HOMER: The Iliad [Book XVIII]

In Book XVIII of Homer’s Iliad, a Greek soldier informs Achilles that Patroclus was killed in battle. Achilles is overcome by tremendous grief as he listens to the news. “A dark cloud of misery fell upon Achilles as he listened. He filled both hands with dust from off the ground, and poured it over his head, disfiguring his beautiful face, and letting the refuse settle over his shirt so fair and new. He flung himself down at full length, and tore his hair with his hands.”

Achilles’ profound grief over the death of Patroclus is indicative of the close bond that develops between men engaged in war. It is unclear exactly why such a strong bond frequently develops between soldiers, but one explanation is that the bonds of friendship make a fighting unit more cohesive and more effective; and therefore, the unit is more likely to suffer fewer casualties. The 19th century French Army officer Ardant du Picq highlights this phenomenon in the following story. “Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare attack a lion. Four less brave men, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely.”

While Achilles mourns the death of his friend, his goddess mother Thetis hears his cries and flies to him. She tells him that Hector has taken his armor from Patroclus’ corpse and that she will visit the god Vulcan, who will fashion Achilles new armor. After Thetis leaves, the goddess Iris arrives and urges Achilles to show himself on the tops of the Greek entrenchments. Achilles obeys her orders, the Trojans retreat in fear, and the Greeks bring Patroclus’ body to Achilles’ tent.

Meanwhile, Thetis arrives at Vulcan’s abode. She tells him of Achilles’ predicament and Vulcan immediately begins to forge Achilles new armor. The new shield that Vulcan makes for Achilles is especially beautiful. On the face of the shield, Vulcan inscribes many intricately detailed scenes and objects – everything from the sun and stars to a sheep farm on earth.

The detailed imagery of Achilles shield has generated many interpretations. The consensus interpretation is that the shield is a microcosm of life on Earth because it depicts scenes from all aspects of life – war and peace, labor and holidays, birth and death. I believe that the shield represents the cyclical nature of time and of human events. As one turns the circular shield, one sees scenes of war and then peace and then war again, labor and then rest and then labor again, birth and then death and then birth again. One sees the same cycle of events when one considers the history of mankind.

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