Pockets of Peace in Lucan’s De Bello Civile and the Christmas Truce of the First World War

This blog was researched and written by Visualising War and Peace student David Calder, School of Classics, University of St Andrews, November 2023. It compares the Christmas Truce of 1914 with an episode in Lucan’s epic poem The Civil War, where Lucan narrates a short-lived ceasefire to reflect on war as much as depict a pocket of peace.

In Lucan’s epic De Bello Civile, the poet is naturally primarily concerned with the conflict between Julius Caesar and Magnus Pompey. Indeed, the various battles fought by the rivals and their forces provide many of the text’s climaxes. In book four however, between lines 168 and 210, Lucan presents a ‘pocket of peace’ when Caesar’s army faces Pompeian soldiers in Iberia. This moment is a profound example of a spontaneous ‘grassroots’ peace, where the cessation of hostilities came not as an order from above but arose naturally from interactions between individual combatants. Such ceasefires ultimately represent ‘negative’ peaces,[i] which quickly return to violence, and indeed Lucan uses this primarily to emphasise the horror of the conflict in which they belong. A direct parallel can be drawn between Lucan’s ceasefire, and the well-known story of the Christmas truce during the First World War. By their comparison, it may be possible to identify commonalities between the two narratives of temporary peace. One effort here will be to describe the conditions required for the establishment of the two truces in order to understand how spontaneous ceasefires emerge. Examination of the Christmas truce as well as the truce in Lucan will also reveal the common factors that sustain them. There is no official story of the Christmas truce; instead it has become a subject of collective social history which has been often presented in a highly idealised manner.[ii] By comparison with Lucan’s work, as well as recent scholarship critical of the myth of the truce, it is possible to see how the cultural memory of the brief ceasefire offers an image of peace which emphasises a pocket of peace in order to highlight the tragedy of the First World War. 

After the invasion of Belgium on the 4th of August 1914, the first stages of the war on the Western front were relatively mobile, with rapid German advances through Belgium, later successes at Charleroi and Mons, only halted at the Marne, 25 miles from Paris.[iii] This war of manoeuvre was further exhibited in a series of outflanking attempts known as the ‘Race to the Sea’,[iv] as both forces attempted to gain a superior position. The resultant battles were mutually costly for little gain, and by late November, exhaustion, and a lack of resources, encouraged both armies to develop highly defensive trench systems over the winter period.[v] The prelude to Lucan’s ceasefire contains a similar race for position as Caesar chases after the Pompeians, fleeing to an escape, eventually pinning them in a stalemate after threatening their supply routes.[vi]

There the two camps with low ramparts were pitched not far apart. When their eyes met, undimmed by distance, and they saw each other’s faces clearly, then the horror of civil war was unmasked. For a short time fear kept them silent, and they greeted their friends only by nodding their heads and waving their swords; but soon, when warm affection burst the bonds of discipline with stronger motives, the men ventured to climb over the palisade and stretch out eager hands for embraces. One hails a friend by name, another accosts a kinsman; the time spent in the same boyish pursuits recalls a face to memory; and he who had found no acquaintance among the foe was no true Roman. 

Lucan’s Civil War, 168-79[vii]

The proximity of the defences immediately brings to mind the trenches of late 1914, where opposing lines would often be within hailing distances of each other, between which remarks would occasionally be exchanged.[viii] In Lucan’s work the interaction is initially visual, but the recognition of family and friends prompts troops to head into the no-man’s land between the camps. The outbreak of the Christmas truce was naturally slower, as it was conducted between strangers, but the roots of fraternisation, and the unofficial ‘live and let live’ policy of the soldiers in some sectors began well in advance of Christmas.[ix] This has been attributed to the short distances between them facilitating observation and habitual interactions.[x] In the section above, common identity is also central to the unity of the enemies. Indeed, Lucan explicitly links the peace to Roman identity through his emphatic Nec Romanus erat  (‘Was not a Roman’, 179). The recognition of kinsmen and childhood friends is a powerful force to break the pseudospeciation required for violence.[xi] The soldiers in the First World War, despite not sharing a nationality, have a common identity in so far as most of the combatants shared a common faith. Attention to this common identity was heightened at Christmas, evidenced by exchanges of shared carols and gifts between lines.[xii] The detailed record of a soldier on the western front explicitly states the sense of commonality at Christmas — ‘Christmas Eve for both of us–something in common’.[xiii] This ‘Horizontal Proximity’ was essential for the encouragement of non-violence,[xiv] as soldiers after recognising the common Christianity from subsequent fraternisation could see common humanity, and separate the abstract enemy from the men opposite them.[xv] Within this passage we can see that proximity, both physical and psychological, is constant in the establishment of pockets of peace in these narratives. Proximity without violence, in which combatants are forced to interact between strong defensive positions due to the breakdown of manoeuvre, plays a crucial role in inciting fraternisation. The recognition of shared identities is also fundamental in securing these spontaneous truces, as both national and religious horizontal proximities are recognised.

There was peace, and the men made friends and strolled about in either camp; they began friendly meals together and outpourings of blended wine, sitting on the hard ground; the fire burned on turf-built hearths; where they lay side by side, tales of the war went on through all the sleepless night—on what field they first fought, by what force of hand their javelin was launched. But while they boast of their brave actions and deny the truth of many tales, their friendship, alas! was renewed, which was all that Fortune desired, and all their future wickedness was made worse by their reconciliation. 

Lucan’s Civil War, 196-205

Lucan here gives a vision of peace, in which the two sets of opposing soldiers are presented sharing food, wine, and stories. Here again the common identity shared between soldiers is crucial, by sharing stories of their martial exploits they share their common experiences. This is a direct parallel to the soldiers of the Great War, who upon exiting their trenches in 1914, found an enemy experiencing the same hardships as themselves[xvi] and traded food and souvenirs.[xvii] While it is certain that many soldiers did empathise with their opponents, less commonly mentioned is that there was much mistrust between forces, with many wary of treachery, or that the ceasefire may be used for reconnaissance.[xviii] The complex reality of the truce is here visible, that while it was a moment in which many took rest from war, it was widely accepted that the conflict was still ongoing. 

As mentioned above, Lucan’s primary purpose is to heighten the horror of the civil war by the soldier’s reconciliation. He explicitly states this, and by presaging the return to arms sandwiches this peace within war. Writing a century after the events, Lucan’s audience knows that this truce will not last, nor will it develop into a wider armistice, and so here he builds up the potential of peace merely to negate it. In his commentary on the fourth book of Lucan’s epic, Asso identifies his use of the imperfect pax erat (‘There was peace’, 196) as offering the possibility of peace, turning this moment into a missed opportunity emphasising the tragedy of the civil war.[xix] As the myth of the Christmas truce emerged and solidified well after the conflict,[xx] the idealising narrative of grassroots peace ultimately achieves the same effect as Lucan’s forecasts. The story of the truce encourages its audience to look back upon December 1914 as a moment of peace with the knowledge that three more Christmases would pass before the bloody conflict’s end.

The peace is broken in Lucan’s work by the return of the general, Petreius, who upon realising that the enemy had been allowed into his camp, reopens hostilities in brutal fashion: 

For when Petreius heard of the peaceful compact and saw that he and his forces had been sold, he armed his slaves for infamous warfare. Surrounded by this band, he hurled the unarmed enemy out of the camp, separated the embrace of friends by the sword, and shattered the peace with much shedding of blood. 

Lucan’s Civil War, 206-10

Initially the end of the peace is entirely top-down, with Petreius arming his ‘slaves’ (serving ones), to destroy the ceasefire, suggesting an element of compulsion in the return to conflict. However, Lucan later presents the same soldiers brutally turning on their erstwhile friends (243-52) with all the goodwill and friendship of the truce forgotten. The idealising narrative of the Christmas truce too suffers from the fact of its brevity. How could the soldiers after this day of fraternisation and the triumph of common humanity return to battle? Indeed, the end of the truce is often attributed to senior commanders and generals, and while these commanders did order the end of the truce, many of the soldiers were perfectly ready to return to arms, regarding the short break as nothing more than a brief respite from fighting.[xxi] Indeed some of the interactions were not lamenting the war, or wishing that their generals could make peace, as Lucan commands his soldiers to enact (188), but confidently discussing their hope of victory.[xxii] From this it is clear to see that the soldiers in this episode of the First World War, just as the Caesarians in Lucan, have often been presented as victims of the sudden return to conflict, when in reality the vast majority of them were complicit in the violence as Petreius’ forces were. 

Above, the common factors behind these ceasefires have been established: the breakdown of manoeuvre, the construction of opposing defences between which soldiers interact, and this interaction leading to a spontaneous truce are all features shared by both narratives. By comparison with Lucan’s narrative the common understanding of the Christmas truce has been further explored. The truce is not a myth in so far as it did occur; however the subsequent story told of universal fraternity and peace is hardly an accurate depiction. While soldiers did interact congenially, even they were able to recognise the limited nature of the truce. In the Roman poet’s work his agenda is perfectly clear, and so his similarities with the Christmas truce reveal that many narratives of the ceasefire have the same aim, to emphasise the horror of war, rather than offering a true image of peace. 


Ashworth, Tony. “Trench Warfare, 1914-1918: the live and let live system”. Pan Macmillan, (2000).

Asso, Paolo. “A Commentary on Lucan, De Bello Civili IV: Introduction, Edition, and Translation”. de Gruyter, (2010).

Bairnsfather B. “Bullets and billets”. London: Grant Richards. (1916).

Blom Crocker, Terri, ‘“The Legendary Christmas Truce”: The First World War, the Christmas Truce, and Social History, 1970–1989’, in The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War (Lexington, KY, 2016; online edn, Kentucky Scholarship Online, 19 May 2016).

Lucan, “The civil war (Pharsalia)”. Trans. Duff, James D. Loeb (1928).

Feierabend, Ivo K., and Martina Klicperova-Baker. “Freedom and psychological proximity as preconditions of nonviolence: the social psychology of democratic peace.” South African Journal of Psychology 45, no. 4 (2015): pp564-577.

Galtung, J., Fischer, D. “Positive and Negative Peace”. In: Johan Galtung. SpringerBriefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice, vol 5. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg (2013).

Gardner, Nikolas. ‘Command and Control in the “Great Retreat” of 1914: The Disintegration of the British Cavalry Division.’ The Journal of Military History 63, no. 1 (1999): pp29-54.

Jürgs M. Der kleine Frieden im Großen Krieg: Westfront 1914: Als Deutsche, Franzosen und Briten gemeinsam Weihnachten feierten. Munich: Random House. (2005).

Mang, R., Häusler, H. “Military Geoscientific Materials for Excursions to Theatres of First World War in France and Belgium.” In: Guth, P. (eds) Military Geoscience. Advances in Military Geosciences. Springer, Cham. (2020).

Saunders, Anthony. “Trench Warfare, 1850–1950.” Casemate Publishers, (2010).

Wiedemann, Nicolás JB, Miguel Pina e Cunha, and Stewart R. Clegg. “Rethinking resistance as an act of improvisation: Lessons from the 1914 Christmas truce.” Organization Studies 42, no. 4 (2021): pp615-635.

Weintraub, Stanley. “Silent night: the remarkable Christmas truce of 1914”. Simon and Schuster, (2014).

[i] Galtung & Fischer (2013) p. 173-4.

[ii] Cf. Blom Crocker (2016) ch. 8 & 9.

[iii] Gardner (1999) p. 29.

[iv] Mang and Häusler (2020) p. 54.

[v] Saunders (2010) p. 101-3.

[vi] (157-167), Lucan omits the detail of the supplies (cf. Caesar, De Bel. Civ. 1.73), instead preferring to characterise Caesar as eager for battle.

[vii] Trans. Duff (1928).

[viii] Weintraub (2014) p. 3.

[ix] Ashworth (2000) p. 24-6.

[x] Wiedemann et al. (2021) p. 622.

[xi] Feierabend and Klicperova-Baker (2015) p. 569.

[xii] Wiedemann et al. (2021) p. 623.

[xiii] Bairnsfather (1916) p. 70.

[xiv] Feierabend and Klicperova-Baker (2015) p. 570.

[xv] Wiedemann et al. (2021) p. 624.

[xvi] Jürgs (2005) p. 117-8.

[xvii] Blom Crocker (2016) p. 51.

[xviii] Blom Crocker (2016) p. 55.

[xix] Asso (2010) p. 152.

[xx] Blom Crocker (2016) ch. 8 & 9.

[xxi] Blom Crocker (2016) p. 49.

[xxii] Blom Crocker (2016) p. 56.