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Prehistory and antiquity

The first traces of human life in Provence, worked stones in the Grotte de Vallonnet on Cap Martin near Roquebrune, date back to around 950,000 B.C. The earliest indications that man could make fire were found in the cave at Escale and are around 700,000 years old.

In the Neolithic period (approx. 6000-1800 B.C.), the first settlements were founded by Ligurians, whose exact origin is unclear. The first remains of a village date back to 4,650 BC and were discovered near Courthézon in the Vaucluse. This period also saw the emergence of the so-called 'oppida', fortified mountain villages built in stone, with streets and surrounded by a wall.

Towards the end of the Bronze Age (900-750 B.C.), Celtic tribes (e.g. the Saluvians) came down from Central Europe and mixed with the Ligurians.

From the 8th century BC onwards, the Celto-Ligurians traded with Mediterranean peoples such as the Etruscans and the Phoenicians.

Greeks and Romans

The first Greeks, probably from the island of Rhodes, arrived in the southern coastal area in the 7th century BC. The most important port at that time was Massalia, today's Marseille. The Greeks established a permanent colony here. They mainly shipped salt to Greece and bartered with the indigenous population. Marseille also became the centre of the wine and tin trade.

The Greeks remained in this region for around 400 years and during that time also established trading posts in Arles, Avignon, Antibes, Monaco and Nice. The trade competition between the Greeks and the Celtic-Ligurian tribes led to many armed clashes between the two groups.

In order to quell the many rebellions, the Greeks called in the help of the Romans in 125 BC. They defeated the rebellious tribes in , but also annexed the whole area. In 122 BC, they founded their first colony, Aquae Sextiae, today's Aix-en-Provence. Nîmes and Arles became the most important cities outside Italy. The new province was first called Gallia Transalpina and then Gallia Narbonensis, after the first Roman colony of Narbonne.

The provence was then given the status of 'Provincia Romana', which is probably where the name Provence comes from. From that time onwards, Provence would take on all the characteristics of Roman civilisation, including a road network, amphitheatres, baths and bridges. Massalia (Marseille) retained its autonomy and territory for the time being. After a struggle between Romans, Marseille lost its autonomy in 49 BC and fell into decline.

Probably from the 2nd century AD, the first Christians reached Provence. But it only became serious when the Emperor Constantine proclaimed a Council in Arles in 314. Christianity soon had a large following in Provence, because already in the 5th century, the region had about 20 dioceses, with Arles and Aix as archdioceses. In the same century, the first basilica was built, that of St-Victor in Marseille.

Early Middle Ages

After the Roman Empire fell into a political, military and administrative crisis in the 3rd century, this gave 'barbarian' tribes the opportunity to attack France. Provence first fell prey to the Visigoths and Burgundians and was conquered by the Ostrogoths in the 6th century. However, they had to give way to the Franks in 536 and Provence became part of the Frankish empire.

The size of the Frankish empire meant that it was divided into three states: Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy. Part of Provence was allocated to Austrasia, another part to Burgundy. Each region was governed by a "patrice", who, however, mainly wanted to achieve as much independence as possible. To this end, they easily allied themselves with other peoples, including the Saracens in the 8th century. However, they were defeated in 732 by Charles Martel in the Battle of Poitiers and Provence again came completely under the authority of the Merovingian kings. Under Pippin the Short (741-768) and Charlemagne (768-814) Provence no longer played a role in the history of France.

In 813, Provence was again attacked by the Saracens, who managed to hold on to Provence until the 11th century. After Charlemagne's death, Provence passed to his grandson, Lothair, who, in 855, made the kingdom of Burgundy-Provence for his son. This kingdom, also called the 'Kingdom of Arles', passed in 1032 to the German emperor Conrad the Salian. From that time on, Provence was part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, albeit with great independence.

After the Saracens left, the Counts of Arles, the brothers Guillaume and Roubaud, decided to divide Provence with the river Durance as their border.

The area north of the river became a marquisate with Avignon as its capital and Roubaud as margrave. The area south of the river became a county with Arles as its capital and Guillaume at its head.

As only female descendants were born, a serious succession problem arose. The daughters of the brothers married counts of Barcelona and Toulouse. When the count of Barcelona claimed the title count of Provence, the house of Toulouse disputed this of course and a big fight started. The dispute lasted until 1125, when the borders were restored to almost their original state. At that time, Provence maintained close ties with Languedoc, where the same language was spoken (the langue d'oc) and similar customs prevailed.

Late Middle Ages

In the 12th century, the Cathars, a heretical movement according to the Roman Church, emerged. Add to this the lack of a strong central authority and it is clear that these were turbulent times. The unwelcome, impetuous growth of the Cathar movement was blamed by the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire on the count of Toulouse. The Count of Toulouse had no choice but to side with the Cathars and thus incurred the wrath of the Pope. The Pope forced the French king Philip II Augustus to start an 'internal crusade' against the Cathars. This led to a religious war which lasted from 1209 to 1220 and was lost by the Count of Toulouse.

Meanwhile, things went much better in Provence. Under Count Raymond V (1209-1245) in particular, the region developed well and was spared wars. His eldest daughter, Beatrix, inherited the territorial rights to Provence and in 1246 married Charles of Anjou, the youngest brother of the French king. In 1265 Charles managed to conquer the territories of Naples and Sicily at the request of the Pope and was crowned king. As a result, Provence was no longer in the hands of the house of Barcelona, but belonged to the house of Anjou.

The peace in Provence came to an end in 1343, when the only 17-year-old Joan of Anjou ("La reine Jeanne") took control of the kingdom of Naples and Sicily. Suspected of murdering her Hungarian husband and totally penniless, Jeanne fled to Provence in 1347.

In order to obtain money, she sold the city of Avignon to Pope Clement VI (for 80,000 florins) and eventually returned to Naples. There, during the ecclesiastical schism, which lasted from 1378 to 1403, she chose the antipope of Avignon, Clement VII, and not Urban VII of Rome. The latter deposed Joan as Queen of Naples and sent the Hungarians after her again. The Hungarians got hold of her now and killed her. She was succeeded by Charles III of Durazzo.

Under the reign of René Anjou (1434-1480), Provence achieved great prosperity and a lot of interest in art and culture. In 1409, the university of Aix, at that time the capital of Provence, was founded.

After the death of René, Provence fell into the hands of the French crown by a trick of King Louis XI and lost its independence from that year onwards.

Provence part of France since 1481

At the end of the 15th century, France was on its way to becoming a single state. In 1453 (the end of the 100-year war), the English were definitively settled. Inland, not only Provence but also Burgundy and Brittany were brought under French royal rule during this period. In 1486, the States of Provence ratified the annexation of Provence to France.

In 1501, the Parliament of Aix-en-Provence was established, which increasingly defended the sovereign rights of Provence. In the 16th century, they even succeeded in obtaining a kind of self-government. But in 1539, French was introduced as the official language, which was a blow to all regions in France that still thought of independence.

In 1524 and in 1536, the German Emperor Charles V invaded Provence, but both times he failed to gain a foothold.

Religious wars tear France apart

Halfway through the 16th century, Protestantism (Huguenots) spread from the cities to the countryside. Kings Francis I and Henry II considered the Huguenots a threat to the monarchy and wanted to literally exterminate them. However, this did not succeed, which led to a situation where two families wanted to control the crown, the Catholic family De Guise and the Huguenot family Montmorency. Religious wars followed each other in quick succession with as low point the Bartholomew's Night of 24 August 1572. In this night, Charles IX murdered the most important Protestant leaders, nota bene during the marriage of his sister Marguerite with the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre. The massacre, of course, solved nothing and the positions only hardened. In 1589, Henry of Navarre even became king of France as Henry IV. Then he converted to Catholicism and gave the Huguenots religious freedom through the Edict of Nantes (1598).

Cardinals in 'power'

Henry IV was succeeded by Louis XIII, only nine years old, with Maria de Medici as regent. However, she had little knowledge of state affairs and therefore it was the prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu, who actually held the power. After Richelieu's death Cardinal Mazarin became his successor. He, too, ensured that the French sovereigns could rule as absolute monarchs. Nobility and parliament were sidelined and that, of course, created bad blood. It eventually led to a civil war, the 'Fronde', which lasted from 1645 to 1653. Mazarin eventually managed to suppress the revolt. After his death in 1661, he was succeeded by Louis XIV, the ultimate absolutist monarch who even ruled without a prime minister. He revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which led to the flight of hundreds of thousands of Protestants. This in turn caused an economic crisis, which was exacerbated by the high costs of various wars. The solution was sought in higher taxes, which mainly affected poor farmers. They rebelled against this and this eventually led to the French Revolution.

In 1720, Provence also suffered severely from the last major plague epidemic in Europe, which killed half the population of Marseille. The plague was brought by a cargo ship from Syria, the Grand-Saint-Antoine, and also spread to Aix, Arles and Toulon.

French Revolution

Because the weak government did little to change the situation, unrest increased among the population, who proclaimed themselves a National Assembly on 17 June 1789. Feudal rights and class privileges were abolished and the rights of men and citizens were proclaimed.

On 14 July 1789, the time had come. The people stormed and occupied the Bastille, a prison in Paris which was the symbol of the absolute monarchy. This was the beginning of the French Revolution. The monarchy fell and a turbulent time began. In 1791, the proclaimed constitution was recognised by the king. However, he used his veto to protect the hated nobles and unvarnished priests, which the population did not accept. In 1790 Provence was divided into three departments, Basses-Alpes, Bouches-du-Rhône and Var, and a year later the county of Venaissin became the department of Vaucluse.

Between 21 and 25 September 1792, the rebellious Parisian city council and the new National Convention proclaimed the "first" republic. In the Convention, power was contested between two factions: the Girondines, moderate republicans, and the radical Jacobins or Montagnards, with the well-known figures of Danton, Robespierre, Hébert and Marat. The moderates were eliminated by the radicals with much bloodshed but also quarreled among themselves, especially between supporters of Danton and Hébert.

Eventually Robespierre overthrew them both and Louis XVI was beheaded after a show trial. Robespierre himself was beheaded with the guillotine on 28 July 1794. After this violent period, peace returned to France for a while. Provence also became involved in the struggle. Around 500 Marseillans stormed the Tuilleries in 1792, together with Parisians. The song of Rouget de L'isle that the Marseillans sang would become known as the Marseillaise, the French national anthem.

The ever-increasing bloodshed eventually went too far for the residents of Provence. More and more cities gave up, even the revolutionary Marseille. Toulon even went so far as to place itself under the protection of the English fleet in 1794.

Napoleon Bonaparte

After the death of Louis XVI, many European powers turned against the new republic. But under the command of army commander Napoleon Bonaparte, the French army managed to achieve many victories, among others in Italy and Egypt.

In 1799, however, he seized power and proclaimed himself "First Consul" and from then on acted as an autocrat. In 1804 he even crowned himself emperor and sidelined the entire parliament.

When, in 1812, he also wanted to conquer Russia, his pride came before a fall. It was a grandiose failure, resulting in his deposition in 1814 and his being sent to Elba. He returned to Paris once more, but was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815 and exiled to St Helena. The 'little general' died on 5 May 1821.

19th century

In the 19th century, France was in turmoil. After the exile of Napoleon, the Bourbons came back to power and tried to curtail the freedoms of the citizens. This inevitably led to some uprisings, after which the civil king Louis Philippe of Orleans was finally elected. He, too, could not change much in the unrest and distrust of the republicans and the workers. These groups therefore participated wholeheartedly in an uprising in Paris in the year 1848. This revolt resulted in the proclamation of the 'Second Republic'. In 1852 Napoleon III became the new Emperor of France, the grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1870, Napoleon was deposed again and the 'Third Republic' was proclaimed, which lasted until 1940.

In the 19th century, agriculture in Provence increasingly focused on the production of wine and vegetables. The important Durance canal was also built. Despite these developments, there was a massive migration to the large cities. Marseille as a port city profited greatly from the better means of transport and the opening of the Suez Canal. Marseille became a colonial and industrial port and got industries that were closely linked to the import of agricultural products. The industrial revolution did not pass Provence by either; old industries were modernised and new ones, such as metallurgy and shipbuilding, emerged. Industry was concentrated mainly between the Rhône and the Var.

20th century

The First World War (1914-1918) had a major impact on France and the French people. Around one and a half million French people, civilians and soldiers, lost their lives. The devastation was particularly severe in northern France and the economy was seriously damaged. After this economic decline, prosperity increased again due to the rise of the tourist industry. Places like Cannes and Nice attracted many tourists, including many celebrities from home and abroad. At that time, the economy was doing well again, but all of that was cancelled out by the worldwide economic crisis, which started in 1929.

The Second World War (1939-1945) also had a major impact on France. In 1939, England and France declared war on Germany. In May 1940, the Germans invaded France and expelled the government. General Pétain made an armistice with Germany and settled in the not yet occupied southeast of France. On 11 November of that year, the German troops invaded the Provence, but this part of France did not suffer much from the violence of war.

This changed after the successful invasion of Normandy in June 1944. On 15 August 1944, a second invasion took place in the southern coastal area between Hyères and the Estère coast, with heavy fighting on Provençal territory as a result. The battle lasted only fifteen days with the French and American troops as glorious winners. Between 23 and 28 August, Marseille was liberated by General Montsabert's army, supported by the French resistance.

Earlier, from 1942 onwards, the Résistance or 'maquis' had been active in Provence. They were successful in Marseille and in 1944 prepared the coastal areas for the Allied invasion.

After the war, it was the turn of the former resistance leader, Charles de Gaulle, to put France back on the map as a world power. He succeeded very well, under his leadership the independent and influential position between the powerful countries on earth was restored. The American influence in Europe was also pushed back by the French.

The De Gaulle line was more or less continued by his successors, Georges Pompidou and Giscard d'Estaing. In 1981, the socialist François Mitterand came to power, and under his rule more attention was paid to the decentralisation of the region and to the cultural development of France. The Mitterand era ended in 1995 with the election of the Gaullist Jacques Chirac.

In 1970, the A6 and A7 motorways connected Marseille with the capital Paris, followed by the TGV high-speed train in 1981.

21th century

In June 2001, the new TGV line south of Valence went into operation. Marseille was therefore only three hours from Paris by train.

Due to an unprecedented heat wave in 2003, forest fires raged in Provence. In the PACA region, approximately 40,000 ha of forest went up in flames.

In 2004, the plane wreck of the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was found in the sea, off the island of Riou, near Marseille.

In 2007, the Alpilles were declared a 'Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles'.

See also the history of France.


Blisse, M. / Provence

Eck, N. van / Provence, Côte d’Azur

Guérin, R. / Provence
Van Reemst

Jardinaud, M. / Provence


Williams, R. / Provence & Côte d’Azur
Van Reemst

Zwijnenburg, H. / Provence, Côte d’Azur

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Last updated April 2024
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