From Greek Massalia to Roman Massilia

From Greek Massalia to Roman Massilia

Founded between 620 and 600, a Greek city in Gaul, Massalia (Massilia in Latin) had a special destiny and a special place in the history of Gaul and the Western Mediterranean. The history of this city is a strong element of the identity of Marseilles. Some even start the history of France at this event. The Phocaean city cultivates this heritage, as illustrated by the poster on the left on the occasion of the 25th centenary of the founding of Marseille in 1899.

The original myth

According to tradition, the Phocaeans from Asia, guided by Artemis, arrived in Lazio and met King Numa with whom they sealed a treaty of friendship. The fleet led by Samos and Prôtis arrives on the Marseille shores. They then returned home and returned with more people by their side. They made contact with the King of the Segobriges Nann to found a city. The Segobriges are the Ligurian people who occupied the Marseille area. We know little about these. King Nann accepts and then gives in to marriage.

Thus was founded the colony of Massalia. This idyllic foundation masks the fact that the problems between natives and Greeks erupted from the succession from the reign of the son of King Nannos.

An oligarchic regime

Massalia is led by the Council of Timouques of 600 appointed men for life, each of whom comes from a family descended from the first settlers. Fifteen members are at the head of this assembly and manage the affairs of the city. Of these fifteen, three have more power than the others and one of them has preeminence over the whole system. This assembly is very conservative and wishes to preserve their Greek identity.

This conservatism is reinforced by the geopolitical situation of the city which sees itself as "a Greek island in the middle of the barbarians". According to Mr. Clavel-Lévêque, the practice of trade was linked in the city to the obtaining of political rights. This city fascinated Roman writers who hoped to find there the nostalgic values ​​of a bygone era.

Rapid growth

The city's growth is rapid as illustrated by the expansion of the enclosures throughout the city's independence. The arrival of new Phocaeans following the destruction of their home city has greatly contributed to this dynamism. The city also becomes independent following the fall of Phocée in the second half of the 6th century. Located between the Butte des Carmes and the Butte Saint-Laurent, the city is expanding rapidly and has ramparts, a port and public facilities.

Two important sanctuaries are built: the Ephesion and the sanctuary of Apollo Delphinios. Their exact locations are difficult. Growth is not only urban: if the city has remained with a chôra (agricultural space surrounding a city) restricted for a relatively long time. Very early on, it had a currency which spread from the end of the 6th and the first half of the 5th century.

Massalia, a prosperous city against its neighbors

Marseille as we said previously saw itself as a city under siege. She founded many colonies like Hyères (Olbia), Antibes (Antipolis) or Nice (Nikaia) to prevent Ligurian or Celtic attacks. The Roman alliance is therefore vital for her. The Roman invasion of southern Gaul between 125 and 122 is linked to this situation. It also acquires territories following this intervention. Despite this difficult general situation, Massalia is doing well: the city produces quality wine that is exported throughout the western Mediterranean. She introduced the cultivation of vines and olive trees in Gaul at the same time.

Contrary to popular belief, pollen and carpological studies have shown that the vine and the olive tree pre-existed the arrival of the Greeks. It is arboriculture (pruning and grafting) that is introduced. It also produces ceramics, oil and bronze. Its position as a crossroads makes it a shopping center. Finally, we cannot mention the influence that Marseille exerted on its neighbors. We will only take two examples: the Greek alphabet is used consistently by the Gauls. Glanum, an indigenous city, was monumentalized after the sacking of the city in 125-124 and equipped itself with buildings characteristic of Greek culture.

The decline and fall of Massalia

The wealth of Marseille is linked to the Rhône. The goods passed through pre-industrial societies mainly by water because of the lower costs. The Rhône being considered as the Phocaean way until the end of the Massaliote domination, the Romans rather invested, initially, "the Gallic isthmus" (Aude-Garonne) while not neglecting however to weave a network diplomatic in the Rhodano-Saonian axis. From the middle of the 2nd century BC. AD, Rome is allied with the Aedui. From 150-130 BC. AD, archeology has shown that the productions of Italian amphorae supplanted those of the Phocaeans in Marseille. We can also see this decline with the evolution of the coinage of the city. Finally, the founding of Aix-en-Provence in 122 BC. J. - C. could go in the direction of a more acute control of the trade on the valley of the Rhone and thus compete with Massalia on this axis.

During the civil wars, Massalia made the wrong choice to prefer Pompey to Caesar. Caesar besieges the city for six months in 49 BC. Caesar would not have plundered the city because of the old friendship. Massalia emerges very weakened from this siege, which does not help its economic decline and confirms, if it was still necessary, the dominant position of Rome in this region. The city saw part of its territory and its colonies amputated and only kept Nice and the Stoechades Islands. It remains a free city but cannot have an independent foreign policy.

Massilia, a revitalized Roman city

It seems that final conquest has not resulted in total decline. It is gradually adorned with Roman-style architecture: we know of the existence of two spa complexes in Marseille. A theater accompanied by a monumental complex shows that in Roman times the city experienced significant vitality. On the contrary, trade does not seem to weaken: warehouses have been built on areas reclaimed from the sea. However, Massilia has become a city like any other. Its institutions have changed but do not stick to the classic model of the western city. Thus, epigraphy tells us that in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD still circulating agonothetes of the games of Jupiter, prophets and episcopi of the people of Nice. There are still Greek inscriptions despite the wide distribution of Latin. Thus, the city is no longer quite a Greek city because it has adopted the principle of classical local institutions with decurions, nor a Roman city. Marseille is Athens where young Romans of good society come to improve their education like the famous governor Agricola.

After the period of the High Empire, the city was affected by Christianity from the third century with its share of martyrs. Oresius, the first known bishop of Marseille, was present at the Council of Arles organized by Emperor Constantine in 314. This city was a prodigious city and its influence went beyond its sole sphere of influence. We could have mentioned in this article the journeys of Pytheas and Euthymenes which during the period of independence allowed a widening of geographical knowledge. Marseille has therefore been a gateway to the world since antiquity.


- COLLIN BOUFFIER Sophie, "Marseille and Mediterranean Gaul before the Roman conquest", Pallas, 2009, pp. 35-60.
- FERDIÈRE Alain, Les Gaules: 2nd century BC-5th century AD J.C., Armand Colin, Paris, 2005.
- HERMARY Antoine, HESNARD Antoinette and TRÉZINY Henri, Greek Marseilles. The Phocaean city, Errance, Paris, 1999.
- ROTHÉ Marie-Pierre and TRÉZINY Henry, Archaeological Map of Gaul 13/3 Marseille and its surroundings, House of Human Sciences, Paris, 2005.

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