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Ch. 13
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Romans
on the Riviera and the Rhone

by W. H. Hall

originally published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Ch. 15

 p140  Chapter XIV
Siege and Blockade of Marseilles

As the siege of Marseilles is the only military operation in the history of the Roman province connected with the name of Julius Caesar, and as he has himself furnished a minute description of it, this chapter will be devoted to reproducing its main features drawn directly from the text of the De Bello Civili, L. II c. 1‑22.

From the present aspect of the city, which stretches over an extensive area, covering the high ground on both sides of the old harbour as well as reaching inland up and beyond the hill of St Charles — the site of the modern railway station — it is hard to realize that the Massilia of the Phocaeans was confined to a peninsula between the old harbour and a creek of La Joliette.

Yet the description of it in the first chapter of the second book of the De Bello Civili leaves no doubt on the point. It runs thus. "For Massilia is almost entirely washed by the sea on three sides; it is only approachable by land on its fourth side."

A glance at the plan opposite this page will make this clearer to the reader on paper, but it is less easy to trace on the spot the line of ancient wall, which was carried across the neck connecting the peninsula with the line of coast.

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Ancient and modern cities and harbours of Massilia (Marseilles). Modern shore line in Brown, ancient in Blue.º

In the Ora Maritima of Festus Avienus v. 706‑708, the situation of Massilia is described as follows:

"Latera gurges adluit,

Stagnum ambit urbem, et unda lambit oppidum

Laremque fusa: civitas paene insula est."

To man the line of their city wall and at the same  p141 time their fleet, the Massiliots called in their former trusty mercenaries, the Albici, who appear to have served the Greek republic in peaceful times as agricultural labourers, and to have been always ready at a moment's notice to respond to a call to arms.

The Albici, whose head-quarters were at Reii (Riez), still a considerable city lying among the hills between the Verdon and the Durance, some fifty miles to the north of Marseilles, were a brave and hardy race, which had always been loyal to their Greek employers. From their readiness to take up arms against their all powerful neighbours, the Ligurian Salyes, in defence of Marseilles, it seems most probable that the Albici were a tribe of friendly Celts1 who had been induced to cross the Durance to take service under the Greek republic.

For although, as I stated in my Introductory Chapter, the country south of the Durance was never conquered by Celts, a few isolated Celtic tribes, one of which he calls Commoni, found their way across that river and are mentioned by Pliny as settled in the neighbourhood of Marseilles.

In spite of the representations to Caesar of the desire of the republic of Marseilles to preserve a benevolent neutrality at the outbreak of the Civil War, it soon became clear that the city was thoroughly equipped to stand a siege.

Immense supplies of war material of every kind were found to have been accumulated in readiness for any emergency, and the wall and towers on the land side were provided with exceptionally powerful batteries of 'tormenta' — machines for discharging heavy missiles of metal or stone.

It was a strange turn of Fortune's wheel, that the Romans, to whose benevolent intervention Massilia owed its preservation from being stormed by the Salluvii,  p142 should now be laying siege to the city on their own account.

It was a work of months to throw up the embankments required to provide access to the walls over the low ground, and to construct the many kinds of complicated shelters to protect the besiegers from the showers of missiles discharged from the tormenta.

While these siege-works, on which gangs of native workmen collected from all parts of Provincia were mainly employed, were being pushed forward, the twelve war-ships ordered by Caesar duly arrived from Arles. As it is expressly stated2 that only thirty days had elapsed since the felling of the trees of which they were constructed, it is not to be wondered at that they proved somewhat unwieldy.

Having a fleet of seventeen war-ships at his disposal, Domitius Ahenobarbus seems to have considered that they would be advantageously employed in a trial of strength with the twelve unseasoned ships, which appear to have constituted the whole of Caesar's fleet. These twelve ships were placed under the command of Decimus Brutus, who drew them up near the islands lying outside the old harbour.

Never doubting but what he would make short work of them, Domitius bore down triumphantly upon his opponents. For in addition to his war-ships he was reinforced by a number of smaller craft.

Having an insufficient number of sailors available, Caesar, before setting out to join his army in Spain, had called on the three legions left with his legate Trebonius to furnish volunteers to serve on his extemporized fleet. The call was readily responded to and the ships manned by the pick of the legionaries. As it happened, the very unwieldiness of the vessels turned out to be just suited to the unseamanlike character of the crews. For from the heaviness of the newly-felled timber, the vessels built at Arles proved exceptionally  p143 steady, and served as solid stagers for fighting a land-battle at sea.

Both men and ships being alike incapable of vying with their Massilian opponents in naval tactics, Caesar's galleys made it their sole aim to get to close quarters as quickly as possible. Once amongst the enemy's ships, the legionaries threw out grappling-irons, with which they held them fast, sometimes catching two at a time, till they had boarded and despatched their crews composed chiefly of Albici. After sinking three and capturing six of the Massiliot ships, Decimus Brutus returned in triumph to his moorings, while Domitius retired discomfited with only seven ships.

Meanwhile the progress of the siege operations was slow on the land side owing to the difficult nature of the ground, the heavy discharges of masses of rocks from the heights on the heads of the besiegers, and the frequent sorties of the Albici, ever ready to take advantage of the confusion and havoc occasioned by the tormenta in the ranks of the legionaries.

Hearing of the discomfiture of Domitius, and the loss of more than half his ships, Pompey lost no time in despatching his admiral L. Nasidius, then commanding his fleet in Sicilian waters, with sixteen ships of war to the relief of the Massiliots.

When the news of the arrival of this opportune reinforcement reached the ears of the Massiliot population, which had been deeply dejected since witnessing the overthrow of their hopes at sea, their spirits immediately revived, and the whole city was eager for a fresh naval encounter.

It was well for the Massiliots that the second and more decisive sea-fight, on which all their fresh hopes were staked, was destined to come off out of sight of their city. For instead of bringing his ships close up to Marseilles, Nasidius halted them opposite Tauroenta, some 20 miles to the eastward toward Toulon. He seems to have shrunk from the risk of exposing himself  p144 to the risk of an attack, before he had effected his junction with Domitius. For with the six war-ships captured from the Massiliots in the late engagement, Decimus Brutus had now a fleet of eighteen vessels, more fully equipped and better fitted to put to sea.

Sending forward a despatch boat to announce his arrival at Tauroenta, Nasidius summoned Domitius to join him there with the ships that remained to him and nine fresh ones, which the Massiliots had equipped to replace those captured.

As it became clear that the combined fleets opposed to him would decline fighting in the waters within sight of the city and in touch with the old harbour, which appears throughout to have been in his possession, Decimus Brutus determined to accept battle at Tauroenta, where Nasidius offered it.

Described as a 'Castellum Massiliensium'3 Tauroenta is a spot to which M. Lentheric has devoted fifteen somewhat uncalled-for pages in the River Ancient and Modern, the English rendering of his Provence Maritime. As by his own showing on p122 'Etiam periere ruinae', I do not feel called upon to add anything to the mention of the name, which only serves to mark the point on the rocky coast of Provence, off which the battle was fought, which put an end to the independence of the Massiliot republic B.C. 49.

To meet Decimus Brutus approaching from the westward with his eighteen vessels, the Pompeian fleet advanced in two divisions, the seventeen Massiliot Greek ships being placed inshore on the right, while the sixteen under the command of Nasidius formed the left wing towards the open sea.

Very different was the spirit which animated them respectively, the Massiliots feeling that all depended on the issue of this supreme occasion, on which they were fighting for their hearths and homes, while the sailors of Nasidius were supremely indifferent. Having no  p145 material interests at stake and without a spark of patriotic sentiment, for they had no country to defend, the Latin contingent of Nasidius, from which the Massiliots hoped such great things, proved in the simple but expressive words of the text 'of no good at all'. (Nasidianae naves nulli usui fuerant.)4

As a matter of fact, they bolted at the critical moment of the battle, their crews not being worked up to the pitch of risking their lives on an alien adventure, without any encouragement from fellow countrymen on the spot.

In striking contrast to the unadorned brevity of the text of Caesar's Civil War is the account of the sea-fight in Lucan's Pharsalia, Book III, of which I give below a specimen — Rowe's well-known version:—

Massilia's navy, nimble, clean, and light,

With best advantage, seek or shun the fight;

With ready ease, all answer to command,

Obey the helm, and feel the pilot's hand.

Not so the Romans; cumbrous hulks they lay,

And slow and heavy hung upon the sea;

Yet strong, and for the closer combat good,

They yield firm footing on th' unstable flood.

Thus Brutus saw, and to the master cries

(The master in his lofty poop he spies

Where streaming the Praetorian ensign flies),

Still wo't thou bear away, still shift thy place,

And turn the battle to a wanton chase?

Is this a time to play so mean a part,

To tack, to veer, and boast thy trifling art?

Bring to. The war shall hand to hand be tried,

Oppose thou to the foe our ample side

And let us meet like men, the chieftain said;

The ready master the command obeyed,

And sidelong to the foe the ship was laid.

Upon his waist fierce fall the thund'ring Greeks,

Fast in his timber stick their brazen beaks;

Some lie by chains and grappling strong compell'd,

While others by the tangling oars are held;

The seas are hid beneath the closing war,

Nor need they cast the jav'lin now from far;

 p146  With hardy strokes the combatants engage,

And with keen faulchions deal their deadly rage;

Man against man, and board by board they lie,

And on those decks their arms defended die;

The rolling surge is stained around with blood,

And foamy purple swells the rising flood."

In spite of the cowardly withdrawal of the ships of Nasidius at the critical moment, the Massiliot vessels by no means lost all hope of victory, but continued to make a good fight of it single-handed. They were however at last obliged to acknowledge their defeat, when five of their vessels were sunk and four captured.

From the camp of Trebonius, on the heights opposite overlooking the city, the Roman soldiers while the sea-fight was in progress could plainly descry crowds of Massiliot women and children thronging the temples and bowing down before the images of their gods in earnest supplication. As soon as it became known that their fleet had been beaten, owing to the flight of Nasidius, whose arrival had only a few days before excited such wild hopes in their breasts, a great wail of grief rent the air. To hear it, any one would have supposed that the city itself had fallen into the hands of the enemy.

But although the Massiliots must have felt that the fate of their city was sealed now that the Romans were as completely masters by sea as by land, they relaxed none of their efforts in defending their walls, against which Trebonius pushed his attack with renewed vigour.

The rocky nature of the soil rendering underground approaches impossible in the absence of explosives, with the use of which the Romans were unacquainted, it was necessary to construct moveable shedding of great strength to protect the advance of the besiegers.

Against these sheds, as they were seen approaching the walls, the besiegers would discharge every available missile and finally roll down huge masses of rock, when they got nearer. If these failed to smash in the roofing,  p147 they would hurl down casks filled with burning pitch and lighted torches.

An inexhaustible supply of such material having been accumulated at Marseilles, the best furnished port in the western basin of the Mediterranean, the progress of the siege was slow, no shedding composed of wooden framework filled in with such inflammable material as osiers and hurdles proving fire-proof. At length however after weary months of ineffectual attempts, the besiegers contrived to construct an immensely strong covered approach, 5 ft. high by 4 ft. broad, the stout wooden framework of which was filled in with clay and bricks, and the whole cased in with similar incombustible material.

Approaching by means of this 'musculus' (as Caesar calls it) the principal tower and key of the defences in the city wall, the besiegers succeeded in effectually undermining it and bringing part of it down with a run, thereby causing a formidable breach.

Upon this, the besieged, desisting from further show of resistance, and throwing themselves at the feet of Trebonius, obtained from him the concession of an armistice, pending the arrival of Caesar, whose return from the successful termination of the Spanish War was shortly expected.

However, as Caesar's arrival was unexpectedly deferred, the Massiliots in flagrant violation of the armistice and hoping to find the Romans napping at the hour of noon, suddenly sallied forth through the breach in their walls and attacked them unexpectedly. Availing themselves of a strong wind (probably the Mistral, with which every visitor to the French Riviera is only too familiar), the Massiliots treacherously set fire to everything inflammable in the Roman lines, destroying the bulk of their siege appliances.

As Caesar, shortly before the commission of this treacherous outrage, had sent an express injunction to Trebonius, that he was on no account to sanction the  p148 storming of the city, the Massiliots escaped the condign punishment which they richly deserved and which the Roman legionaries were with great difficulty withheld from inflicting upon them then and there.

Retiring within the walls and repairing as best they could the breach in their defences, occasioned by the fall of the tower, the Massiliots prepared for further resistance.

The Romans meanwhile on their side zealously set to work at the re-construction of their siege appliances, felling for this purpose all the timber still available in the neighbourhood.

When the siege had been prolonged a considerable time, famine, resulting from the effectual blockade, which had been established by Decimus Brutus since his second naval victory, came to the assistance of the besiegers, bringing all kinds of disease in its train. From this it resulted that on Caesar's arrival, the Massiliots, being unable to hold out any longer, and trusting to his well-known clemency, surrendered their city to him unconditionally. All lives were spared, Domitius Ahenobarbus, afraid to trust himself a second time to Caesar's generosity, having escaped by sea a few days previously to the surrender.

The terms exacted by the conqueror were the surrender of all arms and military engines; of all ships and naval stores; of the whole of the public treasure, and the forfeiture of all territory.

A garrison consisting of two Roman legions was quartered upon the city. From henceforth Marseilles ceased to exist as an independent republic. She was however permitted to elect her civil magistrates and to enjoy the privilege to local self-government.

The Author's Notes:

1 The friendly Celts, who are mentioned by Livy as having accompanied the Roman cavalry, sent en reconnaissance up the Rhone Valley at the time of Hannibal's invasion, were probably Albici.

2 De Bell. Civ. I.36.

3 Caesar, De Bell. Civ. II.4.

4 De Bell. Civ. II.7.

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Page updated: 26 Aug 16