In 49 BCE, after Julius Caesar drove Pompey out of Italy at the start of their Roman civil war, Caesar next set his sights on Spain. Along the route between Italy and Spain, however, was the formidable city of Massilia (modern Marseilles). When the war between Caesar and Pompey broke out, the Massilians claimed neutrality in the conflict, but they eventually showed more willingness to cooperate with Pompey’s faction. Realizing this, Julius Caesar besieged the city. He chose two officers, Decimus Brutus and Gaius Trebonius, to oversee the siege and blockade of Massilia while he personally led another army into Spain. Yet, before Julius Caesar began his march toward the Pyrenees, he reportedly encouraged his troops to carry out a controversial act. As the story goes, there was a sacred grove near Massilia that had somehow never been harmed in war. Caesar, it was said, saw this grove not as a holy site, but as an obstruction and a resource. The Roman poet, Lucan (c. 39-65), wrote the following of Julius Caesar’s supposed actions against Massilia’s sacred grove:
“Caesar sends in the axes to chop down this wood
Because it is in the way. It stood there dense with timber
Intact through prior wars, among other hills stripped bare.
But his men’s strong hands trembled, and overwhelmed
By the awesome grandeur of the place, they believed
That if they struck those sacred trees, their axes were sure
To rebound back on their own limbs. When Caesar saw
His cohorts confused and paralyzed, he dared to be
The first to heave and raise a double-bladed axe
And pierce a lofty oak with steel; driving deep the blade
Into the trunk now violated, he proclaims:
‘Now none of you should balk at clearing this grove.
Just credit me with the guilt.’”
(Lucan, Civil War, Book 3, approximately lines 440-460)
It should be noted that Lucan’s Civil War, the epic poem from which the above quote was excerpted, was an incredibly hostile book that portrayed Caesar and his supporters in the worst possible light. In fact, Lucan was as critical and rebellious against authoritarian figures in his own personal life as he was in his literature. Consequently, the poet took his own life in the year 65, after being caught in a conspiracy against Emperor Nero (r. 54-68). Nevertheless, there could be some truth to the tale that Lucan recorded in his poem. If there was a sacred grove in the territory of Massilia, it could have easily been chopped down by Julius Caesar’s army. No specific mentioning of the grove was made in Caesar’s own Commentaries on the Civil War, but he did admit to deforesting the region. In a comment about repairing and replacing damaged siegeworks, Caesar stated, “There was no place left them from which the materials for their mound could be fetched, in consequence of all the timber, far and wide, in the territories of the Massilians, having been cut down and carried away” (Commentaries on the Civil War, 2.15). Despite this, as Caesar was personally in Spain for much of the siege of Massalia, he might have been able to claim some deniability if a sacred grove was indeed cut down.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Vercingetorix Surrenders To Caesar, Painted By Henri-Paul Motte (c. 1846–1922), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- War Commentaries by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, 2014.
- Lucan’s Civil War, translated by Matthew Fox (Penguin Classics, 2012).
- Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008.