon is said to be the work of Hephaestus (Odyssey 15.115–9).

The Amathus Bowl, a Phoenician bowl discovered in the Cypriote city of Amathus.

Even in antiquity, the description of the Shield of Achilles had a recognisable influence. The most obvious influence is Virgil’s Shield of Aeneas, which is a near-parallel of the Homeric shield. This is, of course, no surprise, as Virgil was consciously borrowing from the Homeric epics (see Macrobius, Saturnalia 5.2.6). Indeed, Virgil’s narrative can be read as an expansion of Poseidon’s prophecy concerning Aeneas in the Iliad. However, while the Homeric Shield of Achilles provides vignettes of everyday Greek life, Virgil’s Shield of Aeneas instead depicts snapshots of Roman history, tracing a line from the founding of Rome to the present rule of Augustus, further connecting his patron both to Rome and to the wider world of Greco-Roman mythology.

The Shield of Achilles would continue to inspire into the European Enlightenment. Alexander Pope, a famed English poet of the eighteenth century who translated the Iliad into English, was particularly interested by the Shield. While translating the Iliad, he drew a rough sketch of what he imagined the shield to look like, which can still be seen today.

Alexander Pope's sketch of the Shield of Achilles


One of the most famous reimaginings of the Shield of Achilles comes from the twentieth century. W.H. Auden’s poem The Shield of Achilles is a truly evocative piece of literature, using the heroic and idealised world of the Homeric Shield of Achilles, here exemplified by Thetis’ stanzas, with the true horrors of modern warfare, which Hephaestus depicts upon the Shield. Auden’s poem is a clever confrontation between the poetics of war with the harsh reality, using what is arguably the most famous war poem of all time as a vehicle for his commentary.

The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,

Thetis of the shining breasts

Cried out in dismay

At what the god had wrought

To please her son, the strong

Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles

Who would not live long.

It should come as no surprise just how influential Homeric poetry has been. The Iliad and the Odyssey are truly remarkable poems, their narratives shaped by generations of oral poets reworking the story to suit their audiences and cultural contexts. Even in ancient Greece, the Homeric poems held a place of importance – often used as a school text. People have been looking to the ancient world for inspiration.


@Richard Coulon

The idea that the Homeric epics reflect the Greek Bronze Age has long fallen out of favour. There are, of course, some Bronze Age elements present, such as Idomeneus’ boar’s tusk helmet, but these are very infrequently referenced and appear to be isolated incidents within the wider framework of the Homeric poems. Rather, in modern scholarship, the Homeric epics as we have them are now thought to represent Greek society somewhere between 750 and 650 BC.

Scholars have come to this general date range, with individuals falling at different places along this scale, based upon several factors. First is the fact that the Homeric epics were oral compositions, meaning that, for an unknown length of time, the poems were performed orally, with each poet changing different elements based upon both their skill and the context of their performance, so that the setting of the poem reflected what the audience was familiar with. Thus, when the Homeric epics were put into writing, the contemporary society within which that particular version of the poem was composed was fossilised in the poem. With this in mind, scholars have looked at the material culture represented within the poems, from arms and armour to monumental statuary and, as noted above, complex narrative art, and sought to find a corresponding real-world material culture. As such, many items mentioned in the Homeric poems have comparable real-world material dating from a variety of dates, the latest being ca. 650 BC. Moreover, there is the evidence of international relations mentioned within the poems, such as Greeks going to Egypt, Phoenicia, and Sicily, to consider, but this is far less conclusive, given how wide-ranging Mycenaean Greek international relations were.

Secondly, when we factor in the development of the Greek alphabet, the earliest appearance of which (meaning, individual characters that resemble Greek letters) is ca. 800 BC, then the Homeric poems cannot have been put into writing prior to then. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that, once the Greek alphabet did develop, that Greeks would be able to put tens of thousands of lines of poetry into writing – there must have been a development period for Greek literacy to develop. As such, depending on how optimistic you are concerning the Greeks’ ability to develop their writing skills, you can propose a range of dates. Hence the range of 750 to 650 BC.

Owain Williams

Your comment that some of the objects on the shield were images from the iron age was of interest. Some scholars contend that much of the scenes Homer depicted in the poems are likely more descriptive of the Greek Dark Age than the Bronze Age, as Homer was possibly more knowledgeable of that later time.

Richard Coulon, MD, MA

Leave a comment

Related Posts