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History of the French Riviera

        Pre-Roman History

The Cote d'Azur has been populated since the earliest epochs. Archaeologists have found vestiges of the paleolithic era and stone from the neolithic inhabitants. Before the Roman empire, the inhabitants were Ligurians but in 600 BC, the Phoenicians arrived in Marseilles and spread out along the coast, establishing centres in Antibes (Antipolis), Nice (Nikaia) and Monaco (Monoikos). The defensive centre was Marseilles, allied with Rome.

The Roman Period

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In 154 BC, the Ligurians attacked Antibes which responded by calling on Rome for help. A battle ensued near Biot.

From 58 to 51 BC, Julius Caesar swept through France (Gaul) and in 14 AD, Emperor Augustus subdued the last rebellious Ligurian tribes. The monument in La Turbie commemorates this victory. "Pax Romanica" endured for two centuries.


In the first century AD, Saint Nazaire and Saint Celse brought Christianity to the region and in the fifth century the Abby of Lérins, founded by Saint Honorat became influential. The first bishoprics arose in the sixth century at Nice, Cimiez, Vence and Antibes.

The Dark Ages began in 480 with the emergence of the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. From 508 until 879, the Ostrogoths protected Provence and the Cote d'Azur from the Visigoths until finally ceding to the Franks.

Invasion of the Saracens

Beaten by Charles Martel, the Moors fell back to Provence, burning Cimiez and Lérins and launching raids throughout the region. Count Hugues d''Arles took power in 822, destroyed the Saracen army and ceded power to the King of Burgundy. The Saracens promptly regrouped and tore through Provence and Grasse.

Counts and Dukes

Things calmed down in the 11th century with the reemergence of the Lérins monastery. Raimond Bérenger founded a group of small city-states such as Nice, Grasse and Sospel. Mid-century Nice allied itself with the powerful Genovese republic but in 1229 the Nice region ceded sovereignty to Raymond Bérenger.

The region changed hands in 1246 when Beatrice, daughter of Raimond Bérenger IV married Charles of Anjou brother of King Louis IX thereby allowing Paris to exert an influence in the region. Rule by the Provence counts lasted until the late 14th century and were a time of peace and prosperity for the region.

In 1419, the Anjou rulers ceded Nice to the Duke of Savoy but the rest of the region was ruled by René of Anjou ("Good King René) who was based in Aix-en-Provence. Nice became the Comté de Nice in 1526, developing a separate culture. Not until three centuries later did Nice become a part of France.

Meanwhile, the Grimaldis of Monaco ruled Antibes and Cagnes-sur-Mer.

In 1481, René's successor, Charles du Maine died heirless and Provence was ceded to Louis X1 of France.

War and Peace

The beginning of the 16th century ushered in a war between Francis I of France and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. The region was thrown into turmoil which ended with the Treaty of Villefranche in 1538.

In 1543 an alliance of Turks and French laid siege to Nice which was defended by Catherine Segurane. According to legend, this washerwoman repulsed the Turks by standing on the barricades and exposing her bare bottom which caused the modest-minded Turks to flee in disgust.

The Wars of Religion ravaged the region in from 1589 to 1610. Charles Emmanuel, the Duke of Savoy, invaded the Var in 1590and marched on Saint Paul de Vence and Grasse, later becoming general of Provence. His reign lasted little more than a year.

Enter the French

The arrival of Louis XIV saw a series of rulers determined to integrate the unruly southern states into France. Nice was occupied from 1691 to 1696 and then from 1707 to 1713 when the treaty of Utrecht brought it back into the Savoy fold. Further incursions were made into the region by the Austrians, Sardinians, Spanish and finally the French who proved the most obstinate.

At the end of the 18th century, the French grabbed ahold of Sospel, the Vésubie, Villefranche, Puget-Théniers and the Haute-Tinée. They once again lost Nice to Sardinia.

A new incursion by the Piedmontese in 1815 resulted in the Treat of Paris whereby Nice was annexed to Savoy .Finally, Napoleon III managed to get ahold of Savoy and the area around Nice which voted in 1860 to become part of France. Shortly thereafter the Prince of Monaco sold his rights to Menton and Roquebrune to Napoleon III and they too became part of France.

Belle Epoque

Paul Signac was the first major painter to move down to the Cote d'Azur and he was soon followed by a procession of artists, attracted by the light, colour and beauty of the Mediterranean coast. Cézanne, Van Gogh and Matisse set up studios while writers began extolling the merits of the region.

Meanwhile, the English decided that sea breezes were healthy, making the French Riviera a trendy place for British aristocrats to spend their winters. Other Europeans with titles followed the parade, building luxurious villas in the new Belle Epoque style. Little fishing villages like Antibes and Saint-Tropez became wealthy enclaves. In 1887, the region finally got its own name: the Cote d'Azur.

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