A brief account of the history of Aix-en-Provence.

Romans origins in Aix

Sextius Calvinus founding Aix. Painting from 1900 by Joseph Villevieille (1829-1916)
Sextius Calvinus founding Aix. Painting from 1900 by Joseph Villevieille (1829-1916)

The Aixois (the area around Aix) first belonged to the Celtic tribe settled in the oppidum of Entremont.

First called “Aquae Sextiae”, Aix-en-Provence was founded in 122BC by the Roman consul Caius Sextius Calvinus. But Aix-en-Provence really developed into a Roman town during the 1st century, with a forum and a basilica.

In 102BC, while barbarian troops were invading the area today known as the south of France, the Roman consul Caïus Marius stopped them on the mountain which was renamed “Sainte-Victoire”.

Because of several wars which took place around Aquae Sextiae, most of the Roman monuments have been destroyed. But in 2004, a Roman theatre was discovered in the suburb of Notre-Dame-de-la-Seds. It has since become Aix’s most famous ancient monument.

Aix during the Middle Ages

Aix-en-Provence 25 © French Moments
Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence © French Moments

Aix became the capital city of the Narbonensis Secunda during the 4th century, however as a result of several invasions and occupations (successively the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Francs, Lombards and Saracens), Aix-en-Provence lost its status to Arles. During this period, its enemies tried to deprive the city of water by destroying the aqueducts. However the existence of several water tables enabled the inhabitants to survive. Nevertheless, Aix was politically and economically ruined.

The city regained its status in 1189, when Provence’s Carolingian Counts chose to live there. Thanks to “Le Bon Roi René”, Duke of Anjou, Aix became a famous cultural and academic centre. Aix remained the capital of Provence until the French Revolution, thanks to this cultural influence.

Incorporation of Aix-en-Provence into the Kingdom of France

Aix-en-Provence old town © French Moments
Aix-en-Provence old town © French Moments

From 1486, Provence was annexed to the Kingdom of France and in 1501, the King established the “Parlement de Provence” (Provence Parliament) in Aix. The Three Estates gathered there to vote on taxes.

The Parliament was generally unpopular among the inhabitants of Aix. During the Wars of Religion in France, the city was particularly intolerant. Indeed, in 1545, the president of the Parliament made the decision to slaughter the “Vaudois du Luberon”.

During the struggle against Protestantism, a whole rebellious community known as the “Vaudois du Luberon” (Waldensians) was decimated in the name of Catholicism. In five days alone during the repression, 3,000 people were murdered. Women were raped and men sent into slavery in the galleys. The rest died from starvation following the destruction of their harvests by fire. Villages such as Lacoste and Ménerbes were completely ransacked.

After this episode, many people in the towns of Lourmarin, Saint-Martin-de-la-Brasque and La Motte-d’Aigues were part of the Huguenots who emigrated to South Africa. 200,000 French martyrs emigrated to South Africa, 50,000 of whom were Waldensians from the Luberon.

About “Aix la Provençale”…

Cours Mirabeau Aix-en-Provence © French Moments
Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence © French Moments

Aix-en-Provence is the historical rival of Paris. After the French Revolution in 1789, a number of different political forces struggled to become the next political regime, following the Old Regime’s fall. Two main characters embodied this struggle: Joseph Emmanuel Sieyes from Paris and Honoré-Gabriel Riquetti de Mirabeau from Aix-en-Provence.

During the French Revolution, there was a huge debate about the naming of the Third Estate MP. After long argument, the debate came down to the opposing views of Sieyes and Mirabeau. Mirabeau had a complex role during the Revolution period. He had a kind of double role because he was the ‘man of the Assembly’ but he also retained close links to King Louis XVI. For instance, in 1790, by a secret contract, he became the King’s judicial councillor. Mirabeau wanted to keep the role of the King alive to ensure that political power was shared between the King and the Constitutional Assembly.

Sieyes wanted the King’s position to be “representative of the French nation” and national sovereign, whereas Mirabeau wanted it to be “representative of the French people” and to have the same political system as England.

In the end, the National Assembly decided to follow Sieyes and this is still a source of resentment for Aix-en-Provence people towards Parisians. In 1876, Aix-en-Provence’s main street was renamed Cours Mirabeau.

Provencal famous artists

Emile Zola (1840-1902)

Emile Zola 1902 (Autoportrait)
Emile Zola 1902 (Autoportrait)

Zola was born in Paris on the 2nd of April 1840. He moved to Aix-en-Provence with his parents when he was three. He went to the Bourbon school where he befriended the future painter Paul Cézanne. During the five years he spent in Aix, Zola went off on many adventures with Cézanne which he recorded. His notes focused on aspects of the city which would later appear in his writing. He had to leave Aix in 1858 but he returned every summer holidays and wrote frequent letters to Cézanne.

Emile Zola is one of the most popular writers in France. Germinal, one of his famous novels, describes the difficult human conditions in the mines in the North of France during the nineteenth century. It is read in every school in France as a literary classic. He wrote a series of 20 novels called the “Rougon-Macquart”. It tells the story of two families under the Second Empire, from a naturalist angle. In the “Rougon-Macquart”, 5 novels take place in Aix-en-Provence (reinvented as “Plassans”). Zola tended to adopt Cézanne’s painting technique to create his book’s characters, portraying real subjects in real places.

But little by little, Zola became less appreciative of Cézanne’s painting and in 1886, he wrote a novel called L’Oeuvre in which he drew his inspiration from Cézanne. He created the character of Claude Lantier who is a failed artist. Cézanne was hurt by this portrayal, which was barely veiled. Zola and Cézanne never met again.

Zola’s commitment to politics began in 1898 when he vehemently took part in the famous “Dreyfus Affair”. He wrote his famous open letter “J’accuse” in a French newspaper which sent shockwaves through political circles. He died on 29 September 1902, suffocating in his Parisian apartment as a result of a blocked chimney.

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

Paul Cézanne in 1861
Paul Cézanne in 1861

Born in Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne met Émile Zola in the school courtyard. These inseparable friends roamed the countryside around Aix during the holidays. They read poetry in the wild and experienced the intense sensations of being at one with nature.

When Zola moved away to Paris, they began corresponding. Cézanne continued his studies against his will, but he also continued painting. He went to Paris but he failed the entrance to the famous “École des Beaux Arts” and returned to Aix. His father was always against his son’s desire to be a painter but he finally gave him an allowance, so that he could be free to be a full time artist.

Most of his paintings are of the Aixois (Aix’ countryside) especially the Sainte-Victoire Mountain. In October 1906, while he was painting in the wild, he was caught out in a storm and died from pneumonia eight days later at the age of 67.

Paul Cézanne Painting
Paul Cézanne Painting

Zola and Cézanne are definitely linked to each other and forever linked to Aix-en-Provence.


About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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