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Feb. 16, 2019

8 – The Greek Empire in Gaul

8 – The Greek Empire in Gaul

Anatolian Greeks establish an empire in Southern Gaul around Masallia, or modern-day Marseille.


Today we’re going to be looking at a fascinating episode in France’s history, where a Greek naval empire was transplanted from western Anatolia to the southern coast of France. Our story begins with the Greek city-state of Phocaea in 800 BCE. Phocaea is located on the western coast of Anatolia, what we know call the Asian part of Turkey, about halfway between its northern and southern tip. At this time Western Anatolia was populated almost entirely by Greeks, who crisscrossed the Aegean Sea. To the east a number of powerful empires rose up such as the Hittites, though most empires east of the Anatolian coast had their eyes set on the riches of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and paid little attention to the Greeks, who were relatively poor at this time.


Phocaea in particular was lacking in natural resources. The land was agriculturally poor, and it didn’t have any major industry, which forced the city to prosper entirely off of the sea, through the use of trade and piracy. The Phocaeans developed a pirate culture, extolling the virtues of strength, discipline and cunning needed to be a pirate. Far from being seen as wild bandits, many Greeks admired pirates. When the Phocaens founded cities this culture of piracy spread with them.


One problem that faced the Phocaeans was that by the time they developed into a decent-sized city-state in the 7th century BCE the great era of Mediterranean colonization by Greece and Phoenicia had already passed, meaning that the best lands in the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Africa were already taken. In the 8th to 7th centuries it founded a colony on the Hellespont, another on the Black Sea and jointly founded a colony in Egypt with other Ionian Greek cities in order to trade with Egypt proper, but these had to compete with established Phoenician and Greek city-states. As such, the only land the Phoecans could colonize without fear of a contentious relationship with an established polis was the southern coast of Gaul, which led the Phocaens to be the first among the Greeks to develop large ships used for long voyages. Herodotus remarks, “Phocaeans were the earliest of the Greeks to make long sea‑voyages: it was they who discovered the Adriatic Sea, and Tyrrhenia and Iberia, and Tartessos, not sailing in round freight-ships but in fifty-oared vessels.”


It’s that last country that Herodotus mentions which is of great concern to us. Tartessos was a kingdom in the southwest Iberian peninsula, and was rich in all kinds of metals. Phocaea wanted to control trade between rich Tartessos and the rest of the Mediterranean, and viewed that as the last great trade route that wasn’t under the dominion of any powerful entity. Not that there weren’t countries who tried to control the Strait of Gibraltar and hence control the trade between Tartessos and the rest of the Mediterranean. Since the 800s, Phoenicia, what we call today ‘Lebanon’ that country just north of Israel/Palestine on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, was colonizing Northern Africa. It’s most famous city-state was Carthage, though there were a number of city-states they established even closer to Tartessos, which the Iberians saw as a natural threat to their independence. The King of Tartessos turned to the incoming Greeks as a natural ally against the Phoenicians who were trying to dominate the trade routes. The King was so grateful to the Greeks for challenging the Phoenicians that he paid for the city walls in Phocaea. Clearly Tartessos was one of the richest cities of the age if it could pay for walls on the other side of the Mediterranean, and Phocaea benefitted greatly from being its ally and trading partner.


In 600 BCE Phocaea founded Masallia on the Mediterranean coast of Southern Gaul which is the precursor to modern-day Marseille. Masallia was a peninsula surrounded by mountains which made it defensible. It had a natural harbor, which made it perfect for a sea-faring people, and it was in an agriculturally fertile region; by all accounts the perfect place for a city.


At this point you might be asking: what about the Gauls? To that I would respond: what Gauls? The Mediterranean Coast of Gaul was sparsely populated until the 600s BCE when the Greeks arrived. Gallic tribes lived inland close enough to threaten a raid, but probably not a prolonged siege of a fortified location. If we look at the geography of Europe, and think back to the long, gradual expansion of the Indo-Europeans and later the Celts, this makes sense. The Indo-Europeans migrated west across the open spaces of Eastern Europe, into Northern France and later Britain. In order to make it to the Mediterranean these peoples would have had to follow the mountainous curve around the Alps. Likewise, the Celts, who originated in modern-day Austria would head out in all directions, and those that went west would find bountiful land across northern France, where most of them would stay, while fewer migrated south. The Celts had little reason to settle along the Mediterranean because their culture wasn’t known for sailing, having originated in central Europe. Without the skills to sail or fish, Celtic settlements were less pronounced than in the north.


Masallia’s neighbor to the north was the Gallic tribe known as Liguria. After a brief period of peace the Ligurians decided to seize the city by attempting to sneak inside during a festival. The Masallians were tipped off and ambushed the Ligurians. Since that time Masallia had a contentious relation with the Gauls. The Gauls were a constant threat but at the same time they were the source of Masallia’s great wealth. The Gauls had an insatiable appetite for wine, olives and salt. In exchange, they traded slaves to the Greeks, to the point that tens of thousands were sold every year in the 3rd century BCE. All the while, precious metals were mined in the Pyrenees. Masallia held a monopoly on trade with Gaul, and became incredibly rich.


It wasn’t long before it really started to grow into a full-fledged Greek polis that rivalled even the great cities of mainland Greece. The Masallians built an agora, stadium, theater, acropolis, cisterns and city walls. They built two temples that were dedicated to the twins Apollo and Artemis. In a sense, these two deities played into the nature of the city as Apollo was a champion of Greek identity and its scientific and cultural achievements as the god of physicians, while Artemis as the wild goddess of the hunt and showed how they were in a new wild land. The city was so rich that it even had a mint, and its coins probably served as the basic currency of the entire Southern region.


Furthermore they were a politically-developed society, having been founded with a constitution and set of laws before they even arrived. As historian A. Trevor Hodge notes, Masallia was a timocracy, and no that does not mean they were ruled by someone named Tim. In a timocracy, society is split into hierarchies based on wealth. Essentially this meant any free male could rise to power, though heredity was obviously a huge determinant in one’s role in society. It was ruled by the 600 wealthiest citizens who held their offices for life, though the daily leadership was overseen by an executive council of 15. This city developed into an economic, maritime and cultural powerhouse in the 6th century BCE, which keep in mind at this time Rome was a collective of different herdsmen’s huts.


  1. Trevor Hodge goes on to recount some of their laws, a few of which are so interesting I thought I would share. One of the laws was a ban on women drinking wine. This was probably to protect any fetuses from developing deformities but also due to sexist attitudes that women had to be controlled. Another law held that suicide was legal, but only if done the proper way. Any person who wanted to kill themselves could appeal to the government to commit suicide and if approved would be given hemlock. In an incredibly ironic historical twist, mimes were banned from the theatre, as they were seen as immoral.


Culturally, Masallia was the center of the Western Mediterranean, producing the kind of art and poetry that had the complexity of the Near East. While the Masallians were respected for their arts they were considered effeminate by their Italian neighbors due to men wearing floor-length tunics, much like women’s dresses. Furthermore, as a Greek city, Masallia was considered a place of loose morals so that ‘going to Masallia’ was like our modern day saying “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”


Now our story turns back to the home city, where things have started to take a sharp turn for the worse. Sometime around 550 BCE Phocaea was conquered by the kingdom of Lydia, which ruled the western coast of Anatolia. Then in 547 BCE the Lydian king Croesus made the most infamous inquiry to the Oracle of Delphi ever. He asked the Oracle if he should attack Persia, to which the Oracle responded, “If you do a great empire will fall.” Croesus believed the Oracle spoke of Persia. He assembled his armies and made the disastrous decision to fight Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenid Persian Empire. His armies were crushed and it was his empire, not Persia, that fell.


Unfortunately Phocaea was not spared Persia’s wrath, and was put to the siege in 546 BCE. Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, the citizens decided to flee to the island of Corsica, where they established a colony known as Alalia. Unfortunately for the Phocaens, Carthage saw this as a direct threat to its growing empire.


So, we need to do a brief detour and bring Carthage into all this. While Phocaea originally flourished between 800-600 BCE, Carthage rose as well. It sought to supplant the Greeks as the major trading partner in the Iberian peninsula and set up colonies along the eastern coast of Iberia, across North Africa and in Sardinia, to counter Greek colonization of Sicily, which was then known as Magna Grecia, or Greater Greece, which challenged the Punic colonies on the western side of the island. Carthage strangled Tartessos, as it controlled the Strait of Gibraltar and the rich Iberian kingdom of Tartessos went into decline and eventual collapse, as Carthage became the dominant power in northwestern Africa. When the Phocaeans set up shop on Corsica, Carthage viewed this as another Greek threat to its own rising power in the Western Mediterranean.


What made this even worse is that after the Phocaens arrived there they took up their old pirating ways, plundering Carthaginian and Etruscan ships. Outraged, Carthage and the Etruscans united to punish the Phocaeans, attacking them with sixty ships to match the Phocaen fleet of 60. At least that’s the numbers Herodotus recounts, but modern estimates vary. What ensued was the Battle of Alalia, sometime around 540 BCE. The Greeks won the battle but they realized they were caught between Carthage and the Etruscans and so abandoned Corsica. According to Herodotus “the Phocaeans won, yet it was but a Cadmean victory; for they lost forty of their ships, and the twenty that remained were useless, their rams being twisted awry.” Those Phocaeans who were captured they were stoned to death. Knowing they could not stay the Phocaens fled to Rhegium in Italy. The fall of their mother city and their inhabitants meant that their original colony of Masallia was the dominant naval power in the region, dominating the Western Mediterranean north of Carthaginian holdings. It is from here that Phocaea disappears from history, much as the Phoenician city of Tyre did, having both been captured by greater powers, and their colonies, Masallia and Carthage respectively, vied for domination of the Western Mediterranean.


In 390 BCE when the Gauls sacked Rome, Masallia made a contribution of gold to the city to help them rebuild. Masallia knew it was surrounded by Gauls, to the east were the Etruscans who hated them, and the ever-expanding Carthaginians hated them, meaning they had to make friends with anyone they could, which left them with only one option: Rome. Historian A. Trevor Hodge notes that, because of this gift, Rome gave Masallians “equal rights as Romans, immunity from taxes and reserved seats at the theater.” This friendship would pay off in dividends later on, as Rome expanded beyond anyone’s imagination. For the next few centuries Masallia fought alongside Rome in her wars, supplying her with the naval power needed to complement her land army.


Around the same time that Rome was sacked, Masallia was besieged by the Ligurians and chose to pay them off from their enormous cash reserves rather than drain their strength fighting them, only to lose to a future enemy. This also was a common tactic of Masallia to pay off enemies rather than fight them. Because Masallia was so rich it could afford this and it could continue to trade with the Gauls, effectively bringing them under their economic influence, even if they lacked military influence. These economic ties meant that the Ligurians could never be too aggressive against their southern neighbor for fear of driving away all of the resources it pulled in, thus through trade, Masallia was able to limit its opposition among the Ligurians. Wars and raids still occurred, but there remained a love-hate relationship between the Greeks and the Gauls, which gave Masallia the space it needed to create an empire that stretched from northwestern Italy across Southern Gaul and even into Iberia. It founded colonies in what is now modern-day Arles, Agde, Avignon, Cannes, Monaco and Nice, among others. It was able to expand because of its incredible riches it gained through its trade monopoly with the Gauls, which was the largest untapped market for the Mediterranean world. The most important trade was Masallian wine for Gallic slaves. In Italy alone, 15,000 Gallic slaves were imported per year into Rome by the 2nd century BCE, of which a large proportion came by Masallia.


While Masallia would decline in military power while Rome grew, culturally it entered into a golden age, and its explorers were the most famous of the era. Around 325 BCE the Masallian explorer Pytheas voyaged to Britain, becoming the first Mediterranean person in recorded history to reach the British Isles. He claimed to sail far beyond Britain, reaching the Baltics, possibly Scandinavia, the Arctic Circle, and according to himself, a magical island named Thule, though all of these are doubted as Pytheas was prone to exaggerate. At least, historians think so, as we have yet to find any magic islands. He wasn’t the only famous explorer. Euthymenes sailed down as far as Senegal and explored the West African coast. These explorers went farther than any known Greek had ever gone outside the Mediterranean world and brought with them tales of strange cultures, animals and land that fascinated their listeners.


Anyone who knows their Roman history knows of the infamous Second Punic War between 218-201 BCE, in which Hannibal led an 80,000 man army, complete with war elephants, over the Alps and into Rome, a war which decided the fate of the entire Western Mediterranean and set Rome on a course to be a mighty empire. Masallia naturally sided with Rome in the Second Punic War against the Carthaginian and Gallic invasion, though it reportedly did very little. It certainly didn’t impede Hannibal who marched right through Southern Gaul unimpeded, though in retrospect, the idea of standing up to the great general and his war elephants with a relatively weak land army seems pretty stupid to me and they certainly made the right choice to just watch him march through. Instead of direct fighting, Masallia couried messages to Rome about happenings in Iberia and gave general naval aid.


When the war ended Rome took control of the western Mediterranean, controlling Italy, Corsica, Sardinia, Iberia, and some parts of Southern Gaul. Rome’s dominance meant that Masallia declined. It could no longer resort to pirating as Rome was the only entity left to steal from, and no one was crazy enough to challenge them. Furthermore, Masallia no longer controlled the riches of Iberia, which came under Roman authority. From here on Masallia was a wealthy city, but it was just one of many in a new, Roman-dominated world. While it fell from importance, Masallia experienced a good 50 years of peace and continued prosperity, which by all accounts led to the city continuing to grow fantastically wealthy. Or maybe I should say ‘wealthier’ because they’ve been rich for a very long time.


By 154 BCE Masallia was under continual assault by the Gauls who were furious at its support of Rome in the Second Punic War. While the city never fell, its colonies were often sacked, and they had to be saved by Rome. In 122 BCE after yet another Gallic invasion, Rome annexed the region and established a garrison at Aquae Sextiae, or as it is now known today, Aix-en-Provence. This gave Rome control over the region and the very important land trade route to Iberia, fully bypassing Masallia.


Our next episode will turn to the Gauls, but I’m sure many of you are wondering whatever becomes of Masallia and the Greeks who wandered so far from home. To briefly end our story: Masallia continued to get even richer for the next hundred years under Roman protection. But these riches led to its downfall. In 48 BCE Rome fell into Civil War as Julius Caesar led the Populares, who championed the cause of the plebeians or commoners, and Pompey who led the Optimates or the wealthy. Since Masallia was rich and ruled by an aristocratic elite it naturally sided with Pompey, at which point Julius Caesar ordered a 6 month siege, which devasted the city. It fell in 49 BCE and was absorbed into Rome, with its name changing from the Greek Masallia to the Latin Massalia. The entire region was organized into a Roman territory called ‘Provincia Romana’ known today as ‘La Provence’ in French, or ‘The Province’ in English.  It wasn’t until much later on during the Middle Ages that this city rose to prominence again as Marseille, something which I will detail, probably much much later.

So, what lasting effects did Masallia have on France, which was then known as Gaul. Well, perhaps most importantly, they brought wine! What would France be if the Greeks hadn’t brought their world-famous knowledge of wine-making to France? But jokes aside, Masallia made Gaul much more cosmopolitan. Before Masallia opened up trade with Gaul it could be said that there was a Mediterranean world and an Atlantic world. Celts traded all along the Gallic coast, trading goods from Northern Spain, up through Gaul and into Cornwall and Wales. Meanwhile there existed vast trade networks in the Mediterranean. Masallia opened up Gaul to Mediterranean influence. It brought writing, coinage, their customs, laws and beliefs to the Gauls. While the Gauls may not have adopted any particular idea or custom they were at least familiar with them. The Greco-Romans were no longer strange, fantastical others. They were just different people. Possibly effeminate, promiscuous people, the sort that are more likely to go to parties and less likely to run into battle screaming like a true manly man would. But they were just people with their own customs who sometimes could be allied with against other rival Gallic tribes.


This is incredibly important as it plays into our forthcoming history of the Gauls. Without Masallia, the Gauls would probably not have submitted so easily to Roman rule. Julius Caesar may have conquered Gaul militarily, but thanks to Masallia the Gauls were already connected to a Mediterranean trade network, understood Roman custom and had the ability to understand Roman rule when it came to them. Thus, Masallia played an integral role in bringing Gaul into a whole new system.


Finally, it is worth noting that southern France to this day has a very different flavor than the rest of France. Of course every region of France has it’s own charm, but La Provence truly is unique. Part of this is the natural product of being on the Mediterranean. Living in an area with beaches and palm trees naturally sets it apart from the pine and oak-tree dominated northern forests. But a specifically Greco-Roman culture, food and way of life remains, and is a celebrated part of local heritage.



Herodotus, The Histories

Hodge, A. Trevor, Ancient Greek France, 1999