On Achilles' new shield 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 (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.
This is rather a strange message to engrave on a warrior’s shield. Achilles has chosen to live in the “city of war and death” and has turned his back on the “city of peace and laws”. Perhaps his mother is trying to remind him of the life he has left behind; or perhaps Vulcan hopes that the death of his friend Patroclus will make him reassess his original choice. In Alexander Pope’s “radiant” translation" the choice which warriors face is stark and clear.