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Massalia (modern Marseilles) silver coin with Greek legend "ΜΑΣΣΑ", 5th-1st century BCE.

The Greeks in pre-Roman Gaul have a significant history of settlement, trade, and artistic influence in the Celtic territory of Gaul (modern France), starting from the 6th century BCE during the Greek Archaic period.


Settlement at Marseilles (600 BCE)

Greek colonies of Marseilles (with Phocaean Massalia, and its offshots of Emporiae and Rhoda), in 323 BCE.
Massalia coins, 5th-1st century BCE.
Emporiae coins, 5th-1st century BCE.
Rhoda coins, 5th-1st century BCE.

The oldest city within modern France, Marseilles, was founded around 600 BCE by Greeks from the Asia Minor city of Phocaea (as mentioned by Thucydides Bk1,13, Strabo, Athenaeus and Justin) as a trading port under the name Μασσαλία (Massalia).[1 ][2] A foundation myth recounts how a Phocaean married the daughter of a local king, thus giving him the right to receive a piece of land where he was able to found a city.[2] The contours of the Greek city have been excavated, in the modern quarters of Saint-Blaise and Saint-Marcel.[2] The Phocaean Greeks introduced the cult of Artemis, as in their other colonies.[3]

It is thought that contacts started even earlier however, as Ionian Greeks traded in the Western Mediterranean and Spain, but only very little remains from that earlier period. The ancient cities of Glanum (today Saint-Rémy-de-Provence) and Mastramella (today Saint-Blaise) may have been founded by the Greeks in these earlier times.[1 ] Contacts developed undisputedly from 600 BCE, between the Celts and Celto-Ligurans and the Greeks in the city of Marseilles and their other colonies such as Agde, Nice, Antibes, Monaco, Emporiae and Rhoda.[1 ][4] The Greeks from Phocaea also founded settlements in the island of Corsica, such as at Alalia.[5] From Massalia, the Phocaean Greeks also founded cities in northeastern Spain such as Emporiae and Rhoda.

Before the Greeks came to pre-eminence in the Gulf of Lion, trade was mainly handled by the Etruscans and the Carthaginians.[5] It is thought that the Greeks of Massalia defeated the Gauls and the Ligurians, defeated the Carthaginians in the late 6th century (Thucydides 1.13) and probably in 490 BCE, and soon entered in a treaty with Rome.[3]

Greek trade in Gaul

The Vix krater, an imported Greek wine-mixing vessel and dated to around 500 BCE attests to the trade exchanges of the period.

These eastern Greeks, established on the shores of southern France, were in close relations with the Celtic inhabitants of France, and Greek influence and artifacts penetrated northwards alongs the Rhône and Saône valleys as well as the Isère.[2][1 ] Phocaean grey bucchero 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 Marseilles at Mont Lassois.[1 ] The site of Vix in northern Burgundy became an active trading center between Greeks and natives, testified by the discovery of rich Greek artifacts of the period.[2]

Vix krater: frieze of hoplites and four-horse chariots on the rim.

From Marseilles, maritime trade also developed with Languedoc and Etruria, and with the Greek city of Emporiae on the coast of Spain.[2] Massalia traded as least as far as Gades and Tartessus on the western coast of the Iberian peninsula, as described in the Massaliote Periplus, although this trade was probably blocked by the Carthaginians at the Pillars of Hercules after 500 BCE.[6][7]

The mother city of Phocaea would ultimately be destroyed by the Persians in 545, further reinforcing the exodus of the Phocaeans to their settlements of the Western Mediterranean.[5][8] Populations intermixed, becoming half-Greek and half-indigeneous.[2] Trading links were extensive, in iron, spices, wheat and slaves.[9] A trade in tin, indispensible 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 to Marseilles.[9] The Greek settlements permitted cultural interaction between the Greeks and the Celts, and in particular helped develop an urban way of life in Celtic lands, contacts with sophisticated Greek methods, as well as regular East-West trade.[10]


The Greek Pytheas of Massilia explored northern Europe from Marseilles circa 325 BCE.

Overland trade with Celtic countries declined around 500 BCE however, with the troubles following the end of the Halstatt civilization.[2] The site of Mont Lassois, where trade had thrived between Celts and Greeks was abandoned around that time.[2]

The Greek colony of Massalia remained active in the following centuries. Around 325 BCE, Pytheas (Ancient Greek Πυθέας ὁ Μασσαλιώτης) made a voyage of exploration to northwestern Europe as far as the Arctic Circle from his city of Marseilles.[11][12] His discoveries contributed to the elaboration of the ancient world maps of Dicaearchus, Timaeus and Eratosthenes, and to the development of the parallels of latitude.[13][14]


Influence on Gaul coinage

Gold coins of the Sequani Gauls, 5-1st century BCE. Early Gaul coins were often inspired by Greek coinage.[15]

Celtic coinage emerged in the 4th century BCE, and, influenced by trade with and the supply of mercenaries to the Greeks, initially copied Greek designs.[16] Celtic coinage was influenced by Greek designs,[17] and Greeks letters can be found on various Celtic coins, especially those of Southern France.[18] Greek coinage occurred in three Greek cities of Massalia, Emporiae and Rhoda, and was copied throughout southern Gaul.[16]

Northern Gaul coins were especially influenced by the coinage of Philip II of Macedon and his famous son Alexander the Great.[16]

Celtic coin designs progressively became more abstract as exemplified by the coins of the Parisii.

Celtic coins often retained Greek subjects, such as the head of Apollo on the obverse and two-horse chariot on the reverse of the gold stater of Philip II, but developed their own style from that basis, allowing for the development of a Graeco-Celtic synthesis.[16]

After this first period in which Celtic coins rather faithfully reproduced Greek types, designs started to become more symbolic, as exemplified by the coinage of the Parisii in the Belgic region of northern France.[16]

Veneti coins, 5th-1st century BCE.

The Armorican Celtic style in northwestern Gaul also developed from Celtic designs from the Rhine valley, themselves derived from earlier Greek prototypes such as the wine scroll and split palmette.[16]

With the Roman invasion of Gaul, Greek-inspired Celtic coinage started to incorporate Roman influence instead, until it disappeared to be completely replaced by Roman coinage.[16]

English Kent coin with design derived from Marseilles Greek coins, with stylised head of Apollo and butting bull, 100-50 BCE.

The coinage of the Greeks of Marseilles also influenced coinage as far afield as Great Britain. The coins of the Sunbury hoard, thought to have been manufactured in Kent, show designs derived from Marseilles Greek coins with stylised head of Apollo and butting bull.[19]

See also

Coins of the Santones Gauls, 5-1st century BCE.


  1. ^ a b c d e The Cambridge ancient history p.754
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i A history of ancient Greece Claude Orrieux p.62
  3. ^ a b Transalpine Gaul: the emergence of a Roman province by Charles Ebel p.10- [1]
  4. ^ The western shores of Turkey: discovering the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts by John Freely p.91 [2]
  5. ^ a b c A history of ancient Greece Claude Orrieux p.61
  6. ^ Ireland and the classical world by Philip Freeman p.32 [3]
  7. ^ The History of Cartography John Brian Harley p.150 [4]
  8. ^ The ancient mariners Lionel Casson p.74
  9. ^ a b A history of ancient Greece Claude Orrieux p.63
  10. ^ A history of ancient Greece Claude Orrieux p.65
  11. ^ The History of Cartography by John Brian Harley p.150 [5]
  12. ^ The hellenistic world by Frank William Walbank p.205 [6]
  13. ^ The History of Cartography John Brian Harley p.150- [7]
  14. ^ The hellenistic world by Frank William Walbank p.205 [8]
  15. ^ Boardman, p.308
  16. ^ a b c d e f g Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia" John T. Koch p.461- [9]
  17. ^ Boardman, p.308
  18. ^ Celtic Inscriptions on Gaulish and British Coins" by Beale Poste p.135 [10]
  19. ^ Museum of London exhibit


  • Boardman, John The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity, Princeton 1993 ISBN 0691036802


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