Where to go?
Events in italics indicate milestones in history.
Prehistory to the Roman conquest
c. 90 000–40 000 — Neanderthals occupy coastal Provence.
c. 30 000 —Modern early humans (Cro-Magnon) settle in the region, leaving traces, such as the cave paintings in Grotte Cosquer.
c. 6000 — Neolithic-impressed pottery: the first potters begin turning to agriculture and settle on the sites of Châteauneuf-les-Martigues and Courthézon.
c. 3500 — Chassey culture: the appearance of stock-raising farmers living in villages.
1800–800 — Bronze Age. Ligurian occupation.
8C–4C — Progressive installation of the Celts.
c. 600 — Founding of Massalia (Marseille) by the Phocaeans.
4C — Massalia is at its apex; travels of the Massaliote, Pythéas, into the northern seas.
218 — Hannibal passes through Provence and crosses the Alps.
125–122 — Conquest of southern Gaul by the Romans. Destruction of Entremont and founding of Aix.
102 — Marius defeats the Teutons at Aquae Sextiae (Aix).
58–51 — Conquest of Gallic Comata (“long-haired Gaul”) by Julius Caesar.
55— Caesar lands in Britain.
27 — Augustus establishes the Narbonensis.
2C — Nîmes at its apex.
284 — Narbonensis is divided into two provinces: Narbonensis on the west bank of the River Rhône, and Viennoise on the east bank.
4C — Arles at its apex; establishment of the dioceses.
416 — Jean Cassien, from the Far East, founds the Abbaye de St-Victor in Marseille.
The County of Provence
471 — Arles taken over by the Visigoths.
476 — Fall of the Roman Empire.
536 — Provence ceded to the Franks.
8C–10C — Saracens, Vikings, and Magyars terrorise the land.
843 — By the Treaty of Verdun Provence, Burgundy and Lorraine are restored to Lothair (one of Charlemagne’s grandsons).
855 — Provence is made a kingdom by Lothair for his third son, Charles of Provence.
879 — Boso, Charles the Bald’s brother-in-law, is King of Burgundy and Provence.
1032 — Provence is annexed by the Holy Roman Empire; the Counts of Provence, however, retain their independence; the towns expand and assert their autonomy.
1066 — William the Conqueror lands in England.
1125 — Provence divided up between the Counts of Barcelona and Toulouse.
c. 1135 — First mention of a consulate in Arles.
1215 — Magna Carta is issued in England.
1229 — By the Treaty of Paris, Lower-Languedoc returns to France; founding of the royal seneschalship in Beaucaire.
1246 — Charles of Anjou, brother of St Louis (Louis IX), marries Beatrice of Provence, the Count of Barcelona’s daughter, and becomes Count of Provence.
1248 — St Louis embarks from Aigues-Mortes on the Seventh Crusade.
1274 — Cession of the Comtat Venaissin to the papacy.
1316–1403 — The popes and schismatic popes at Avignon. Papal Schism (1378–1417).
1337–1453 — Hundred Years’ War.
1348 — Clement VI buys Avignon from Queen Joan I. Great Plague epidemic.
1409 — University of Aix founded.
1434–80 — Reign of Good King René, Louis XI’s uncle.
1450 — Jacques Cœur sets up his trading posts in Marseille.
1481 — Charles of Maine, nephew of René of Anjou, bequeaths Provence to Louis XI.
The Estates of Provence
1486 — The Estates of Provence meet at Aix to ratify the union of Provence to the crown.
1492— Christopher Columbus lands in the Americas.
1501 — Inauguration of the Parliament of Aix as Supreme Court of Justice with limited political authority.
1509–47 — Henry VIII’s reign.
1524–36 — Provence is invaded by the Imperialists (soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire).
1539 —Edict of Villers-Cotterêts decrees French as the language for all administrative laws in Provence.
1545 — Suppression of Vaudois heretics from Luberon.
1555 — Nostradamus publishes his astrological predictions, Centuries.
1558 — The engineer Adam de Craponne builds a canal.
1558–1603 — Elizabeth I’s reign.
1567 — Michelade tragedy occurs in Nîmes.
1588 — Defeat of the Spanish Armada.
1622 — Louis XIII visits Arles, Aix and Marseille.
1660 — Solemn entry of Louis XIV into Marseille.
1685 — Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Huguenots flee France.
1713 — Under the Treaty of Utrecht the Principality of Orange is transferred from the House of Orange-Nassau to France.
1714–27 — George I’s reign.
1720 — The Great Plague, which originated in Marseille, decimates Provence.
1763 — Peace of Paris ends French and Indian War (1754–63), marking the end of France’s colonial empire in North America.
1771 — Suppression of Aix’s Parliament.
From the Revolution to the present
1789 — The French Revolution; Storming of the Bastille.
1790 — The constitutional Assembly divides southeast France into three départements: Basses-Alpes (capital: Digne), Bouches-du-Rhône (capital: Aix-en-Provence), Var (capital: Toulon).
1791 — Avignon and Comtat Venaissin are annexed to France.
1792 — 500 Marseille volunteers parade in Paris to the song of the Rhine Army, called “La Marseillaise”.
1805 — Battle of Trafalgar.
1815 — Battle of Waterloo; Napoleon’s fall.
1837–1901 — Queen Victoria’s reign.
1854 — Founding of the Provençal literary school: Félibrige.
1859 — Frédéric Mistral publishes the Provençal poem Mirèio.
1861–65 — American Civil War.
1886 — Statue of Liberty erected.
1899–1902 — Second Boer War.
1904 —Frédéric Mistral wins the Nobel Prize in Literature.
1933 — Founding of the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône for the harnessing of the river.
1942 — German forces invade Provence.
1944 — 15 August: Allied troops land on the Côte d’Azur.
22–28 August: General de Montsabert and his troops aided by the Resistance movement liberate Marseille from German occupation.
1962 — First hydroelectric power stations of the Durance begin operating.
1965 — Construction of Bassins de Fos complex begins.
1970 — A 6–A 7 motorways link Paris and Marseille.
Creation of the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue.
1977 — Marseille’s Métro system begins service.
Creation of the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon.
1981 — The TGV, France’s high-speed train, links Paris to Marseille.
1991 — Cave paintings and engravings dating from the Upper Paleolithic Era are discovered in the Calanque de Sormiou, south of Marseille; now known as the Grotte Cosquer.
1993 — Olympique de Marseille become the first French football team to win the European Cup.
1994 — A painted cave, known as the Grotte Chauvet, is discovered in the Ardèche gorges.
1999 —Marseille celebrates its 2 600th birthday.
2000 — Avignon is one of nine cities designated a European Capital of Culture.
2001 — The new TGV Méditerranée line south of Valence opens, making Paris a mere 3hr away from Marseille.
2004 — The Millau Viaduct, the world’s highest car bridge, opens west of Avignon, facilitating higher speed travel to southern France.
2006 — Aix-en-Provence marks the centenary of the death of artist, and former resident, Paul Cézanne.
2007 — Nicolas Sarkozy is elected President of France and Marseille is one of ten French cities to host Rugby World Cup matches.
2009 — France assumes full membership of NATO.
2013 — Marseilles-Provence designated to become a European Capital of Culture for 2013.
Hallmarks of diversity
Provence is the product of one of the most highly used crossroads of the Mediterranean world, where ancient, medieval, and modern meet. Provence received migrations and invasions from diverse peoples including the Bronze-Age Ligurians, the Iron-Age Celts, the early Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and Arabs. No lesser diversity greets the visitor today, as Provence has become a desirable tourist destination.
Pre-Roman southern Gaul
Origins : a melting pot
During the Bronze Age (1800–800 BC) Ligurians, the probable descendants of the native Neolithic population in northern Italy and southeastern France, inhabited the region. Celts began to infiltrate the area in the 7C, though their mass influx did not occur until about the 5C–4C. In the 7C, the first Greeks were also settling in the area. Phocaeans (Greeks from Phocaea in Asia Minor (Ionia, near Izmir in modern Turkey), founded Massalia (Marseille) around 600 BC in agreement with a Celtic tribe. This period represents a mixing of populations that established ancient Provence’s roots in the Celtic-Ligurian civilisation. These diverse populations settled progressively in oppida, fortified hill sites. Nages, near Nîmes, St-Blaise overlooking the Golfe de Fos, and Entremont, near Aix, were important settlements and fortified townships.
Greek settlement and influence is an essential part of the history of Provence’s civilisation. The Rhodian Greeks most likely gave their name to the great Provençal river (Rhodanos). However, the Phocaeans were the first to establish a permanent colony: Massalia. Massalia rapidly became a powerful commercial city, which founded in turn a number of trading posts: Glanum, Avignon, Cavaillon, and had commercial exchanges with the people of the north (wine and pottery for pewter from Armorica and agricultural products and livestock from Brittany). The colonists brought with them a number of improvements, such as a wine and olive oil industry, the introduction of coinage, and more intricate architecture. But by the 2C, relations between the natives and the Phocaeans from Massalia were deteriorating. The Salian Confederation, which had grouped together the Provençal population, rose against Massaliote imperialism.
Rome and Massalia
During the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), Massalia supported Rome whereas the Salian Franks helped Hannibal cross the region in 218. In 154 Massalia, worried about the threat of attack by the Gauls, obtained the protection of Rome. In 130 BC the powerful Arverni empire threatened southern Gaul’s security, Gaul being the key trading centre between Italy and Spain. Rome came to Massalia’s aid in 125 and the Roman legions easily conquered the Vocontii and Salian Franks, toppling their capital, Entremont. In 123, date of the founding of Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence), the Arverni and Allobroges suffered a bloody defeat. The consul Domitius Ahenobarbus relaxed the boundaries of a new province, Gallia Transalpine, which became Narbonensis (from the name of the first Roman colony of Narbonna) in 118. Massalia remained independent and was recognised as a territory. The Roman domination, which at one time was threatened by the Cimbrian and Teuton invasions in 105 (disaster at Orange) and halted by Marius near Aix in 102, spread irreversibly over the region, not without abuse and pillaging.
Gaul Transalpine rapidly became integrated in the Roman world and actively supported the Proconsul Caesar during the Gallic Wars (58–51 BC). Marseille, as a result of having supported Pompey against Caesar, was besieged in 49 BC, fell, and lost its independence. The important Roman towns were Narbonne, Nîmes, Arles, and Fréjus. Romanisation accelerated under Augustus, and the Narbonensis was reorganised in 27 BC. Antoninus Pius’reign (2C) marked the apogee of Gallo-Roman civilisation. Agriculture remained Provence’s principal activity and trade enriched the towns. Arles profited the most from Marseille’s disgrace. Urban affluence was reflected in a way of life entirely focused on comfort, luxury and leisure. Excavations have given us a glimpse of that life.
Arles, the Favoured City
After the troubled times of the 3C, the 4C and 5C brought considerable religious and political transformation. Christianity triumphed over the other religions after the conversion of Constantine. Arles became his favourite town in the west.
Marseille remained a commercial centre. Aix became an administrative capital. Nîmes declined, and Glanum was abandoned.
Rural areas suffered from the general impoverishment of the Gallo-Roman world. Large landowners placed heavy demands, and insecurity led to the resettlement of fortified hill sites, such as St-Blaise.
Fall of the Roman Empire to Papal Avignon
Invasion after invasion
Until AD 471, the date Arles was taken by the Visigoths, Provence had been relatively free from invasions. The Burgundian and Visigoth domination (476 to 508) was followed by the Ostrogoth restoration, a period of some 30 years whereupon the Ostrogoths considered themselves the mandatories of the Far Eastern emperor and revived Roman institutions: Arles thus recovered its praetorian prefects. Religious life continued to progress; several synods were held in Provence towns (Vaison-la-Romaine).
The Bishop of Arles, St Caesarius, had a vast following in Gaul. In 536, Provence was ceded to the Franks and followed the same uncertain destiny as other provinces, tossed from hand to hand according to the Merovingian dynastic divisions. Decline was rapid.
The first half of the 8C was chaotic and rife with tragedy: Arabs and Franks transformed the region into a battleground. In 855 Provence was made a kingdom, its limits corresponding more or less with the Rhône basin. It soon fell into the hands of the kingdom of Burgundy, whose possessions spread from the Jura to the Mediterranean and were under the protection of the Holy Roman Emperors, who inherited it in 1032. This was a major date in the region’s history as it made Provence a part of the Holy Roman Empire, with the area west of the Rhône under the aegis of the counts of Toulouse.
The 10C and 11C marked a major shift in the evolution of Provence’s civilisation, which until then was deeply defined by its Greco-Roman past. A new society developed out of the feudal anarchy. Rural life, henceforth, was concentrated in the hillside villages – Luberon, Ste-Baume and the Vaucluse mountains – which depended upon the seigneuries. Many towns sought to recover a degree of autonomy. The Oc language spread. Close links were established between Provence and Languedoc.
The failure of Occitania facilitated Capetian intervention. The Albigensian heresy resulted in the delayed union of the Catalan and Toulousain peoples, who until then had been fighting over Provence against the invaders from the north. The defeat at Muret in 1213 dashed all hope of a united Occitania.
Louis VIII’s expedition (siege of Avignon in 1226) and the Treaty of Paris in 1229 brought about the founding of the royal seneschalship in Beaucaire: the west bank of the Rhône was part of France. In the east, the Catalan Count, Raimond Bérenger V, maintained his authority and endowed Provence with administrative organisations. The towns became powerful locally: as early as the 12C they elected their own consuls, whose power increased to the detriment of the traditional lords (bishops, counts and viscounts). In the 13C they sought their independence.
House of Anjou’s Provence
The marriage of Charles of Anjou, St Louis’ brother, to Beatrice of Provence, Raimond Bérenger V’s heir, in 1246 linked Provence to the House of Anjou. Charles had large political ambitions: he interfered in Italy and conquered the kingdom of Naples in 1266 before turning towards the Far East.
In Provence, Charles of Anjou’s government was very much appreciated. It re-established security. Honest administration managed public affairs, and prosperity returned. Concerning the territories, Comtat Venaissin was ceded to the papacy in 1274 by the King of France and evolved separately.
Charles I’s successors, Charles II and Robert I, continued their father’s and grandfather’s political ideas and political order, and peace reigned during the first half of the 14C. Aix was raised to administrative capital with a seneschal and a court where the officers who presided were in charge of the finances of the county.
The key city was henceforth Avignon, where the Bishop Jacques Duèze, elected pope in 1316 under the name John XXII, established himself. French-born Pope Clement V was already resident in Comtat Venaissin and benefited from the protection of the King of France. Thus John XXII’s decision was confirmed by his successor Benedict XII, who began the construction of a new papal palace. The popes’ stay in Avignon, which lasted almost a century, brought expansion and extraordinary brilliance to the city.
From annexation to the French crown
The end of Provence’s independence
After the second half of the 14C, Provence entered a difficult period. Famine and plague (which struck in 1348), pillaging road bandits, and political uncertainty brought about by the slackness of Queen Joan (granddaughter to King Robert; she was assassinated in 1382), badly damaged Provence’s stability. The population was decimated, the country in ruins. After a violent dispute over succession, Louis II of Anjou (nephew to the King of France, Charles V) aided by his mother, Marie of Blois, and the pope re-established the situation (1387).
Pacification was temporarily slowed by the activities of a turbulent lord, Viscount Raymond de Turenne, who terrorised the country (1389–99), pillaging and kidnapping. His lairs were the fortresses of Les Baux and Roquemartine. Peace was not achieved until the early 15C.
Louis II of Anjou’s (d. 1417) youngest son, King René, inherited the county at the death of his brother in 1434. He was primarily concerned with the reconquest of the kingdom of Naples but every attempt of his failed, whereupon he turned all his attention to Provence (1447) and came to love it. His reign left happy memories; it coincided with a political and economic restoration that was felt through all of France. King René was a poet and had a cultivated mind fed by his love of the arts. He attracted a number of artists to Aix, who came to take up where the popes’ Avignon had left off.
His nephew Charles of Maine briefly succeeded him. In 1481 Provence ceded to Louis XI of France and the region’s history was henceforth interlaced with that of the kingdom of France.
Vaudois and Huguenots
The Reformation spread in the south of France as early as 1530, thanks largely to the impetus from merchants and pedlars. Through the Rhône and Durance valleys and Vivarais, Protestantism was stimulated by the brilliance of the Vaudois church located in the Luberon village communities.
The Vaudois heresy went back to the 12C: a certain Peter Waldo or Valdès, a rich merchant from Lyon, had founded a sect in 1170 preaching poverty, Evangelism, refusal of the sacraments, and ecclesiastical hierarchy. Excommunicated in 1184, the Vaudois had since been pursued as heretics. In 1530 they were targeted by the Inquisition, and in 1540 the Aix Parliament decided to strike hard by issuing a warrant for the arrest of 19 Vaudois from Mérindol. François I temporised and prescribed a deferment. Instead of calming things down, the religious controversy came to a head. The heretics pillaged Abbaye de Sénanque in 1544. As a riposte, the Parliament’s president obtained royal authorisation to enforce the Mérindol warrant and organised a punitive expedition. From 15 to 20 April 1545 blood ran through the Luberon village streets: 3 000 people were massacred, 600 were sent to the galleys, and many villages were razed.
Nevertheless, Protestantism continued to spread, especially west of the Rhône in Vivarais, Cévennes, Nîmes and Uzès. East of the Rhône it was Orange (a Nassau Family principality since 1559) that became a Reformation stronghold. In 1560, numerous churches and abbeys (St-Gilles, Valbonne charterhouse) were pillaged by the Huguenots; violence gave rise to more violence and with it the capture of Orange (1563) by the Catholic partisans. This in turn was answered by the fall of Mornas.
During these tumultuous times Provence and Languedoc-Cévennes split, taking different paths. Provence opted for Catholicism, and the Catholic League recruited fervent partisans in such cities as Aix and Marseille (both of which would have liked to become an independent republic). On the Rhône’s opposite shore the situation was different. The people, influenced by the merchants and textile craftsmen who kept the Reformation alive, generally tended to believe in the Protestant movement and Nîmes was its capital.
The violent Wars of Religion in southern France brought about a conflict between two peoples of opposing mentalities who were to clash again during the Camisard Insurrection (1702–04).
17C to the present day
In the 18C, Provence experienced a golden age for agriculture and commerce. The 19C was a less successful period: industrialisation progressed but rural life suffered from the failure of the silkworm farms and phylloxera, which spread through the vineyards.
In the face of these changes, Frédéric Mistral sought to defend the Provençal identity and its traditions. When he died in 1914, Provence was nevertheless wholeheartedly engaged in modernisation.
In the 21C, Provence is now a successful society, relying on heavy industry, agriculture and tourism. The region is renowned for its cultural events, its climate and its produce (wine, honey, rice) as well as for its multiculturalism.