France’s second largest city is also her oldest. Here’s how it all began...

Massalia, the original name of the city of Marseille, was founded by sailors from Phocaea around 600 BC, making it the oldest city in France.


Coup de coeur: Marseille by David Crackanthorpe


Today the site of Phocaea is in Turkey, but at the time it was a city of Greek merchant seafarers, and the Phocaean sailors were accustomed to trading with the tribes along the Mediterranean coast. But they were not the only sailors plying the Mediterranean routes: the coast was divided into spheres of influence, and as they sailed further and further west, they came into areas under the influence of Rome. At first they were not really interested in creating colonies: they just wanted to trade. So Rome made no attempt to stop them, and Massalia became a strategic trading post, close to the Rhône river and a vital trade route for tin and amber, which came from Wales and the Baltic regions respectively.

There is a well-known legend about the foundation of Marseille. A merchant sailor from Phocaea, named Protis, spied the excellent natural port known as Lacydon (occupying basically the location of the Vieux Port in Marseille today). He landed and approached the local inhabitants, who were busy celebrating the marriage of their king’s daughter, Gyptis.

During the banquet, the bride-to- be traditionally offered a drink to the man she chose as her husband. Protis was invited to the feast and — guess what — Gyptis offered him the drinking cup. So Protis accepted her hand and was granted the right to build a city, Massalia, beside the port. It was a strategic spot: close to the Rhône, with a good harbour surrounded by hills protecting it from the Mistral wind.

As the colony developed, the motherland, Phocaea, was taken by the Persians under Cyrus II in 546 BC and destroyed. The inhabitants of Phocaea fled to their colonies, of which Massalia was one of the most important. This new arrival of colonists brought new life to the city, but was not particularly appreciated by the local tribes, who started to give the Greeks some problems. This led to the building of the ramparts during this period, surrounding an area of about 50 hectares, with the centre being the small hills where the section of the city known as the Panier is located today. These ramparts were built to protect the north side of the city, where these local tribes came from. Massalia also soon extended its territory, and founded other colonies along the coast of Gaul: Nice, Théliné (which became Arles), Agde, etc. The inhabitants also started growing and producing food for export, in particular wine and olive oil, together with amphorae, vital for transporting the wine and oil.

Massalia was a rich, modern city, independent and with its own administration. This was considered to be one of the best known ways of governing: 600 senators from the most important families chose a 15-member Directory, among whom three magistrates were chosen to administer the city. Massalia became a "thalassocracy", meaning it had supremacy over the seas. It was the inhabitants of Massalia who introduced writing to Gaul, and the local inhabitants used Greek lettering to write their own Celtic language.

The city was placed under the protection of the goddess Artemis of Ephesus, with possibly a temple located where Notre- Dame-de-la-Garde is situated today. Thus the Greeks seem to have more or less "civilised" this part of Gaul.

The city effectively used the disputes among the local tribes to increase its influence, but the inhabitants had to rebuild their city wall several times, proof that life was not always calm. A new enemy appeared, in the form of an alliance between the Etruscans and the inhabitants of Carthage, who were upset about the arrival of these new seafarers who were rapidly taking over the coast of Gaul. A decisive battle was fought in 530 BC at Alalia (Aleria in Corsica), another colony founded by the Greeks from Phocaea. The Greeks actually lost, but the inhabitants of Massalia considered that they had won and headed off to Delphi to thank Artemis for their victory. While there, they built their treasury, a symbol of the power that they now exerted over the coast of Gaul between Italy and the Rhône river.

After this battle, the Greeks from Massalia were able to navigate peacefully throughout the Mediterranean, and they controlled trading in Gaul. Nevertheless, because of pressure from the local tribes, they signed an agreement with Rome. Thus, as allies of Rome, they would have been enemies of Carthage and Hannibal, who came through their lands in 218 BC to attack Rome from the north. If Hannibal chose to cross the Rhône with his elephants north of Arles and continue on towards Rome through the Alps, instead of following the coastline, it was probably because he didn’t want to have to deal with the Massaliots.

As the power of Rome increased in this part of the world, Massalia tried to remain neutral. But the city made the mistake of taking in an ambassador sent by Pompey, who was at war with Julius Caesar. This was the excuse that Caesar needed to attack the Massalian fleet, with 12 ships prepared very rapidly for him in Arles. Caesar won, and Massalia was stripped of most of its territory, which was given to Arles. Thus ended the supremacy of the Greeks in Gaul, and the beginning of the Roman influence. There would never again be a thalassocracy in the area: the Romans preferred travelling by road!

MarseilleCoup de coeur: Marseille by David Crackanthorpe explores the striking architecture of Marseille’s monuments, the remains of Greek and Roman docks and wall, the islands of the gulf and the magnificent coast, the city’s distinctive language, food and popular culture. With all the disfigurements it has suffered, Marseille remains one of the world’s most unique cities and its site among the most splendid.

Crackanthorpe’s book tells the story of the long social and political life of the city, its growth with immigration at different time of peoples of many origins and races, and its powerful economic development. He also gives a detailed account of the city in literature down the ages and an analysis of its historic presence in art from the time of Cézanne, and in film to the present day.

Marseille is available on Amazon or directly from www.signalbooks.co.uk