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Marseille History

 Marseille History photo marseille-history0113b.jpg

[villphotos]marseille027b400.jpg For most of the long history of Marseilles, the town occupied the same fortified 70 hectares on the north side of the Old Port from its founding until 1660. There was one "brief" period in the 7th century, during barbarian invasions, when the area was reduced to a smaller fortified position, but it quickly regained its original size, which has been inhabited now for 26 centuries.


A tremendous example of prehistoric cave paintings were discovered at the Grotte Cosquer, by the Calanque de Sormiou, only 10 km south of the center of Marseilles. Painted hand-outline images in the caves probably date from about 25,000 years ago. There are also paintings and carved images of auks, bisons, deer and seals, probably from about 16-17,000 years ago, in the Upper Paleolithic.


The Ligurians occupied this part of the coast well before the arrival of the Phocaeans (Greeks from Asia Minor).

Greek - Phoenician


Around 620-600 BC, Greek-Phoenician galleys landed at Lacydon Creek, now the Old Port, for the trading post there.

[ Some sources gave us "Phonecian" and others "Greek (Phonecian)". Reader Zane put us onto 'The Extraordinary voyage of Pytheas the Greek' by Barry Cunliffe, and other sources about the Greek-not-Phoenician origin of Marseille. These were actually traders from Phocaea, a Greek city in what is now Turkey. - Beyond ]

The leader Protis(Pytheas the Greek) paid a visit to the local Ligurian tribe, on the day of a special event for the "coming out" of the king's daughter.

A banquet was held for the Ligurian warriors seeking the hand of the daughter, and at the end of the meal the girl would enter with a cup of wine which she would present to the warrior she desired. Protis, who had been invited to the banquet (and allegedly "Greek-god" handsome), was selected by the king's daughter, and the two were married.

The girl's dowry was the land that includes what is now known as Garde Hill, where Notre Dame de la Garde stands. Under the direction of Protis, the small town of Massalia (or Massilia) grew here, the beginning of Marseilles.


The Greeks took over Massalia in 540 BC, after the Persians destroyed Phocaea. The city prospered as a central port and trading center, doing business with the new trading posts they set up: the coastal towns of Agde, le Brusc, Antibes, Nice, and Hyères Islands, as well as on the Rhône at Arles and Avignon, and inland at Cavaillon and Glanon (near St.Rémy-de-Provence).

For the following centuries, the Greeks administered Massalia as a republic, renowned as a cultural center and for the wisdom of its laws. The Greek Massalia encompassed the Old Port and the peninsula on the north side, facing the sea. The area, fortified by ramparts, covered about 50 ha (125 acres), from the end of the harbor where Fort Saint Jean now stands, across the Butte des Moulins in the heart of the Panier District, to the Butte des Carmes.


The Greeks aided the Romans in 154 BC during the Second Punic War. About 30 years later, the Greeks needed help against the largest Ligurian tribe, the Salian Francs. Answering the request, the Romans arrived in Provence in 125 BC, rescuing Massalia, and at the same time began to take over the area.

Greeks and Romans battled the Salian Franks for three years, before the might of the Romans triumphed. The Greeks retained Massalia as an independent republic, allied to Rome. The Romans founded Transalpine Gaul, with Aix and Narbonne as Roman colonies.


Around 50 BC, friction between the Roman generals Caesar and Pompey was coming to a head, and Massalia was forced to take sides. They went with Pompey, and were then besieged by Caesar. With the aid of his shipyards in Arles to provide warships, Caesar defeated Massalia, now Massilia, after six months, in 49 BC.

Although Massilia was stripped of its treasures, and its fleet and trade were dispersed to Arles, Fréjus and Narbonne, it remained a free city. The excellent Greek university at Massilia was the last place of Greek teaching in the west.

Massilia stayed commercially active, but lost out in competition with Arles and Narbonne, with its shipping trade severely reduced. Examples of the trade, discovered in the Roman warehouses from this period, are on display at the Roman Docks Museum. Activity tapered off gradually, and in the 3rd century AD, Marseilles lost its autonomy as a free city, and became a normal town.

Barbarian and Christian

Marseilles was the object of rivalry between different barbarian factions, and suffered repeated lootings and even near destruction at the hands of the Sarrasins. It survived though, and during the barbarian invasions of the post-Roman era, Marseilles remained an active port city, with Far-Eastern trade.

Christianity came to Marseilles near the end of the Roman era, as shown by the martyrdom of a Roman officer in 915 AD and catacombs on Garde Hill. The Church represented the only real authority during this period, and a bishopric was installed in the beginning of the 4th century. Two monasteries founded here in the 5th century, including the Abbey St Victor, were among the first in the western world.

Barbarian attacks and pillaging increased, and by the 7th century, Marseilles was reduced to the fortified position of the bishopric on St Laurent Hill, above where Fort Saint Jean is now located at the mouth of the Old Port.


[See also Medieval History]

[villphotos]marseille-history0106b400.jpg Early in the 11th century, trade had expanded and the city prospered. Marseilles became an independent republic in 1214, but remained independent only for 38 years. In 1252, Charles of Anjou took Marseilles under his rule.

During the 12th-14th centuries, Marseilles competed with Genoa for the trade in food and war material for the Crusaders. Marseilles became very prosperous during this period, reaping direct profits as well as ownership of a section of Jerusalem where it had its own church.

Wealth expanded along with the trade, that spread out across the Mediterranean, until the 15th century. In 1423, Marseilles was pillaged by the fleet from Aragon, but recovered quickly under the influence of the Forbin brothers, two Marseilles merchants. Good King René came to Marseilles in 1423 for a long stay, increasing royal interest in the city. In 1481, Marseilles was brought under the French crown, while remaining a part of Provence.

In 1660, King Louis XIV had the ramparts torn down, and the town began its expansion, for the first time, beyond the original fortified area on the north side of the Old Port.


A plague arriving via Marseilles in 1346 devastated Europe, leaving 25 million dead. The Great Plague of the 18th century arrived in Marseilles in 1720, killing 100,000 people in Provence.

The Restoration

Marseilles recovered quickly from the Great Plague. It took only a few years to restore the economic activity, as trade expanded to the West Indies and Latin America. By 1765, the population was back at its pre-1720 level, and growing constantly.

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