Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Achaean ships symbolize the future of the Greek race. They constitute the army’s only means of conveying itself home, whether in triumph or defeat. Even if the Achaean army were to lose the war, the ships could bring back survivors; the ships’ destruction, however, would mean the annihilation—or automatic exile—of every last soldier. Homer implies that some men shirked the war and stayed in Greece, while others, such as Peleus, were too old to fight. However, to Homer’s original audience, the Achaean warriors at Troy represented more than a mere subpopulation of the Greek race. Homer’s contemporaries believed that the heroes represented here actually lived historically, as real kings who ruled the various city-states of Greece in their earliest years. Ancient audiences regarded them as playing definitive roles in the formation and development of Greece as they knew it. The mass death of these leaders and role models would have meant the decimation of a civilization.
The Iliad is an extremely compressed narrative. Although it treats many of the themes of human experience, it does so within the scope of a few days out of a ten-year war. The shield constitutes only a tiny part in this martial saga, a single piece of armor on a single man in one of the armies—yet it provides perspective on the entire war. Depicting normal life in peacetime, it symbolizes the world beyond the battlefield, and implies that war constitutes only one aspect of existence. Life as a whole, the shield reminds us, includes feasts and dances and marketplaces and crops being harvested. Human beings may serve not only as warriors but also as artisans and laborers in the fields. Not only do they work, they also play, as the shield depicts with its dancing children. Interestingly, although Homer glorifies war and the life of the warrior throughout most of his epic, his depiction of everyday life as it appears on the shield comes across as equally noble, perhaps preferable.