Many people--myself included--sometimes forget how extensive the ancient Hellenic empire was. It wasn't just what is now modern Greece. It extended all the way down to, for example, France. Would you be surprised if I told you Nice, France, started out an Hellenic settlement? Back then, however, it was called Nikaia. Today, more on Nikaia and it's mother city Massalia.

[click to enlarge, Nikaia (what is now Nice) it a touch to the east of Massalia (modern Marseille)]

Around 300 BC, as the different tribes that made up ancient Hellas became more unified and advanced, they began to expand. Because of the geography of the land (with so many peninsulas and coastal areas) it made sense that the ancient Hellenes would always be looking seaward. Partly due to population pressures on the main land and partly due to political interests, the ancient hellenes started to populate islands and create colonies as far west as Southern Italy and Sicely (not on the map above) and as far North and East as the Black Sea. Eventually there were over 1,000 communities over this great expanse of land, united by sea travel.

Massaliatraces its roots back to the Phokaians, from the coast of Asia Minor. Around 600 adult settlers established Massalia around 600 BC. It grew rapidly and soon covered fifty hectares. War in other areas of the ancient Hellenic territories brought more people and more people meant more trade. Massalia managed to stay out of many wars and instead focussed on growing that trade.

Massalia became one of the main points of contact with the Celtic peoples who inhabited western Europe. A very large portion of the Hellenic and Etruscan pottery and other goods arrived in Massalia and travelled on on land from there. It became such a huge and wealthy trading hub (moslty because of the tin and pottery trade) that Massalia endowed a treasury at Delphi.

A late roman writer, Justin, wrote the following passage based on older Roman writings by Pompeius Trogus, in his now lost 'Philippic Histories':

"From the people of Massilia, therefore, the Gauls learned a more civilized way of life, their former barbarity being laid aside or softened; and by them they were taught to cultivate their lands and to enclose their towns with walls. 2 Then too, they grew accustomed to live according to laws, and not by violence; then they learned to prune the vine and plant the olive; and such a radiance was shed over both men and things, that it was not Greece which seemed to have immigrated into Gaul, but Gaul that seemed to have been transplanted into Greece." [43.4]

The claim might be somewhat boisterous, but at its core, it's most likely quite true. Massalia was a major player until about 500 BC. Then, political tension grew betweent he Hellenes and the Etruscans, which led to a dicline in trade. The Etruscans took their trade directly to the Celtic lands over the eastern Alps and other traders begun to use the cities on the coast of Spain as a port to those territories. Traderoutes shifted away from Massalia, even though Massalain residents tried to boost them by offering a number of new ports along the coast, including Nikaia.

Around 350 BC, the Hellenes of  Massalia founded a permanent settlement and called it Nikaia (Νικαία), after Nike, the Goddess of victory, in honour of a victory over the neighbouring Ligurians. At this time Nikaia was a small stronghold which protected her port through her natural defences--the Colline du Château (the 'castle hill'). Only a few hundred people lived there, mainly merchants. They were under the authority of magistrates chosen by Marseille. The city soon became one of the busiest trading ports on the Ligurian coast, but in the end it was not enough to save the trade.

All around Massalia and Nikaia, the Roman empire rose up. This provided new trade possibilities and the cities flourished once more. During Julius Caesar's war against Pompey and most of the Senate, Massalia allied itself with the rightful government; closing its gates to Caesar on his way to Spain in April of 49 BC, the city was besieged. Despite reinforcement by L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, Massalia's fleet was defeated and the city fell by September. It maintained nominal autonomy but lost its trading empire and was largely brought under Roman dominion.

Massalia adapted well to its new status under Rome; most of the archaeological remnants of the original Hellenic settlement were replaced by later Roman additions. But Massalia and Nikaia started of Hellenic and stayed that way for a very, very long time.