The geopolitical arrangements of the commune are slightly different from those typical of Corsica and France. Usually an arrondissement includes cantons and a canton includes one to several communes including the chef-lieu, "chief place", from which the canton takes its name. The city of Ajaccio is one commune, but it contains six cantons, Cantons 1–6, and a fraction of Canton 7. The latter contains five other communes: Bastelicaccia, Alata, Afa, Appietto and Villanova, making a total of six communes for the seven cantons of Ajaccio.
Each canton contains a certain number of quartiers, "quarters". Cantons 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 are located along the Gulf of Ajaccio from west to east, while 4 and 5 are a little further up the valleys of the Gravona and the Prunelli Rivers. These political divisions subdivide the population of Ajaccio into units that can be more democratically served but they do not give a true picture of the size of Ajaccio. In general language, "greater Ajaccio" includes about 100,000 people with all the medical, educational, utility and transportational facilities of a big city. Up until World War II it was still possible to regard the city as being a settlement of narrow streets localized to some part of the harbor or the Gulf of Ajaccio; such bucolic descriptions do not fit the city of today, and travellogues intended for mountain or coastal recreational areas do not generally apply to Corsica's few big cities.
The arrondissement contains other cantons that extend generally up the two rivers into central Corsica.
Earliest literary evidence
The earliest record of a settlement at Ajaccio having a name ancestral to its name is the exhortation in Epistle 77 written in 601 CE of Gregory the great to the Defensor Boniface, one of two known rectors of the early Corsican church, not to leave Aleria and Adjacium without bishops. There is no earlier use of the term and Adjacium is not an attested Latin word, which probably means that it is a Latinization of a word in some other language. The Ravenna Cosmography of about 700 CE cites Agiation, which sometimes is taken as evidence of a prior Greek city, as -ion appears to be a Greek ending. But, there is no evidence whatever of a Greek presence on the west coast and the Ionians at Aleria on the east coast had been expelled by the Etruscans long before Roman domination. The origin of the name is a mystery but is believed to be aboriginal.
Ptolemy, who must come the closest to representing indigenous names, lists the Lochra River just south of a feature he calls the "sandy shore" on the southwest coast. If the shore is the Campo dell'Oro (gold because of the sand?) the Lochra would seem to be the combined mouth of the Gravona and Prunelli Rivers, neither one of which sounds like Lochra.
North of there is a Roman city, Ourchinion. His western coastline is so distorted, however, that it is impossible to say where Adjacium was; certainly, he would have known its name and location if he had had any first-hand knowledge of the island and if in fact it was there. Ptolemy's Ourchinion is further north than Ajaccio and does not have the same name. It could be Sogone. The lack of correspondence between Ptolemaic and historical names known to be ancient has no defense except in the case of the two Roman colonies, Aleria and Mariana. In any case the population of the region must belong to Ptolemy's Tarabeni or Titiani people, neither of which are ever heard about again.
The population of the city throughout the centuries maintained an oral tradition that had originally been Roman. Nineteenth-century travellers could point to the Hill of San Giovanni on the northwest shore of the Gulf of Ajaccio, which still had a cathedral said to have been the 6th century seat of the Bishop of Ajaccio. The Castello Vecchio ("old castle"), a ruined citadel, was believed to be Roman but turned out to have Gothic features. The hill was planted with vines. The farmers kept turning up artifacts and terracotta funerary urns that seemed to be Roman.
In the 20th century the hill was covered over with buildings and became a part of downtown Ajaccio. In 2005 construction plans for a lot on the hill offered the opportunity to the Institut national de recherches archéologiques preventatives (Inrap) to excavate. They found the baptistry of the 6th century cathedral and large amounts of pottery dated to the 6th and 7th centuries AD; in other words, the early Christian town. A cemetery had been placed over the old church. In it was a single Roman grave covered over with roof tiles bearing short indecipherable inscriptions. The finds of the previous century had included Roman coins. This is the only evidence so far of a Roman city continuous with the early Christian one.
The present town of Ajaccio was founded in 1492 south of the Christian village by the Bank of Saint George at Genoa, which dispatched Cristoforo of Gandini, an architect, to build it. He began with a castle on Capo di Bolo, around which he constructed residences for several hundred people. The new city was essentially a colony of Genoa. The Corsicans were restricted from the city for some years, even though they had requested the services of the bank as peace-keeper and problem-solver.
From origin to annexation
The Republic of Genoa was strong enough to keep Corsica until 1755, the year Pasquale Paoli proclaimed the Corsican Republic. Paoli took most of the island for the republic but he was unable to force Genoese troops out of the citadels of Saint-Florent, Calvi, Ajaccio, Bastia and Algajola. Leaving them there, he went on build the nation, while the Republic of Genoa was left to ponder prospects and solutions. Their ultimate solution was to sell Corsica to France and French troops of the ancien régime replaced Genoese ones in the citadels, including Ajaccio's. Corsica was annexed to France in 1780.
Ostensibly Napoleon Bonaparte (born as Nabulione Buonaparte) was born at Ajaccio in the same year as the Battle of Ponte Novu, 1769. The Bonapartes at the time had a modest four-story home in town (now a museum known as Casa Buonaparte) and a rarely used country home in the hills north of the city (now site of the Arboretum des Milelli). The father of the family, attorney Charles-Marie Buonaparte, was secretary to Pasquale Paoli during the Corsican Republic.
After the defeat of Paoli, the Comte de Marbeuf began to meet with some leading Corsicans to outline the shape of the future and enlist their assistance. Charles was among a delegation from Ajaccio in 1769, offered his loyalty and was appointed assessor.
Marbeuf also offered Charles-Marie one appointment for one of his sons to the Military College of Brienne, but the child must be under 10. There is a dispute concerning Napoleon's age because of this requirement; the emperor is known to have altered the civic records at Ajaccio concerning himself and it is possible that he was born in Corte in 1768 when his father was there on business. In any case Napoleon went to Brienne 1779–1784.
At Brienne Napoleon concentrated on studies. He wrote a boyish history of Corsica. He did not share his father's views but held Pasquale Paoli in high esteem and was at heart a Corsican nationalist. The top students were encouraged to go into the artillery. After graduation and a brief sojourn at the Military School of Paris Napoleon applied for second-lieutenancy in the artillery regiment of La Fère at Valence and after a time was given the position. Meanwhile his father died and his mother was cast into poverty in Corsica, still having four children to support. Her only income was Napoleon's meagre salary.
The regiment was in Auxonne when the revolution broke out in the summer of 1789. Napoleon returned on leave to Ajaccio in October, became a Jacobin and began to work for the revolution. The National Assembly in Paris united Corsica to France and pardoned its exiles. Paoli returning in 1790 after 21 years kissed the soil on which he stood. He and Napoleon met and toured the battlefield of Paoli's defeat. A national assembly at Orezza created the department of Corsica and Paoli was subsequently elected president. He commanded the national guard raised by Napoleon. After a brief return to his regiment Napoleon was promoted to First Lieutenant and came home again on leave in 1791. The death of a rich uncle relieved the family's poverty.
All officers were recalled from leave in 1792, intervention threatened and war with Austria (Marie-Antoinette's homeland) began. Napoleon returned to Paris for review, was exonerated, promoted to Captain and given leave to escort his sister, a schoolgirl, back to Corsica at state expense. His family was prospering; the estate increased.
Napoleon became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Corsican National Guard. Paoli sent him off on an expedition to Sardinia ordered by France under Paolis's nephew, but the nephew had secret orders from Paoli to make sure the expedition failed. The leader was now a conservative, had opposed the execution of the king and supported alliance with England. Returning from Sardinia Napoleon with his family and all his supporters were instrumental in getting Paoli denounced at the National Convention in Paris in 1793. Napoleon earned the hatred of the Paolists by pretending to support Paoli and then turning against him (payment, one supposes, for Sardinia).
Paoli was convicted in absentia, a warrant was sent for his arrest (which could not be served) and Napoleon was dispatched to Corsica as Inspector-general of Artillery to take the citadel of Ajaccio from the royalists, who had held it since 1789. The Paolists combining with the royalists defeated the French in two pitched battles and Napoleon and his family went on the run, hiding by day, while the Paolists burned their estate. Napoleon and his mother, Laetitia, were taken out by ship in June 1793, by friends while two of the girls found refuge with other friends. They landed in Toulon with only Napoleon's pay for their support.
The Bonapartes moved to Marseille but in August Toulon offered itself to the British and received the protection of a fleet under Admiral Hood. The Siege of Toulon began in September under revolutionary officers mainly untrained in the art of war. Napoleon happened to present socially one evening and during a casual conversation over a misplaced 24-pounder explained the value of artillery. Taken seriously he was allowed to bring up over 100 guns from coastal emplacements but his plan for the taking of Toulon was set aside as one incompetent officer superseded another. By December they decided to try his plan and made him a Colonel. Placing the guns at close range he used them to keep off the British fleet while he battered down the walls of Toulon. As soon as the Committee of Public Safety heard of the victory Napoleon became a Brigadier General, the start of his meteoric rise to power.
The Bonapartes were back in Ajaccio in 1797 under the protection of general Napoleon. Shortly after Napoleon became First Consul and then emperor, using the office to spread the revolution throughout Europe. In 1811 he made Ajaccio the capital of the new Department of Corsica. Despite his subsequent defeat by the Prussians, Russians and British allies, exile and death, no victorious power has reversed that decision or tried to remove Corsica from France. Among the natives, though Corsican nationalism is strong, and feeling often runs high in favour of a union with Italy, loyalty to France, as evidenced by elections, remains stronger.