The Shield by the Bush:
Archilochus 5W

Carl A. Anderson

Michigan State University

Archilochus proclaims in a famous elegy that one of the enemy will delight in the shield he unwillingly left behind by a bush, but that he saved himself and will get an even better shield next time (5W). Commentators have long assumed that the poet literally "threw away his shield" in battle and thus tended to focus on how ethically to understand the action. Ancient critics report that the poet was regarded as a shameless coward for this activity and deserved censure and rebuke (cf. Sext. Emp. Pyrrh hypot. 3. 216; Plut. instit. Lac. 34 p. 239b). Contemporary critics have tended to see the poet as challenging the traditional code of honor embedded in epic poetry (cf., H. Fraenkel, Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, p. 137; H. D. Rankin, Archilochus of Paros, pp. 42–44). While it seems correct to regard the poet as challenging epic values and assumptions, we should note that he did not "throw away his shield" like a coward in retreat. Indeed, Archilochus tells his audience that he abandoned it (kallipon), though not willingly, beside a bush (line 2).

         In this paper I plan to examine how Archilochus plays with the topos of the soldier retreating from his battle post in order to question aristocratic ideals. To be sure, Archilochus's description evokes the ancient image of a warrior cowering like a frightened animal in the bush (cf. Hom. Il. 17.676–7; 22.191). However, Archilochus never says why he was in the bushes in the first place, and consideration of the plausible scenarios that brought him there suggests that he is concerned with more than accounting for his own conduct in battle. Rather, I will argue that Archilochus sets a comical scene in which a call of nature disrupts performance of his military duty, and he is only saved when the quality and attractiveness of his now lost shield (lines 1–2) allow him to escape certain death. This reading accounts for the assertive and dismissive tone of the elegy; it also supports the view that Archilochean poetry can challenge and subvert epic assumptions and ideals (cf., e.g., fr. 114W).


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