In Book 18 of the Iliad, Homer describes the Shield of Achilles. The second layer from the shield's centre features scenes from two cities. In the first city a wedding and a tribunal are taking place:

He wrought also two cities, fair to see and busy with the hum of men. In the one were weddings and wedding-feasts, and they were going about the city with brides whom they were escorting by torchlight from their chambers. Loud rose the cry of Hymen, and the youths danced to the music of flute and lyre, while the women stood each at her house door to see them.

Meanwhile the people were gathered in assembly, for there was a quarrel, and two men were wrangling about the blood-money for a man who had been killed, the one saying before the people that he had paid damages in full, and the other that he had not been paid. Each was trying to make his own case good, and the people took sides, each man backing the side that he had taken; but the heralds kept them back, and the elders sate on their seats of stone in a solemn circle, holding the staves which the heralds had put into their hands. Then they rose and each in his turn gave judgement, and there were two talents laid down, to be given to him whose judgement should be deemed the fairest.

The second city is under siege:

About the other city there lay encamped two hosts in gleaming armour, and they were divided whether to sack it, or to spare it and accept the half of what it contained. But the men of the city would not yet consent, and armed themselves for a surprise; their wives and little children kept guard upon the walls, and with them were the men who were past fighting through age; but the others sallied forth with Mars and Pallas Minerva at their head- both of them wrought in gold and clad in golden raiment, great and fair with their armour as befitting gods, while they that followed were smaller. When they reached the place where they would lay their ambush, it was on a riverbed to which live stock of all kinds would come from far and near to water; here, then, they lay concealed, clad in full armour. Some way off them there were two scouts who were on the look-out for the coming of sheep or cattle, which presently came, followed by two shepherds who were playing on their pipes, and had not so much as a thought of danger. When those who were in ambush saw this, they cut off the flocks and herds and killed the shepherds. Meanwhile the besiegers, when they heard much noise among the cattle as they sat in council, sprang to their horses, and made with all speed towards them; when they reached them they set battle in array by the banks of the river, and the hosts aimed their bronze-shod spears at one another. With them were Strife and Riot, and fell Fate who was dragging three men after her, one with a fresh wound, and the other unwounded, while the third was dead, and she was dragging him along by his heel: and her robe was bedrabbled in men's blood. They went in and out with one another and fought as though they were living people haling away one another's dead.

Source: The Iliad. By Homer. Translated by Samuel Butler

What is the significance of these scenes? Do we know anything else about these cities?

2 Answers 2


From The Shield of Achilles: Symbol in Iliad:

The two cities depicted on the shield represent a city in Greece and Troy. One of the cities is filled with men dancing and singing and brides marching through the streets, while the other is circled by an army. This army has two plans which split their ranks: to share the riches which they have captured or plunder the city and capture more.

Turmoil surrounds each city. In one a quarrel breaks out and is brought to judgment. Surrounding the other, two armies fight along the river banks killing men and dragging off the dead.

Both cities are tainted with death, and both house love. In the former two men quarrel over the blood price for a murdered kinsman and take their case to a judge to decide the outcome. In the latter, children and housewives stand guard as the men march out to war.

This scene is analogous to the Trojans leaving to fight the Achaeans between their shores and the city. As seen in line 625, ” …now hauling a dead man through the slaughter by the heels…”, Homer foreshadows Achilles victory over Hector and how Achilles humiliates him.

The king’s estate is also portrayed on Achilles’ shield. Bountiful harvests of ripe grain are reaped and bound, and the king stands in silence rejoicing among the endless bundle of barley. An ox is being prepared for the harvest feast while the women fix the midday meal. The shield depicts happiness and prosperity for the king (who represented Agamemnon, the King of the Achaeans) again foreshadowing the Achaeans’ victory in their war with Troy.


Achilles tells Agamemnon's ambassadors—Odysseus, Telamonian Ajax, and his own old tutor Phoenix—of a prophecy:

For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.
(Iliad 9:410–16 Lattimore trans.)

He thus faces a literally existential choice between peace and war. Mom as goddess knows more about such matters than we mortals do. (Well, in some respects—perhaps less in others.) Same with Hephaestus: when she bespeaks the armor in Book 18, she need not even prompt him to emblazon this choice at the heart of the shield. (I do not share your assumption that lines 483–89 describe the figuration at the center.)

True, there has been a murder in the City at Peace, and the murdered man's son has expressed a preference for lex talionis, the law of the blood-feud, over accepting a blood-price; but the important thing is that the matter is under adjudication. That is crucial in order for a City at Peace to exist, as demonstrated in the Oresteia of Aeschylus.

In the event, what drives Achilles' choice, if we can even call it that, is no such rational preference as he expounds to Odysseus and Phoenix; rather it is the "destroying rage" that the poem proposed as its subject within the first two lines—the very Ruin (ἄτη) against which Phoenix has warned him (9.502–14).

In the underworld, his shade seems to repudiate the heroic choice that his passion made for him:

Noble Odysseus, do not commend death to me.
I would rather serve on the land of another man
Who had no portion and not a great livelihood
Than to rule over all the shades of those who are dead.
(Odyssey 11.488–91 Cook trans.)

But he immediately proceeds to inquire of his son, and it is Odysseus' report of that son's prowess in war that seems to gratify the shade.

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