Siege of Massilia, (49 BCE)

Battles of the Great Roman Civil War, 49-45 BC

The prosperous and influential ancient city of Massilia stood against Julius Caesar during his Civil War with Pompey the Great. By way of a prolonged siege, Caesar’s forces reduced the town’s resistance and secured his complete control of Gaul (modern France).

The modern city of Marseilles on the coast of southern France began as the Greek colonial settlement of Massalia (referred to as Massilia in Roman texts) in the late seventh century BCE. Greek merchants had been sailing along that coast for generations and the colonists, sent out by the city-state of Phocaea in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), negotiated with the local Ligurian tribe (the Segobriges) to acquire the site, a promontory surrounded by water on three sides and approached, with difficulty, from the land on the fourth side. The location and situation provided natural protection to the colony from pirates and marauding Gallic warriors, while its proximity to the Rhone River valley opened up access to trade with the Gallic tribes further inland; in exchange for wine, olive oil, and pottery, the Massiliotes received tin, grain, and amber from the Gauls. The harbor of Massilia was ideal for maritime commerce and opened the way for stiff competition with the Carthaginian merchants who were expanding their markets northeast- ward from their bases in Spain; this led to military confrontations as early as the fifth century BCE, which saw the Massiliotes come out on top. As noted earlier in the entry on Gallia Comata, the continued commercial rivalry between Massilia and Carthage was one of the major causes of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, the Romans claiming to defend Massiliote interests in the Western Mediterranean. From then on, the city remained one of Rome’s firmest allies in southern France.

When Civil War began between Pompey and Caesar in 49 BCE, one of Pompey’s firmest allies and Caesar’s inveterate enemies, L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, intended to assume command of the provinces of Gaul; the senators in support of Pompey had agreed to this, while Caesar continued to consider himself the rightful governor. Domitius delayed his departure for Gaul until after his defeat (and despite his release) by Caesar at the Siege of Corfinium. In the meantime, young noblemen from the allied city of Massilia, who had visited with Pompey before his retreat from Rome, arrived home to encourage their fellow townspeople to support Pompey against Caesar. Having chased Pompey out of Italy and taken control of Rome, Caesar did not want to have a hostile Massilia, with great wealth and a powerful fleet, in his rear, perhaps working with Domitius; so, Caesar soon left Rome for southern Gaul, arriving in April 49 BCE.

When he arrived, Caesar discovered the gates of Massilia locked against him and intelligence reports indicated that the Massiliotes had collected large stores of grain and other necessary supplies, were beefing up their fortifications and ships, and had also arranged for the aid of local Gallic tribes- men against Caesar. Massilia possessed a strong oligarchic government, a council of 600 lifetime legislators presided over by a committee of fifteen executives chosen from among them. Caesar demanded a conference with the Fifteen, in which he warned them not to stand against him and instead to take the posture of the towns of Italy, most of which had quickly agreed to avoid hostilities by accepting Caesar’s authority. After conferring with the Council of 600, the Fifteen replied that their government could not decide between Caesar and Pompey; while they acknowledged that during his tenure as governor of Gaul, Caesar’s relations with them had been quite positive, they also insisted that from Pompey as well they had received equal benefits in the past (referring to Gallic territories that had been handed over to Massilia by Pompey). The city offered to remain neutral in the Civil War by cutting itself off from both belligerents.

The duplicity of such statements became clear when Domitius arrived and the Massiliotes admitted him into their city and gave him command of its defense against Caesar. Domitius ordered their ships to scour the area for stores of grain and to confiscate all civilian vessels they came across to bolster Massilia’s fleet and increase its material resources. In response to these actions and the now-hostile posture of the city, Caesar placed it under siege by three of his veteran legions. While Caesar himself proceeded to Spain against Pompey’s legates there, he left the siege operations under the command of Trebonius, with Decimus Brutus in charge of the blockading fleet of twelve warships.

The Massiliotes mustered their vessels under Domitius’s authority, who placed archers, Gallic warriors, and many poor (but desperate) Romans that he brought with him from Italy onboard as marines. Brutus commanded fewer ships but onboard were some of the very best soldiers from Caesar’s legions; they were prepared to fight hard with their weapons, but they also had all the apparatus necessary for seizing and boarding the enemy warships.

When the two fleets engaged, a bitter struggle commenced. The Massiliote ships made great speed and possessed clever helmsmen and skilled oarsmen, who attempted to make use of these advantages by ganging up on individual vessels of Brutus’s or slamming through their banks of oars or keeping their distance to encircle the Caesarians. The latter did not possess such advantages, since their ships were heavier and slower and their crews green, but they sought every chance to grapple the enemy ships and send their marines into hand-to-hand combat with the enemy crews. In the end, this proved good enough, as the Massiliote fleet gave up the fight after having lost nine vessels captured or destroyed.

The Massiliotes, who had not lost heart or courage, turned to repairing damaged ships and preparing further ones from all their supplies. Indeed, the entire population of the city had apparently come to believe that their next naval battle with the Caesarians would mean either decisive victory (and safety) for themselves or total destruction; as a result, every able-bodied man in Massilia had been called up to serve, and especially the members of the aristocracy had “volunteered” to man the fleet as marines. Domitius, meanwhile, received reinforcement warships under Nasidius, sent by Pompey himself all the way from Greece. Women, children, and the elderly prayed to the gods in their temples and watched hopefully and dreadfully from the walls of Massilia as their fleet and that of Nasidius joined up along the coast to the east of the city.

Decimus Brutus hurried his vessels to engage them. As in the first confrontation at sea, this one also was difficult and fierce. Indeed, Brutus’s flagship was almost smashed between two Massiliote vessels; like a scene in a modern movie, his crew managed to make speed just in time to get out of the way, the enemy ships collided with one another, causing severe damage, and other Roman vessels came in for the kill by surrounding and sinking the attackers. In the meantime, Nasidius’s crews proved unreliable; having no true personal or patriotic stake in saving Massilia from capture, they were unwilling to really risk their lives in the battle. They soon withdrew from action on various pretexts and sailed off to Spain. The Massiliotes having fought so bravely and skillfully, nonetheless, suffered sufficient losses to persuade them to retreat into port. The further defense of grief-stricken Massilia would have to rely on resisting the Roman siege.

All the while the naval battles had been in progress, Caesar’s land forces under Trebonius had been constructing their siege works. They had summoned workers and supplies, especially of timber, from all across the Roman province of Narbonensis (roughly Provence today) to accomplish the massive, and slow, task. A siege-ramp sixty feet wide and eighty feet high, made of earth shored up by a considerable amount of timber, was necessary to reach the top of Massilia’s walls on the landward side of the city. As the Romans erected this, the Massiliotes used artillery devices, like their massive tormenta (giant-size crossbows) and catapults, to bombard the workers and soldiers outside. According to Caesar’s own account, such devices hurled large missiles, twelve feet long, with such force that they penetrated the usual protective screens employed by the Caesarians. To counteract this, the latter designed covered passageways of thick timber and a large mobile hut (tortoise) of the same material to shield themselves as they built up the ramp. Of course, the Massiliotes did not let this stop them; they ordered their Gallic allies to rush out of the city from protected spots and regularly harass the Roman troops and disrupt their work with firebrands.

In response, Caesar’s men decided to build, about sixty feet from the ramparts of Massilia, a brick fort, thirty feet square with walls five feet thick, as a place of refuge and regrouping. Over time, they very ingeniously in- creased the height of this fort, turning it into a stationary siege tower, virtually impervious to artillery missiles and fire. From its base, they threw out a covered passageway in the direction of Massilia’s walls, not just made of thick timbers but also covered on top with brick, clay, animal hide, and wet quilts, to protect it from fire, as they had done with the roof of the siege-tower fort.

The defenders of Massilia dropped large chunks of stone and fiery barrels of pitch onto the siege passageway, to no effect, and were attacked themselves by volleys of javelins and other missiles from the Roman siege-tower fort. From inside the protection of the passageway, the Roman sappers had dug under the wall of Massilia and brought a portion of it to collapse. Crowds of civilians rushed out of the opening in the wall, begging for Roman mercy and asking for a cessation of hostilities until the return of Caesar from his victory in Spain. Trebonius agreed to this, knowing that Caesar did not at all wish his enraged troops to take the city by force.

The truce was uneasy. From both sides came raids against the other, especially a night raid in which the Romans were beaten back from their attempt to penetrate the city, and a midday raid by the Massiliotes, who successfully destroyed by fire almost all the siege works of the Romans, including their siege fort. Not surprisingly, Caesar, in his official account, placed all the blame for the violation of the truce on the Massiliotes, whom he accused of the basest treachery.

His men had few timber resources left to them to construct new siege works, so they attempted to build a ramp flanked by thick walls of brick, topped with what wood they had left, and covered over in clay to guard against fire. The Romans advanced this structure toward the walls of Massilia, again with the plan to undermine them and invade the city. The extraordinary efforts of the exhausted, but never-more-determined, forces of Caesar caused the Massiliotes now to pause and critically examine their position. After all, Caesar’s fleet had the city blocked off by sea and his ground troops had cut off any escape by land; they seemed resolute in doing over and over again anything needed to hold and take the city. On their side, the people of Massilia were suffering from illness and dwindling supplies of fresh food after nearly six months of siege. So, the Massiliote government requested another truce and offered to surrender in good faith.

Caesar arrived in late October to accept this surrender. He ordered the Massiliotes to hand over all their weapons and ships, as well as all the money in their treasury; to guarantee their continued cooperation, he stationed two Roman legions in the city. Otherwise, Caesar decided to take no further punitive action against the Massiliotes, out of respect, he said, for their ancient alliance with Rome. With Massilia secure, Caesar had no further need to worry over the Gallic territories for the remainder of the Civil War nor, indeed, for the rest of his lifetime.

Further Reading Carter, J. 1997. Caesar: The Civil War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. De Angelis, F. 1994. The Archaeology of Greek Colonisation. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology. Rivet, A. L. F. 1988. Gallia Narbonensis. London: Batsford.

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