From Massilia to Marius … discover the history of Marseille

From the Roman city of Massilia to Marcel Pagnol’s Marius, Marseille has a rich and stormy history.

If you want some of the ancient history of Marseille in novel form, American historian and novelist Steven Saylor has set one book of his mystery ‘Roma Sub Rosa’ series in Massilia – the old name for the city – at the time when it was under siege from the troops of Julius Caesar. The city had backed the ‘wrong’ side in the power struggle between Caesar and Pompey and paid the price. The novel is called Last Seen in Massilia (2000) and features ‘Gordianus the Finder’ – a kind of early detective.

Steven Saylor Last Seen in Massilia ‘Ancient history’

From the fourteenth century to the early eighteenth century, Marseille was subject to catastrophic outbreaks of bubonic plague – the fleas carrying the disease travelling on the rats which were on board the many, many ships delivering goods to the port. The last ‘Great Plague of Marseille’ was in 1720, and if you’re interested in that aspect of the city’s history, there’s an interesting account of it – The Plague at Marseilles Consider’d (1721) by Richard Bradley, F.R.S., address to Sir Isaac Newton, then President of the Royal Society.

Bradley visited Marseille and, in the course of his ‘medical’ report, gives some nice general descriptions of the city, though the dirty streets and overcrowding of the poorer areas, along with inadequate nutrition he quite reasonably blames for the overwhelming spread of the plague.

As already mentioned, a number of writers visited and wrote about Marseille in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their texts being a very direct form of ‘history’. Coming at history from a particular angle is ex-pat Canadian Jeremy Mercer‘s study, When the Guillotine Fell: the bloody beginning and horrifying end to France’s river of blood, 1791-1977 (2008). Although focused on the ghastly murder committed by the last person in France to be Guillotined, it contains a certain amount on the history of Marseille. Maybe it should be called a cross between ‘history’ and ‘noir non-fiction’.


Claude McKay Banjo ‘Diverse and turbulent world’

Marseille just prior to World War II is the background to Claude McKay’s novel Banjo: a story without a plot (1929). McKay was born in Jamaica but went to New York as a young man where, as a poet and novelist, he was instrumental in the Harlem Renaissance. Often travelling but always strapped for cash, for a time he took on casual work as a docker in Marseille, coming into contact with other black workers from different countries. McKay creates the character of an African-American musician, nicknamed Banjo because that was the instrument he played, and through him gives a vivid portrait of the racial, social and political issues of the time, so vividly present in the diverse and turbulent world – and underworld – of Marseille between the two wars.

Crime and prostitution, prejudice and comradeship, music and conversation, anger and humour weave around each other: these are the plot. At the start I found some of the non-standard English and the transliteration of accent and dialect slowed the reading a little, but once I got used to it, it was worth the effort for this very vibrant account of Marseille and its diverse population.

rosemary sullivan
Rosemary Sullivan Villa Air-Bel ‘One of the best non-fiction books’

Because Marseille was such an important city during World War II, this period features in a significant amount of writing – fiction and non-fiction about the city. One of the best non-fiction books I’ve come across in this category is Villa Air-Bel: the Second World War, escape and a house in France (2006) by another Canadian, Rosemary Sullivan. It tells the nail-biting story of the efforts made by a small group of very brave people – led by Varian Fry – to help some of the many endangered refugees, who – hoping to leave France by ship – had ended up in the port of Marseille, to escape from the Nazis. Many of the refugees were well-known writers and artists, among them André Breton and Max Ernst, both on the Nazis’ “list”.

Real page-turner

The Emergency Rescue Committee, based in New York, sent Varian Fry to Marseille to organise their evacuation. With an office in the city itself, the group rent a tumble-down old villa on the outskirts – the villa ‘Air-Bel’ – where members of the committee, along with some of those they are trying to help, take up residence. The first 160 pages of the book gives the backgrounds of some of the major players in the story, along with vivid evocations of the Nazi invasion of France, the Fall of Paris, and the countrywide chaos as people try to evade the brutality of the advancing German armies. The rest of the books 400 plus pages focus on Marseille.

Although this is non-fiction, it’s a real page-turner: I found myself reading late into the night as I followed the desperate acts of bravery, generosity, betrayal, escape, and the continual harassment, arrests, and danger of the people one felt one had come to know quite well. This was an important period in the city’s history and in the forming of its present identity. The book ends with the return to the US of the heroic Varian Fry, but an afterword briefly outlines the subsequent stories of the people we’d met – and worried about! – in the preceding pages.

Anna Seghers Transit ‘Vivid description of wartime Marseille’

A fictional equivalent of Villa Air-Bel is Transit Visa (1942, translation 1945) by highly respected German novelist Anna Seghers (1900-1983). It was republished in 2013 under the title Transit. A Communist campaigner against Hitler – a novel Seghers published in 1932 warned against the dangers of Fascism and led to her arrest by the Gestapo – she fled to France, via Switzerland, and left Paris in 1940, as German troops invaded. She ended up in Marseille, from where she was eventually able to flee to Mexico. The chaos of a city flooded with refugees desperate to flee to safety and the crazy bureaucracy they are faced with is the only too real background to the story of one particular man who finds himself in the city under the strangest circumstances. (The first part of the novel is a vivid evocation of refugees on the roads out of Paris.)

There’s something of ‘The Tale of the Ancient Mariner’ in the narrative set up, with the reader in the place of the ‘wedding guest’ in Coleridge’s poem, invited to sit down in a pizza restaurant overlooking the port of Marseille – even being asked which way we would like to face. It’s amazing to realise that this novel was published in the midst of the very war it was describing. The copy I was sent from the ‘stacks’ of my local library is in itself a piece of history. It’s the original 1945 English publication by Eyre and Spottiswood, on rough, low-quality, war-time paper with a stained brown cover, its linen fraying. Inside it has ancient stamps from a number of different libraries, marking its journey, as if the book itself is some kind of ‘visa’ document.

The remains of a ripped-out label shows an entry, in pencil but still very clear, that the book was once ‘due back’ on 16th July, 1952. And, more than sixty years after that particular person had borrowed the book, we are again faced with a massive refugee problem in Europe. Apart from the novel’s vivid depiction of Marseille, it has become suddenly relevant again: we need to read it to remind ourselves what it feels like to be desperate for a safe life.

For detective fiction set in Marseille during World War II, there is Mission to Marseille  (translation 1991) by Léo Malet (1909-1996), whose American-style, hard-boiled detective Nestor Burma, usually working in Paris, goes south where he finds himself caught between the Marseille’s criminals and the Gestapo. Malet’s work is much better known in France than in the Anglophone world: some of the Nestor Burma stories are also published in the increasingly popular bande desinée (comic book) form.

Hard life

black docker
Sembene Ousmane Black Docker ‘A picture of the hard life of dock workers’

For a picture of the hard life of dock workers in the 1950s, read Black Docker (1956, translated 1987) by the eminent Senegalese writer and film director Sembene Ousmane (1923-2007). The story centres on Diaw Falla, who works in the docks to finance his writing (as Ousmane did for a while). When a suitably well-connected white woman gets his novel published, it’s under her own name, leading Diaw to commit a terrible crime … The story is a microcosm of the colonisation of Africa (though we also see the mistreatment of Arab and Spanish workers – Ousmene was a dedicated union activist). The violence associated with the various independence struggles of Algeria and other African countries is prefigured in this story. (Although it was Ousmene’s first novel and not reckoned to be his best, it is the only one set in Marseille and is a useful picture of the period.)

Moving on to the Algerian War of Independence, American-born Michael T. Hertz (now resident in Canada) has written about its impact on Marseille in his novels Seven Victims in Marseille – set at the height of OAS terrorism in 1961-62 (Hertz had been a foreign exchange student in the city at that time) – and Slaughterhouse, set in 1966, still in the aftermath of OAS activity. (They seem only to be available as Kindle e-books.)


Marius, Fanny and Cesar follow the lives of a young man, his sweetheart and father on the 1920s Marseille waterfront and the trilogy comes from the pen of Provence’s most famous writer, Marcel Pagnol, better known for Manon des Sources and Jean de Florette.

Daniel Auteuil
Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy, Marius, Fanny and Cesar, directed by and starring Daniel Auteuil

The stories of love and heartbreak were written originally as plays and turned into iconic films in the thirties. The Marseille trilogy has been filmed again recently by French actor Daniel Auteuil, who also stars as the father.

Set around Marseille’s Vieux Port the three films, available with English sub-titles, ooze atmosphere and you can almost taste the Pernod and boullabaisse. Cesar’s cafe was modelled on the Bar de La Marine in the Vieux Port, which can still be enjoyed today and is a definite ‘must see’ for literary travellers.

Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series. She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.


Malcolm Burgess and Heather Reyes are the publishers of Oxygen Books' city-pick series, featuring some of the best writing on favourite world cities. These include Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Dublin, London, St Petersburg, Istanbul and New York.

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