Iliad: Book 18 | The Shield of Achilles

Dcn. Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan discuss Book 18 of the Iliad: The Shield of Achilles.

Arguably the MOST philosophically dense book in the entire Iliad.

  • Summary of the Narrative
  • What lesson does the “heart” of Achilles teach?
  • How do we interpret the shield of Achilles?

Check out our 115 QUESTION GUIDE to the Iliad.

How should we interpret the shield of Achilles?

The shield of Achilles presents a commentary on the cosmos. It is a testament to the Greek belief that the world is ordered and in balance. From the heavens to human civilization to the boundaries of the known world, a certain order and intelligibility permeates reality. Reality is not chaotic. Man inhabits an ordered whole.

Homer presents the scenes on the shield starting with the center and moving outward in concentric circles toward the edge with certain circles having multiple parts. The scenes on the shield may be described as follows:


1.    The earth, sky, sea, sun, and moon (18.565)

2.    The constellations (18.567)

3.    City at Peace: The wedding feast (18.573)

4.    City at Peace: The court of justice (18.580)

5.    City at War: A city under siege (18.593)

6.    City at War: Raid by the besieged (18.598)

7.    Ploughing the field (18.629)

8.    Harvesting the field (18.639)

9.    The vineyard festival (18.654)

10. The cattle under attack (18.670)

11. The flock in the meadow at peace (18.686)

12. The circle of dancing and courtship (18.690)

13. Ocean’s River (18.708)


On the shield itself, one may expect that Zeus would inhabit the center of shield rather than the heavenly bodies. The absence of Zeus at the center raises the question of the role of the gods within the cosmos. Notably, there is no ring dedicated to the Olympian gods, as one may think vital to a testament on the order of the cosmos. Moreover, the only Olympian gods that are mentioned are in the City at War. One may question whether there is a Homeric lesson embedded here on whether the gods are agents of order or chaos within the cosmic whole.

The City at Peace is characterized by love and justice. The marriage is a witness to love and binding, while the court scene is a witness to justice and resolution. Note that the City at Peace is not without conflict; rather, the City at Peace is able to resolve the conflict through justice. The City at War is an obvious contrast. The city under siege inevitably recalls the current plight of Troy. It is, as noted above, the only section that includes the gods.

The ploughing and harvesting scenes are naturally coupled. The plowmen enjoy wine as they work, and the harvesting depiction includes the presence of the king and terminates in a harvest feast (18.650). The pastoral imagery is coupled with characteristics of civilization. The vineyard scene is one of wine, music, innocence, and joviality. Though unnamed, it is all characteristic of Dionysus, the jovial wine-god. The cattle scene, however, is one marked by duty, danger, death, and violence. There is also the coupling of the domestic cattle and the wild lions. The herdsmen being unable to fend off the wild lions presents parallels to the conflict in the earlier City at War, and both scenes raise an inclination that there are analogues here to the present conflict in Troy. The conflict of the herdsmen and lions gives way to the serene meadow at peace—a possible parallel to the City at Peace. We then receive the circle of dancing, another festive scene, and one set within the courtship of young boys and girls (18.693). The human depictions on the shield of Achilles appear to begin and end with love. The rim of the shield is the rim of the known world, Ocean’s River.

There are many more questions about the shield. For example, what is Hephaestus’ intent is presenting such a narrative on the shield? Moreover, what in the character of Achilles—whose rage is the animus of the epic—corresponds to such a cosmic reflection on the order of civilization? One answer may lie in the two fates of Achilles. The shield depicts the life of peace and marriage that Achilles rejected in favor of a life of war and glory. Another question would be whether Achilles learns anything from the depiction on his shield. Does the cosmic narrative of peace and war affect his character at all? One is tempted to note that, when Achilles holds the shield, the narrative faces away from him—he is blind to it. What then does it mean for others, especially the Trojans, who can look upon both Achilles and his shield?[1]

[1] Another comparison is to the Iliad and the Odyssey; as the former is often called a book of war, while the latter is called a book of peace. Each epic, to a degree, takes up the themes of their respective cities.

Leave a Comment