Marseille was originally a Greek city. It fell to the Romans in 49 BC, but without suffering very much. Given the widespread use of the Greek language in the Roman Empire, it is not clear to me that the Roman conquest would necessarily have changed anything about Greek being the predominant local language in Marseille. It seems that the city outlived the Western Roman Empire quite a bit, before being sacked and mostly destroyed by Charles Martel in 739 CE. It was eventually rebuilt, but we can probably take it for granted that Marseille stopped being Greek at some point between 49 BC and 739 CE. Do we know anything more specific?

The source for my knowledge here is essentially the Wikipedia article on the History of Marseille.

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    Rather a lot of southern coastal Italy was Greek, so an answer might apply to one of them as well (or be inferred from info about one of them). Interesting question.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 22:14
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    Southern Italy was greek for much longer, and there are even greeks remaining there today. But there were other greek colonies in southern france and the barcelona region (e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emp%C3%BAries), which may be a better auxiliary reference
    – Luiz
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 0:48
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    @LarsBosteen I strongly suspect that the available data will be sufficiently sparse that it is better not to be picky here.
    – Arno
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 8:14
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    You are almost certainly right about the paucity of data. I would suggest editing into your question that you are not 'picky' about whether answers refer to the elite or the general population, to native or non-native speakers. Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 11:52
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    Interestingly Voltaire wrote a text in which he wondered why there are so few signs of spoken Greek left in Marseilles (he even lists words with probable origin in the Greek presence, as opposed to being passed down via Latin, and it's quite a short list). It goes under "Observation sur l'anéantissement de la langue grecque à Marseille."
    – PatrickT
    Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 3:32

2 Answers 2


There is evidence that Greek continued to be used in Massalia (Roman name: Massilia) even during the late empire and the spread of Christianity. To cite one academic source,

...the city preserved its Greek language until the 5th c. A.D., and remained an active cultural and commercial center.

Source: Richard Stillwell (auth.), William L. MacDonald and Marian Holland McAllister (eds.), 'The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites' (1976)

The same assertion is made in this 1981 doctoral thesis. It is worth emphasizing at this point that, even from very early times, Massalia was a multilingual city with (probably) most inhabitants conversant in more than one language. Initially, this meant Greek and Gaulish as Greek colonists married local women. Later, Latin was added to the mix.

Circumstances brought three languages into use at Massalia, the Greek, the Latin, and the Gallic (Isid. xv., on the authority of Varro). The studies of the youth at Massalia in the Roman period were both Greek and Latin.

Roman culture and language did replace Greek in some respects but mostly it existed alongside it. This should not come as surprise given that for elite Romans, Greek was a language most of them studied and acquired, along with Greek thought.

Greek had held an important place in Roman society and culture since the late Republican period, and educated Romans were expected to be bilingual and well versed in both Greek and Latin literature.

Source: Alison John, 'Learning Greek in Late Antique Gaul'


Romanization and Hellenization are not distinct phenomena: being Roman involved, to a certain extent, being Greek (§1.2). In many parts of the Western Empire, we are in fact often faced with a ‘cultural triangulation’, a series of negotiations of identities which involved Roman, Greek and local.

Source: Alex Mullen, Chap. 9 in 'Southern Gaul and the Mediterranean' (2013)

Our evidence for the continued importance of Greek during the period of the Roman empire comes from both authors and inscriptions. Strabo (d. circa AD 24) , who wrote his Geographica during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, observed that in Massalia

...all the men of culture turn to the art of speaking and the study of philosophy; so that the city, although a short time ago it was given over as merely a training-school for the barbarians and was schooling the Galatae to be fond enough of the Greeks to write even their contracts in Greek, at the present time has attracted also the most notable of the Romans, if eager for knowledge, to go to school there instead of making their foreign sojourn at Athens.

Strabo may have overstated the importance of Massalia as a centre for education as we have few surviving texts from Massaliote writers, but it was nonetheless of at least minor importance, and definitely Greek in outlook. Tacitus (d. AD 120), who had family roots in Massalia and probably spoke Greek (he served in Greek-speaking Asia), wrote about Agricola's education in the city.

We also have inscriptions in Greek dating to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries AD though, because relatively little excavation work has been done, the sample is small. One example is:

The domain of education is represented by a white marble dedication from Marseille dating to the end of the first or beginning of the second century AD and dedicated to a .... ‘teacher’...

Source: Mullen, Chap. 9

Another example is a little later:

Again from Marseille, and dated to the end of the second, or beginning of the third century AD, a marble plaque refers to what appears to be a bilingual grammaticus.... The name and inscription are Greek...

Source: Mullen, Chap. 9

Interestingly, inscriptions (and, to a lesser extent, Roman authors) point to the use of Greek in several regions of Transalpine Gaul during the imperial period. Thus, we should not be surprised that

Hellenism was not a dying remnant of a culture which was disappearing in favour of Romanization but a conscious choice on the part of the community and its elite, and its cultural traditions were a dynamic and evolving response to the changing context of the Roman empire.

Source: K. Lomas, 'Hellenism, Romanization and cultural identity in Massalia'. In Lomas (ed.), 'Greek Identity in the Western Mediterranean' (2004)

Overall, the epigraphic evidence is patchy and a little confusing with both Latin and Greek names and writing in evidence, but with the former seemingly more prominent. This might indicate more Latin than Greek speakers, but we have to consider survivorship bias and we cannot assume that the proportion of inscriptions for each language closely correlates with population.

Greek gods, cults and festivals were still in evidence in 3rd century AD; it seems reasonable to presume that ceremonies were conducted in Greek. In the 4th century AD, the spread of Christianity helped to maintain the use of Greek. Communities had sprung up in Massalia by the early 4th century and

Christianity was...a context in which Marseille's enduring Greek cultural and intellectual tradition (still acknowledged in many ways under the Empire) could be revived, its links with the interior fostered, and its special relationship with the East reinvigorated.

A footnote to the above adds:

The city's Greek heritage is reflected under the Empire in the names of its buildings, officials and individuals.... Greek was still used in the early third century to record the career of a high-ranking imperial functionary from Marseille...

Source: S. T. Loseby, 'Marseille: A Late Antique Success Story?'. In The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 82 (1992).

However, by the 5th century AD Greek was in decline among Gallo Romans though we cannot assume that it disappeared entirely. One of the last prominent Greek-speakers of the city that we know of was Gennadius of Massilia, a priest and scholar of the late 5th century. By the mid to late 6th century, the Greek historian poet Agathias (d. after 580 AD) wrote that Massalia, although

once a Greek city, it has now become barbarian in character having abandoned its ancestral constitution and embraced the ways of its conquerors.

Translation cited in Dallas DeForest, 'Agathias on Italy, Italians and the Gothic War'. In Estudios Bizantinos 8 (2020)

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    Justinian's attempt to reconquer the West must have played a part.
    – Spencer
    Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 14:31
  • @Spencer Yes, that's area probably worth delving into. Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 14:38
  • Apparently Justinian ceded Provence to the Frankish kingdom during the Gothic War, probably as a bribe to keep them from going in on the side of the Goths.
    – Spencer
    Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 14:44

Edited after further research.

I once made a timeline of Emporion, a colony from Massalia in Catalonia, northern Spain, some time ago. From that timeline, I'll make some points that refer to Massalia:

  • Massalia was a powerful, reliable allied city of the Romans in early 200 BCE. Commercial relations with the Romans date from a much earlier time.
  • Massalia was under the protection of the Roman Republic, on very good terms, when the province Gallia Narbonensis was organized around 123 BCE.
  • By 121 BCE with the construction of the Via Domitia, the whole Mediterranean littoral was considered Roman soil for all intents and purposes, even though it was not territory officially under the Roman Senate's control.
  • Massalia suffered heavily from the Cimbrian Invasion in 114 BCE
  • Massalia again suffered, but less, during the Sertorian War.
  • The city suffered heavily yet again during the Pompey-Caesar Civil War. Massalia was "pro-senate". It was besieged in the year 49 BCE and at the end, taken. The city lost its "federate" status and its centuries-old favour in Rome when the "pro-senate" Pompeian faction ultimately lost the war. This is a turning point for the city.
  • By 45 BCE Caesar added Gaulish senators to the Roman Senate that spoke Latin natively.
  • Many cities that were in the orbit of Massalia got Municipal status in the years after that (Emporion in 23 BCE). So, Massalia had definitely lost its influence in the region.
  • The Greek city of Emporion was abandoned by 100 AD in favour of the new Roman city of Emporiae (the same city, but a new development). The Greek language was used in Emporiae but its use was rare, yet still present. Greek inscriptions become really rare from mid 1st century on.
  • According to the catalog of Greek inscriptions of France, there are 170 Greek inscriptions from France. Of these, 90 are funerary. A couple dozen Greek inscripcions date from the 4th century, and only 2 inscriptions from the 5th century. Many of these late inscriptions are Christian epitaphs in Latin with only a Greek name or word.

So, inscriptions show that Greek language survived up to the 5th century in Marseille. The arrival of Christianity might be related to that.1]2

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    "by the 1st century BCE the change was quite done. I highly doubt that Greek language survived in Marseille past the 1 century AD." This seems a little early given that Romans (according to Strabo) went to Massilia instead of Athens to study until at least the time of Tiberius. Tacitus (d. 120 AD) also that Massilia was a centre for Greek learning. Also, Gallo-Greek inscriptions found there date mostly from the Roman period and very few Gallo-Latin inscriptions have been found before the late Roman period (see C. Ebel, 'Transalpine Gaul: The Emergence of a Roman Province'). Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 13:26
  • I did not know about Tacitus saying that. That's a very good point to answer the question. Do you know about accurate Greek inscriptions dating in Massilia? I don't know much about them. It is possible that the Gallo-Latin inscriptions boost of Late Roman period came after the 395 Prefecture in Arelate?
    – James
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 14:19
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    I don't have the details I'm afraid, just a summary, but there aren't many inscriptions from Massilia as little excavation has been done so the sample is small. I think the literary evidence is more telling, and the 'The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites' states "the city preserved its Greek language until the 5th c. A.D." Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 14:49
  • That's a good reference. I find it to be very late compared to Emporion, but might be true.
    – James
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 18:11
  • @LarsBosteen This reference might make a good answer, otherwise it might be lost in the chain of comments. Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 22:04

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