The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (Palazzo Pubblico, Siena) and Achilles’ Shield

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.

This city is not without challenges–the next scene describes a trial over over a man who has been killed. But this trial takes place in an institution and is not fought in the streets or in war. The other city (18.509-540) is beset by two armies at war; there are ambushes, skirmishes and corpses. Women and children look on from the walls.

The two sets of images (the Shield 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…

Ajax’s Frustration and Achilles’ Shield: Two Moments for ‘Justice’ in Homer’s Iliad

The Iliad provides two moments where some type of institutional (non-violent) conflict resolution is imagined. Note, though murder is mentioned, capital punishment is not. And Homer’s world is certainly a savage one…

At the end of the embassy in book 9, Ajax voices his frustration with Achilles (9.632-638):

“You are relentless: someone might even accept payment
for the murder of a brother or the death of his own child.
and after making great restitution, the killer remains in his country,
and though bereft, the other restrains his heart and mighty anger
once he has accepted the price. But the gods put an untouchable
and wicked rage in your heart over only a girl…”

νηλής• καὶ μέν τίς τε κασιγνήτοιο φονῆος
ποινὴν ἢ οὗ παιδὸς ἐδέξατο τεθνηῶτος•
καί ῥ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν δήμῳ μένει αὐτοῦ πόλλ’ ἀποτίσας,
τοῦ δέ τ’ ἐρητύεται κραδίη καὶ θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ
ποινὴν δεξαμένῳ• σοὶ δ’ ἄληκτόν τε κακόν τε
θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι θεοὶ θέσαν εἵνεκα κούρης
οἴης• …

On Achilles’ shield, Hephaestus creates two cities, one at war and one at peace. He also creates an assembly where a killing is being judged Il. 18.496-508

“The people where gathered, crowded, in the assembly where a conflict (neîkos)
had arisen: two men were striving over the penalty for
a man who had been killed; the first one was promising to give everything
as he was testifying to the people; but the other was refusing to take anything;
and both men longed for a judge to make a decision.
The people, partisans on either side, applauded.
Then the heralds brought the host together; the elders
sat on smooth stones in a sacred circle
as they held in their hands the scepters of clear-voiced heralds;
each one was leaping to his feet and they pronounced judgments in turn.
In the middle there were two talents of gold to give
to whoever among them uttered the straightest judgment.”

λαοὶ δ’ εἰν ἀγορῇ ἔσαν ἀθρόοι• ἔνθα δὲ νεῖκος
ὠρώρει, δύο δ’ ἄνδρες ἐνείκεον εἵνεκα ποινῆς
ἀνδρὸς ἀποφθιμένου• ὃ μὲν εὔχετο πάντ’ ἀποδοῦναι
δήμῳ πιφαύσκων, ὃ δ’ ἀναίνετο μηδὲν ἑλέσθαι•
ἄμφω δ’ ἱέσθην ἐπὶ ἴστορι πεῖραρ ἑλέσθαι.
λαοὶ δ’ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπήπυον ἀμφὶς ἀρωγοί•
κήρυκες δ’ ἄρα λαὸν ἐρήτυον• οἳ δὲ γέροντες
εἵατ’ ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοις ἱερῷ ἐνὶ κύκλῳ,
σκῆπτρα δὲ κηρύκων ἐν χέρσ’ ἔχον ἠεροφώνων•
τοῖσιν ἔπειτ’ ἤϊσσον, ἀμοιβηδὶς δὲ δίκαζον.
κεῖτο δ’ ἄρ’ ἐν μέσσοισι δύω χρυσοῖο τάλαντα,
τῷ δόμεν ὃς μετὰ τοῖσι δίκην ἰθύντατα εἴποι.