The Shield of Achilles

The Shield of Achilles
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Sea goddess Thetis bring to her son Achilles the Shield and other weapons god Hephaistos forged for him. Louvre, Paris. Photo: Wikipedia.

While writing a book on the Antikythera Mechanism, a celestial computer the Greeks invented 2,200 years ago, I came across the work of Stepfanos Paipetis, an engineering professor at the University of Patras, Greece. In 2010, Paipetis and Marco Ceccarelli, an Italian engineering professor, edited a study on the writings and influence of Archimedes, a mathematical and engineering genius who lived 2,300 years ago in Syracuse, Sicily.

I reviewed this book about Archimedes. Archimedes was such a celebrity that, to this day, his work is modern science. He is paradigmatic of how one does science.

This led me to Paipetis. How is it he is taking such an interest in Archimedes? With some exceptions, most engineers don’t take history seriously. They have largely built the modern world. They pretend they have the answers. Ancient people don’t have much to teach them.

But with Paipetis, the ancient Greeks have lots of things of value. In fact, he is convinced the contributions of ancient Greeks are essential to the survival of the Earth.

For several years Paipetis and his colleagues have been having conferences at Olympia about ancient Greek science and technology. The result of the 2016 conference, Ancient Greece and Contemporary World, is food for thought for those who read Greek. The book looks at ancient Greek civilization with the critical eyes of modern science.

The moving spirit of the 2016 conference was Aikaterine Panagopoulou, Greece’s ambassador to the Council of Europe on Athletics. She keeps talking about timeless Greece, a country of science, civilization and values. She believes that, once again, the international community needs Hellenism: its virtues of knowledge and learning leading to self-knowledge and love for humanity and the world. Hellenism, she says, is the best school the world has ever had.

Panagopoulou hopes the world will start a conversation about Hellenism. And to put flesh on her dream, she founded an International Center for Sciences and Greek Values.

Paipetis works closely with Panagopoulou. Their vision of Greek virtues for living well and in harmony with other people and the natural world is refreshing at a time when Greece has become synonymous to debt – and endless humiliations.

I met Paipetis this past May. Over cold lemonade in the lobby of an Athenian hotel we got to know each other. During our discussion he gave me his book, “The Unknown Technology in Homer” (Springer, 2010).

This was a gift that immediately caught my attention. Homer has been the teacher of the Greeks for millennia. Aristotle edited the Iliad and gave it to his pupil Alexander the Great. Virgil modeled his Aeneid after the Homeric epics. Early Christian writers imitated the language of Homer. I studied the Homeric epics in high school. I used to know by heart fragments of both epics.

Homer has always been Hellenism.

Non-Greek scholars grasped the importance of Homer. Some of them think Homer tells tall tales. The Trojan War never happened and Odysseus was fiction. Homer was born in the eighth century BCE, centuries after the stories he relates. However, a few scholars see Homer like the Greeks did: a supreme storyteller of early Greek history. In fact, astronomical phenomena like the eclipses of the Sun date precisely when, for instance, Odysseus returned to Ithaca.

Paipetis does not see Homer as philologists do. Debates about fiction in the Homeric epics, if Homer wrote his poetry from oral tradition or direct experience, if more than one Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, don’t really bother him. He looks at Homer with his engineering glasses in deciphering his allusions that excite his skills and passions. These allusions mirror life in the age of the Homeric epics: the Mycenaean era of the 16th to the 12th centuries BCE.

The advanced technology hero of the Homeric epics is Hephaistos, god of fire and metallurgy. Paipetis sees “automated and autonomous machines” in his forge. Silver-footed Thetis, mother of Achilles, enters Hephaistos’ workshop. She sees him handling twenty bellows and melting pots in constructing twenty gold-wheeled tripods. Paipetis says a mechanism controlled the bellows by “conceiving, interpreting and activating” the wishes of Hephaistos.

The tripods were robots. They moved on their own. They would go to the palace of the gods and do simple repetitive work like serving drinks or food and then return to the forge of Hephaistos.

Hephaistos developed a variety of extremely sophisticated machines, including one for punishing his mother Hera who had been violent towards him in childhood.

Thetis observed Hephaistos engineer the Shield for Achilles. He started with composite materials. Paipetis explains that Hephaistos used “five successive metal laminates with very different mechanical properties…. Hard bronze, tin and pure gold were wisely combined to create an impenetrable wall, arresting swords and arrows and spears and scattering all impact in the wind, annihilating its momentum.”

Paipetis sees advanced technology in the craftsmanship of the Shield of Achilles. He says “the shield manufacturer [Hephaistos] possessed deep knowledge of the dynamic mechanical properties of laminated composite structures.”

Then we have the pilotless ships of Phaiakia (Kerkyra) bringing Odysseus to Ithaca. They moved fast and accurately by reading the mind of the captain. Paipetis says “artificial intelligence” controlled the ships. He calls startling cases such as this “miraculous conceptions,” ideas that “pre-existed in the thoughts of Mycenaean Greeks for almost three millennia before their appearance in the modern world.”

Mycenaean civilization might have been very advanced, disguising high tech “as the miraculous power of gods.” Plato spoke about the destruction and reinvention of civilization. Homer probably sang of the memories of a civilization so superior in craftsmanship (science and technology) we can barely dream of it today.

Read “The Unknown Technology in Homer.” It’s a riveting, lavishly illustrated, and timely book on the genius of Homer. It’s one of a kind in expanding our vision of ancient Greek civilization. Mycenae, like Homer said, was rich in gold. But this gold was more than metal. It was lost knowledge that, finally, it’s trickling to the surface.

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