Around 600 BC Greek mariners founded Massilia, a trading post, at what is now Marseille’s Vieux Port. In the 1st century BC, the city lost out by backing Pompey the Great rather than Julius Caesar, whose forces captured Massilia in 49 BC and directed Roman trade elsewhere. Massilia stayed a free port, remaining the last Western centre of Greek learning before falling into ruin until its revival in the early 10th century by the counts of Provence.
Marseille became part of France in the 1480s, but retained its rebellious streak. Its citizens embraced the Revolution, sending 500 volunteers to defend Paris in 1792. Heading north, they sang a rousing march recently composed in Strasbourg and ever after dubbed La Marseillaise – now France’s national anthem. Trade with North Africa escalated after France occupied Algeria in 1830, and after the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal. During WWII Marseille was bombed by the Germans and Italians in 1940, and by the Allies in 1943–44.
The English spelling, Marseilles (pronounced the same), is passing out of use.
Marseille is one of Europe’s largest and most important ports, and is burgeoning with myriad expansion projects including a redevelopment of its docklands. Just three hours from Paris by TGV, it’s arguably France’s city most on the rise.