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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 – Vladimir Kramskoy Oct 22 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 at 8:12
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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 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." – TaliesinMerlin Oct 22 at 16:43
  • I'd feel better about it too. I do seem vaguely to recall "The Tower Shield" as a chapter title in a retelling or something like that, with specific reference to the shield of Telemonian Ajax. The expression was sufficiently established in the Iliadic connection for a 1911 Classical Weekly review of a book on Homer to put it in quotation marks, and not by way of attributing it to the book's author. I suspect somewhat older translations, and retellings based on them, may have established the phrase before translators took to translating πύργος as wall. – Brian Donovan Oct 22 at 21:28
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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" ... – Harry Johnston Oct 22 at 23:00
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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 – Darrel Hoffman Oct 23 at 17:24

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