Aristotle on the Pelte Shield
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Categories: Ancient

Aristotle on the Pelte Shield

excerpt from a scholarly edition of four ancient Greek texts
Fragment 498 from Valentini Rose (ed.), Aristotelis qui ferebantur librorum fragmenta (Teubner: Stuttgart, 1967)

Those of us who grew up on Peter Connolly remember that Aristotle defines the pelte shield (Greece and Rome at War p. 48 “Auxiliary Troops”). What did he actually say? A bit of research in March lead me to fragment 498 in Valentine Rose’s Teubner edition of the ‘fragments’ of Aristotle. In classical philology, fragments are places where a surviving text cites or paraphrases a text which is now lost. Only rarely is a fragment literally a damaged manuscript or a scrap of papyrus. Four different texts give some version of Aristotle’s words, but I will translate the version in a commentary on Plato’s Laws:

“For a pelte is a kind of shield, as Aristotle says, which does not have a rim (ἴτυς) and is not covered in bronze, nor does it have oxhide stretched over it (περιτεταμένη) but instead goatskin.”

Like many things Aristotle said, this raises some problems. Xenophon says that some Cretans used peltai covered in bronze which flashed in the sun, and after Aristotle’s death some soldiers in the Macedonian phalanx used the pelte. Does Aristotle mean that these shields just had oxhide on one side, like Tutankhamun’s shields and Polybius’ Roman shields (6.23.3), or on both sides like shields in high medieval Europe? But this does tell us that in Aristotle’s world, some shields were covered in cowhide and others in goatskin. Since rawhide and oil-cured hide rot, without his words it would be hard to be sure that these materials were used.

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(scheduled 19 March 2022)

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