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Marseille History

Although it may not seem that way today, Marseilles is one of the oldest cities in France and began life in 600BC when it was founded by a group of seafaring Greeks.

Independent until 100BC, it suffered grievously from backing an opponent of Julius Caesar and, like the rest of France, was absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Known as Massilia under Roman rule, the end of Empire brought a series of different rulers including the Visigoths and Emperor Charlemagne. The latter granted Marseille civic power and ushered it into a boom that lasted several centuries.

But the good times were not to last and the city was ravaged by the Angevins, bubonic plague and finally the Aragonese in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Finally, in the 1480s, Marseille became part of France, although not without clinging onto its independent character. Under the rule of the French kings, it became a key trading port, as well as France’s main military base on the Mediterranean.

When the French Revolution arrived, the city showed its independent character once again, sending 500 citizens to march on Paris and composing the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise, in the process.

Marseille ushered in a second boom with the birth of the French Republic. The city witnessed a huge growth in manufacturing and industry during the 19th century and was boosted again with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

During WWII, Marseille had the dubious distinction of being bombed by both the German and Italian forces in 1940 and the Allies three years later.

Badly damaged, much of the city was rebuilt in the 1950s, a project funded mainly by reparations from Germany. There was a marked increase in immigration from the 1950s onwards as the so-called Pieds Noirs fled the fighting in Algeria, which has contributed in large part to the colourful reputation Marseille now enjoys.

Did you know?
• Founded over 2,600 years ago, Marseille is the oldest city in France.
• In 1794, the gold and silver relics in Saint Victor Abbey were melted down and turned into coins as the abbey was converted into a prison, warehouse and barracks.
• Footballers Eric Cantona and Zinedine Zidane were both born in Marseille.