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Shield of Aeneas

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Philip Hardie argues that the shield of Aeneas in Virgil's Aeneid makes significant use not only of the Homeric description of the shield of Achilles but of ancient allegorizations of Homer's description: "The central feature of ancient exegesis is its insistence that the great circle of the Shield of Achilles, with its abundance of scenes, is an image of the whole universe, an allegory of the cosmos. The Shield of Aeneas is also an image of the creation of a universe, but of a strictly Roman universe (though none the less comprehensive for that). There is in fact no contradiction between the universalist themes of Homer (as interpreted by antiquity) and the nationalist concerns of Virgil; the resolution is provided immediately by the Virgilian identification of cosmos and imperium, of which the Shield is the final and most vivid realization."

A Greek allegorization of Homer's shield is found in the Homeric Problems of Heraclitus. Hardie summarizes: "The god of fire, Hephaestue, is an allegory of the demiurgic fire which creates the universe; the account of the making of the circular shield is an allegory of cosmogony, of the creation of the spherical universe. The forging of the Shield takes place at night, a night which represents the chaos which preceded the separation of the elements. The four metals of which the Shield is made represent the four element; what other reason could Homer have had for not making the Shield entirely of gold? Lines 483-9 of the Homeric ecphrasis need only to be taken at their face value to yield the three world-divisions of earth, sky, and sea, followed by the heavenly bodies. The two cities, one at peace and one at war, are allegories of Empdocles' cosmological principoles of Philia ('Love') and Neikos ('Strife'). The five layers of which the Shield is constructed represent the five zones into which the earth is divided." The rim of the shield is allegorized as the zodiac.

Similar, Hardie argues, Virgil's shield depicts the sea (battle of Actium) that gave Augustus control over the land; he points out that the shining head of Augustus connects with the star of Julius shining in the sky. Virgil actually does Homer one better by depicting Hades as well as the heavens. Thus Virgil shows Rome's cosmic significance.

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Tuesday, December 06, 2005 at 04:00 PM

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