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Marseille, the oldest of all French cities

-Robert Arnoux

In the protected cove that was to be the Vieux-Port, merchant sailors from the Greek city of Phocaea, in Asia Minor, found a place that was very much like their home. (Click to view larger version...)
In the protected cove that was to be the Vieux-Port, merchant sailors from the Greek city of Phocaea, in Asia Minor, found a place that was very much like their home.
On the pavement of Marseille's Vieux-Port, a bronze plaque reminds visitors that the city was founded on this very spot twenty-six hundred years ago. The men who landed in this protected cove had sailed and rowed the whole length of the Mediterranean : they were Greek; their home was in Phocaea, now Foça in the Izmir province of Turkey, and they had come to establish a trading outpost — an emporion — on the shores of that distant and still barbarian continent.

Legend has it that on the day of the Greek sailors' landing, the local king was to marry his daughter Gyptis.
At the turn of each century, Marseille celebrates Gyptis and Protis, the founding couple of the city. (Click to view larger version...)
At the turn of each century, Marseille celebrates Gyptis and Protis, the founding couple of the city.
The young maiden was struck by the grace and strength of Protis, the merchant sailors' commander, and over all other suitors, chose him to be her spouse. Thus was Massalia founded at a time when Nebuchadnezzar II ruled over Babylon and the future Buddha was being born in what is now Nepal.

It took less than a century for the small Greek colony to become a brilliant city, sending explorers to the far reaches of Europe and Africa and establishing trade counters all along the western Mediterranean shores — Nice, Antibes, Monaco, Agde, Ampurias in Spain are all Marseille's offspring.

Aristotle would devote a whole book to Massalia's Republic and praise the city's aristocratic institutions, the wisdom of its rulers and the "virtues" of its inhabitants. Later, Cicero would describe the city, by then under Roman rule, as "a teacher of nations to which even Greece cannot compare."

Protis and his men sailed and rowed the whole length of the Mediterranean in a 50-oar ship like this one.  (Click to view larger version...)
Protis and his men sailed and rowed the whole length of the Mediterranean in a 50-oar ship like this one.
Present-day Marseille may appear quite different from these ancient historians' and philosophers' perceptions. The oldest of all French cities is also one of the most rebellious and rowdy. It is a place of ill reputation (largely undeserved) and of the deepest pride : Marseille's inhabitants like to remember that when Aristotle wrote about their city in the 4th century B.C., Paris was at best a mean village of low wooden huts, a godforsaken place that would wait another half-millennium to see the light of civilization.


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