In the ekphrasis of the shield of Achilles’, Homer presents scenes from two cities, one at peace and one at war. The one at peace is, at times, considered the ideal polis. This is contradictory to the scenes of battle presented by the Achaeans during the Trojan War. The socio-political workings of these cities can be compared and contrasted in many ways, with each sharing many points as well as hosting contradictory ones.
The society presented in the “ideal polis” is one of hardworking and co-operative people. The people are not concerned with fighting and killing, the main aspects of war, but instead, focus on working their fertile soil and harvest and enjoying themselves. Theirs is a time of prosperity and happiness. “Whenever [the plowman] came to the end of the field and turned, a man would run up and hand them a cup of sweet wine,” demonstrates this prosperity (18.585-586). Even though they are hard at work in the fields, they take time for themselves and enjoy life. This personal attention leads them to do better work as the field is “forged to a wonder.” (18.591)
The Achaeans do not receive the same kind of personal attention as the fore-mentioned plowman, but they do receive a sense of individualism. One major difference between the two types is that, in the ideal polis, this attention is used to help each person succeed better in their own lives, while in the Achaean society, the attention is used to draw them into battle for the betterment of the society as a whole. The individualism of the Homeric polis spurs each person to do better because they are happy. When one is happy with their work, they tend to do better. The consideration for the soldiers, like when Nestor walks down the ranks providing harsh encouragement (6.68-73) or when a disguised god, such as Poseidon, tries to drive the men on (13.97-126), is to get them, not to fight better for themselves, but to fight harder for the Achaean cause.
The people of this city work together in harmony, but they also work with precision. In the reaping scene, Homer describes a system of work involving three stations of work where even the “children gathered armfuls” of grains and helped out. (18.597) Girls and boys help to carry grapes to the vintagers in this scene. These scenes of co-operation and group unity help to keep this polis strong and prosperous.
In the Achaean society of war, once the fighting has begun, though they fight as individuals, the men continue to function as a unit. They continuously try to save their fallen comrades, as when Homer thoroughly describes the fight for Patroclus’ body (18.158-180), and protect them when the battle has descended. Each man valiantly tries to observe his surrounding troops and help them avoid danger and death, like when “Ajax saw his brother go down and sheltered him with his shield until two of his men bore him back to the ships.” (8.335-338) This unity is a characteristic shared with the Homeric ideal polis and is a reason that the Achaeans pose such a formidable army to conquer.
The sense of unity runs strong in both these societies and is therefore a shared trait. Though they adapt this principal in separate ways, it remains present and helps each polis to run more smoothly as a whole.
Always present in the ideal society are activities participated in strictly for enjoyment purposes. The cup of wine the plowman receive and the boy who “picked out on a lyre a beguiling tune and sang the Linos song” while the “harvesters skipped in time and shouted the refrain” are all examples of how the ideal society incorporates joyful activities even into their work. (18.612-615) The scene on the shield that best describe their attention to pleasure would be the dancing scene. “Young men and girls, in the prime of their beauty were dancing” merely for delight while “a large crowd stood round the beguiling dance, enjoying themselves, and two acrobats somersaulted among them on cue to the music.” (18.636,648-650) As Homer specifically states in this passage, the people are here “enjoying themselves.” This enjoyment leads them to live happier, more fulfilled lives. These better lives also lead the people to be more active in their society and to serve it better. Why would one want to serve a society they were unhappy with? These activities take care of this issue.
The Achaeans, in this time of war, do not get the luxury of fun-filled activities. Instead, they must focus on the battles ahead and the many deaths, on either side, they will be experiencing. They have to prepare themselves mentally, not only for battle, but also for the possibility that death may be looming just ahead of them. The constant pressures of war and the psychological weight of impending death causes the men to many times become lethargic and long for the end of the war. This is way the gods must interfere as often as they do and urge the men forward. Without this outside assistance, the war would take its toll on the men and their minds much more forcibly.
The king in the ideal polis looks over his society with a happy heart. He is pleased with the way everything is going and the prosperity of the land. He is content with his people and the directions they take. He is mentioned very little in this passage and therefore possibly plays a more low-key part in this society. He seems to be pleased with his role in this ideal society. Unlike this king, Agamemnon, the highest of the Achaean kings is at times brash and hasty in his thinking. By taking Briseis from Achilles, he cause major tension and conflict between himself and the mighty warrior. This king is not one who is pleased with the way things are going and nor is he pleased with his role in things.
Religion is an aspect shared by both poleis. It is obvious that they both worship the mythological Greek gods. The ideal polis “prepares a feast from an ox they had slaughtered in sacrifice” (18.601-602) while the Achaeans constantly “offer formal sacrifice” to the gods. (1.469)
On a side note, the scene from shield concerning the wartime polis holds parallels to the Achaean society. The incident concerning the man refusing money for a murder committed in his family can be considered quite similar to the fact that Achilles refuses to accept payment from Agamemnon for his wrongdoings of stealing Briseis. Also, in the next depicted scene concerning the armies, “their leaders were at odds.” (18.550) This is the same thing that happened between the Achaean’s “two best men in council and in battle.” (1.273) Agamemnon, the powerful king, and Achilles, the mighty warrior, face off throughout the epic. These similarities to the war time polis show that the Achaean society is not the perfect polis as well as do the contrasts depicted earlier.
The differences between the ideal city and the Achaean city are readily evident and visible. It is these differences that show the Achaean society is not perfect. The depiction of this “ideal polis” gives all societies the chance to learn from the etchings and shape their society however they see fit. The Achaean society did share some characteristics with the ideal polis but still needs to improve in other areas.
Lattimore, Richmond, ed. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.