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History of Provence

With lush countryside and fertile land, coastal views and a favourable location, there’s little surprise that the region of Provence has been a hotly contested area for millennia. From ancient Greeks to the height of the Roman Empire, the growth of Christianity to the struggles of the Second World War, the region of Provence has received guests both welcome and unwanted since the first settlements were founded.

Early rise of Provence

Triumphal Arch of Orange
Triumphal Arch of Orange

The Greeks first put down solid, lasting roots in the region of modern-day Marseilles around 600BC, cultivating the olive trees and establishing Massalia as one of the most important trading ports in the ancient world. Of course, with the flourishing of the port, interest in the region grew rapidly, and in the second century BC the Romans arrived to claim it as their own.

Choosing Aix-en-Provence – or Aquae Sextiae – as its base in the area, and forsaking Massalia in preference of Frejus as the main port and launching point for marine conquests around the Mediterranean, the Empire quickly began introducing several landmarks whose ruins remain to this day, with the Pont du Gard, the arena at Arles, and the Triumphal Arch of Orange standing as a reminder of Roman dominion.

Religious influence

Christianity would soon follow where the Romans led, and the fifth century duly saw the religion become commonplace throughout the region, with monasteries and cathedrals erected and more and more people converting. The adoption of the Christian faith, however, was not enough to deter further incursions by Germanic tribes and Arab invaders, while the in-fighting among the Counts of Burgundy, Barcelona, and Provence put the area in a state of contention for no fewer than four centuries.

The removal of the papacy from Rome to Avignon in the 14th century ultimately brought about a new era of prosperity and intellectualism to southern France, and the city and surrounding areas enjoyed a period of significant wealth and development. Provence’s involvement in the War of Religions, however, left many areas decimated and destroyed, and only with the signing of the edict of Nantes was the area able to resume growth. Once again, the port of Marseilles enjoyed its former glory and became the centre of trade and commerce.

Recent history

More recent centuries have seen an equal amount of activity, not least with the arrival of Revolutionary France and the Industrial Revolution. With transport links increased, the French Riviera and Provence soon became popular destinations for the rich, and the economic benefits of tourism ensured that the allure of the region continues to this day. Even the near destruction of much of the coastal region during the Second World War could not diminish the area's appeal. Instead, the enduring natural beauty and distinctive charm continue to thrive, ensuring the Provençal spirit never wavers.