From prehistoric burial sites and cave paintings to Roman amphitheatres, medieval castles, Napoleonic roads and cutting-edge modern-art museums, Provence has more than 3000 years of compelling history to investigate. It's a long and varied tale that involves Celtic tribes and Roman legionaries, popes, princes and revolutionaries, impressionist painters and world-class writers – a microcosm of France, in fact, only with its own distinctly Provençal perspective.
Provence was inhabited from an exceptionally early age: primitive stone tools more than a million years old were found near Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Neanderthal hunters occupied the Mediterranean coast from about 90,000 BC to 40,000 BC, living in caves such as Grottes de l'Observatoire in Monaco. Modern man arrived with creative flair in 30,000 BC. The ornate wall paintings inside the decorated Grotte Cosquer, near Marseille, date from 20,000 BC, while the outstanding collection of 30,000 petroglyphs decorating Mont Bégo in the Vallée des Merveilles dates back to 1800 BC to 1500 BC.
Archaeologists have found that the people living around Châteauneuf-les-Martigues, northwest of Marseille, about 6000 to 4500 years ago were among the first ever to domesticate wild sheep, allowing them to shift from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle.
Greeks to Romans
Massalia (Marseille) was colonised around 600 BC by Greeks from Phocaea in Asia Minor; from the 4th century BC they established more trading posts along the coast at Antipolis (Antibes), Olbia (Hyères), Athenopolis (St-Tropez), Nikaia (Nice), Monoïkos (Monaco) and Glanum (near St-Rémy-de-Provence). They brought olives and grapevines to the region.
While Hellenic civilisation was developing on the coast, the Celts penetrated northern Provence. They mingled with ancient Ligurians to create a Celto-Ligurian stronghold around Entremont; its influence extended as far south as Draguignan.
In 125 BC the Romans helped the Greeks defend Massalia against invading Celto-Ligurians. Their victory marked the start of the Gallo-Roman era and the creation of Gallia Narbonensis, the first Roman provincia (province), from which the name Provence is derived.
Gallia Narbonensis (also sometimes known as Provincia Gallia Transalpina), embraced all of southern France from the Alps to the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees. In 122 BC the Romans destroyed the Ligurian capital of Entremont and established the Roman stronghold of Aquae Sextiae Salluviorum (Aix-en-Provence) at its foot. Around 188 BC, they began construction of the Via Domitia, the first Roman road in Gaul, which stretched all the way from the Alps via the Durance Valley, Apt, Arles, Nîmes and Narbonne, where it intersected with the Via Aquitania to the Atlantic Coast.
The construction of the road helped Rome's further conquest of Gaul by enabling movement of troops and supplies, but it wasn't completely conquered until Julius Caesar’s final victorious campaign from 58 BC to 51 BC. Massalia, which had retained its independence following the creation of Provincia, was incorporated by Caesar in 49 BC. In 14 BC the still-rebellious Ligurians were defeated by Augustus Caesar, who celebrated by building a monument at La Turbie in 6 BC. Arelate (Arles) became the regional capital.
Under the emperor Augustus, vast amphitheatres were built at Arelate, Nemausus (Nîmes), Forum Julii (Fréjus) and Vasio Vocontiorum (Vaison-la-Romaine). Triumphal arches were raised at Arausio (Orange), Cabelio (Cavaillon), Carpentorate (Carpentras) and Glanum, and a series of aqueducts were constructed. The 275m-long Pont du Gard was part of a 50km-long system of canals built around 19 BC by Agrippa, Augustus’ deputy, to bring water from Uzès to Nîmes.
Christianity – brought to the region, according to Provençal legend, by Mary Magdalene, Marie-Jacobé and Maryie-Salomé, who sailed into Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer in AD 40 – penetrated the region, was adopted by the Romans and continued to spread over the next few hundred years.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire in AD 476, Provence was invaded by various Germanic tribes. In the early 9th century the Saracens (an umbrella term adopted locally to describe Muslim invaders such as Turks, Moors and Arabs) emerged as a warrior force to be reckoned with. Attacks along the Maures coast, Niçois hinterland and more northern Alps persuaded villagers to take refuge in the hills. Many of Provence’s hilltop villages date from this chaotic period. In AD 974 the Saracen fortress at La Garde Freinet was defeated by William the Liberator (Guillaume Le Libérateur), count of Arles, who consequently extended his feudal control over the entire region, marking the return of peace and unity to Provence, which became a marquisate. In 1032 it joined the Holy Roman Empire.
The marquisate of Provence was later split in two: the north fell to the counts of Toulouse from 1125 and the Catalan counts of Barcelona gained control of the southern part (stretching from the Rhône to the River Durance and from the Alps to the sea). This became the county of Provence (Comté de Provence). Raymond Bérenger V (1209–45) was the first Catalan count to reside permanently in Aix (the capital since 1186). In 1229 he conquered Nice and in 1232 he founded Barcelonnette. After Bérenger’s death the county passed to the House of Anjou, under which it enjoyed great prosperity.
In 1274 Comtat Venaissin (Carpentras and its Vaucluse hinterland) was ceded to Pope Gregory X in Rome. In 1309 French-born Clément V (r 1305–14) moved the papal headquarters from feud-riven Rome to Avignon. A tour of the Papal palace illustrates how resplendent a period this was for the city, which hosted nine pontiffs between 1309 and 1376.
The death of Pope Gregory XI led to the Great Schism (1378–1417), during which rival popes resided at Rome and Avignon and spent most of their energies denouncing and excommunicating each other. Even after the schism was settled and a pope established in Rome, Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin remained under papal rule until 1792.
The arts in Provence flourished under the popes. A university was established in Avignon as early as 1303, followed by a university in Aix a century later. In 1327 Italian poet Petrarch (1304–74) encountered his muse, Laura, in Fontaine de Vaucluse. During the reign of Good King René, king of Naples (1434–80), French became the courtly language.
In 1481 René’s successor, his nephew Charles III, died heirless and Provence was ceded to Louis XI of France. In 1486 the state of Aix ratified Provence’s union with France and the centralist policies of the French kings saw the region’s autonomy greatly reduced. Aix Parliament, a French administrative body, was created in 1501.
A period of instability ensued, as a visit to the synagogue in Carpentras testifies: Jews living in French Provence fled to ghettos in Carpentras, Pernes-les-Fontaines, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Cavaillon or Avignon. All were part of the pontifical enclave of Comtat Venaissin, where papal protection remained assured until 1570.
The Luberon was an early victim of the Reformation that swept Europe in the 1530s and the consequent Wars of Religion (1562–98). In April 1545 the populations of 11 Waldensian (Vaudois) villages in the Luberon were massacred. Numerous clashes followed between the staunchly Catholic Comtat Venaissin and its Huguenot (Protestant) neighbours to the north around Orange.
In 1580, as in much of Europe, plague devastated the region, causing tens of thousands of deaths – a problem that continued to recur over the ensuing decades.
The Edict of Nantes in 1598 (which recognised Protestant control of certain areas, including Lourmarin in the Luberon) brought an uneasy peace to the region – until its revocation by Louis XIV in 1685. Full-scale persecution of Protestants ensued.
In 1720, Marseille was hit by another devastating outbreak of plague. The disease spread from a merchant ship after the city’s chief magistrate, owner of the ship’s cargo, ignored quarantine measures to ensure his goods made it to the local fair. Half the city's population died.
The close of the century was marked by the French Revolution in 1789: as the National Guard from Marseille marched north to defend the Revolution, a merry tune composed in Strasbourg several months earlier for the war against Prussia – 'Chant de Guerre de l’Armée du Rhin (War Song of the Rhine Army)' – sprang from their lips. France’s stirring national anthem, 'La Marseillaise', was born.
From France to Italy, & Back
Provence was divided into three départements (administrative divisions) in 1790: Var, Bouches du Rhône and the Basse-Alpes. Two years later papal Avignon and Comtat Venaissin were annexed by France, making way for the creation of Vaucluse.
In 1793 the Armée du Midi marched into Nice and declared it French territory. France also captured Monaco, until then a recognised independent state ruled by the Grimaldi family. When Toulon was occupied by the English, it was thanks to the efforts of a dashing young Corsican general named Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoléon I) that France recaptured it.
The Reign of Terror that swept through France between September 1793 and July 1794 saw religious freedoms revoked, churches desecrated and cathedrals turned into ‘Temples of Reason’. In the secrecy of their homes, people hand-crafted thumbnail-sized biblical figurines, hence the inglorious creation of the santon (small clay image used in a Christmas créche).
In 1814 France lost the territories it had seized in 1793. The County of Nice was ceded to Victor Emmanuel I, King of Sardinia. It remained under Sardinian protectorship until 1860, when an agreement between Napoléon III and the House of Savoy helped drive the Austrians from northern Italy, prompting France to repossess Savoy and the area around Nice. In Monaco the Treaty of Paris restored the rights of the Grimaldi royal family; from 1817 until 1860 the principality also fell under the protection of the Sardinian king.
Meanwhile, the Allied restoration of the House of Bourbon to the French throne at the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), following Napoléon I’s abdication and exile to Elba, was rudely interrupted by the return of the emperor. Following his escape from Elba in 1815, Napoléon landed at Golfe-Juan on 1 March with a 1200-strong army. He proceeded northwards, passing through Cannes, Grasse, Castellane, Digne-les-Bains and Sisteron en route to his triumphal return to Paris on 20 May. Napoléon’s glorious ‘Hundred Days’ back in power ended with the Battle of Waterloo and his return to exile. He died in 1821.
The Belle Époque
The Second Empire (1852–70) brought to the region a revival in all things Provençal, a movement spearheaded by Maillane-born poet Frédéric Mistral. Rapid economic growth was another hallmark: Nice, which had become part of France in 1860, became Europe’s fastest-growing city thanks to its booming tourism. The city was particularly popular with the English aristocracy, who followed their queen’s example of wintering on the Riviera's shores. European royalty followed soon after. The train line reached Toulon in 1856, followed by Nice in 1864, the same year work started on a coastal road from Nice to Monaco.
In neighbouring Monaco the Grimaldi family gave up its claim over its former territories of Menton and Roquebrune in 1861 in exchange for France’s recognition of its status as an independent principality. Four years later Monte Carlo Casino opened and Monaco leapt from being Europe’s poorest state to one of its richest.
The Third Republic ushered in the glittering belle époque, with art nouveau architecture, a whole field of artistic ‘isms’, including impressionism, and advances in science and engineering. Wealthy French, English, American and Russian tourists and tuberculosis sufferers (for whom the only cure was sunlight and sea air) discovered the coast. The intensity and clarity of the region’s colours and light appealed to many painters.
WWI & the Roaring Twenties
No blood was spilled on southern French soil during WWI. Soldiers were conscripted from the region, however, and the human losses included two out of every 10 Frenchmen between 20 and 45 years of age. With its primarily tourist-based economy, the Côte d’Azur recovered more quickly from the postwar financial crisis than France’s more industrial north.
The Côte d’Azur sparkled as an avant-garde centre in the 1920s and 1930s, with artists pushing into the new fields of cubism and surrealism, Le Corbusier rewriting the architectural textbook and foreign writers thronging to the liberal coast.
The coast’s nightlife gained a reputation for being cutting edge, with everything from jazz clubs to striptease. Rail and road access to the south improved: the railway line between Digne-les-Bains and Nice was completed, and in 1922 the luxurious Train Bleu made its first run from Calais, via Paris, to the coast. The train only had 1st-class carriages and was quickly dubbed the ‘train to paradise’.
The roaring twenties hailed the start of the summer season on the Côte d’Azur. Outdoor swimming pools were built, sandy beaches cleared of seaweed, and sunbathing sprang into fashion after a bronzed Coco Chanel appeared on the coast in 1923, draped over the arm of the Duke of Westminster. France lifted its ban on gambling, prompting the first casino to open on the coast in the Palais de la Méditerranée (today a hotel) on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais in 1927. With the advent of paid holidays for all French workers in 1936, even more tourists flocked to the region. Second- and 3rd-class seating were added to the Train Bleu.
With the onset of war, the Côte d’Azur’s glory days turned grey. On 3 September 1939 France and Britain declared war on Germany. But following the armistice treaty agreed with Hitler on 22 June 1940, southern France fell into the ‘free’ Vichy France zone, although Menton and the Vallée de la Roya were occupied by Italians. The Côte d’Azur – particularly Nice – immediately became a safe haven from war-torn occupied France; by 1942 some 43,000 Jews had descended on the coast to seek refuge. Monaco remained neutral for the duration of WWII.
On 11 November 1942 Nazi Germany invaded Vichy France. Provence was at war. At Toulon 73 ships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines -– the major part of the French fleet – were scuttled by their crews to prevent the Germans seizing them. Almost immediately, Toulon was overcome by the Germans and Nice was occupied by the Italians. In January 1943 the Marseille quarter of Le Panier was razed, its 40,000 inhabitants being given less than a day’s notice to pack up and leave. Those who didn’t were sent to Nazi concentration camps. The Resistance movement, particularly strong in Provence, was known in the region as maquis, after the Provençal scrub in which people hid.
Two months after D-Day, on 15 August 1944, Allied forces landed on the southern coast at beaches including Le Dramont near St-Raphaël, Cavalaire, Pampelonne and the St-Tropez peninsula. St-Tropez and Provence’s hinterland were almost immediately liberated, but it was only after five days of heavy fighting that Allied troops freed Marseille on 28 August (three days after the liberation of Paris). Toulon was liberated on 26 August, a week after French troops first attacked the port.
Italian-occupied areas in the Vallée de la Roya were only returned to France in 1947.
Les 30 Glorieuses: France's Golden Decades
The 30-odd years following WWII saw unprecedented growth, creativity and optimism in France, and Provence and the Côte d'Azur were no exception. After a false start, Cannes' 1946 international film festival heralded the return of party madness. The 1950s and 1960s saw a succession of society events: the fairy-tale marriage of Monaco's prince to Hollywood film-legend Grace Kelly in 1956; Vadim’s filming of Et Dieu Créa la Femme (And God Created Woman) with a smouldering Brigitte Bardot in St-Tropez the same year; the creation of the bikini; the advent of topless sunbathing (and consequent nipple-covering with bottle tops to prevent arrest for indecent exposure); and Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles appearing at the 1961 Juan-les-Pins jazz festival.
Rapid industrialisation marked the 1960s. A string of five hydroelectric plants was constructed on the banks of the River Durance and in 1964 Électricité de France (EDF), the French electricity company, dug a canal from Manosque to the Étang de Berre. The following year construction work began on a 100-sq-km petrochemical zone and an industrial port at Fos-sur-Mer, southern Europe’s most important. The first metro line opened in Marseille in 1977 and TGV high-speed trains reached the city in 1981.
From the 1970s mainstream tourism started making inroads into Provence’s rural heart. Concrete blocks sprang up along the coast and up on the ski slopes. The small flow of foreigners that had trickled into Provence backwaters to buy crumbling old mas (Provençal farmhouses) in the late 1970s had become an uncontrollable torrent by the 1980s. By the turn of the new millennium, the region was welcoming nine million tourists annually.
Writer Somerset Maugham had famously described Monaco as 'a sunny place for shady people', but over the course of the 1980s and 1990s many increasingly felt that this could apply to the region as a whole. Although it was well-known that the Italian, Russian and Corsican mafias all operated on the coast, their true extent was revealed after a series of corruption scandals, none more dramatic than the assassination of député (member of parliament) Yann Piat in 1994: she was shot in her Hyères constituency following her public denunciation of the Riviera mafia.
The same year, former Nice mayor Jacques Médecin, who had run the city from 1966 to 1990, was found guilty of income-tax evasion and misuse of public funds after being extradited from Uruguay where he'd fled. And in 1995, Bernard Tapie, the flamboyant owner of Olympique de Marseille football club, was found guilty of match fixing and sentenced to two years in jail.
Many now think that it was these high-profile corruption cases, combined with economic recession and growing unemployment, that helped fuel the rise of the extreme-right Front National (FN). Led by firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen, infamous for having described the Holocaust as a 'detail of history', the FN won municipal elections in Toulon, Orange and Marignane in 1995, and Vitrolles in 1997. The party also gained 15.5% of the vote in regional elections in 1998 and 14.7% in 2004.
The FN never succeeded in securing the presidency of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur région, but Le Pen’s success in the first round of presidential elections in 2002 – he landed 16.86% of the vote, with his main support base in the south of France – shocked many people. He eventually lost in the second round, after a massive 80% turnout at the ballot boxes, and 82% of the vote in favour of his opponent, Jacques Chirac.
The far right continues to exert a strong pull over the region's political fortunes. Now known as Rassemblement National and run by Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, the party has continued to poll strongly in several important elections – including the presidential elections of 2017, when the party took four out of the six Provençal départements during the first round of voting, only to ultimately fail to win any during the second-round run-off against Emmanuel Macron. The movement was dealt another blow in 2017 when its young figurehead in Provence, Marion Maréchal-Le-Pen, the niece of current leader Marine Le-Pen, announced her decision to resign from politics, just five years after being elected the country's youngest parliamentarian.
The popularity of the far right can perhaps be explained by several thorny issues that continue to dog Provençal politics. Poverty, high unemployment and immigration remain perennial topics here, as does the threat of terrorism – especially in the wake of the brutal Bastille Day attack of 14 July 2016, when a 14-tonne truck was deliberately driven into crowds on Nice's Promenade des Anglais, killing 86 people and injuring 458 more. Subsequent investigations revealed the driver to be Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian resident of France who had professed support for the Islamic State. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was shot by police, and six accomplices were subsequently charged with terrorist offences.
Like the rest of France, Provence has had to come to terms both with the consequences of the attack itself, and the grim reality of planning for future terrorist incidents. Police presence has been strengthened at stations, airports and popular tourist areas, and while Provence is statistically no more dangerous than the rest of France, there's nevertheless something profoundly unsettling about the sight of armed police patrolling the Côte d'Azur, a place synonymous with fun, happiness and the good life.
To stay abreast of history in the making in the realm of politics and current affairs check out www.paca.pref.gouv.fr (in French), or the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region website at www.regionpaca.fr (in French). But for a look further back, check out these interesting reads:
Ladder of Shadows: Reflecting on Medieval Vestiges in Provence & Languedoc Beautiful lyrical narrative on Roman and early Christian relics in southern France by Gustaf Sobin.
Old Provence Journalist and travel writer Theodore Andrea Cook’s 1905 twist on the region’s classic Roman and medieval sights.
Operation Dragoon: The Liberation of Southern France The liberation of Provence two months after D-Day is the focus of this much-vaunted new title by prolific historian Anthony Tucker-Jones, published December 2009.
The French Riviera: A Cultural History Twinkling with glamour, Julian Hale’s recently published history delves into the modern Côte d’Azur’s vibrant past.
Provence: A Cultural History Referencing van Gogh, Daudet, the popes and Pagnol, Martin Garrett takes the reader on a historical tour of Provence