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 p297  Clipeus

Article by Anthony Rich, Jun. B.A. of Caius College, Cambridge
on pp297‑299 of

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

CLI′PEUS (ἀσπίς), the large shield worn by the Greeks and Romans, which was originally of a circular form, and is said to have been first used by Proetus and Acrisius of Argos (Paus. II.25 §6), and therefore is called clipeus Argolicus (Virg. Aen. III.637), and likened to the sun. (Compare also ἀσπίδα πάντοσ’ ἐισην, Hom. Il. III.347, V.453, ἀσπίδας εὐκύκλους, XIV.428; Varr. De Ling. Lat. V.19, ed. Müller; Festus, s.v.). According to other accounts, however, the Greeks obtained the shield, as well as the helmet, from the Egyptians (Herod. IV.180; Plat. Tim. p24B).

The shield used by the Homeric heroes was large enough to cover the whole man. It was sometimes made of osiers twisted together, called ἰτέα, or of wood: the wood or wicker was then covered over with ox hides of several folds deep, and finally bound round the edge with metal (Hom. Il. XII.295). The outer rim is termed ἄντυξ (Il. XVIII.479), ἴτυς (Eur. Troad. 1205),  p298 περιφέρεια or κύκλος (Il. XI.33). [Antyx.] In the centre was a projection called ὀμφάλος or μεσομφάλιον, umbo, which served as a sort of weapon by itself, or caused the missiles of the enemy to glance off from the shield. It is seen in the next woodcut, from the column of Trajan. A spike, or some other prominent excrescence, was sometimes placed upon the ὀμφάλος, which was called ἐπομφάλιον.

[image ALT: A woodcut of a winged female angel, naked to the waist but otherwise wearing heavy draperies; she is seen from the right side, steps with one foot on a large ball, and uses her knee to lean on as she starts to write something on a blank oval shield. It is a bizarre illustration of the Graeco-Roman shield called a clipeus.]

In the Homeric times, the Greeks used a belt to support the shield; but this custom was subsequently discontinued in consequence of its great inconvenience [Balteus], and the following method was adopted in its stead:— A band of metal, wood, or leather, termed κανών, was placed across the inside from rim to rim, like the diameter of a circle, to which were affixed a number of small iron bars, crossing each other somewhat in the form of the letter X, which met the arm below the inner bend of the elbow joint, and served to steady the orb. This apparatus, which is said to have been invented by the Carians (Herod. I.171), was termed ὄξανον or ὄξανη. Around the inner edge ran a leather thong (πόρπαξ), fixed by nails at certain distances, so that it formed a succession of loops all round, which the soldier grasped with his hand (ἐμβαλὼν πόρπακι γενναίαν χέρα, Eur. Hel. 1396).

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The preceding woodcut, which shows the whole apparatus, will render this account intelligible. It is taken from one of the terra cotta vases published by Tischbein (vol. IV. tab. 20).

At the close of a war it was customary for the Greeks to suspend their shields in the temples when the πόρπακες were taken off, in order to render them unserviceable in case of any sudden or popular outbreak; which custom accounts for the alarm of Demosthenes in the Knights of Aristophanes (859), when he saw them hanging up with their handles on.

The ἀσπίς was carried by the heavy-armed men (ὁπλῖται) during the historical times of Greece, and is opposed to the lighter πέλτη and γέῤῥον: hence we find the word ἀσπίς used to signify a body of ὁπλῖται (Xen. Anab. I.7 §10).

According to Livy (I.43), when the census was instituted by Servius Tullius, the first class only used the clipeus, and the second were armed with the scutum [Scutum]; but after the Roman soldier received pay, the clipeus was discontinued altogether for the Sabine scutum (Liv. VIII.8; compare IX.19; Plut. Rom. 21; Diod. Eclog. XXIII.3, who asserts that the original form of the Roman shield was square, and that it was subsequently changed for that of the Tyrrhenians, which was round.)

[image ALT: zzz]

The practice of emblazoning shields with various devices, the origin of armorial bearings, is of considerable antiquity. It is mentioned as early as the time of Aeschylus, who represents the seven chiefs who marched against Thebes with such shields (Aeschyl. Sept. c. Theb. 387, &c.; comp. Virg. Aen. VIII.658; Sil. Ital. VIII.386). This  p299 custom is illustrated by the preceding beautiful gem from the antique, in which the figure of Victory is represented inscribing upon a clipeus the name or merits of some deceased hero.

Each Roman soldier had also his own name inscribed upon his shield, in order that he might readily find his own when the order was given to unpile arms (Veget. II.17); and sometimes the name of the commander under whom he fought (Hirt. Bell. Alex. 58).

The clipeus was also used to regulate the temperature of the vapour bath. [Balneae, p192A.]

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Page updated: 8 Feb 13