War and Peace and Weddings: Two Cities in Siena, Homer and Hesiod


In the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy there are a series of Frescoes referred to as “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” painted from 1338 to 1339 by Abrogio Lorenzetti. One panel shows a good government, and to the right the effects of a city governed well where the people seem free of the threat of war and their lives are full with good things–children, marriages, dancing.

Good government

The other city facing it is ruled by a tyrant; soldiers wander the streets and the law of might seems to be in effect.

Bad government

Here’s a short video giving you an idea of the whole composition. The City of Bad Government is more fragmentary, but the state of all three Frescoes communicates well the oppositions between Good Rule and Bad Rule, what ancient Greeks might call eunomia and dusnomia.

The allegorizing and the strict dichotomy are both rather typical of late Medieval thought, but what struck me about the city of Good Government is the collocation of images in the lower left hand corner:


The image of the marriage so close to the festive dancing in the context of two contrasted cities made me think of the decoration Hephaestus puts on Homer’s shield in the IliadThe first city’s description starts in the following way (18.489-495):

“On the shield he made two cities of mortal men,
Beautifully. In one there were marriages and feasts
Under the lights of burning torches as they led brides
Through the city from their bedrooms—a great marriage hymn rose up.
And the young men whirled about dancing as among them
The pipes and lyres cried out. Women stood there,
Each at her own doorway, staring in amazement.”

᾿Εν δὲ δύω ποίησε πόλεις μερόπων ἀνθρώπων
καλάς. ἐν τῇ μέν ῥα γάμοι τ’ ἔσαν εἰλαπίναι τε,
νύμφας δ’ ἐκ θαλάμων δαΐδων ὕπο λαμπομενάων
ἠγίνεον ἀνὰ ἄστυ, πολὺς δ’ ὑμέναιος ὀρώρει·
κοῦροι δ’ ὀρχηστῆρες ἐδίνεον, ἐν δ’ ἄρα τοῖσιν
αὐλοὶ φόρμιγγές τε βοὴν ἔχον· αἳ δὲ γυναῖκες
ἱστάμεναι θαύμαζον ἐπὶ προθύροισιν ἑκάστη.

But we also find an elaborated comparison of two cities in a work ascribed to Hesiod, the “Shield of Herakles”.  In this short ‘epic’ poem, Herakles goes to fight Kyknos. His shield’s description is a central part of the poem.

Hesiod, Aspis [“Shield] 237-247; 270-285; cf. the two Cities in Iliad 18 (below)

“..Beyond them
Men in arms of war were struggling—
Some fought, warding destruction away from their city
and their parent; others were eager to sack it.
Many were dead; but many more still struggled in strife.
On the well-built bronze walls of the city their wives
cried sharply and they tore at their cheeks,
so much like living women, this work of famous Hephaestus.
The elders, the men whom age had bent,
Stood close together outside the walls, holding their hands
To the blessed gods, because they feared for their children….”

…. οἳ δ’ ὑπὲρ αὐτέων
ἄνδρες ἐμαρνάσθην πολεμήια τεύχε’ ἔχοντες,
τοὶ μὲν ὑπὲρ σφετέρης πόλιος σφετέρων τε τοκήων
λοιγὸν ἀμύνοντες, τοὶ δὲ πραθέειν μεμαῶτες.
πολλοὶ μὲν κέατο, πλέονες δ’ ἔτι δῆριν ἔχοντες
μάρνανθ’. αἱ δὲ γυναῖκες ἐυδμήτων ἐπὶ πύργων
χαλκέων ὀξὺ βόων, κατὰ δ’ ἐδρύπτοντο παρειάς,
ζωῇσιν ἴκελαι, ἔργα κλυτοῦ ῾Ηφαίστοιο.
ἄνδρες δ’ οἳ πρεσβῆες ἔσαν γῆράς τε μέμαρπεν
ἀθρόοι ἔκτοσθεν πυλέων ἔσαν, ἂν δὲ θεοῖσι
χεῖρας ἔχον μακάρεσσι, περὶ σφετέροισι τέκεσσι

“Next to [that city] was a well-towered city of men,
Seven gates were fitted in gold to their frames around it.
The men were engaged in pleasure at festivals and dances.
Some were conveying a wife home to her husband
On a well-wheeled cart as a great hymn arose;
And in the distance the light of burning torches waved
In maidens’ hands. They walked in front, flushed with joy
At the festival, as the playful choruses followed them.
The men rang out a song to the clear-voiced flutes
With their tender lips, and the echo rang around them.
Others led the lovely dance to the lyre’s songs.
On the other side youths paraded to the aulos;
Others plays in turn in the dancing floor to a song;
More were laughing near them as each went forth
At the flute-player’s lead. And the whole city was full
Of dance, and singing, and pleasure…”

… παρὰ δ’ εὔπυργος πόλις ἀνδρῶν,
χρύσειαι δέ μιν εἶχον ὑπερθυρίοις ἀραρυῖαι
ἑπτὰ πύλαι· τοὶ δ’ ἄνδρες ἐν ἀγλαΐαις τε χοροῖς τε
τέρψιν ἔχον· τοὶ μὲν γὰρ ἐυσσώτρου ἐπ’ ἀπήνης
ἤγοντ’ ἀνδρὶ γυναῖκα, πολὺς δ’ ὑμέναιος ὀρώρει·
τῆλε δ’ ἀπ’ αἰθομένων δαΐδων σέλας εἰλύφαζε
χερσὶν ἐνὶ δμῳῶν· ταὶ δ’ ἀγλαΐῃ τεθαλυῖαι
πρόσθ’ ἔκιον, τῇσιν δὲ χοροὶ παίζοντες ἕποντο·
τοὶ μὲν ὑπὸ λιγυρῶν συρίγγων ἵεσαν αὐδὴν
ἐξ ἁπαλῶν στομάτων, περὶ δέ σφισιν ἄγνυτο ἠχώ·
αἳ δ’ ὑπὸ φορμίγγων ἄναγον χορὸν ἱμερόεντα.
[ἔνθεν δ’ αὖθ’ ἑτέρωθε νέοι κώμαζον ὑπ’ αὐλοῦ.]
τοί γε μὲν αὖ παίζοντες ὑπ’ ὀρχηθμῷ καὶ ἀοιδῇ
[τοί γε μὲν αὖ γελόωντες ὑπ’ αὐλητῆρι ἕκαστος]
πρόσθ’ ἔκιον· πᾶσαν δὲ πόλιν θαλίαι τε χοροί τε
ἀγλαΐαι τ’ εἶχον….

The three sets of images (the Shields and the Frescoes) obviously convey different specific values and draw on separate moralizing traditions, but the attendant imagery and the distinction between a city governed-well and one beset by strife is striking. I do not mean to imply in any way that I think there is a direct relationship between the two, but rather that they are both the natural outcome of cultures steeped in dichotomous representations.

But that corner image of the weddings and dances when coupled with the opening of the peaceful city in the Iliad really started me wondering…

Leave a Reply