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When Worlds Collide: Meeting... the French!

Welcome to the third instalment of When Worlds Collide, where we explore the encounters of the ancient Greeks with surrounding cultures! This month, discover the mythic origin of the Greek colony settled among the ancient inhabitants of France...

The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicting the Romans at war with the Goths (3rd century CE)
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, "Massalia, Colonie Grecque" (1868). Image via Creative Commons.


Back in the 7th Century BCE, the Greek city of Phocaea was suffering. The soil was not fertile enough to support the large amount of people that lived there, causing famine and poverty.

Because of this, the Phocaeans depended on the sea: they were fishermen, traders, and pirates. It may seem strange to us now, but back in the most ancient epochs of Greece, piracy was considered an honourable way to live.

To solve the problems at home, some of the Phocaeans sailed out beyond familiar waters, in search of new lands to build a colony (called an apoikia in ancient Greek). This way, those left back home wouldn't have to feed so many people and could survive more easily.

The colonists landed near the mouth of the Rhône River — one of Europe’s largest rivers — and founded the colony of Massalia, which today is the French city of Marseille.

Meeting the locals

Of course, any Frenchman will tell you that his ancestors weren’t Greeks, but Gauls. In fact, an ancient legend survives about the first interactions between the colonising Greeks and the native Gauls in Massalia.

Simos and Protis, the leaders of the Greek colonists, met with the local king, Nannus. Simos and Protis tried to become friends with Nannus, so that he would allow them to create a settlement on his land.

It so happened that King Nannus’ daughter, Gyptis, was about to be married, and Nannus invited Simos and Protis to the wedding banquet.

Now, the Gallic tribes of this time had a strange custom. The bride would not know whom she was to marry until she picked her husband out of the crowd on her wedding day, and handed him a ceremonial goblet of water.

When all the guests were seated, Gyptis took the goblet and passed by the finest, tallest, chestiest men of all Gaul. Then, seeing Protis, she stopped. The sea still rolled and hissed behind his eyes after his recent voyage, and she could not walk past him. She gave him the cup of fresh water.

Protis, then, was no longer the king’s guest, but his son-in-law! So, the king allowed Protis to settle his colony, and the Greek city of Massalia was founded.

Joanny Rave, Les noces de Gyptis et Protis (1874) (detail). Musée des Beaux arts, Palais Longchamp à Marseille.

The colony with its own colonies

The Massalians were a breed of explorers. After this first meeting with the Gauls, they sent out their own fleets and founded the cities of Agathe, Olbia, Tauroentium, Antipolis, and Nikaia, all in the name of Massalia.

One of the most famous Massalian explorers was Pytheas, who explored the northern reaches of Europe. He remains the earliest known scientific explorer to have seen the polar ice of the Arctic!

Frieze of the Pergamon Altar depicting Nike and Athena battling Alkyoneus
Using a spyglass to look out to sea in a 19th Century engraving from the Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.


The Massalians were great sailors, and a sailor is nothing without their own spyglass. So, this month, check out the video below to learn how to make your own spyglass at home!

Once you've made your spyglass, run out to the ocean and take note of what you can see!

Until next time, fellow Argonauts,

λεῖος πλόος!

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