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The City of War and the City of Peace on Achilles' new shield (900 BC)

In his fine translation of Homer’s Iliad, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) describes the images which Vulcan carves on Achilles' new shield, which his mother Thetis has done to help Achilles recover from the news of his friend Patroclus' death. Vulcan depicts the two different types of cities which humans can build on earth; one based on peace and the rule of law; the other based on war, killing, and pillage:

Two cities radiant on the shield appear,

The image one of peace, and one of war.

Here sacred pomp and genial feast delight,

And solemn dance, and Hymeneal rite;…

There, in the Forum swarm a numerous train;

The subject of debate, a townsman slain:

One pleads the fine discharged, which one denied,

And bade the public and the laws decide:…

Another part (a prospect diff’ring far)

Glow’d with refulgent arms, and horrid war.

Two mighty hosts a leaguer’d town embrace,

And one would pillage, one would burn, the place….

Now here, now there, the carcasses they tore:

Fate stalk’d amidst them, grim with human gore.

And the whole war came out, and met the eye:

And each bold figure seem’d to live, or die.

Two cities radiant on the shield appear, The image one of peace, and one of war. Here sacred pomp and genial feast delight, And solemn dance, and Hymeneal rite; Along the street the new-made brides are led, With torches flaming, to the nuptial bed: The youthful dancers in a circle bound To the soft flute, and cittern’s silver sound: Thro’ the fair streets, the matrons in a row Stand in their porches, and enjoy the show.

There, in the Forum swarm a numerous train; The subject of debate, a townsman slain: One pleads the fine discharged, which one denied, And bade the public and the laws decide: The witness is produced on either hand: For this, or that, the partial people stand: Th’ appointed heralds still the noisy bands, And form a ring, with sceptres in their hands; On seats of stone, within the sacred place, The rev’rend elders nodded o’er the case; Alternate, each th’ attending sceptre took, And, rising solemn, each his sentence spoke. Two golden talents lay amidst, in sight, The prize of him who best adjudg’d the right.

Another part (a prospect diff’ring far) Glow’d with refulgent arms, and horrid war. Two mighty hosts a leaguer’d town embrace, And one would pillage, one would burn, the place. Meantime the townsmen, arm’d with silent care, A secret ambush on the foe prepare: Their wives, their children, and the watchful band Of trembling parents, on the turrets stand. They march, by Pallas and by Mars made bold; Gold were the Gods, their radiant garments gold, And gold their armour; these the squadron led, August, divine, superior by the head! A place for ambush fit they found, and stood Cover’d with shields, beside a silver flood. Two spies at distance lurk, and watchful seem If sheep or oxen seek the winding stream. Soon the white flocks proceeded o’er the plains, And steers slow-moving, and two shepherd swains; Behind them, piping on their reeds, they go, Nor fear an ambush, nor suspect a foe. In arms the glitt’ring squadron rising round, Rush sudden; hills of slaughter heap the ground: Whole flocks and herds lie bleeding on the plains, And, all amidst them, dead, the shepherd swains! The bell’wing oxen the besiegers hear; They rise, take horse, approach, and meet the war; They fight, they fall, beside the silver flood; The waving silver seem’d to blush with blood. There tumult, there contention, stood confess’d; One rear’d a dagger at a captive’s breast, One held a living foe, that freshly bled With new-made wounds; another dragg’d a dead; Now here, now there, the carcasses they tore: Fate stalk’d amidst them, grim with human gore. And the whole war came out, and met the eye: And each bold figure seem’d to live, or die.

About this Quotation:

That Achilles would have a shield with two contradictory images on it, one showing a city at peace where conflicts are resolved by courts and another showing a city at war with all its vile consequences, might seem strange to the modern reader. It reminds me of the image on the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket of the soldier’s helmet with the handwritten “born to kill” slogan and a peace badge. Both images remind us that human beings have the capacity for both killing and peaceful trade and commerce.

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