Home » Season 2 » The Epic Hero: An Analysis of the Shields of Achilles and Aeneas in Comparison to Hesiod’s “Shield of Heracles”

The Epic Hero: An Analysis of the Shields of Achilles and Aeneas in Comparison to Hesiod’s “Shield of Heracles”

By Matthew Flathers, VI Form

While the pseudo-Hesiodic Shield of Heracles is largely considered to be a poorly composed piece of poetry, criticized and deemed inauthentic by other antiquated authors[1], it is through its mimicry and plagiarism that it is able to provide valuable insight into Greek, and later Roman, heroism. This short, 450-lined recounting of the contest between Heracles and Cycnus is, as the title suggests, an ekphrastic work about the shield that Heracles bore in the fight. However, seeing as the poem is not particularly well written or unique, the focus of the work lies entirely in the description of the shield itself as opposed to the quality of the imagery used. While large portions of the text are paraphrased and even directly quoted sections of Homer’s Iliad,[2] other sections are indeed original

to this work. However, the blatant plagiarism is often as important, if not more so, in explaining the author’s motivation behind writing this poem. In Greek mythology, Heracles is one of few mortal men lucky enough to undergo apotheosis[3], while other heroes, like Achilles and Aeneas, were not, implying that there were some ethereal qualities possessed by Heracles that distinguished him from other men. By stealing directly from the Iliad, this Hesiodic author is claiming through his ekphrastic symbolism, that Achilles in fact possessed some of the θεϊκός (God-Like) qualities necessary for deification, but the incorporation of depictions in this work that are entirely absent from the Iliad emphasize the fact that Achilles was God-like and not, in fact, divine. Similarly, when Virgil borrowed from this text in his description of Aeneas’ shield, he is careful to entirely omit certain portions in order to highlight the mortality of his hero. The reason the Shield of Heracles has been so heavily criticized is due, in large part, to the fact that, instead of being read as the symbolic definition of an epic hero that it is, it is read as a work whose imagery and originality far fall short of other pieces of literature written around the same time.[4] When read as strictly symbolic, the ekphrasis of this pseudo-Hesiodic work serves to explain, through depictions on a shield, the characteristics and traits of Heracles that define him as the ideal epic hero, and when analyzed in conjunction with the descriptions of the shields of Aeneas and Achilles, it is readily apparent the attributes and personality traits that destine Virgil and Homer’s heroes for Hades and Heracles for Olympus.

Historical Context: Why Heroes?

Chronologically, Homer’s Iliad was likely the first of the three poems to be composed,[5] followed within the century by the Shield of Heracles, while the Aeneid was not written for another seven hundred years. Subsequently, before examining the three passages and how they relate to each other, it is important to understand the motivations behind each text’s creation.

Most scholars agree that Homer and the Hesiodic authors lived around the same time, and that both wrote/spoke, almost exclusively, during the 8th century BCE.[6] It was during this time that Greece was emerging from what historians call the “Dark Ages” and establishing themselves as a dominant power in the Mediterranean. While being far from united, the newly reorganized city-states experienced a dramatic increase in cooperation and trade among themselves. At the same time, literacy rates were dramatically increasing all across Greece, and so the oral storytelling tradition was quickly becoming a written one. It was during this time of increase in literacy and Hellenistic pride that Homer and Hesiod composed their works, and their stories reflect the advantages provided by these situations. No longer was Greece comprised of numerous, hostile tribes, but rather, as writings such as the Iliad and the Shield of Heracles highlight, it was made up of a single race who shared a common history and, more importantly, common heroes. Knowing that these texts would be viewed by more and more individuals as the literate community increased, these authors set out to define an ideal; how to be an epic hero: a hero that Thebans, Athenians, and Spartans alike could look up to and learn from. Through their accounts of heroism, both authors hoped to further unite all Hellenistic peoples under one set of ideals and ancestors, in the hopes that, by trying to emulate these largely fictitious characters, the city-states of Greece would emerge as one of the foremost powers in all of the Western World.

Virgil’s motivation for writing his text, on the other hand, differs dramatically from the others stories being examined in this paper. Virgil’s Aeneid was written specifically as a piece of propaganda for Emperor Augustus. With an understanding that his work would be heavily scrutinized, Virgil set out to make a hero comparable to Augustus, while being careful not to overshadow the jealous emperor. After all, Aeneas established a kingdom, but it was Augustus who founded an empire. Unlike Homer and Hesiod, Virgil was not trying to create an ideal, he was attempting to create the most heroic character possible, without putting his own life in danger. It is for this reason that Virgil is careful to include the passage about Anchises’ speech about the duty of a Roman, and Aeneas’ utter failure to fulfil it.

tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento

(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,

parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.[7]

Remember, Roman, it is for you to rule the nations with your power,

(that will be your skill) to crown peace with law,

to spare the conquered, and subdue the proud.[8]

Despite his father’s warning, Aeneas still wages war against the Latins, and when their leader, Turnus, lies at his feet being conquered, Aeneas still decides to end his life. Augustus, on the other hand, was known for ushering in the pax Romana, the peace of Rome, and was commemorated through other works of the time such as the Ara Pacis. Full papers could be written to prove that The Aeneid is nothing more than propaganda, with countless passages serving as evidence, however, for the purpose of this paper it suffices to say that Virgil’s main motivation behind describing Aeneas the way he does is simply to make a worthy subordinate to Augustus.

The Shields: Why Heracles?

All three authors had specific goals in crafting their heroes, however, of the three protagonists, only Heracles is immortalized, and it is only through the shields that one fully comes to understand why. The epic Heracles is a three part hero, combining κλεος, pietas, and, most importantly, wit. Through his 12 labors as related by Pissander,[9] Heracles displays all three parts equally, while Achilles and lacks pietas and Aeneas lacks κλεος. Despite the fact that they both make up for these missing qualities by the end of their stories,[10] neither of them ever shows any level of extraordinary intelligence and cleverness, forever limiting the gods’ respect for these men. In representation of these three important, heroic, qualities, there are three main classifications of images depicted on the shields that each of these men carried, the first of these being common men both at war and at home.

The two older authors, Homer and the Hesiodic poet, devote large portions of their heroes’ shields on the dichotomy between life at war and life at peace. Ideally, a man’s shield would strike fear into his enemies’ hearts, and, as a result, much speculation has surrounded both authors’ decision to describe Achilles’ and Heracles’ shields the way they did.[11] However, with the general understanding that, symbolically, a shield represents what a man is fighting for, the two shields begin to make more sense. Literally, the two heroes were not fighting for all of the people mentioned, but rather, they were fighting so that all those people would know their names.

ύω ποίησε πόλεις μερόπων ἀνθρώπων

καλάς. ἐν τῇ μέν ῥα γάμοι τ᾽ ἔσαν εἰλαπίναι τε,

νύμφας δ᾽ ἐκ θαλάμων δαΐδων ὕπο λαμπομενάων

ἠγίνεον ἀνὰ ἄστυ, πολὺς δ᾽ ὑμέναιος ὀρώρει:

κοῦροι δ᾽ ὀρχηστῆρες ἐδίνεον, ἐν δ᾽ ἄρα τοῖσιν

495αὐλοὶ φόρμιγγές τε βοὴν ἔχον: αἳ δὲ γυναῖκες

ἱστάμεναι θαύμαζον ἐπὶ προθύροισιν ἑκάστη

τὴν δ᾽ ἑτέρην πόλιν ἀμφὶ δύω στρατοὶ ἥατο λαῶν

τεύχεσι λαμπόμενοι: δίχα δέ σφισιν ἥνδανε βουλή,

ἠὲ διαπραθέειν ἢ ἄνδιχα πάντα δάσασθαι

κτῆσιν ὅσην πτολίεθρον ἐπήρατον ἐντὸς ἔεργεν:[12]

Therein fashioned he also two cities of mortal men exceeding fair. In the one there were marriages and feastings, and by the light of the blazing torches they were leading the brides from their bowers through the city, and loud rose the bridal song. And young men were whirling in the dance, and in their midst [495] flutes and lyres sounded continually; and there the women stood each before her door and marveled. … But around the other city lay in league two hosts of warriors [510] gleaming in armour. And twofold plans found favour with them, either to lay waste the town or to divide in portions twain all the substance that the lovely city contained within.[13]

The depictions of both people at peace and at war signify that Achilles, Heracles, and all heroes should not only desire to be known by their fellow soldiers as valiant men deserving of praise, but also by the entirety of Greece. This fame was known as a man’s κλεος, and, as both Homer and the imitator of Hesiod are suggesting, heroes are those men whose κλεος far exceeds that of all others. Achilles’ pursuit of κλεος is easily identifiable through his refusal to fight for the Greeks after Agamemnon hurt his pride. Similarly, Heracles’ pursuit of κλεος is exemplified by the sheer incredulity and impressiveness of his 12 labors. However, Virgil, who has been shown to have used both these texts as inspiration,[14] fails to mention anything in his work about the contrast between civilization in times of piece and war. Metaphorically, this omission represents the fatal flaw in Aeneas’ character which ends up preventing him from reaching immortality. Unlike Achilles and Heracles, Aeneas is not motivated by any sense of enhancing his κλεος. While brief passages, such as his proclaimed desire to have died honorably at Troy when his fleet is assaulted by a terrible storm, seem to allude this idea of wanting to gain personal honor, none of his actions show that crucial desire. Achilles and Heracles both put their pride and honor before all else, and it is Aeneas’ inability to do the same that ensures his mortality. Seeing as this piece was being written for an emperor who was considered by many to be deserving of immortality, by leaving out this essential quality from his story’s protagonist, was in fact, intentional and ended up having the desired effect of making his hero seem inferior. However, to ensure that being seen as superior to Aeneas was still honorable, in his description of Aeneas’ shield, Virgil highlights another vital quality of immortal heroes.

Aeneas’ shield consists, almost exclusively, of images and people associated with Roman history. Like the representation of receiving glory from the common men as an actual depiction of them, by incorporating images of significant figures from history on the shield of a hero, the author implies that the owner of the shield was seen as heroic by those whose legacy he was trying to live up to. In other words, through his portrayal of Romulus, Cato, and Augustus, Virgil is implying that Aeneas was living up to his legacy, and fulfilling his duty to Rome. In the Aeneid Aeneas is so focused on his responsibility to found Rome, as dictated by the gods, and live up to the standards of those men depicted on his shield, that he occasionally comes off as apathetic to modern audiences (as is the case with his departure from Dido). However, in the context of Roman empirical rule during the time that this poem was written, Aeneas’ devotion to his duty is, in fact, a highly respectable and heroic action. Similarly, Heracles is described as being a man who not only sought to live up to the high standards of previous heroes, but to surpass them. As a result, Heracles’ shield also features a list of heroes such as Perseus and Theseus that Heracles was responsible for living up to and “making proud”. Achilles’ shield, however, contains almost no proper names or anyone that Achilles had accountability to. As exemplified by his willingness to let his men die at the hands of the Trojans simply because of the damage done to his ego by Agamemnon, Achilles’ feeling of independence and freedom from responsibility led ultimately to his failure to reach Olympus. Aeneas and Heracles are both able to see themselves as a part of something much bigger than themselves, and so, a large part of their heroism is the ability to meet and exceed divine expectations and requirements. Unlike Achilles, these men had direction in their quests and so their success was not only for their honor, but it was vitally important to their descendant’s future.

However, even though Aeneas was able to gain κλεος, and Achilles a sense of duty, there is the third and most significant aspect to Heracles that neither Aeneas nor Achilles is able to emulate. While the Shield of Heracles seems as if it could simply be described as a combination of Aeneas’ and Achilles’ shield, there is one significant theme of this pseudo-Hesiodic poem that does not appear in either of the other epics. Unlike Homer and Virgil, Hesiod’s imitator devotes a large portion of Heracles’ shield to the Gods. Aside from being a display of reverence for them, their depiction is metaphoric for their acceptance of Heracles. Aeneas and Achilles are limited to being respected by mortals, as κλεος and pietas are very mortal values, but Heracles, through his shield, is shown to be not only a hero of man, but of the gods as well. While κλεος and duty are incredibly important foundations for a hero, it is Heracles’ wit and capability to feel that set him apart from other heroes. The one-sided heroism of both Achilles and Aeneas leaves them both incapable of feeling. According to Homer, unchecked desire for κλεος without any feelings of responsibility and duty lead to an anger so furious that it casts aside all other emotions. Similarly, according to Virgil, having a sense of duty without any desire for κλεος leads to tunnel-vision and an apathy for everything that is not directly related to one’s end goal. However, because Heracles is able to combine the two qualities, he has the ability to feel; an important trait for any man hoping to become an immortalized hero. Both Achilles and Aeneas are able to become well rounded heroes in regard to κλεος and pietas by the end of their respective stories, and yet Heracles still surpasses them both in heroism. In fact, it is the poison-tipped arrows that Heracles made from hydra blood which ended up killing Achilles and it is the belt of a man devoted to the divine Heracles that leads Aeneas to murder Turnus in cold blood. These two examples put to rest any doubt that either of these heroes even came close to rivalling Heracles, and by bringing about the end to both of their respective stories, Heracles is left lingering on the minds of readers, forcing them to understand that he is the only true example of an Epic hero. Time and time again, whether he was tricking Atlas into holding up the skies once again or cleaning out the Augean stables in one day, Heracles displayed his incredible ingenuity and it is for this reason that Heracles was regarded as an equal to the gods; a height never reached by Achilles or Aeneas.

Through depictions on shields, Hesiod’s imitator provided his Greek audience with a definition for the ideal, divine hero. By explaining Achilles shortcomings through additional description in his Shield of Heracles, not included by Homer, there was finally a way to distinguish Heracles’ ultimate success as a hero and Achilles’ failure. Therefore, when Virgil was looking for a way to portray his hero in shield form, he was able to take themes from this work while omitting just enough so that his hero would also fall short of Heracles’ divine status. To the Greeks, and later the Romans, an epic hero was defined as a man who was able to not only appease but earn the respect of the common man, of his ancestors, and, most importantly, of the gods.

Matthew Flathers is a VI Form day student from Southborough, MA. He spent last year studying the works of Herodous, Homer, and other Ancient Greek historians with Dr. Heather Harwood, determining the motivations and methods of each writer through examination of their vocabulary and writing styles.


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Harrison, S. J. “The Survival and Supremacy of Rome: The Unity of the Shield of Aeneas.” The Journal of Roman Studies 87 (1997): 70-76. http://www.jstor.org/stable/301369.

Hesiod. The Shield of Heracles.

“Historical Context for Homer.” Columbia College. http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/node/1744.

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Janko, R. “The Shield of Heracles and the Legend of Cycnus.” The Classical Quarterly 36, no. 1 (1986): 38-59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/638942.

Peirano, Irene. The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake: Latin Pseudepigrapha in Context. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Digital file.

Scully, Stephen. “Reading the Shield of Achilles: Terror, Anger, Delight.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 101 (2003): 29-47. doi:10.2307/3658523.

Sider, David. “VERGIL’S ‘AENEID’ AND HESIOD’S ‘THEOGONY.'” Vergilius 34 (1988): 15-24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41592347.

Taplin, Oliver. “The Shield of Achilles within the ‘Iliad.'” Greece & Rome, 2nd ser., 27, no. 1 (April 1980): 1-21. Accessed May 29, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/642772.

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[1] Aristophanes of Byzantium noted the borrowing of lines 1-56 in this poem from the Catalogue of Women, a work he attributed to Hesiod, which led him to believe that the Shield of Heracles was not in fact an authentic work of Hesiod

  1. Janko. “The Shield of Heracles and the Legend of Cycnus”. The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 36.1 (1986:38–59), p. 39.

[2] The Shield of Heracles’ lines 156-9 are identical to Homer’s Iliad’s line 535-8 with only one word differentiating the two passages.

[3] Ovid provides one of the best descriptions of this even in Book 9 of his Metamorphoses

[4] R. Janko. “The Shield of Heracles and the Legend of Cycnus”. The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 36.1 (1986:38–59), p. 38.

[5] Some modern scholars believe that Hesiod and his imitators wrote at the same time as, or even before Homer, however, it is widely accepted that the Iliad is the first work of Western Literature.

[6] University of Reading . Writing the Illiad – date confirmed. Past Horizons. March, 2013,

[7] Virgil, Aeneid, VI.151-153

[8] A.S. Kline, Aeneid, VI 151-153

[10] See my other paper comparing Aeneas and Achilles as heroes

[11] Oliver Taplin, “The Shield of Achilles within the ‘Iliad,'” Greece & Rome, 2nd ser., 27, no. 1 (April 1980): [3], accessed May 29, 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/642772.

[12] Homer, Iliad, XVIII. 490-512

[13] Butler, Iliad, XVIII. 490-512

[14] A number of other historians have published works showing the connections between the Aeneid and works of both Hesiod and Homer.

David Sider, “VERGIL’S ‘AENEID’ AND HESIOD’S ‘THEOGONY,'” Vergilius34 (1988), http://www.jstor.org/stable/41592347.

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