Prehistory and classical antiquity
Humans have inhabited Marseille and its environs for almost 30,000 years: palaeolithic cave paintings in the underwater Cosquer cave near the calanque of Morgiou date back to between 27,000 and 19,000 BC; and recent excavations near the railway station have unearthed neolithic brick habitations from around 6000 BC.
Marseille has been called the oldest city in France, as it was founded in 600 BC by Greeks from Phocaea as a trading port under the name Μασσαλία (Massalia; see also List of traditional Greek place names). The connection between Μασσαλία and the Phoceans is mentioned in Book I, 13 of the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. The precise circumstances and date of founding remain obscure, but nevertheless a legend survives. Protis, while exploring for a new trading outpost or emporion for Phocaea, discovered the Mediterranean cove of the Lacydon, fed by a freshwater stream and protected by two rocky promontories. Protis was invited inland to a banquet held by the chief of the local Ligurian tribe for suitors seeking the hand of his daughter Gyptis in marriage. At the end of the banquet, Gyptis presented the ceremonial cup of wine to Protis, indicating her unequivocal choice. Following their marriage, they moved to the hill just to the north of the Lacydon; and from this settlement grew Massalia.
It was the site of a siege and naval battle, after which the fleet was confiscated by the Roman authorities. During Roman times the city was called Massilia. It was the home port of Pytheas. Most of the archaeological remnants of the original Greek settlement were replaced by later Roman additions.
Marseille adapted well to its new status under Rome. During the Roman era, the city was controlled by a directory of 15 selected "first" among 600 senators. Three of them had the pre-eminence and the essence of the executive power. The city's laws amongst other things forbade the drinking of wine by women and allowed, by a vote of the senators, assistance to a person to commit suicide.
It was during this time that Christianity first appeared in Marseille, as evidenced by catacombs above the harbour and records of Roman martyrs. According to provencal tradition, Mary Magdalen evangelised Marseille with her brother Lazarus. The diocese of Marseille was set up in the 1st century (it became the Archdiocese of Marseille in 1948).
Middle Ages and Renaissance
With the decline of the Roman Empire the town fell into the hands of the Visigoths. Eventually Frankish kings succeeded in taking the town in the mid 6th century. Emperor Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty granted civic power to Marseille, which remained a major French trading port until the medieval period. The city regained much of its wealth and trading power when it was revived in the 10th century by the counts of Provence. In 1262, the city revolted under Bonifaci VI de Castellana and Hugues des Baux, cousin of Barral des Baux, against the rule of the Angevins but was put down by Charles I. In 1348, the city suffered terribly from the bubonic plague, which continued to strike intermittently until 1361. As a major port, it is believed Marseille was one of the first places in France to encounter the epidemic, and some 15,000 people died in a city that had a population of 25,000 during its period of economic prosperity in the previous century. The city's fortunes declined still further when it was sacked and pillaged by the Aragonese in 1423.
Marseille's population and trading status soon recovered and in 1437, the Count of Provence René of Anjou, who succeeded his father Louis II of Anjou as King of Sicily and Duke of Anjou, arrived in Marseille and established it as France's most fortified settlement outside of Paris. He helped raise the status of the town to a city and allowed certain privileges to be granted to it. Marseille was then used by the Duke of Anjou as a strategic maritime base to reconquer his kingdom of Sicily. King René, who wished to equip the entrance of the port with a solid defense, decided to build on the ruins of the old Maubert tower and to establish a series of ramparts guarding the harbour. Jean Pardo, engineer, conceived the plans and Jehan Robert, mason of Tarascon, carried out the work. The construction of the new city defenses took place between 1447 and 1453. Trading in Marseille also flourished as the Guild began to establish a position of power within the merchants of the city. Notably, René also founded the Corporation of Fisherman.
Marseille was united with Provence in 1481 and then incorporated in France the following year, but soon acquired a reputation for rebelling against the central government. Some 30 years after its incorporation, Francis I visited Marseille, drawn by his curiosity to see a rhinoceros that King Manuel I of Portugal was sending to Pope Leo X, but which had been shipwrecked on the Île d'If. As a result of this visit, the fortress of Château d'If was constructed; this did little to prevent Marseille being placed under siege by the army of the Holy Roman Empire a few years later. Marseille became a naval base for the Franco-Ottoman alliance in 1536, as a Franco-Turkish fleet was stationed in the harbour, threatening the Holy Roman Empire and especially Genoa. Towards the end of the 16th century Marseille suffered yet another outbreak of the plague; the hospital of the Hôtel-Dieu was founded soon afterwards. A century later more troubles were in store: King Louis XIV himself had to descend upon Marseille, at the head of his army, in order to quash a local uprising against the governor. As a consequence, the two forts of Saint-Jean and Saint-Nicholas were erected above the harbour and a large fleet and arsenal were established in the harbour itself.
18th and 19th centuries
Over the course of the 18th century, the port's defences were improved and Marseille became more important as France's leading military port in the Mediterranean. In 1720, the last Great Plague of Marseille, a form of the Black Death, killed 100,000 people in the city and the surrounding provinces. Jean-Baptiste Grosson, royal notary, wrote from 1770 to 1791 the historical Almanac of Marseille, published as Recueil des antiquités et des monuments marseillais qui peuvent intéresser l’histoire et les arts ("Collection of antiquities and Marseille monuments which can interest history and the arts"), which for a long time was the primary resource on the history of the monuments of the city.
The local population enthusiastically embraced the French Revolution and sent 500 volunteers to Paris in 1792 to defend the revolutionary government; their rallying call to revolution, sung on their march from Marseille to Paris, became known as La Marseillaise, now the national anthem of France.
During the 19th century the city was the site of industrial innovations and a growth in manufacturing. The rise of the French Empire and the conquests of France from 1830 onward (notably Algeria) stimulated the maritime trade and raised the prosperity of the city. Maritime opportunities also increased with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. This period in Marseille's history is reflected in many of its monuments, such as the Napoleonic obelisk at Mazargues and the royal triumphal arch on the Place Jules Guesde.
During the first half of the 20th century, Marseille celebrated its "port of the empire" status through the colonial exhibitions of 1906 and 1922; the monumental staircase of the railway station, glorifying French colonial conquests, dates from then. In 1934 Alexander I of Yugoslavia arrived at the port to meet with the French foreign minister Louis Barthou. He was assassinated there by Vlado Chernozemski.
During the Second World War, Marseille was bombed by the German and the Italian forces in 1940. The city was occupied by Germans from November 1942 to August 1944. On 22 January 1943, over 4,000 Jews were seized in Marseilles as part of "Action Tiger." They were held in detention camps before being deported to Poland occupied by Nazi Germany to be murdered. The Old Port was bombed in 1944 by the Allies to prepare for liberation of France. After the war much of the city was rebuilt during the 1950s. The governments of East Germany, West Germany and Italy paid massive reparations, plus compound interest, to compensate civilians killed, injured or left homeless or destitute as a result of the war.
From the 1950s onward, the city served as an entrance port for over a million immigrants to France. In 1962 there was a large influx from the newly independent Algeria, including around 150,000 returned Algerian settlers (pieds-noirs). Many immigrants have stayed and given the city a French-African quarter with a large market.