A Comparative Study of the Shield of Achilles and the Shield of Aeneas In Homer’s great work, the Iliad, Achilles is given a set of armor, including a glorious shield which allows him to return to battle and carry out his revenge against Hector. Likewise, in Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas is sent a shield for the purpose of aiding him in defending Rome from invasion. However, these shields are made special not by their military value, but by the engravings that decorate their surfaces.
Achilles’ shield holds engravings of common life during his time: farmers plowing the land, young men and women dancing in the vineyards, scenes of the countryside, slaves working for their kings, and armies fighting each other. On the other hand, Aeneas’ shield holds the story of Italy, from the birth of the twins, Romulus and Remus, to the peak of the Roman Empire. Because of the images that are depicted on both shields, they are of much more significance than just tools of war. These shields represent all that their nations are worth and have been especially chosen for each hero to carry.
This, therefore, makes their presences in the Iliad and the Aeneid worth recognizing. It is true that these shields hold great importance in their respective works, yet their exact meanings still remain unclear. Many may just see these shields as just ordinary weapons. However, their value is surely not found as tools of war. The purpose of this study is to compare the role and impact of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad to that of Aeneas’ shield in the Aeneid. This has to do mostly with the shields’ origins and each hero’s need for them.
This study also compares their physical and symbolic aspects in regard to their elaborate engravings. Although these designs provide the shields with much aesthetic beauty, they also offer them even greater symbolic significance. In Homer’s Iliad, Troy falls under the siege of the Greeks. Although the war itself sways back and forth, Greece still holds the ability to overpower its opponent easily. However, its greatest warrior, Achilles, who is part-god, refuses to battle; a decision takes place due to his dispute with the leader of Greece’s armies, Agamemnon.
It is not until Patrocles, his best friend, falls under the sword of the enemy that Achilles enters the war. Upon hearing of the death of his closest friend, Achilles is devastated. Homer goes into great detail when expressing this grief in writing, “In both hands he caught up the grimy dust, and poured it over his head and face, and fouled his handsome countenance, and the black ashes were scattered over his immortal tunic. And he himself, mightily in his might, in the dust lay at length, and took and tore at his hair with his hands, and defiled it” (Il. , 18. 22-27).
Achilles’ pain is so great that his mother, Thetis, a nymph, feels his tortured cries. She quickly appears by her son’s side and tries to comfort him; however, Achilles is not at ease. Instead, he vows to avenge Patrocles’ death. A worried Thetis does not agree with his planned course of action, but she nevertheless decides to help him. Realizing that her son is without his armor, which Patrocles had been wearing at his demise, Thetis declares, “‘I am going to tall Olympos and to Hephaistos, the glorious smith, if he might be willing to give me for my son renowned and radiant armour’” (Homer, Il. 18. 142-144). Thetis returns from her visit to Hephaistos with a set of armor that includes an extra-ordinary shield. However, this is no ordinary shield, as it bears on its surface various unique engravings. Hephaistos includes everything on this masterpiece from the stars and other celestial bodies, as Homer describes in writing, “He made the earth upon it, and the sky, and the sea’s water, and the tireless sun, and the moon waxing into her fullness, and on it all the constellations that festoon the heavens, the Pleiades and the Hyades and the strength of Orion and the Bear (…)” (Il. 18. 483-487). , to Greek life and events, which is found when Homer writes, “And the renowned smith of the strong arms made elaborate on it a dancing floor, like that which once in the wide spaces of Knosos Daidalos built for Ariadne of the lovely tresses. And there were young men on it and young girls, sought for their beauty with gifts of oxen, dancing, and holding hands at the wrist” (Il. , 18. 590-594). In fact, the majority of the shield depicts common Greek life; this being a quality that distinguishes Achilles’ shield from those of other famous warriors and heroes.
Epics and their heroes usually involve gods and god-like feats, which are still true in the Iliad, yet the engravings on this shield are an oxymoron of that style. Edwards best describes this in stating, “Like an enormous simile, the scenes on the shield hold the narrative still for a while as we gaze at them; and the content is like that of a simile, too – it is the ordinary life of mankind that we observe, not that of heroes or gods” (278). The shield is unique for the engravings it bears on its surface, however, its greater significance lies in what it represents, especially to Achilles’ being.
At her son’s birth, Thetis knew that Zeus had fated Achilles to die if he spilled Hector’s blood. Despite warning him of this, Thetis could not sway her son’s decision to avenge Patrocles and kill Hector. Therefore, it is known from this point on that Achilles would soon die. Once he puts on the new armor, Achilles accepts his impending doom, and even accepts it earlier as he speaks to his mother, saying, ‘I must die soon, then; since I was not to stand by my companion when he was killed. And now, far away from the land of his fathers, he has perished, and lacked my fighting strength to defend him.
Now, since I am not going back to the beloved land of my fathers, since I was no light of safety to Patroklos, nor to my other companions, who in their numbers went down before glorious Hektor, but sit here beside my ship, a useless weight on the good land, I, who am such as no other of the bronze-armoured Archaians in battle, though there are others also better in council – (…)’ (Homer, Il. , 18. 98-106). The new armor and shield from Hephaistos, which hold the purpose of Achilles going into battle and facing Hector, actually embody this acceptance.
Achilles made a promise to defeat Patrocles’ murderer, and by taking up the shield he did the equivalent to signing a contract that he cannot take back. This relationship between armor and acceptance of fate is observed by Edwards, who states, “But this divine armor was the gift of the gods to Achilles’ human father, Peleus, at his marriage to the goddess Thetis, and by its very existence suggests the great gulf between mortals and immortals, (…); and Hephaestus’ making the new armor in Book 18 is juxtaposed to Achilles’ decision to seek vengeance even at the cost of his own death” (115).
The shield is also, ironically, a symbol of all that Achilles is giving up by choosing to wield it. The engravings on the shield’s surface represent, in essence, the more tranquil side of Greek life. By pursuing his hate for Hector, which would eventually lead to his own death, Achilles is throwing away a life of peace and happiness that the shield depicts. However, it is understood that Achilles would never truly be happy, and actually feel guilty, without avenging his best friend’s death, since he believes that his refusal to battle led to Patrocles’ death.
Therefore he leaves behind a possible life of peace at home, all for the sole purpose of redeeming his friend’s honor. This is the fate of Achilles; and heroic as it is, it does not lack in tragedy, which Edwards points out, stating, Within the framework of the plot and themes of the Iliad itself, the ordinary life that Achilles’ shield depicts appropriately represents the human life he has just resigned in this book for the sake of taking vengeance on Hector (…).
Achilles thus bears into battle with him an ever present symbol of his own mortality, a divinely made reminder that even armor made by a god will not save his life, just as it failed to save Patroclus’s life and will not save Hector’s (284). As Achilles is given an extraordinary shield by his mother to go into battle, so is Aeneas given one by his mother, Venus, in preparation for battle. However, whereas Achilles has a choice to join the war against the Trojans, Aeneas does not.
Aeneas is even aware of this fact, for when he hears of the Laurentines preparing for war, he says, “’I am the man whom heaven calls’” (Virgil, Aen. , 8. pp. 248-249). The whole situation arises once Aeneas, protagonist of the Aeneid, reaches the land of Ancient Latium, where King Latinus rules. Latinus, whose daughter is looking for a husband, is told by Apollo that only a foreigner, whose ancestry originates from Latium, is to wed his daughter. Soon after rriving, Aeneas is greeted hospitably by everyone, including King Latinus, who believes him to be the foreigner from the prophecy. However, Juno sees this and is greatly angered, for she is trying to kill him and end the possibility of Aeneas establishing Rome. Juno then creates turmoil within the kingdom by leading Latinus’ wife and all the women away from his side and creating hate amongst many others for Aeneas, including Turnus, a powerful suitor of Latinus’ daughter. Soon, all those gathered by Juno, known as the Laurentines, declare war on Aeneas and the Trojans.
Meanwhile, Aeneas is approached by Tiber, the river god, who warns him of the coming danger and advises him to seek refuge from Arcadian King Evander. Aeneas does so, and asks for an alliance, to which Evander agrees because of their common ancestry. Venus, Aeneas’ mother, worried about the war that threatens her son’s well-being, visits her spouse Vulcan’s home and approaches him, saying, ‘While Argive kings lay their due victim, Pergama, waste – her towers doomed to fall in fires her enemy set – never did I demand for the desperate any relief at all, no weapons forged by your skill, in your metal. …) Now, however, by the command of Jove he has made good his landing on the Rutulian shore, and so I do come now, begging your sacred power for arms, a mother begging for her son’ (Virgil, Aen. , 8. pp. 242-243). Vulcan, who is greatly sympathetic to her plea, reassures Venus that she need not beg and agrees to forge the armor and shield. The circumstances for the armor are very clear just through reading the story. As a mother, Venus is worried about her son and takes the initiative to help him.
This makes the armor more a tool of precaution than anything else. It is true that Laurentine threat put Aeneas in danger; however, there is no actual need for the armor, for Venus could have helped her son in other ways. Yet the aid is happily welcomed by Aeneas, as imagined. In fact the armor and the shield, which captivate Aeneas at first glance, give him a greater sense of confidence going into battle. Just like Achilles’ shield, the shield of Aeneas is not actually valuable for its military use, but for the engravings that are embedded on its surface.
However, unlike the shield of Achilles, that of Aeneas does not hold images of average Romans. His shield carries all of Italy’s history on its surface, as Virgil tells us in writing, “There the Lord of Fore, knowing the prophets, knowing the age to come, had wrought the future story of Italy, the triumphs of the Romans: there one found the generations of Ascanius’ heirs, the wars they fought, each one” (Aen. , 8. pp. 252). Also, whereas the engravings on Achilles’ shield do not directly involve him, those on Aeneas’ shield do.
Since Aeneas is fated to discover Rome, despite Juno’s attempts to stop him, the depiction of Rome’s history properly fits him. An interesting aspect of Aeneas’ shield is the way in which Virgil presents it. He does so in a way that the images being described seem to be in motion, much like Homer’s presentation of Achilles’ shield. However, at the same time, Virgil conveys his own in a different manner. When reading the section in which Virgil describes the engravings on the shield’s surface, one feels as if reading another story, away from the Aeneid.
Putnam shares in this experience and contributes his opinion, stating, “Virgil complements this extraordinary transition from static to mobile, from frozen artistry to palpable experience, by shifting the infinitives from past to present. This change gives texture to ekphrastic time by reflecting how the action of the shield, unlike Vulcan’s spate of crafting, is to be perceived as continuous (…)” (120). Although Homer does succeed in giving motion to the engravings on Achilles’ shield, he lacks this fluent transition from section to section that Virgil applies to Aeneas’ shield.
Because both poets apply motion to the shields, they are able to bring their images to life. Putnam remarks on this wonder, saying, “It is possible to engrave or otherwise depict a cave in metal (…). But to imagine a ‘green’ cave is to pass beyond the metallurgist’s art into the immediate reality of the scene itself, to vivify what stretches inertly before us on the shield” (120). These poets present the events embedded on the shields in a way that makes the reader have the impression that they are actually taking place, rather than just still as they should be.
In doing this they give the shields a value that can truly only be accredited to the work of a god. A great example of the power these masterpieces hold is seen in the creation of Achilles’ shield by Hephaistos, as Homer writes, “He made upon it a soft field, the pride of the tilled land, wide and triple-ploughed, with many ploughmen upon it who wheeled their teams at the turn and drive them in either direction. (…) The earth darkened behind them and looked like earth that has been ploughed though it was gold.
Such was the wonder of the shield’s forging” (Il. , 18. 541-549). Another difference with the poets’ respective presentations is the fact that Homer guides us along the creation of Achilles’ shield, whereas Virgil completely skips this and brings the shield as a complete surprise to both Aeneas and the reader. By doing this, Virgil allows his audience to feel the wonder and excitement that Aeneas does at first sight of his god-made shield. Many scholars agree with this observation, including Putnam, who states,
By turning our attention away from the moment of manufacture to the moment of reception, Virgil removes the instantaneous gratification available to Homer’s audiences, who are to imagine themselves observant participants at the astonishing occasion when an artwork comes into being at the hands of an immortal artist and who can easily absorb a meaning for the shield’s contents as accessible to them as it would be soon to Achilles himself. The Roman poet focuses attention instead on the receiver’s act of contemplation (168).
The factor that Homer lacks in his presentation of the shield, just as Putnam tells us in the previous quote, is the element of surprise that Virgil includes with Aeneas’ shield. While reading the making of Achilles’ shield, one does feel a small sensation of amazement. It is exciting to imagine Hephaistos as he forges stories into this shield. However, the sensation ends right there. On the other hand, Virgil leaves the reader in suspense by temporarily separating the shield from the story. Hardie believes this actic to be favorable, as he says, “That the Shield of Aeneas is less well integrated into its context than is the Shield of Achilles proves perhaps to be an advantage; (…)” (338). Because Virgil succeeds in building up one’s excitement, where Homer just proceeds in satisfying it, the presentation of Aeneas’ shield is truly superior. Related to the reception of the shields in both epics are the manners in which Achilles and Aeneas react to them. Both are aware that new armor is on its way; however, because their incentives to have them greatly differ, they also reveal unlike reactions.
Either situation is commented on by Hardie, who states, “In the Iliad Achilles stands in real need of a new set of arms after the death of Patroclus, whereas in the Aeneid the gift of divine armour to Aeneas does not supply a pressing lack” (337). Until the arrival of his shield and armor, Achilles is in deep mourning over his best friend’s death. Once Thetis arrives with the gifts, he takes on a completely different personality, as Homer lets us know, in writing, “Only Achilleus looked, and as he looked the anger came harder upon him and his eyes glittered terribly under his lids, like sunflare” (Homer, Il. , 19. 15-17).
Obviously, this anger comes from the hate that Achilles has for Hector for killing his best friend. Rather than rushing off into battle, Aeneas takes time to sulk in his shield’s beauty once it is in his presence. Virgil writes, “All these images on Vulcan’s shield, his mother’s gift, were wonders to Aeneas. Knowing nothing of the events themselves, he felt joy in their pictures, taking up upon his shoulder all the destined acts and fame of his descendants” (Aen. , 8. pp. 256). Unlike Achilles, Aeneas understands the importance of the images embedded on his shield, while, ironically, not knowing their true meaning.
Putnam remarks on this incident, stating, “The ekphrasis outlines only excerpts from this general survey of Rome up to 29 B. C. E. , but none of it, whether the whole or its parts, could have been comprehended by the shield’s recipient, who rejoices in it but must nevertheless contemplate what he sees in ignorance of its meaning” (167-168). One topic that is not given much attention, yet worthy of it, are the relationships between the heroes’ mothers and the shield forgers. In the Iliad, Hephaistos answers Thetis’ request by saying, She saved me when I suffered much at the time of my great fall through the will of my own brazen-faced mother, who wanted to hide me, for being lame. Then my soul would have taken much suffering had not Eurynome and Thetis caught me and held me, (…). Now she has come into our house; so I must by all means do everything to give recompense to lovely-haired Thetis for my life’ (Homer, Il. , 18. 395-408). It is evident here that Hephaistos takes on the task of forging Achilles’ shield only because he feels indebted to Thetis, who saved his life, and is returning the favor.
However, in the Aeneid, the reason for Vulcan forging Aeneas’ shield is not clear. He responds to Venus’ plea by saying, “‘Why do you go so far Afield for reasons? (…) If you are ready now to arm for war and have a mind to wage it, all the devoted craft that I can promise, all that is forgeable in steel and molten alloy by the strength of a blast-fire – you need not beg me for these gifts’” (Virgil, Aen. , 8. pp. 243). Vulcan seems more than happy to undertake this job for Venus, yet there is no incentive for this behavior.
Putnam reveals some light on the relationships as he states, “In each case we are dealing with the same god, Hephaistos-Vulcan, and with a mother-son combination, in the first instance that of Thetis and Achilles, in the second Venus and Aeneas. But a major dissimilarity is immediately apparent” (169). The dissimilarity he speaks about involves Vulcan being the husband of Venus. Putnam follows this idea by stating that “a notoriously unfaithful wife making a plea to her repeatedly cuckolded husband on behalf of her illegitimate child adds to the moral dilemma in which Virgil deliberately places his reader” (169).
Thus Virgil leaves no absolute reason for Vulcan’s decision to forge Aeneas’ shield, he instead leaves this controversial issue open to reader’s interpretation. This study has been an attempt to compare the different aspects, both physical and symbolic, attributed to the shields of Achilles and Aeneas. Most importantly, it has been an attempt to analyze the roles of both shields in their respective works and compare the impacts they make on their respective epic heroes. In essence, both poets succeed in their presentations of the shields.
Achilles and Aeneas are epic heroes of tremendous proportions. By giving them these astonishing shields, Homer and Virgil are able to portray their heroes’ true majesty and superiority over all other humans. In addition, they create situations in which one cheers for the hero as he conquers his foe. For these reasons, the Iliad and the Aeneid are truly great epics. Works Consulted Byre, Calvin S. “Narration, Description, and Theme in the Shield of Achilles. ” The Classical Journal Oct. -Nov. 1992): 33-42. Edwards, Mark W. Homer: Poet of the Iliad. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1987. Hardie, Philip R. Virgil’s Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951. Putnam, Michael. Virgil’s Epic Designs: Ekphrasis in the Aeneid. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Random House, 1983.