The ancient Greeks of the French Riviera are long gone, yet their legacy lives on, not only in the place names but also in scholars archaeological finds

Gallo Greeks

Gallo Greeks

Hellenic architechture at Glanum, France.

We were seated near the royal palace of Monaco, overlooking the azure waters of the harbour on a particularly intoxicating day. My friend turned to me and challenged: “Now come on. Don’t tell me that Monaco is also Greek.” The reason for this expostulation was owed to the fact that in our travels around western Europe, I was constantly pointing out the Greek foundations behind the veneer of culture and history of the place in question. In decadent, languid Monaco, my interlocutor smugly believed that I was finally stumped.
“Actually,” I responded, ” Monaco was founded by Greeks.” This is absolutely true by the way. It was the Phocaeans of Massalia who founded the colony of Monoikos, in the 6th century BC, in the area now known as Monaco. Monoikos was associated with Hercules, venerated in this location alone as Hercules Monoecus, meaning the lone-dweller. According to Diodorus Siculus and Strabo, both Greeks and native Ligurian people asserted that Hercules passed through the area. This tradition was also recorded by Roman authors. The poet Virgil called it “that castled cliff, Monoecus by the sea” in the Aeneid. The commentator Servius commented that the epithet was derived: dictus autem Monoecus vel quod pulsis omnibus illic solus habitavit (“either because Hercules drove off everyone else and lived there alone”), vel quod in eius templo numquam aliquis deorum simul colitur (“or because in his temple no other of the gods is worshipped at the same time”). Modern Monegasques honour this tradition, naming the modern port the ‘Port of Hercules’. After the Gallic Wars, Monoecus, which served as a stopping-point for Julius Caesar on his way to campaign in Greece, fell under Roman control as part of the Maritime Alps province.
Fascinatingly, Monaco was a Greek colony founded by another Greek colony, Massalia, which is better known these days as Marseilles, a major French port, which has lent its name to the stirring revolutionary anthem. So important was it to the Greek world that its foundation found its way into Greek mythology. 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. He 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.
Facing an opposing alliance of the Etruscans, Carthage and the Celts, the Greek colony allied itself with the expanding Roman Republic for protection. This protectionist association brought aid in the event of future attacks, and perhaps equally important, it also brought the people of Massalia into the complex Roman market. The city thrived by acting as a link between inland Gaul, hungry for Roman goods and wine, which Massalia was steadily exporting by 500 BC, and Rome’s insatiable need for new products and slaves. Under this arrangement, the city maintained its independence until the rise of Julius Caesar, when it joined the losing side in civil war, and lost its independence in 49 BC. Massalia of course was the home port of the great ancient explorer Pytheas, who ventured as far north as the Arctic circle and may have discovered Iceland. Owning to the prevalence of the Greek language in the city, it soon become receptive to Christianity, and according to local tradition, Mary Magdalen preached there with her brother Lazarus.
Go further east, towards Nice, and one finds that its inhabitants are quite open in their acknowledgment of the Greek origins of their city, which is nice. The city was probably founded around 350 BC by the Greeks of Massalia and was given the name of Nikaia in honour of a victory over the neighbouring Ligurians. Also along the French Riviera, the ancient Greeks having a brilliant eye for real estate, lies Antibes, also founded as a 5th-century BC Greek colony by the Phocaeans from Massalia, who called their city Antipolis, literally meaning ‘the city across’. Paying homage to their Greek roots, the town’s inhabitants have named the technology park in their city ‘Sophia-Antipolis’.
Further west lies the commune of Agde, one of the oldest villages in France, founded in 525BC, also by the peripatetic Phocaeans of Massalia. The name of the village is said to be derived from the words ‘Agathe Tyche’ or ‘Good Luck’. The symbol of the city is also of Greek origin, being the bronze Ephebe of Agde, of the 4th century BCE, recovered from the fluvial sands of the Hérault.
Not all of the Phoceans colonies were so successful. Alalia, modern day Aleria in Corsica, was founded by Phocaeans from Asia minor fleeing the Persians. These Greek colonists were so troublesome to the Etruscans and to the Carthaginians of Sardinia that the two powers sent a combined fleet of 120 ships to root them out. This force was defeated by 60 Phocaean ships in the Battle of Alalia in the Sardinian Sea, which Herodotus describes as a Cadmeian victory (an early equivalent of a Pyrrhic victory) because the Greeks lost most of their ships. Now unable to defend themselves, the Phocaeans took to their remaining ships and sailed off to Rhegium, abandoning their colony to the Etruscans.

By virtue of their proximity to the native Celtic tribes of the region, the Gallo-Greeks engaged in constant trade with them. During the late 6th and 5th centuries BC, Greek artefacts penetrated northwards along the Rhône and Saône valleys as well as the Isère. Massalian grey monochrome pottery has been discovered in the Hautes Alpes and as far north as Lons-le-Saunier, as well as three-winged bronze arrowheads as far as northern France, and amphorae from Marseille and Attic pottery at Mont Lassois.
From Massalia, Greek traders founded colonies along the coast of Spain and a trade in tin, indispensable for the manufacture of bronze, seems to have been established at that time between Cornwall in modern England, through the Channel, and along the Seine valley, Burgundy and the Rhône-Saône valleys, remarkably to Massalia.
The ancient Greeks of the French Riviera are long gone, yet their legacy lives on, not only in the place names but also in scholars’ archaeological finds. The La Tène style of art, based on floral ornamentation, in contrast to the geometric styles of Early Iron Age Europe, can be traced to an imaginative re-interpretation of motifs on imported objects of Greek origin. Further, during his conquest of Gaul, Caesar reported that the Helvetii were in possession of documents in the Greek script, and all Gaulish coins used the Greek script until about 50 BC. Indeed, the field of numismatics does much to attest to Greek cultural penetration of the Gallic hinterland. Celtic coinage, as it emerged in the 4th century BC, initially copied Greek designs. Greek letters can be found on various Celtic coins, especially those of Southern France, while coins in northern France, like those of the Parisii tribe, were influenced by the coinage of Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great. Many of these Celtic coins retained Greek subjects, such as the head of Apollo on the obverse, but developed their own style from that basis, thus establishing a Graeco-Celtic synthesis.
By the 1st century BC, the coinage of the Greeks of Massalia even began to influence coinage as far afield as Great Britain. The coins of the Sunbury hoard, thought to have been manufactured in Kent, show designs derived from Greek coins from Massalia with the stylised head of Apollo and a bull.
The ties between Greeks and Gauls therefore run deeper than one would first suspect, and Aristotle Onassis’ rumoured attempts to purchase Monaco from its cash strapped prince would have restored a historical Greek presence to the playground of the rich and famous. Today, that presence is attested by names and the odd unearthing of a coin, vase or statue, proving not only that all things pass, that all is vanity, but that also, it is almost impossible not to find a Greek connection to almost every part of the Mediterranean basin and even further afield. That this extends to the culinary is amply attested to by the fact that the signature dish of Marseille, Bouillabaisse, is actually an adaptation of the ancient Greek kakavia. Haute cuisine? Bring on the psarotaverna. C’est bon!

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