What does the Shield of Achilles represent? How does the shield place the events of The Iliad into perspective?
The shield of Achilles, described at length in Book 18, represents the cosmos and more particularly human civilization in the ancient world. The sun, moon and stars all appear on the shield, as well as a sequence of different aspects of civilized life. There are two cities, 'fair to see and busy with the hum of men', which show contrasting sides of the human condition. In one city there is daily life of an ordinary kind, showing weddings and also court proceedings, which serve as a reminder that conflict is ever-present even in everyday affairs. The other city is besieged, mired in grim war, just like the Greeks and Trojans themselves. Hephaestus also fashions depictions of rural life, with fields being ploughed and harvested, and a fair vineyard. Here, too, though, is a reminder of death that always lurks in nature, with a bull being attacked by two lions. Finally, Hephaestus also gives us a picture of youth and fertility, with young men and maidens dancing on the green. Round the rim of the shield he portrays the river Ocean, which was then believed to gird the outer rim of the world.
The shield, then, depicts life in all its aspects as both the Greeks and Trojans know it. It shows life and death, love and war, all co-existing, and thereby puts the events of the whole poem into a larger perspective. War is grim and terrible, but it is also part of life. Conflict is ever-present, both among humans and nature in general. It is a part of the overall scheme of things. Terrible thought the Trojan war may be, it does not spell the end of all things; the universal cycle of birth and death will go on.