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An early 5th-century BCE depiction of Heracles (left) fighting Cycnus (Attic black-figure amphora, found at Nola)

The Shield of Heracles (Ancient Greek: Ἀσπὶς Ἡρακλέους, Aspis Hērakleous) is an archaic Greek epic poem that was attributed to Hesiod during antiquity. The subject of the poem is the expedition of Heracles and Iolaus against Cycnus, the son of Ares, who challenged Heracles to combat as Heracles was passing through Thessaly. It is generally dated from the end of the 7th to the middle of the 6th century BCE.[1]

It has been suggested that this epic might reflect anti-Thessalian feeling after the First Sacred War (595–585 BCE): in the epic, a Thessalian hero interfering with the Phocian sanctuary is killed by a Boeotian hero (Heracles), whose mortal father Amphitryon had for allies Locrians and Phocians. This was a pastiche made to be sung at a Boeotian festival at midsummer at the hottest time of the dogstar Sirios.[2]

To serve as an introduction, fifty-six lines have been taken from the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women. The late 3rd- and early 2nd-century BCE critic Aristophanes of Byzantium, who considered the Catalogue to be the work of Hesiod, noted the borrowing, which led him to suspect that the Shield was spurious.[3]

Compare Virgil's "shield of Aeneas" (Aeneid viii.617–731) and the much briefer description of Crenaeus' shield in Thebaid ix.332–338. Marcus Mettius Epaphroditus wrote a commentary on the Shield of Heracles in the 1st century CE.

The shield's description

The poem takes its cue from the extended description of the shield of Achilles in Iliad xviii, from which it borrows directly, with a single word altered:

The Iliad gives just enough detail for its hearers to marvel at Hephaestus' workmanship. The Shield of Heracles makes heavier use of description:

They were bringing the brides through the streets from their homes, to the loud music of the wedding-hymn and the light of blazing torches. Youths accompanied by flute and lyre were whirling in the dance, and the women had come to the doors of their houses to enjoy the show. (Iliad).
The men were making merry with festivities and dances; some were bringing home a bride to her husband on a well-wheeled car, while the bridalsong swelled high, and the glow of blazing torches held by handmaidens rolled in waves afar. And these maidens went before, delighting in the festival; and after them came frolicsome choirs, the youths singing soft-mouthed to the sound of shrill pipes, while the echo was shivered around them, and the girls led on the lovely dance to the sound of lyres. (Shield of Heracles).

The round shield's "whole orb shimmered with enamel and white ivory and electrum, and it glowed with shining gold; and there were zones of cyanus drawn upon it." Cyanus denotes a blue low-fired glass-paste or smalt. At the center was a mask of Fear (Phobos) with the staring eyes and teeth of a gorgon. Though Achilles' shield has nothing about it that might mar its function, the shield of Heracles is a tour de force of high relief: the vineyard has "shivering leaves and stakes of silver" and the snake heads "would clash their teeth when Amphitryon's son was fighting" and in the ocean vignette the "fishes of bronze were trembling." As for "the horseman Perseus: his feet did not touch the shield and yet were not far from it—very marvellous to remark, since he was not supported anywhere; for so did the famous Lame One fashion him of gold with his hands."

The extravagant description seems to have encouraged rhapsodes to contribute their interpolations, which have been identified and teased apart by modern scholarship.[4] Some similes may strike the careful listener as infelicitous, such as the contrast of glowering with fierce action in "fiercely he stared, like a lion who has come upon a body and full eagerly rips the hide with his strong claws..."


The popularity of the Shield of Heracles in 6th-century BCE Athens may be assessed from instances where H. A. Shapiro detected its presence in Attic vase-painting between ca 565 and ca 480 BCE.[5] A calyx-krater by Euphronios depicting the minor episode of Heracles' combat with the Thessalian brigand Kyknos occasioned Shapiro's examination of the myth's creative reworking among Attic vase-painters, who based their imagery of Heracles' shield on the literary model. The likelihood of both oral and literary transmission during the same time is noted by Janko (1986:40).

Textual history

The Shield of Heracles was first printed, included with the complete works of Hesiod, by Aldus Manutius, in Venice, 1495; the text was from Byzantine manuscripts. In modern times several papyri have offered sections of the text, notably a 1st-century papyrus in Berlin (Berlin Papyri, 9774), a 2nd-century papyrus from Oxyrhynchus (Oxyrhynchus Papyri 689), and the 4th-century Rainer Papyrus (L.P. 21–29) at Vienna. There are numerous texts from the 12th to the 15th century.


  1. ^ Most, p. lvii.
  2. ^ L.H.Jeferry (1976). The Archaic Greece. The Greek city states. 700-500 B.C., p.74
  3. ^ R. Janko. "The Shield of Heracles and the Legend of Cycnus". The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 36.1 (1986:38–59), p. 39.
  4. ^ C.F. Russo, Hesiodi Scutum, rev. ed. (Florence) 1965; Friedrich Solmsen, Hesiodi Theogonia, Opera et Dies, Scutum (Oxford) 1970. "there can be absolutely no doubt that in places there are epic doublets incorporated into the text," Richard Janko observes (Janko 1986:39).
  5. ^ H. Shapiro, "Herakles and Kyknos", American Journal of Archaeology 88 (1984:523–39), notes over 100 surviving representations of Heracles' combat with Kyknos, recounted in the Shield of Heracles, have been identified, the frequency of the depiction tapering off after ca 500 BCE.