Shield blazons were sometimes meant to terrify one’s opponents (at least symbolically). Such was perhaps the case with the Gorgoneion – the head and face of a Gorgon, a mythical creature with hideous features and snakes instead of hair, of which Medusa is the best known example.
In other instances, shield blazons were connected to the owner of the shield, and therefore must have had some personal significance. In some cases, the meaning might not be difficult to guess: a lion would symbolize strength and courage, for example, while a snake was a symbol of wisdom and immortality (because snakes sloughed off their skins at regular intervals, the ancient Greeks believed they continuously renewed themselves).
Of Sophanes, the son of Eutychides, bravest of the Athenian fighters at Plataea (480 BC), Herodotus wrote the following (Hdt. 9.74; transl. Purvis):
Two different stories are told about him: one, that from the belt of his breastplate he carried an iron anchor slung from a bronze chain, which he would throw whenever he drew near his enemies so that when they broke out of their position in the ranks to assault him, they would be unable to budge him; then, when his opponents were in flight, his tactic was to pick up the anchor and chase them with it. That is one of the stories; according to the other […], he did not actually wear an anchor attached to his breastplate, but instead had an anchor as an emblem on his shield, which never ceased moving and was always in swift motion.
Then, of course, there’s also our good friend Alcibiades (ca. 452-404 BC). His golden (!) shield supposedly sported the image of a thunderbolt-wielding Eros (Plut. Alcibiades 16.1-2). Eros was the son of Aphrodite, referred to in Latin as Cupid, and was normally armed with arrows. Alcibiades’ shield emblem was a less-than-subtle reference to his sexual prowess. As Hans van Wees points out, shield blazons were criticized by some in the fifth century BC as “betraying boastfulness and aggression, in contrast to the ‘modest’ undecorated shield of the wise man, and the simple white-painted shields of the common soldier.”Show Van Wees 2004, p. 54.
Nation-specific shield blazons don’t appear until quite late. The best-known of these are the Spartan lambdas or Λ, a reference to Laconia, the region dominated by the city of Sparta. However, these don’t appear to have been used prior to the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), around which time they are referenced by the Attic playwright Eupolis (of whose work only fragments remain). But the Spartans were far from typical: according to Xenophon, they were also noteworthy for having a uniform battle-dress, consisting of a red item of clothing (Xen. Spartan Constitution 11.3), most likely a tunic rather than a cloak.Show Van Wees 2004, p. 54 with further references. Other Greeks presented a far more diverse picture on the battlefield.
It’s not until perhaps the end of the fifth and the early fourth century BC that some Greek states started to sport national emblems on their own shields. The most famous of these are the Thebans, who decorated their shields with the club of Heracles. Apart from them, we hear of the people of Sikyon painting sigmas on their shields and the Mantineans using the trident. Not coincidentally, such symbols were also used on coins.Show Snodgrass 1999, p. 67.
However, for other cities, including Athens, we find little evidence for the widespread use of some kind of national symbol on shields. Some have tried to interpret the shield blazons as representing particular families, based mostly on shields depicted on Attic pottery, but these have mostly proven to be fruitless. Most likely, every warrior in most city-states simply picked a blazon that he felt best represented him.
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