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p20 Aegis

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp20‑21 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

AEGIS (αἰγίς), the shield of Zeus, signifies literally a goat-skin, and is formed on the same analogy with νεβρίς, a fawn-skin (Herod. IV.189). According to ancient mythology, the aegis worn by Zeus was the hide of the goat Amaltheia, which had suckled him in his infancy. Hyginus relates (Astron. Poet. 13), that, when he was preparing to resist the Titans, he was directed, if he wished to conquer, to wear a goat-skin with the head of the Gorgon. To this particular goat-skin the term aegis was afterwards confined. Homer always represents it as part or armour of Zeus, whom on this account he distinguishes by the epithet aegis-bearing (αἰγίοχος). He, however, asserts, that it was borrowed on different occasions both by Apollo (Il. XV.229, 307‑318, 360, XXIV.20), and by Athena (Il. II.447‑449, XVIII.204, XXI.400).


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The skins of various quadrupeds having been used by the most ancient inhabitants of Greece for clothing and defence, we cannot wonder that the goat-skin was employed in the same manner. It must also be borne in mind that the heavy shields of the ancient Greeks were in part supported by a belt or strap (τελαμών, balteus) passing over the right shoulder, and, when not elevated with the shield, descending transversely to the left hip. In order that a goat-skin might serve this purpose, two of its legs would probably be tied over the right shoulder of the wearer, the other extremity being fastened to the inside of the shield. In combat the left arm would be passed under the hide, and would raise it together with the shield, as is shown in a marble statue of Athena, preserved in the museum at Naples, which, from the style of art, may be reckoned among the most ancient in existence.

Other statues of Athena represent her in a state of repose, and with the goat-skin falling obliquely from its loose fastening over her right shoulder, so as to pass round the body under the left arm. The annexed figure is taken from a colossal statue of Athena at Dresden.

p21

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Another mode of wearing this garment, also of peaceful expression, is seen in a statue of Athena at Dresden, of still higher antiquity than that last referred to, and in the very ancient image of the same goddess from the temple of Zeus at Aegina. In both of these the aegis covers the right as well as the left shoulder, the breast, and the back, falling behind so as almost to reach the feet. Schorn (in Böttiger's Amalthea, II.215) considers this as the original form of the aegis.

By a figure of speech, Homer uses the term aegis to denote not only the goat-skin, which it properly signified, but together with it the shield to which it belonged. By thus understanding the word, it is easy to comprehend both why Athena is said to throw her father's aegis around her shoulders (Il. V.738, XVIII.204), and why on one occasion Apollo is said to hold it in his hand and to shake it so as to terrify and confound the Greeks (Il. XV.229, 307‑321), and on another occasion to cover with it the dead body of Hector in order to protect it from insult (XXIV.20). In these passages we must suppose the aegis to mean the shield, together with the large expanded skin or belt by which it was suspended from the right shoulder.

As the Greeks prided themselves greatly on the rich and splendid ornaments of their shields, they supposed the aegis to be adorned in a style corresponding to the might and majesty of the father of the gods. In the middle of it was fixed the appalling Gorgon's head (Il. V.741), and its border was surrounded with golden tassels (θύσανοι), each of which was worth a hecatomb (II.446‑449). In the figures above exhibited, the serpents of the Gorgon's head are transferred to the border of the skin.


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By the later poets and artists, the original conception of the aegis appears to have been forgotten or disregarded. They represent it as a breast-plate covered with metal in the form of scales, not used to support the shield, but extending equally on both sides from shoulder to shoulder; as in the annexed figure, taken from a statue at Florence.

With this appearance the descriptions of the aegis by the Latin poets generally correspond (Virg. Aen. VIII.435‑438; Val. Flacc. VI.174; Sid. Apol. Carm. 15; Sil. Ital. IX.442).

It is remarkable that, although the aegis properly belonged to Zeus, yet we seldom find it as an attribute of Zeus in works of art. There is, however, in the museum at Leyden, a marble statue of Zeus, found at Utica, in which the aegis hangs over his left shoulder. The annexed figure is taken from an ancient cameo. Zeus is here represented with the aegis wrapt round the fore part of his left arm. The shield is placed underneath it, at his feet.


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The Roman emperors also assumed the aegis, intending thereby to exhibit themselves in the character of Jupiter. Of this the armed statue of Hadrian in the British Museum presents an example. In these cases the more recent Roman conception of the aegis is of course followed, coinciding with the remark of Servius (Aen. VIII.435), that this breast-armour was called aegis when worn by a god; lorica, when worn by a man (comp. Mart. VII.1).


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