Ajaccio, is a French commune, prefecture of the department of Corse-du-Sud, and head office of the Collectivité territoriale de Corse (capital city of Corsica). It is also the largest settlement on the island.
The city was not mentioned by the Greek geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria in the 2nd century AD despite the presence of a place called Ourkinion in the Cinarca area. It is likely that the city of Ajaccio had its first development at this time. The 2nd century was a period of prosperity in the Mediterranean basin (the Pax Romana) and there was a need for a proper port at the head of the several valleys that lead to the Gulf able to accommodate large ships. Some important underwater archaeological discoveries recently made of Roman ships tend to confirm this.
Further excavations conducted recently led to the discovery of important early Christian remains likely to significantly a reevaluation upwards of the size of Ajaccio city in Late Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. The city was in any case already significant enough to be the seat of a diocese, mentioned by Pope Gregory the Great in 591. The city was then further north than the location chosen later by the Genoese - in the location of the existing quarters of Castel Vecchio and Sainte-Lucie.
The earliest certain written record of a settlement at Ajaccio with a name ancestral to its name was the exhortation in Epistle 77 written in 601AD by Gregory the great to the Defensor Boniface, one of two known rectors of the early Corsican church, to tell him not to leave Aléria 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 700AD cites Agiation, which sometimes is taken as evidence of a prior Greek city, as -ion appears to be a Greek ending. There is, however, no evidence at all of a Greek presence on the west coast and the Ionians at Aléria on the east coast had been expelled by the Etruscans long before Roman domination.
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 (Place of Gold) 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 was a Roman city, Ourchinion. The western coastline was 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 Sagone. 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 it had originally been Roman. Travellers of the 19th century 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 a 6th-century cathedral and large amounts of pottery dated to the 6th and 7th centuries AD; in other words, an 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 medieval Genoese period
It has been established that after the 8th century the city, like most other Corsican coastal communities, strongly declined and disappeared almost completely. Nevertheless, a castle and a cathedral were still in place in 1492 which last was not demolished until 1748.
Towards the end of the 15th century, the Genoese were eager to assert their dominance in the south of the island and decided to rebuild the city of Ajaccio. Several sites were considered: the Pointe de la Parata (not chosen because it was too exposed to the wind), the ancient city (finally considered unsafe because of the proximity of the salt ponds), and finally the Punta della Lechia which was finally selected.
Work began on the town on 21 April 1492 south of the Christian village by the Bank of Saint George at Genoa, who sent 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.
Nevertheless, the town grew rapidly and became the administrative capital of the province of Au Delà Des Monts (more or less the current Corse-du-Sud). Bastia remained the capital of the entire island.
Although at first populated exclusively by the Genoese, the city slowly opened to the Corsicans while the Ajaccians, almost to the French conquest, were legally citizens of the Republic of Genoa and were happy to distinguish themselves from the insular paesani who lived mainly in Borgu, a suburb outside the city walls (the current rue Fesch was the main street).
The attachment to France
Ajaccio was occupied from 1553 to 1559 by the French but it again fell to the Genoese after the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis in the latter year.
Subsequently 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 in 1769 and French troops of the Ancien Régime replaced Genoese ones in the citadels, including Ajaccio's.
Corsica was formally annexed to France in 1780.
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. The Comte was among a delegation from Ajaccio in 1769, offered his loyalty and was appointed assessor.
Marbeuf also offered Charles-Marie Buonaparte an appointment for one of his sons to the Military College of Brienne, but the child had to 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 from 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 a 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 returned in 1790 after 21 years and 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, then promoted to Captain and given leave to escort his sister, a schoolgirl, back to Corsica at state expense. His family was prospering; his 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. Paoli was now a conservative, opposing the execution of the king and supporting an alliance with Great Britain. 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).
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 the British fleet away 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. Soon after Napoleon became First Consul and then emperor, using his office to spread 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, his exile and his death, no victorious power 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 however, as evidenced by elections, remains stronger.
19th and 20th centuries
The first prison in France for children was built in Ajaccio in 1855: the Horticultural colony of Saint Anthony. It was a correctional colony for juvenile delinquents, (8 to 20 years) established under Article 10 of the Act of 5 August 1850. Nearly 1,200 children from all over France stayed there until 1866, when it was closed. Sixty percent of them perished, the victims of poor sanitation and malaria which infested the unhealthy areas that they were responsible to clean.
On 9 September 1943, the people of Ajaccio rose up against the Nazi occupiers and became the first French town to be liberated from the domination of the Germans. General de Gaulle went to Ajaccio on 8 October 1943 and said: "We owe it to the field of battle the lesson of the page of history that was written in French Corsica. Corsica to her fortune and honour is the first morsel of France to be liberated; which was done intentionally and willingly, in the light of its liberation, this demonstrates that these are the intentions and the will of the whole nation."
Throughout this period, no Jew was executed or deported from Corsica through the protection afforded by its people and its government. This event now allows Corsica to aspire to the title "righteous among the nations", as no region except for the commune Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in Haute-Loire carries this title. Their case is being investigated as of 2010.
Since the middle of the 20th century, Ajaccio has seen significant development. The city has seen population growth and considerable urban sprawl. Today Ajaccio is the capital of Corsica and the main town of the island and seeks to establish itself as a true regional centre.