10 largest cities in France




Marseille, in Occitan Marselha, is a town in the South-East of France, capital of the Bouches-du-Rhône department and prefecture of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region.

In 2017, Marseille was the second largest municipality in France (city-center), with 863,310 inhabitants and the third urban unit with 1,587,537 inhabitants behind Paris and Lyon. Since January 1, 2016, Marseille has hosted the headquarters of the metropolis of Aix-Marseille-Provence, the second most populous in France with 1,873,707 inhabitants. Its urban area is, for its part, the third in France after those of Paris and Lyon with 1,756,296 inhabitants in 2016. These figures make Marseille the largest city in the South of France, in the cultural region of Occitanie as well. than the linguistic area of ​​the langue d'oc.

Oldest city in France founded in the period of Antiquity under the name of Μασσαλία / Massalía) around 600 BC. by sailors and Greek merchants originating in Phocée (today near Izmir in Turkey of Asia), Marseilles is since Antiquity an important port of trade and passage. In particular, it experienced a considerable commercial boom during the colonial period and more particularly during the nineteenth century, becoming a prosperous industrial and trading town.

A legacy of this past, the Grand Port Maritime de Marseille (GPMM) and the maritime economy constitute major centers of regional and national activity and Marseille remains the leading French port, the second Mediterranean port and the fifth European port.

Marseille's openness to the Mediterranean Sea has made it from its origins a cosmopolitan city marked by numerous cultural and economic exchanges with Southern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. It has also been often considered since the seventeenth century, as the “Gateway to the Orient” on the French Mediterranean coast.



The first vestiges of human presence in the Marseillais basin date back to around 60,000 BC (Middle Paleolithic). In the Upper Paleolithic, the Cosquer cave, then not submerged, was occupied between 27,000 and 19,000 before the present. In addition, in June 2005, excavations brought to light the remains of a Neolithic settlement dating back to 6000 BC, near the Saint-Charles station, around rue Bernard du Bois. Fragments of pottery found on the south shore of the Old Port attest to human occupation of the site in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. In the Paleolithic, populations lived in this area, as evidenced by the presence of a habitat on a hillside adjoining the Riaux (watercourse). We ate seafood, the products of hunting and gathering (the caves, numerous, and the surrounding oppida are worthy of interest in Estaque as in Martigues, on the site of La Cloche, or of Verduron).

The cliffs and caves were occupied around the bed of the Riaux (watercourse), vestiges found in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries prove human activity dating from the Magdalenian, that is to say between −17,000 and −10,000 years, period of the hunters. pickers.

Max Escalon de Fonton, archaeologist, discovered cut flint (blades, scrapers), animal bones (ibex, lynx, bear, wolf), a necklace of perforated shells as well as other remains from this period, as well as 'a decorated pottery dated −6,000 years old, and the burial of a teenager in a folded position.

In the Crispine cave in the hills of the Les Riaux district were found “perforated pebbles, a very large hearth, Mesolithic pottery in black earth, small scrapers and many coprolites of canids (fossil excrement).

Caves with intentional burials are little known in the Marseille region. The one called "the Crispine" is difficult to access, because it is currently on a site in decontamination, however in this Nerthe so little studied by archaeologists, Clastrier discovered a deposit of great interest whose objects have been bequeathed at the historical institute of Provence.

This cave is located in the Nerthe range on the property of the Chemical Products Company of Rio Tinto, its average altitude is around 150 m. It almost overlooks the entrance to the tunnel that pierces the mountain at this point and connects Marseille to the Rhône. In the country, this cave is called Crispine or Crispin. This name could come from Christ-Pinis (Christ in the pines), because in 1793, under the Terror, the Catholics secretly went to hear mass there.

The entrance to this cave has an ogival shape. Long used as a sheepfold, a wall pierced with a door partly farmhouse, it measures 17.50 m long and 10 m wide.

Mr. Clastrier would have met an old excavation trench (of unknown origin) (possibly from Marion or Fourrier). Discovery of traces of modern habitation, some bricks, a shepherd's lodge, and in the middle a beautiful square wheel rounded by human labor, some bones, large shells, goat horn.

On his return, Clastrier would have taken steps to obtain authorization to pass through the factories of Rio-Tinto to continue exploration, he would then have discovered a fragment of Neolithic or Ligurian pottery, then in a rather narrow passage, he discovered early flint but also bone debris that would correspond to the local fauna, as well as food and meal scraps, sheep teeth, broken and burnt bones, sea shells, limpets, charred wood and coals . But especially knives, scrapers, primitive tools that would have been used in the Neolithic period. Also human bones. "The sought-after relic I found under my fingers. O, how delicately I dig up a head lying on the right side, the mask is regular, the normal type, the jawbone is missing; four strong teeth remained worn and rounded at the edges; the subject has lived for many years. What a surprise ! Once the head is out, all the underside is burned, then all around this head, half-cooked mixed with black earth, bones of large and medium vertebrae, burned and broken but also vases without crumbs, amulets , objects that belonged to the deceased and thrown there in a funeral ceremony which is unknown to us ”.


Massalia, Greek city
The original topography of the site of the Greek city is still largely visible today, despite the important modifications of the nineteenth century. A promontory surrounded by the sea, the site is dominated by three successive buttes: the Butte Saint-Laurent (26 meters above sea level in 1840), the Butte des Moulins (42 meters) and the Butte des Carmes (about 40 meters).

Foundation of the city: the legend of Gyptis and Protis
The founding of Marseille, which dates back to around 600 BC. J. - C., is the fact of Greek colonists come from Phocée, (today Foça in Turkey); this population was particularly favored by the Phocaeans fleeing the Persian invasions in 546 BC.

The exact conditions of the founding of the city are unknown except for the legend reported by two ancient authors: Justin and Aristotle.

According to Justin, the territory which today forms Marseille was occupied by a tribe of the Ligurians, that of the Ségobriges, which would have settled towards the current Allauch. Two Greek navarchs, Protis and Simos, arrived with their fleet to establish a commercial base in the natural port of Lacydon and participate in the trade in tin and amber. On the day of the arrival of the Greeks, the chief of the Ligurian tribe, Nanos, organized a feast during which his daughter Gyptis had to choose her husband by handing him a cup of water. The Greeks were invited to join in the banquet and the young leader of these, Protis, was chosen, thus sealing the foundation of a new city which he erected on the edges of the horn of Lacydon.

The date of this founding meeting given by various ancient authors is -600, with variations.

If most of the elements of the story come from legend, archaeological discoveries corroborate the presence of Phocaean colonists in Lacydon bay in the sixth century BC.

This myth could however be contradicted by the interpretation of recent excavations on the site of the oppidum of Saint-Blaise. Indeed, according to Jean Chausserie-Laprée, chief heritage curator of the City of Martigues, the archaeological findings published in 2019 could indicate that this oppidum, located on the mouth of the Rhône, about fifty kilometers from the ancient port of Marseile, was the capital of the Ségobriges, and that the Phocaeans had therefore met the Gauls and installed their first fortress there, before founding Marseille.

Evolution of Massalia
Archaeological excavations have revealed the remains of the first traces of Greek habitat directly in contact with virgin soil on the westernmost part of the Butte Saint-Laurent. Very quickly the city grew and extended to the eastern slope of the Butte des Moulins. Finally, it includes the third hill (Carmelites) before the end of the sixth century BC. A last extension during the Hellenistic period allows it to reach an area of ​​approximately 50 hectares, which the city will not exceed before the seventeenth century.

The Greek fortification at the end of the 6th century BC was found at two points in the city: in the Jardin des Vestiges and on the Butte des Carmes, during emergency excavations in the 1980s. A reconstruction took place in the classical Greek period, in the second half of the 4th century BC and, around the middle of the 2nd century BC, the entire fortification is rebuilt in large apparatus of pink limestone. This rampart is still visible in the Jardin des Vestiges.

The interior of the city is divided into blocks, with streets at right angles which constitute coherent sets, adapted to the natural topography of the site. Thus along the shore the tracks have changing axes, while the slopes of mounds are squared in a regular way.

Outside the walls, recent excavations have revealed a cadastral register established at the end of the sixth century BC, as well as the exploitation of clay quarries which was abundantly in the geological substrate (site of the Alcazar); subsequently a culture of vines and probably other plantations develops in the same location. The necropolises are known either by ancient discoveries or by the excavation, in 1990, of the Sainte-Barbe park.


Greek Marseilles experienced strong growth and became a prosperous city, living strong trade relations with Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor then Rome. The city is independent and is administered freely: it is governed by a directory of 15 "first" chosen from among 600 senators (Strabo, IV, 1,5). Three of them had preeminence and most of the executive power.

Marseille is the starting point for the spread of writing among the Gallic peoples, who learned to transcribe their own language into Greek characters and to write their own acts in Greek. It is also probably through Marseille that the first vineyards were introduced into Gaul.

Marseille is then surrounded by an oppida belt, of which we cannot determine whether some acted as protection against those further north, even if the hypothesis was put forward by François Villard: there does not seem to be any ties of belonging. , except for the Mayans whose structure suggests that it housed a garrison, probably Greek. There are many exchanges with them as evidenced by the coins found on the Baoux Roux site, on the other side of the Étoile.

We note:
on the Garlaban: Colline du Château, Peynaou, Ruissatel, the Bec Cornu, the Baou des Gouttes, the Gavots,
on the Regagnas: Le Tonneau, Saint Jacques, Baou de la Gache
on the Étoile: the Cride, the Tête de l'Ost, the Baou Roux, the Mayans (Camp Jussiou), the baou de Saint Marcel and the Collet Redon on the south-eastern slope
on the Estaque range: Verduron (Camp Long?), Teste Negre, la Cloche, followed by others clearly independent and as old if not more, as far as Martigues and beyond.

Marseilles and Rome
At the start of the Second Punic War, Scipio was sent by Rome to protect Massilia, a city ally, the supposed target of Hannibal whom he thought he would find towards the Pyrenees, and thus block his passage by the coast. Hannibal, failed to put the Gallic tribes on his side and his troops are attacked from the Iberian Peninsula, but he is already further north. The tribes of the region of Massilia, future Provincia, allies of Rome, are avoided around the middle of August 218 BC 38,000 infantrymen, 8,000 cavalrymen and 37 elephants could have besieged Massilia who crossed the Rhône four days' march north of Marseille, or at the height of the current village of Caderousse. When Scipio understands his mistake, he lets his troops continue on Iberia but returns to prepare the legions in the Po plain. Massilia is spared.

In 181 BC, the Phocaean Massaliotes and their Hellenic-Celtic Cavares allies from the Cavaillon-Avignon-Orange region called on Rome for help against the Ligurian pirates.

During the third century BC, Marseilles finds itself confronted with the growing power of its Gallic neighbors, in particular of Salyens. To face their threat, the city still calls on its ally Rome, which has become the great Mediterranean power.

The real conquest did not begin until 120 BC, with the military campaign of the Roman proconsul Gaius Sextius Calvinus, who saw part of the oppidda razed to the north of Massilia. But the province does not receive its official status until after the passage of Pompey in the 70s BC Colony to compete with Massillia, Aquae Sextiae (Aix), was founded in 122 BC.


Client of Julius Caesar and Pompey, Marseille refused in -49 to take part in Caesar's civil war, while welcoming Pompey's emissaries. Beaten at sea and besieged by three legions for two months by Caesar and then by his legate Caius Trebonius, the city is taken (Bellum Civile, Book I, 34-36, etc.), deprived of its colonies and must submit to Rome. The Romans attached it to the Narbonnaise province. The remainder of the remaining oppida was then probably razed (La Cloche). At the time of Augustus, the city experienced a new major phase of construction. The agora-forum has been rebuilt as evidenced by the fragments of paving discovered by Fernand Benoit south of the Caves of Saint-Sauveur. The forum is bordered to the west by another large building, the theater, a few steps of which have been preserved to this day in the grounds of the College of the Old Port. Thermal baths are installed along the port: the remains, brought up on Place Villeneuve-Bargemon, are now visible almost in their original location behind the Town Hall.

During the High Empire, the port area is considerable: it extends over the north shore of the Lacydon calanque, follows the port horn (Jardin des Vestiges) whose quay was rebuilt in the Flavian era, and continues at the end of the current Old Port. In this area, the excavations of the Place Général-de-Gaulle have revealed a large stony esplanade which may correspond to developed saltworks. Many dolia warehouses are known; part of one of them has been preserved on the ground floor of the Museum of Roman Docks.

Then, during the Lower Empire, the city seemed to decline slightly, probably in favor of Arles.