Homer devotes the final passages of Book 18 of The Iliad to the description of the shield of Achilles. Only a quarter of the description concerns warfare, the essential grist of the epic. Instead, the bulk of the description presents a peaceful society and rural idylls, a curious choice for the most ferocious warrior of the Greeks, and an odd thing for both armies to fear. A narrative emerges from the scenes of the shield, and it is this that fits Achilles and repulses everyone else.
We expect Achilles’ shield to unsettle his adversaries—that is, after all, one of the objectives of a shield. Indeed, Achilles returns to battle "shining in all his armour, a man like the murderous war god" (Iliad 20.46).1 Once he and Hektor are alone on the battlefield, the shield shines:
like that star
which comes on in the autumn and whose conspicuous brightness
far outshines the stars that are numbered in the night’s darkening,
the star they give the name of Orion’s Dog, which is brightest
among the stars, and yet is wrought as a sign of evil
and brings on the great fever for unfortunate mortals. (22.26-31)
We need not wonder, then, when Priam and Hecuba supplicate Hektor to return to Troy in the face of this practically cosmic onslaught. But what is unusual is that Achilles’ own men avoid the shield: "None had the courage / to look straight at it. They were afraid of it" (19.14-15). Here even the narration relies on the pronoun "it" instead of explicitly identifying the shield as the source of...
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...ictory. If Achilles had chosen to leave, not only would he have been a good son, but the Trojans might have won the war, meaning both he and Priam would have had something to which they could look forward, and three-fourths of the shield’s story would not have been left unfulfilled. In staying, he contributes not only to his own demise, but also to that of the Trojans. This knowledge causes "the anger to come harder upon him" (19.16), and yet "he was glad" (19.18). The great dilemma of Achilles is forever immortalized on his shield, so that some lesser man in the future would be able to read the narrative upon it and say: "This armor was Achilles’, a man who forfeited the rest of his life for grim combat. The gods do not force most men to choose like that."
1. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).
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