“Achilles Influences the Moral Consciousness of the West”
Foreword by James A. Arieti, PhD
Dept. of Classics
Hampden-Sydney College, VA
Achilles does not seem to care at all about his new shield1; Hephaestus has promised Thetis fine armor for her son, armor all will marvel to look upon. Yet it makes no impression on Achilles. In his frenzy to get back into the battle, to meet Hector and his own ineluctable end, all Achilles can think about is the fighting.
“The Whole World is on the Shield”
The whole world is on the shield, peace, war, life, death, weddings, farming, dancing, courtrooms; we who read the mere description of it are swept into the vividness of each image. Achilles, having the actual shield in his hands, would surely have been dazzled by its beauty, were he able only to stand back from his immediate crisis and see things in their proper proportion. In Achilles’ lack of art appreciation Homer depicts the intensity of the hero’s passion: nothing interests him – not food, not sex, not the handiwork of the god Hephaestus – nothing except hastening on the death of Hector and himself.
Fortunately, we are not in the same disordered state as the hero, so we can pause in our reading of the poem to admire and reflect on the beauties of his armor. It has been pointed out that the shield portrays the kind of long but obscure and inglorious life which Achilles had earlier seemed to choose.2 But the figures depicted on the shield have, despite their anonymity, achieved an ageless immortality.
The so-called glory of warfare appears on the shield with nameless soldiers besieging nameless cities for nameless motives. Glaucus had told Diomedes that the generations of men are like the generations of leaves3: here we see how. Each leaf has its blaze of splendor in the springtime sun, but it perishes and is forgotten in the huge waste of autumn shedding. On the shield we see the lives led by these anonymous generations; and from a distance we see mere figures whose individuality we cannot discern. So too human life: when we look at it from afar we see indistinct figures mulling about, all personality and distinctions lost.
How many unfinished stories the shield holds! The marriage of the bride and bridegroom – how will it turn out? The dispute between the litigants over a blood price for a man who has been killed – how will the elders decide? The armies fighting and ambushing each other – why are they fighting and who will win, and does it matter? The scenes show the parts of life that go unsung, unremembered, the ordinary events which in their ordinariness matter only to the ones involved.
The innermost and outermost parts of the shield depict the elements of nature which order human life: sun, moon, stars, and sea.4 That the sea should surround all reflects of course the sea-faring life and geography of Greece. Next we see two cities, one at peace and one at war. In the peaceful city there is a marriage and a lawsuit; in the city at war there are a siege, an ambush, and a bloody battle.
“The Themes of the Iliad are Conspicuous”
The themes of the Iliad are conspicuous: in peace the way to get a woman is to marry her, not steal her; the way to settle a dispute is to bring it before judges, not resort to violence, even if violence were at the heart of the dispute. In the next band, the themes of war are present too: the death of sons and husbands, the privation of hunger, the vain hopes of easy victory. That the description of war is much longer than the description of peace is – alas- perhaps reflective of the proportionate time spent in each.
The fourth and most varied band is that devoted to agriculture. Here a field is being plowed with teams going back and forth. As each turned a man would give the ploughman a cup of wine, and he would resume his work. Homer pauses to tell us that the soil on the shield looks like soil, even though made of gold – so fine was the craft. There is a king’s field where laborers reap and bind sheaves of grain; children help, while the king looks on gladly. A feast is in preparation, and women scatter barley for the sacrifice. There is also a vineyard, and young girls and young men carry away the fruit, and a youth sings to a lyre the beautiful song for Linus, and the youths follow to the music. There is also a herd of cattle, and herdsmen made of gold. Again Homer interrupts the smiles and peace to add two terrifying lions, who have caught hold of a bull and drag him away while the young men with their dogs pursue the bull. The lions break open the skin of the ox and begin to eat him. Dogs and men keep their distance.
Even in the midst of the longest stretch of calm happiness we find this note of fright, this note of the always lurking dangers. Peace has its terrors to limit human happiness. There is also a meadow for sheep in a lovely valley. Finally, there is a scene of a great festival, where men and women dressed in their best clothing meet and dance. One can suppose that after the harvest and the celebration and the dance will come the wedding, and the cycle of scenes on the shield will repeat: like the generations of leaves, so the generations of bridegrooms and brides, of litigants, of warriors, of farmers. In nameless progression ‘neath the sun, moon, and stars, confined by the boundaries of sea, the course of human life goes ceaselessly on.
Hephaestus: “The Shield will be a Wonder for All to See”
Hephaestus has said that the shield will be a wonder for all who see it to marvel at. But who is to do the looking and the marveling? The shield will be seen in its intended purpose by those with whom Achilles enters combat. Now the usual subject matter for shields is what stirs up fright, Gorgon heads, serpents, and fierce battles.5 Several possibilities present themselves to explain the extraordinary subject matter of the new armor Hephaestus makes.
Fearsome creatures are not necessary to terrorize Achilles’ combatants: The Myrmidon is himself so awful that the shield could display benign subjects without any diminution of fear on the combatant’s part. And such is what we see throughout the battle scenes in Books Twenty to Twenty-two.6
Secondly, there will be the opportunity for a pathos similar to the kind generated when Homer reminds us in the midst of battle of the dying warrior’s life in peace. We can imagine the one about to die seeing on Achilles’ shield scenes reminiscent of his own life. He falls carrying into Hades the memory of those pleasant scenes; what in his dying moments will he think the value of glory?
Finally, and most importantly, as Homer displays a new kind of hero in Achilles, a hero who, in discovering guilt, influences the moral consciousness of the West in such a way as to define the civilization, so too he is avoiding the stereotyped construction of the warrior’s shield. The difference between the shield we might expect and the one which Hephaestus actually makes forces us to reflect on peace and war and on the value of each.
Patroclus had worn Achilles’ first set of arms into battle during his aristeia, his greatest moment of glorious activity. He had worn the arms so that the Trojans would think him Achilles and the panic they felt at fighting Achilles would help defeat them. While Achilles watched his friend – his alter ego, his other self – depart he must have felt that he himself was departing; after all, the armor did give Patroclus the physical aspect of Achilles.
When Patroclus fell to the might of Hector, Hector stripped the body and donned the armor himself. When, in the final combat with Achilles, Hector engaged Achilles it must have seemed to Achilles that he was fighting against himself, in slaying Hector, slaying himself.
Given Thetis’ prophecy, that Achilles’ own death would follow upon the heels of Hector’s, the appearance of suicide was the virtual reality. For Achilles, it was a way to expiate his guilt in causing the deaths of Patroclus and so many of his comrades. Through the motif of the armor, Homer depicts the inner struggle of Achilles to cope with the new set of feelings he experiences.7
“The Armor has a History”
The armor has a history even after the action of the poem. If, as I have suggested, the armor is symbolic of Achilles’ wish to commit suicide, it is the occasion for the suicide of Ajax, the second greatest Greek warrior at Troy. The products of the gods, when they fall into human hands, come at a high price. After the death of Achilles, there is a contest for his arms, and, by the aid of Athena, they are awarded to Odysseus. Ajax feels that he cannot live well, and since he believes that a man of noble birth must either live well or die well (Sophocles, Ajax 479-480), he chooses suicide. As Ortega remarks, suicide is the most desperate form of adaptation, but it is a form of adaptation.
The arms are presumably lost (Author’s note: and herein is our search), but fortunately for us, Kathleen Vail has reconstructed it. Using her Homer the way Schliemann used his, she has excavated from the text the shape and composition of the shield. In so doing she has confounded some of the critics, who claimed it could never be done.
“Detailed reconstruction of the shield is impossible,” writes Webster.
“…nothing so comprehensive and detailed as this could ever have been seen by Homer or his audience,” says Hogan.
“It is not to be supposed that the poet had ever seen such a shield as he describes,” claims Gardner.8
Finding art works of roughly contemporary handiwork, she documents the illustrations and shows that indeed they could have been found on a shield such as Homer describes. It took a god one night to construct the shield; it has taken Ms. Vail – a mere mortal – five years of work and study to complete hers.
Reading Homer’s description of the shield while looking at the illustrations will compel one to read slowly, savoring the details. The reader will have to overcome any impulse to rush on and return to the plot as he looks for the correspondence between word and image. A humorless Platonist – the kind who took Plato literally and failed to see the smile behind the dialogues – might think that these images take us even further away from the reality of the ideas. Homer, the Platonist would say, imitated in words the shield Achilles used; Ms. Vail altered the medium and put the words into pictures, moving still more distant from the original idea of a shield.
What does the dour Platonist know? She has changed the words back into gold and silver; she has revivified the text. She supplies the modern reader with an image for his mind’s eye to grasp on to. She has provided for us a glimpse of the world of archaic Greece.
Scholarship has found many uses for the shield. Literary critics have delighted in finding the themes of the Iliad in the various vignettes; archaeologists have found the shield a quarry for reconstructing life in Homeric times, about agricultural techniques, legal procedures, festive practices. The illustrations in the text will provide an incentive to all these researches.
Perhaps, however, the best use for this representation of the shield is to stimulate the imagination. Reading the text while gazing on the illustrations, it is possible Alicelike to be swallowed up into the ancient scenes and to imagine oneself dancing and falling in love or, in my case, as one of the elders adjudicating a controversy.
James A. Arieti
Department of Classics
1. Achilles’ indifference to the shield is noted by W. Marg, Homer uber die Dichtung (Munster, 1957), 32.
2. M. Edwards, Homer: Poet of the Iliad (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 284.
3. Homer’s Iliad Book 6:140.
4. Cf. Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945) p. 50.
5. Edwards, 278; Also T.B.L. Webster, From Mycenae to Homer (London: Methuen, 1958), pg. 213.
7. See my article, “Achilles’ Guilt,” Classical Journal 80(1985): 193-203.
DR. JAMES A. ARIETI
Graves H. Thompson Professor of Classics
B.A., Grinnell College (1969). Phi Beta Kappa
M.A., Stanford University
Ph.D., Stanford University (1972)
Dr. James A. Arieti has taught at Hampden-Sydney College since 1978. Previously he taught at Stanford University, The Pennsylvania State University, and Cornell College. He is married to Barbara Arieti, a guidance counselor with Prince Edward County Elementary School. He is the father of two children, Samuel and Ruth, and the grandfather of two granddaughters, Josephine and Clementine.
Greek and Roman literature and philosophy are among Arieti’s teaching interests, as well as ancient history, humanities, biblical literature and the classical tradition.
Service to the College:
Dr. Arieti has served on and chaired innumerable committees; has been the chair of the Humanities Program and of the Classics Department; founded and served as coach of the College Bowl Team since its inception and served as a Freshman advisor. He organized and directed four interdisciplinary symposia with the participation of scholars from across the nation-Science and Mathematics: Definitions Ancient and Modern; Chaos: Ancient and Modern; Oedipus the King; and The Trojan War.
Honors and Awards:
Among Arieti’s honors are memberships in Phi Beta Kappa, Eta Sigma Phi, and Phi Kappa Alpha. Dr. Arieti has been a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, a Stanford University Fellow, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow. In 1995 he was awarded the Graves H. Thompson Chair, and has received the Mettauer Research award three times at Hampden-Sydney College.
The Dating of Longinus (1975),
Love Can Be Found (1975),
Longinus’s On the Sublime: Translation and Commentary (1985),
Interpreting Plato: The Dialogues as Drama (1991),
Discourses on the First Book of Herodotus (1995),
Sophocles’ Philoctetes (2000),
The Scientific and the Divine: Conflict and Reconciliation from Ancient Greece to the Present (2003),
Philosophy in the Ancient World: An Introduction (2005),
Plato’s Gorgias (2007), and
Plato’s Protagoras (2010).
Dr. Arieti has edited three other books:
Hamartia: The Concept of Error in the Western Tradition.
Essays in Honor of John M. Crossett(1983),
The Modern Language Association International Bibliography.
Volume III: Linguistics (1975),
and a machine-readable text of Cicero’s De Amicitia.
(edited for computer with coding for diacritics, punctuation, capitals.)
Dr. Arieti has delivered over one hundred papers at professional conferences, colleges, and universities in North America and Europe and has published nearly forty articles on subjects that include ancient warfare, Dante, Empedocles, Greek athletics, Herodotus, Homer, Horace, Livy, Machiavelli, Philo, Plato, Rhetoric, the Septuagint and Shakespeare. Arieti’s doctoral dissertation dealt with the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, and he is currently at work on a project on biblical and classical cultures.
Name: Arieti, Dr. James Alexander
Title: Thompson Professor of Classics
Work Phone: (434)223-6252
“I Wish You Great Success With This Work.”
Endorsement by Elizabeth Fisher, PhD
Professor of Classics and the Arts
“I am delighted with your work, in particular the creativity and ingenuity you have shown in your artistic recreation of the shield. The benefit of this work to a teacher such as myself is not only as a visual representation of the shield which is as remarkably detailed as Homer’s description, but also as an example of the ongoing power of Homer’s narrative to inspire thought and art.
“I am most impressed with your consistent adherence to the profile head with frontal eye, triangular kneecaps, upturned, pointed feet, and careful costume details such as greaves and helmets, and embroidered borders. The appropriately sparse background features are also quite a nice touch.
“I wish you great success with this work. You have obviously put a great deal of work into both your art and your writing. I will be waiting for this work to appear, for use in my classes on Greek art and the Bronze Age Aegean. Thank you again for the privilege of reading your work.”
DR. ELIZABETH FISHER
Professor of Classics and the Arts
B.A. William & Mary
M.A. (Etruscan Archeology) Florida State
Ph.D. (Aegean Archeology) University of Minnesota.
Dr. Elizabeth Fisher received her B.A. from William and Mary in 1977. In 1980 she got her M.A. in Etruscan Archaeology from Florida State. Her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in Aegean Archaeology was received in 1988. The same year, she came to Randolph-Macon College.
Dr. Fisher’s interests are archaeology and ancient art history, and she also enjoys teaching languages. Since 1997, her archaeology students have excavated her Civil War era backyard. She has recently become a very well trained Brownie and Girl Scout leader.
Service to the College:
Teaching a broad spectrum of classics, art history and archaeology courses, Dr. Elizabeth fisher has accompanied students on numerous travel-study trips — to Ethiopia, Israel, Egypt and other destinations — throughout her tenure at R-MC. In 2013 Fisher was presented R-MC’s Samuel Nelson Gray Distinguished Professor Award, which honors the faculty member selected by the president as the person who has made a distinguished contribution to the college.
Honors and Awards:
Dr. Fisher was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant to lecture and research at Aksum University in Aksum, Ethiopia, during the 2015-16 academic year. The United States Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board made this announcement recently. Fisher will teach courses in archaeology in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Management at Aksum University, and will research connections between Greece and Ethiopia from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine period.
Name: Fisher, Dr. Elizabeth A.
Title: Professor of Classics and the Arts
Work Phone: (804)752-7249
Dr. Fisher’s website at Randolph-Macon College: http://www.rmc.edu/departments/classics/faculty/dr-elizabeth-fisher
“Personally, I Find the Project Interesting and… Absorbing.”
Endorsement by Bernard Knox, PhD
Founding Director and Director Emeritus
Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies
Washington, DC, USA
“Personally, I find the project interesting and the photograph(s) with accompanying text, absorbing. I found myself following the different units round the shield as I read the Greek text and was pleased to see all the Homeric components present and correct, as they say in the Army. I think what Webster meant by his remark1 was merely that Homer was describing an ideal, imaginary shield and that no such ornate and complicated piece of armor really existed. But even though it was an imaginary shield, you have shown that it could in fact have been made.”
1. “Detailed reconstruction of the shield is impossible,” writes T.B.L. Webster, From Mycenae to Homer (London: Methuen, 1958), pg. 214.
DR. BERNARD KNOX
(b. November 24, 1914 – d. July 22, 2010)
Founding Director and Director Emeritus, Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies
One of the world’s premier scholars of classical literature, Dr. Bernard Knox taught at Yale University for many years and was director emeritus of Harvard’s prestigious Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC.
The recipient of many academic honors and awards, Professor Knox was the editor of The Norton Book of Classical Literature, the editor of and a contributor to the Cambridge History of Classical Literature, and wrote the introductions and notes for Robert Fagles’ translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Knox is the author of The Heroic Temper, The Oldest Dead White European Males, and Backing into the Future: The Classical Tradition and Its Renewal, in addition to many other authoritative and critically acclaimed texts on ancient drama and literature.
Among his many accomplishments, Dr. Knox was the recipient of awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment of the Humanities, as well as receiving an appointment as a Guggenheim fellow and being elected president of the noted American Philological Association. His military decorations included two Bronze Star Medals and the French Croix de Guerre.
According to Emma Brown of the Washington Post, Dr. Bernard Knox regarded the brilliance of Homer’s Iliad as “the epic’s ability to show that war is at once horrifying and magnetic” — that it “has its own strange and fatal beauty, a power which can call out in men resources of endurance, courage and self-sacrifice which peace time, to our sorrow and loss, can rarely command.”
Concluding this message in a 1979 speech, the eminent Dr. Knox noted, “Three thousand years have not changed the human condition in this respect.”
British-born scholar and classicist Dr. Bernard MacGregor Walker Knox died July 22, 2010 at his home in Bethesda, Maryland of a heart ailment. He was 95.
Continue to A Pre-War Prologue