So-called tower shields appear occasionally in role-playing games (such as Dungeons&Dragons), including computer games (for example in The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, Chivalry, Dark Souls). Usually, it is a tall shield of roughly rectangular shape, carried in the left hand.

However, I am not aware of shields of similar design ever being referred to as "tower" in any extant ancient Greek of Roman sources (though oblong shields were known in Hellenistic and Roman warfare). I am less certain about the usage of names for oblong shields in medieval sources. Pavise comes to mind but I don't know whether it was ever called a "tower shield". Also, medieval shields sometimes were painted with an image of fortifications similar to a castle tower. Though, as far as I can tell, when used in modern popular media, the term "tower shield" usually points to its oblong shape, not a picture on it.

The article on "Shield" in Wikipedia mentions tower shields (and even emphasizes the term by quotes) in the context of Mycenaean Greek warfare but does not give further information or references to the origins of the term.

Are there any references in ancient or medieval historical sources to a shield as "a tower shield"? It appears to me that the term "tower shield" was created either by modern historiography or by modern popular culture (perhaps computer games)

  • I have asked this question in the "History stack exchange" first but was directed here as the question is more related to the (possibly very recent) etymology and word usage than to history Oct 22, 2020 at 12:34
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    For what's worth, the earliest mention I can find is in a 1982 issue of Dragon magazine, talking about ancient Greek shields: «Less common was the slightly smaller “Tower” shield» (p.57).
    – DaG
    Oct 23, 2020 at 8:12

2 Answers 2


It originates in Homer Iliad 7.219:

Αἴας δ᾽ ἐγγύθεν ἦλθε φέρων σάκος ἠΰτε πύργον:
And Ajax came close, carrying a shield like a tower:

In typically Homeric fashion, the line recurs verbatim a couple of times, at 11.485 & 17.128. Translation is mine for the nonce. The link is to the Perseus Project. Both English translations available there, Butler 1898 and Murray 1924, render πύργον as “wall” (as does Lattimore 1951), though the entries for πύργος in the LSJ and Autenrieth (Homeric) lexica begin by glossing it “tower.” Pope in 1715 rendered it “tower-like shield” for the latter two loci, and Chapman a century earlier went with “like a tower, his shield” and “a target like a tower.”

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    Nice. The benefits of a classical education! We can hardly go back any further that that.
    – Anton
    Oct 22, 2020 at 15:42
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    I'd feel better about this answer if it showed a clear entry point into English. The possible connection to the Iliad is great, and I want to believe. Still, "a shield like a tower" or a "wall" isn't quite equivalent to a specific term like "tower shield." Oct 22, 2020 at 16:43
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    I found some references in Google Books, Homer and His Age Andrew Lang 1906 page 131 "which is defended by archers , sheltering under huge shields shaped like the Mycenæan “ tower ” shield , though less cylindrical" and Handbook of Homeric Study Henry Browne 1908 "We have already seen , though we did not allude to its controversial import , that in the poems there are represented two utterly distinct and opposite sorts of armament , the one , which may be called the large tower - shield type" ... Oct 22, 2020 at 23:00
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    Already done, @Schmuddi. Much of the attention paid to Ajax's towering shield in the later C19 and C20 (including in the books by Lang and Page) was inspired by the archaeological discovery that such tall shields had been artistically represented by the Mycenaean Greeks, in fresco and inlay. (In the similar case of the boar-tusk helmet worn by Odysseus in the Doloneia, actual helmets matching Homer's description were found at Minoan and Mycenaean sites.) Oct 23, 2020 at 11:12
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    @Anton Actually you can - formations similar to the Greek phalanx can be traced all the way back to the ancient Sumerians, in the 25th century B.C. Whether the shields they used were referred to as "Tower Shields" or whatever the Sumerian translation of that might be might be harder to determine, but certainly the style of shield involved was used that far back. See: Example Oct 23, 2020 at 17:24

As far as I'm aware, so-called Tower Shields used to be referred to as a "Pavise Shield," and occasionally a Wall shield. They were used by rangers to block themselves while reloading, or overall to just be an overly large shield. Source, the British Royal Armory Museum. I assume they got it from the Wall part, being just a big wall in front of you, like a tower? Not sure about that part.

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