Skip to main content

Werner Jaeger-Homer The Educator: ‘The Shield of Achilles’

An interpretation of the ‘Shield of Achilles’ design described in Book 18 of the ‘Iliad’, by Angelo Monticelli (1778-1837). Engraving by Filippo Caporali.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an extract from Werner Jaeger’s seminal work, ‘Paideia’, volume I, chapter III , ‘Homer the Educator’,  in its English translation by Gilbert Highet. Oxford University Press, Second edition of 1945.


Background Context

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.

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 companion 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 is the first known example of ekphrasis in ancient Greek poetry; ekphrasis is a rhetorical figure in which a detailed (textual) description is given of a (visual) work of art. Besides providing narrative exposition, it can add deeper meaning to an artwork by reflecting on the process of its creation, in turn allowing the audience to envision artwork that they can’t see.

The passage in which Homer describes the creation of the shield has influenced many later poems, including the ‘Shield of Heracles’ once attributed to Hesiod. Virgil’s description of the shield of Aeneas in Book Eight of the ‘Aeneid’ is clearly modeled on Homer. The poem ‘The Shield of Achilles’ (1952) by W. H. Auden re-imagines 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.


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

‘The Earth, sky and sea, the sun, the moon and the constellations’ (484–89)
“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).
A field being ploughed for the third time (541–49).
A king’s estate where the harvest is being reaped (550–60).
A vineyard with grape pickers (561–72).
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).
A picture of a sheep farm (587–89).
A dancing-floor where young men and women are dancing (590–606).
The great stream of Ocean (607–609).

Source: Wikipedia

1720 engraving by Samuel Gribelin junior from THE ILLIAD OF HOMER (translated by POPE) page 171, Vol 5, ‘The Shield of Achilles’ after a drawing by Nicolas Vleughels. Collection of the British Museum.
Figure page 210, from ‘A Companion to the Iliad’ by Malcolm M. Willcock. University of Chicago Press. 1976.


Werner Jaeger’s interpretation

‘We must therefore conclude that the ‘Iliad’ has an ethical design. We have no space to spend on the study which would be necessary to show every detail of its plan. And even if we were to trace it throughout the poem (thereby assuming its unity as a work of art) we should not thereby solve or dismiss the old problem of the growth of the Homeric epics. Yet if we demonstrate and emphasize-as in this study we must-the fact that the poem is built on one single ethical plan, we shall do much to check the tendency of scholarship towards excessive analysis and dissection. We need not ask what architect made the design. Whether it belongs to the original conception of the poem, or was imposed upon it by a later poet, it is impossible to overlook its presence in the finished work; and without understanding it, we should find it impossible to appreciate the purpose and effect of the Iliad.

The existence of the design can be shown here by a very few salient facts. The poet’s own point of view is perfectly clear in the first book of the ‘Iliad’, as he tells how the strife between Achilles and Agamemnon began with the insult to Apollo’s priest Chryses and the anger of the god. He takes no sides. He gives an entirely objective account of the attitude of both parties in the quarrel, but he shows plainly that both have erred in pushing their claims to excess. Between them stands the wise old Nestor -the personification of ‘σωφροσύνη’ (sophrosyne, moderation). He has seen three generations of mortal men; and now he seems to sit high above the troublous present, and to speak from all time to soothe the violence of the moment. Nestor is the equipoise of the whole scene.

The leitmotiv of Ate is heard even in this, the first episode of the poem. Agamemnon is infatuated when he commits the first offence, and in Book IX Achilles in his turn is blinded by Ate. He ‘knows not how to yield’; but clings doggedly to his anger and thus exceeds the limit allowed to mortal men. And the consequences of his anger are far greater. He himself, when it is too late, speaks repentantly of his criminal blindness, and curses the sullen rancor through which he was Jed to be untrue to his own heroic mission, and to sit idly by while he sent his best friend to his death. ln the same way Agamemnon, when he is at last reconciled with Achilles, complains in a lengthy allegorical speech of the destructive power of Ate. Homer presents Ate, like Moira, in a wholly religious light. She is a divine force whom man’s strength can scarcely escape. Yet he shows (especially in Book IX) that if man is not the master of his fate, he is in a certain sense an unconscious co-worker in shaping it. It is through a deep spiritual necessity that the Greeks, who considered man’s highest self-expression to lie in heroic action, should have felt so strongly the daemonic power of infatuation, and seen that it lay in the eternal contradiction between man’s will and his actions, while the fatalistic wisdom of Asia, shrinking before that power, took refuge in the glorification of divine in­action and the will to annihilation. The long process through which the Greeks realized the problem of destiny culminated in Heraclitus’ maxim: ‘Eηθος ανθρωπω, δαιμων’, (ethos antropo daimon, ‘the destiny of man is his own character‘ (daimon)-B119-); but it was begun by the poet who created the character of Achilles in the Iliad.

The work of Homer is throughout inspired by a comprehensive philosophy of human nature and of the eternal laws of. the world-process, a philosophy which has seen and judged every essential factor in man’s life. He contemplates every event and every character in the light of his universal knowledge of the underlying and eternal truth. The love of Greek poetry for gnomic utterances, its tendency to measure each event by a general standard and to reason from the general to the particu­lar, and its frequent use of traditional examples as universal types and ideals-all these tendencies originate with Homer. The finest expression of the epic view of human life is the pic­tures on the shield of Achilles, which are fully described in Book XVIII (478 ff.) of the Iliad.

On the shield Hephaestus wrought the earth, and heaven, and the sea, and the tireless sun, and the moon at its full, and all the signs which crown the sky. And he made two cities of men, beautiful to see. In one, there were marriage-rites and feasting: a bridal procession was marching through the city by the light of torches, while many a marriage-song rose up, and dancing-boys whirled among them to the music of flute and lyre; and the women stood at their doors admiring it all. The citizens were assembled in the market-place, where a quarrel was afoot be­tween two men, about the blood-price to be paid for a man who had been killed. The elders were sitting upon polished stones seats in a sacred circle, each holding a herald’s staff of office: and they stood up in turn to give their verdicts.

The other city was besieged by two armies, gleaming in armor. They were in two minds whether to destroy the city or to plunder it. But the citizens had not yet submitted, but marched out to an ambush, leaving their wives and their children, along with the-old men, to guard the city wall. And when they came to the place for the ambuscade-it was by a river, at the watering place of cattle-they took their posts, and attacked a herd which was driven down to the river. Then the enemy rushed up, and a battle broke out along the river banks. Spears flew back and forward: Eris and Kydoimos, the demons of War, moved among them as they fought, while Ker, the spirit of Death, in blood­stained garments, dragged the dead and wounded men by the feet through the melee.

And Hephaestus made a field, where ploughmen drove their teams up and down: at the field’s edge where they turned a man came up and gave them a cup of wine. And he made a manor at reaping time. The reapers plied their sickles, while the trusses fell behind them and were bound into sheaves by the binders; the king who owned the manor stood watching in silent joy; and his squires prepared a meal under an oak tree beyond. Hephaes­tus made a vineyard too, with a gay vintage dance; a herd of horned cattle, with drivers and dogs; a pasture ground in a beautiful valley, with sheep, and shepherds, and sheepfolds; and a dancing place, where young men and maidens were dancing, holding one another by the hand, while a divine minstrel sang to his lyre-all these completed the vast picture of all the activities of human life. Round the rim of the shield flowed the Ocean, embracing the whole world.

That deep sense of the harmony between man and nature, which inspires the description of Achilles’ shield, is dominant in Homer’s conception of the world. One great rhythm penetrates the moving whole. No day is so full of human striving that the poet forgets to tell how the sun rises and sinks above the turmoil, how the toil and battle of the day is succeeded by repose, and how the night, which loosens men’s limbs in sleep, embraces all mortals. Homer is neither a naturalist nor a moralist. He is neither swept away without foothold in the chaotic waves of life, nor standing, a serene observer, on the shore. Physical and spiritual forces are equally real for him. He has a keen and ob­jective insight into human passions. He knows their elemental violence, which overpowers man himself and whirls him away in their grip. But though that force may often seem to over swell its banks, it is always controlled by strong barriers beyond. For Homer, and for the Greeks in general, the ultimate ethical boundaries are not mere rules of moral obligation, but funda­mental laws of Being. It is to this sense of ultimate reality, this deeper knowledge of the meaning of the world, beside which all mere ‘realism’ seems thin and partial, that the Homeric epic owes its overpowering effect.

Homer sees life as governed by universal laws; and for that reason, he is a supreme artist in the craft of motivation. He does not passively accept tradition: he does not relate a simple succession of events. He presents a plot which develops by its own compulsion from stage to stage, governed by an unbreakable connection of cause and effect. With the first line, the dramatic narrative of each epic begins to unfold without interruption towards its logical end. ‘Muse, sing of the anger of Achilles and his strife with Atreus’ son Agamemnon, which of the gods set them to strive with each other?‘ The question flies straight as an arrow to the goal. Upon it follows the tale of Apollo’s wrath, a tale which gives only the essential factors which cause the tragedy: it is set at the head of the epic like the aetiology of the Peloponnesian war at the beginning of Thucydides’ history. And the plot does not develop in a loose chronological sequence. It is ruled throughout by the principle of sufficient reason. Every action has its roots in character.

But Homer does not, like modern authors, see every action from within, as a phenomenon of human consciousness. In his world, nothing great happens without the aid of a divine power. The poet who tells a story is necessarily omniscient. Our authors must speak of the most secret emotions of each character as if they themselves had entered his mind. Homer, on the other hand, presents all human action as guided by the gods. It is not always easy to draw the line beyond which this narrative method becomes simply a poetic device; but it is certainly mistaken to hold that the intervention of the gods is never more than a trick of the epic style. For Homer does not inhabit a rationalized world, full of the banal and the commonplace. and disguised only by the painted scenery of poetic illusion. If we study the instances of divine intervention in the epics, we can trace a development from the occasional external interference of the gods (a motif which must belong to a very early stage of the epic style) to the constant spiritual guidance of a great man by a divinity, as Odysseus is guided by the perpetual inspiration of Athena.’

1821-22 Interpretation of Achilles’ Shield by John Flaxman. Picture by T. Yeung @ Flickr.


Professor Werner Jaeger.


About Werner Jaeger: 🌿And 🌿 About the Shield of Achilles:
Werner Jaeger-Homer The Educator: ‘The Shield of Achilles’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

all rights reserved Via Hygeia 2022