In Book 3 of Lucan’s Pharsalia, Caesar is temporarily detained in his rapid march towards Spain by representatives of Massilia, who seek neutrality on behalf of their city. Their appeal, in the form of a long, impassioned monologue, fails to convince their antagonist; after delivering his own speech in response, Caesar besieges the city and engages the Massilians in an extended naval battle that spans over 250 lines. This episode has attracted attention for its historical inaccuracy, and for the bizarre and grisly naval battle that follows.
Compelling arguments have been made about the thematic significance and purpose of the siege of Massilia. Robert Rowland, for instance, has aligned Massilia’s treatment by Caesar and its fate with that of Rome itself, while C. M. C. Green finds mythological influences on the depiction of Caesar, particularly the rex nemorensis. However, I believe another significant parallel has gone unnoticed. In this paper I argue that the interaction between the Massilians and Caesar represents Lucan’s Romanized version of the Melian Dialogue, modeled after Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (5.84-116). Though sources are scanty on Lucan’s brief life, we know that he received a rigorous education from his extended family, including his uncle Seneca, and the Greek Stoic philosopher Cornutus; he would have been well-acquainted with Thucydides. Although there is no dialogue proper, Lucan’s characterization of both the Massilians and Caesar offers many salient parallels with the Melians and Athenians respectively.
I begin by demonstrating how Lucan’s introduction to the confrontation and to the overall characterization of the two parties closely corresponds to Thucydides’ account. It has been widely noted that Lucan took great liberties in his portrayal of the Massilians, and I argue that such changes are meant to align them with the moralistic, isolated Melians. Moreover, Caesar’s limitless ambition and ruthless nature bear a remarkable resemblance to the characterization of the Athenians, as outlined in the famous Corinthian speech (Thuc. 1.70). Next, I show how the organization and content of the Massilian speech mirror the Melian Dialogue, including the themes of neutrality, justice, and their ability to successfully resist any siege. Caesar’s shrewd and rational response counters the Massilian speech in the same matter-of-fact manner as the Athenians. I discuss further thematic parallels in their speeches, specifically the futility of hope, the advantage of fear, and the argument for the stronger versus the weaker. Finally, I highlight similarities between Lucan and Thucydides’ descriptions of the aftermath of the exchange, including Lucan’s decision to end the naval battle without revealing that Caesar had in fact spared the Massilians.
By viewing the siege of Massilia as an adaptation of one of Thucydides’ most famous episodes, we can account for many of Lucan’s choices in the content and presentation. To conclude, I argue that both Thucydides and Lucan emphasize how each aggressor focuses on the present, rather than the future. In the short term, this seems to be a highly successful strategy, judging by the superiority of Athens and Caesar during these episodes. Yet the authors also indicate that it is ultimately their undoing. While scholars have often interpreted Caesar as a profoundly negative figure in the Pharsalia, understanding the Athenians as a model gives a more nuanced characterization to Lucan’s portrayal. Instead of treating Caesar as a one-dimensional and unrealistic caricature, as some have argued, Lucan turns him into a symbol of Roman imperialism. This parallel is particularly salient, for Rome is in many ways the successor to Athens as a world power; while such a comparison may be favorable in certain areas, here it is more disquieting. Thus, the themes which run throughout the Melian Dialogue and the History of the Peloponnesian War as a whole find their complement in the siege of Massilia and Lucan’s epic, which stands as a commentary on Rome’s own development as an imperial authority and the irrevocable and unforgiveable ways it achieved its power.
War and Revolution in the Roman World