History of Nice

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Nice is an ancient place. 400 000 years ago man had already settled in this place. Today the prehistoric site of Terra Amata marks this place - see the Musée Terra Amata (Paléonthologie). Primitive settlers, the first inhabitants of Nice, established themselves at the base of Mont Boron, in a cave known as Grotte du Lazaret. They lived there surrounded by ibex, stags, oxen and elephants, and made weapons from limestone. Several thousand years passed, a peaceful evolution, until Nice finally received her name. In the 4th Century BC the Massaliotes won a memorable victory over the Barbarians. These Greeks from Marseille gave the place the name 'Nikaia' which means 'that which gives victory to the colony they founded on the coastline'. Being the closest port of call from Cyrnos, the place became a Massaliote bridgehead, an important commercial trading post. The town which grew up became established not at the foot of Mont Boron, as had happened during the prehistoric period, - but on the slopes of the hill which lead up to to the Chateau.

At this time Nice was a small stronghold which protected her port through her natural defences - the Colline du Château. Only a few hundred people lived there, mainly merchants. They were under the authority of magistrates choseb by Marseille.

The Roman occupation can be traced to 14 BC and the start of the Roman Empire. At this time the Romans built a second town, called Cemenelum, on Cimiez hill. Once it had become the main town for the Alpes-Maritimes Military government, Cimiez quickly became a strategic centre.

While almost no traces of the Massaliotes remain, the Romans left many. The Trophée d'Auguste is just one, at Turbie from the Via Julia Augusta which linked Nice to Ventimiglia. It symbolises the submission of the Alpine peoples to Roman rule and marks the first step towards the opening up of the valleys. Augustus can also be credited with the first real administrative organisation of the region. Finally the most obvious signs of the Roman period in Nice are the ruined amphitheatres and the Roman Baths which one can visit at the Musée archéologique de Cimiez, on Cimiez hill, which are still well preserved today.

In the 6th Century Nikaia took over from Cemenelum. The fall of the Roman Empire included Cemenelum which disappeared. Nikaia, the low town became part of the French empire, affirming her importance through her port and the commerce which it made possible.

In 813 the town was sacked by the Sarrasins, who came to take over the whole of eastern Provence : the Côte des Maures. It was only in 972 that Guillaume, the Compte de Provence, managed to rout them. The commercial activity of the lower town intensified. In 1176 the first town charter was drawn up.

With the death of Queen Jeanne de Provence in 1382 civil war broke out. At that time Nice was Provence's third major centre after Arles and Marseille. Six years later, the people of Nice chose to go under the protection of the Compte de Savoie, Amédée VII; called the 'recantation' of 1388. Nice became a strategic stronghold for the Counts of Savoie, the town was instrumental in aiding them to defend themselves from the French and their allies.

In 1543 the Turkish hordes tried in vain to conquer Nice. Catherine Ségurane is the inhabitant of Nice whose contribution towards defeating the enemy is most memorable. This washerwoman stirred up a particularly unusual form of defence. Legend has it that she made them flee from carpet beaters while showing them her behind!

The 17th Century saw an explosion of Baroque Art in Nice, the facades were painted with red and yellow oxides, with ochres or Sienese earthy reds; the doorways contrased strongly and the woodwork was painted in cold colours, greens or blues. The restoration of the facades over the last few decades have returned Nice to her former Baroque glory. Other striking examples of this artistic tradition are the churches of the old town such as the Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate.

At the end of the 17th Century, in 1691 and 1705, the French Army destroyed Nice's defences. In 1713, she was handed over to the Duke of Savoie, who had become King of Sardinia.

Between the French Revolution and the Empire, between 1792 and 1814 to be precise, the Alpes-Maritimes region was created and returned to France; as a result Nice returned to French control, except this time it was with the assent of the towns' inhabitants.

With the fall of Napoleon, Nice became Sardinian again; but her language and culture distanced her further and further from Italy. On the 24th March 1860, Napoleon III and Victor-Emmanuel II, King of Sardinia, agreed that Nice would be handed over to France once and for all. It was universally approved by the inhabitants of Nice. A remarkable economic boom ensued; roads were built, the railway arrived, the population exploded and tourism began.