BMCR 2022.09.24

Ecphrastic shields in Graeco-Roman literature: the world’s forge

, Ecphrastic shields in Graeco-Roman literature: the world's forge. Image, text, and culture in classical antiquity. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2022. Pp. vi, 402. ISBN 9780367722548 $160.00.


This book does not make for easy reading. Karel Thein has so much to say about ecphrasis and the many shield ekphraseis in Graeco-Roman literature that no review can adequately do justice to the content of his lengthy book. It consists of an introduction, a chapter on the definition(s) of ecphrasis, three chapters that deal with the great shields of Achilles, Heracles and Aeneas, a chapter on further shields in Latin and Greek literature (from Euripides’ Electra to Nonnus’ Dionysiaca), and a conclusion, in which Thein revisits and expands some of his thoughts about ecphrasis. The chapters are mainly informed by a philosophical perspective, although Thein also engages with many literary issues.

Thein defines ecphrasis as “the artful, patient, elaborate way of fusing physical things … with words, but also our embodied mental states” (p. 1). His aim is “to clarify what is particular to ekphrasis as a refined, deeply artificial effort to tie our imagination to a progressively unveiled und thus subtly changing object” (p. 1–2). For Thein, artificiality is a fundamental feature of ecphrasis.

He also stresses the importance of the material aspects of imagination: “[a]ssuming that to imagine something ‘is to simulate an embodied exploration of what one imagines’,[1] ekphrasis sets to achieve the highest possible degree of this experience … it is not about a neutral account of properties, and not only about a gaze, but about a real grasp with corporeal echoes” (p. 3).

Thein argues that there exists a fundamental connection between ecphrasis and artefacts as its primary objects. He repeatedly asserts that images and artefacts lack a proper ontology and are thus ontologically unstable, as images are always also mental images and as such animate. On Thein’s reading, “the ecphrastic objects make us acutely aware of this instability in virtue of their artificiality, which in its turn is inseparable from the physiological basis of our imagination” (p. 13). I should also draw attention to what Thein calls the mental game or manipulation of scale. Because mental images are scaleless, ecphrastic objects can expand and shrink at will. The progress of a shield ecphrasis consists then to a large degree of various modifications of scale, ranging from the whole cosmos to the tiniest grapes.

In the introduction Thein rejects what he calls the restrictive view of ecphrasis as “the verbal representation of visual representation”.[2] He gives two reasons, that “no two people can agree on what exactly ‘representation’ means” and that this definition does not do justice to “the specifically ecphrastic reliance on—and stimulation of—the material aspects of imagination” (p. 2–3). This may be so, but Thein seems to miss something important, which is essential to almost all shield ekphraseis: they are not simply objects, but objects with some kind of narrative depicted on them. Ecphrastic texts embody two layers of representation, each of a different medium – verbal and visual. As such, they are doubly mimetic, or even “doubly ekphrastic”.[3] Thein does not discuss this striking and exciting characteristic of ecphrastic passages, nor does he use the helpful terminology introduced by Becker to distinguish four elements which play a central role in every ecphrasis (res ipsae, opus ipsum, artifex, and animadversor).[4]

In the first chapter Thein takes a fresh look at the definition(s) of ecphrasis in the progymnasmata. He draws attention to Theon’s statement that ecphrasis is “mostly about inanimate things and those without deliberate choice” and concludes that this focus on inanimate objects is turned into a distinctive feature of ecphrasis and that it implies two things: “first, a complete transfer of animation in the movement of language, which endows ekphrasis with the power to animate the inanimate; second, a huge step towards the peculiar importance of (the usually inanimate) artefacts as objects of ekphrasis” (p. 38). It seems to me that neither of these two things is implied by Theon; Thein bases his conclusions on a selective reading from Theon—although he notes on the same page that Theon mentions as subjects for ecphrasis ‘events, persons, places, times and tropoi (the manner in which something is done)’.[5] Thein notes later that Theon places the Homeric shield ecphrasis in the category of tropoi and has no special interest in it (p. 40). Thein himself cleverly observes that the shield ecphrasis includes all these subjects and arranges them “into an image of the world which is being produced within the world it represents”. According to Thein, Theon develops the possibilities inscribed beforehand in Homer’s ecphrasis, and that is “why the ancients considered the shield of Achilles a paradigmatic piece that invites … both interpretation and mimēsis in the sense of creative re-enactment. In all, the Homeric shield is both a factual world as seen and produced by a god, and a blueprint for all the possible worlds of human making, poetical or political”.

The next four chapters, in which Thein discusses almost every scene on every shield, form the bulk of the book. Each chapter contains many insights, of which only a few can be discussed here.

In the chapter on Homer’s shield of Achilles (Chapter 2), Thein stresses the importance of the setting of the shield’s fabrication and the imaginative power situated in Hephaestus’ chest. As the shield is a projection of this power it can encompass all registers of life and the cosmos. In some sections of the shield, especially in those dealing with the countryside, it is virtually impossible to distinguish between nature and artifice. The chapter offers an intriguing reading of this ecphrasis, even if some of Thein’s suggestions seem implausible. It is unlikely that lines 18.483–489 imply some sort of rotating celestial dome or cosmic vault (p. 67).[6] Why would Strife, Confusion and Death hover above the battlefield in 18.535–540, if that is not indicated by the narrator (p. 76)? Thein later even suggests (p. 79) that they are connected to the weaponry of Athena and perhaps Ares, who are mentioned in 18.516–519.

In the third chapter (on the shield of Heracles), Thein argues that the narrator of the pseudo-Hesiodic shield ecphrasis introduces two innovations: he adds the borderline regions of the sea with its depths and Hades (but where on the shield is the underworld depicted?), and introduces an adynaton, a technically unfeasible object. This is Perseus, who hovers above the surface of the shield, but is at the same time hidden by his cap of invisibility. It should be noted that Perseus is not“described as invisible thanks to the magic helmet” (p. 121): the narrator merely states that “the terrible helmet of Hades was set around the king’s temples and held the dread darkness of night”.[7] The description of Perseus in the previous lines (216–226) makes no reference to his invisibility, although the narrator twice draws attention to something that is a wonder (θαῦμα, 218 and 224). Thein connects the many monsters on the shield with the monster-slaying Heracles. He tentatively proposes that the poem suggests an ecphrastic progress from the personified demonic powers on Achilles’ shield to the Olympian gods and human civilization.

In the chapter on the shield of Aeneas (Chapter 4), Thein argues that the cosmos becomes politicized, and all things, including heaven and monsters, become implicitly political in Vergil’s ecphrasis. Thein states that Vergil presents the shield to us through the hero’s own eyes: “as Aeneas starts to scrutinize the shield … we begin to follow his gaze while receiving the poet’s running commentary on what Aeneas is gazing at” (p. 152–153). However, it is the narrator who focalizes this description,[8] as he famously notes that Aeneas rerum… ignarus imagine gaudet (8.730).[9] Not all of Thein’s interpretations are based on a careful reading of the Latin.[10] He also discusses the temple ecphrasis in Book 2.

Chapter 5 shows how other Greek and Latin shield ekphraseis respond to the three major shields of Achilles, Heracles and Aeneas. It also discusses the motif of the shield as mirror.

In the conclusion, Thein approvingly quotes Hesychius, who might have defined ecphrasis as ἐπιθυμία; λόγος ἐναργής, “desire; vivid speech”.[11] This definition “exposes the ecphrastic drive that builds on the desire to re-create reality in all its (often terrifying) glory” (p. 333). Re-create, because reality is something created or artificially modified rather than naturally given, an assumption shared by all ecphrasis to a degree. For Thein, ecphrasis re-enacts creation rather than perception. It is therefore logical that the ecphrastic shields are mostly produced by Hephaestus, “a divine craftsman capable of producing living artefacts”. Living, because what we imagine, we animate (p. 342).

Thein also reiterates the book’s main ambition to liberate ecphrasis from the both narrow and fuzzy confines of representation. He therefore turned to ecphrastic things par excellence: “the world-revealing, never entirely coherent, yet undoubtedly panoramic shields of ancient poets. Each in its own way, these shields testify to the fact that the limits of ekphrasis do not coincide with the limits of description as either a factual account or a construction manual. In fact, ekphrasis enjoys playing with this non-coincidence, pointing out the limits of description while transgressing them” (p. 346). The shields of Heracles and Aeneas are prime examples, since their narrators explicitly remark that some parts or even the whole shield cannot be adequately expressed in words (non enarrabile textum, Verg. Aen. 8.625).

It is great to have all these shield ekphraseis in one book. My main point of criticism would be that not all interpretations are sufficiently backed up by textual evidence. Thein often jumps from one idea to another, which makes it difficult at times to follow his argument. Unfortunately, the book contains too many spelling errors,[12] and the English is not always as idiomatic as one would want. Translations are generally accurate, although infelicities do occur.[13] Manuscript readings are not always reported correctly.[14] Be this as it may, Thein offers scholars and students of ecphrasis many interesting observations that will surely give them much food for thought.


Becker, A.S. 1995. The Shield of Achilles and the Poetics of Ekphrasis. Lanham.

de Jong, I. J. F. 2015. “Pluperfects and the Artist in Ekphrases: From the Shield of Achilles to the Shield of Aeneas (and Beyond).” Mnemosyne 68: 889-916.

Heffernan, J. A. W. 1993. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago.

Huitink, L. 2019. “Enargeia, Enactivism and the Ancient Readerly Imagination”, in Distributed Cognition in Classical Antiquity., eds. M. Anderson, D. Cairns, and M. Sprevak, 169-189, Edinburgh

O’Hara, J.J. 2018. Vergil: Aeneid 8. Indianapolis.

Webb, R. 2009. Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice. Farnham.


[1] Huitink 2019: 178..

[2] Heffernan 1993: 3.

[3] Webb 2009: 186.

[4] See Becker 1995: 42-3.

[5] See further Webb 2009: 61-67.

[6] These lines more likely contain general background information that is not depicted on the shield (see e.g. Becker 1995: 105).

[7] δεινὴ δὲ περὶ κροτάφοισι ἄνακτος / κεῖτ’ Ἄιδος κυνέη νυκτὸς ζόφον αἰνὸν ἔχουσα (226-227).

[8] See de Jong 2015: 905.

[9] It is unlikely that imagine is an ablative of result, as Thein claims in note 58 on page 166, that would express the fusion of the shield into oneoverwhelming image.

[10] It seems unlikely that Vergil intended the she-wolf to give birth to Romulus and Remus (p. 168). Tullus does not grab Mett(i)us’ intestines and drag them to the woods (p. 171–172). The imperfect auderet does not have the same value as aspiceres in 8.650 (p. 173), as it is found in a quia-clause that refers to the thoughts of Porsenna (see e.g. O’Hara 2018: 105).

[11] Thein reports Latte’s reading as ἐπιθυμία, but Latte actually reads the conjecture ἐπιμυθία. This fact would have merited discussion

[12] E.g., ‘of armed man’ for ‘of armed men’ (p. 73); ‘below’ for ‘bellow’ (p. 160); antrum viridis for antrum viride (p. 168); ‘In relation this’ for ‘in relation to this’ (p. 173); ‘out attention’ for ‘our attention’ and ‘a … pallor than’ for ‘a … pallor that’ (p. 196); on p. 210 the word ‘doors’ is missing (‘on the temple’s is’); on p. 327 read ‘mime’s’ (twice) for ‘mine’s’; on p. 332 ‘a tension than’ for ‘a tension that’ and ‘in earlies allegoresis’ for ‘in earlier allegoresis’.

[13] E.g., on p. 90, the fascinating αὔτως remains untranslated (Il. 18.584); on p. 195, fecerat in Verg. Aen. 8.710 means ‘had forged’ not ‘forged’.

[14] On p. 105, note 18, Thein states that the reading δὲ δράκοντος comes from a Byzantine scholion, but this is the reading of the manuscripts; Thein’s reading δ’ ἀδάμαντος is based on this scholion. On p. 246, note 49, Thein suggests that Vollmer emended angineis to sangineis in line 891 of the Ilias Latina, but it is the other way around, as the manuscripts read sangineis.