The Intriguing Greek Origins of Marseille, France’s Oldest City

The Greeks are well known for their ancient tales of glory and tragedy, as well as their civilization’s innumerable contributions to the very foundations of our modern world.

However, what is lesser-known is that throughout the centuries, they founded scores of cities across the Mediterranean which not only exist today, but thrive and play a crucial role in their region’s affairs.

One of these cities is the huge port city of Marseille, in the south of France.

Currently the second-largest city in France and definitely among the oldest in Europe, Marseille can trace its origins back to 600 BC, when the first Greeks arrived in the area and established a trading colony.

This was at a time when many Phocaeans left their homeland in today’s Turkey (then Greek-speaking Asia Minor), and reached the northern shores of the Western Mediterranean.

They found a locale which could easily accommodate a large port and in a few years’ time, a new Greek colony had been established. Its name was ”ΜΑΣΣΑΛΙΑ” (”Massalia”).

The myth

According to legend, Gyptis, the daughter of the king of the Segobriges, married a Greek man called Protis, who then received a site for the founding of the city of Massalia.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle informs us about the myth concerning the foundation of Massalia.

According to this tale Protis, the son of Euxenous from Phocaea, married Gyptis, the daughter of a King of a Celt tribe named Segobriges or Segusiavi, who lived in Gaul, ancient France.

This marriage was the beginning of the story of Marseille.

When the Greek man married this rich and beautiful Celtic woman, the local King gave him the right to obtain a piece of land and build his town.

This small settlement was the foundation of what was to become the well-known city of Massalia.

The greater Mediterranean region, ca. 800-550 BC

However, this well-known legend may have been disproven, since according to archaeological evidence, the Phocaeans were not the first Greeks to arrive on the northern shores of the western Mediterranean Sea.

The entire coastal region comprised of the modern regions of Catalonia, Spain and France had seen the arrival of many Ionian Greeks before that time, during their expeditions to the West to find new places to live and people to trade with.

Nonetheless, the city of Massalia itself was indeed established by Phocaeans, as they were the first to settle permanently there.

These first Greek settlers of the port city very soon established a wide network of trade relationships with neighboring cities, not only along the coast but into the French mainland areas as well, where various Celt tribes once lived.

Other neighboring Greek colonies

The “Massaliotes,” as the Greeks of Marseille were known, first established good relations with other neighboring Greek colonies in the region beginning in the early stages of their colonization.

These colonies included the cities of Agde (Agathe Tyche, meaning ”Good Fortune”), in France; Antibes; Emporiae (the modern city of Empuries in Catalonia); Rhoda (the modern Roses in Catalonia); and of course the well-known cities of Nice (Nikaia) and Monaco, the modern-day cosmopolitan Principality.

Prosperous Traders

Massalian silver drachma from 375–200 BC. The head depicts the Greek goddess Artemis; the tail shows the figure of a lion. The Greek inscription on the coin reads ΜΑΣΣΑ(ΛΙΑ), “MASSA(LIA)”.

The outward-looking and trade-friendly attitude the Greeks of Marseille developed, offered  their city the opportunity to expand economically, and as a consequence, to thrive and prosper.

Shipments of Greek produce constantly arrived at the region’s ports, and ancient Gaul was able to form a consistent, well-established network of communications and relations with the metropolitan areas of Greece via their colonies, especially Marseille.

During the following centuries, the people of Marseille continued to traded with the entire Mediterranean region, and the port grew in importance and size.

Consequently, a great deal of pottery, artwork, coins and other objects from that period have been discovered all over France, from the southern to the very northern extremes of the country.

The Massaliotes as Masters of Trade

This active engagement with the entire region of Gaul made the Massaliotes the unchallenged masters of trade of the time.

Greek coinage was freely circulating across France, local Celtic tribes were using Greek themes to make their own coins, and the whole region was heavily influenced by the Greek settlers’ ”soft power” of commerce and trade.

Their influence even reached the shores of Britain, where local coins discovered in Kent and Surrey have depictions of Apollo. These coins are believed to have been influenced by the designs used in Marseille.

Of course, as  the centuries went by, the Romans arrived, other peoples and tribes made it to the shores of southern France, and history moved on.

However, the distinctive Greek origins of Marseille have somehow managed to remain intact in the city’s psyche to this very day.

This is why Marseille is a city that, many centuries after its founding, still remains proud of its ancient roots which connect its people with the Greeks, the first original Marseillais.