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G - 168 : Ligures - A People as Ancient as the Basques?

Updated: Jan 28, 2023

Planning our weeks of sailing is fun. In the first week alone, there are so many cool places to visit, we could double the time from Savona to Marseille. But helas, holidays could always be longer.

Olbia, the Ancient Port (Hyères) was found by Greek Settlers in 325 BC on the Ligurian coast.

When plotting the course along the Ligurian coast (from Savona to Ventimiglia) , I noticed that the Greek settlers in the 7th century BC used the name for a much larger area. For them, Liguria started somewhere in Catalonia around Barcelona and ended in Pisa on the Arno. The Greek called the people living on this coast Ligures. The name “ligus” is of Proto-Indo-European origin, maybe even Basque, and means flat, marshy place. It may have related to Ligurian people who lived in the flat Rhone river delta just west of Massalia (Marseille), also an ancient name of Proto-Indo-European origin.

There are many Greek Settlements from Catalonia to the River Arno in Tuscany. Massalia, today's Marseille, was the most important of these Colonies

The Greek merchants and settlers came to these shores following the prevailing winds in the Tyrrhenian Sea which have a westerly direction.. Liguria with its rugged coast offers many attractive ports. Some were already settled by Ligurians like Genoa - founded around 5’000 BC. Other like Massalia were Greek foundations. The local Ligurian tribes leased the land to the Greek. Unlike in the Black Sea, Sicily and Southern Italy, the Greek did not come as settlers. The rough mountains were not suitable for agriculture. But Liguria had plenty of copper – the main ingredient for making bronze. Both Greek and the Phoenician sailed far west to get those metals. The Phoenicians as far as Spain where they founded Cadiz and from there to Cornwall where tin mines operated until the 19th century AD.

From Marseille, the Greek developed the entire Ligurian Coast. Antipolis became Antibe, Nikaia Nice and Monoikos Monaco. Olbia did not survive

On the Ligurian coast the Greek met a very old people whose origin is still debated today. There are two schools of thoughts. One believes that the Ligures belonged to the European population who was here before the Indo-Europeans, the descendants of the Yamni culture, arrived between 3'000 and 2'000 BC.. The other argues that the Ligures were part of the Indo-European Proto-Celtic group . Both schools present valid arguments. It is impossible for me to judge.

One of the Historian Schools believe that the Ligurians were indigenous people like the Basques and predated the Indo-Europeans arriving from the Asian Steppes around 2'000 BC.

The Ligures lived in small tribes in the mountains and on the sea shore. In the absence of roads, there was little communications between the individual groups. These people shared a common culture and language but never united nor saw the need to develop a writing system. There was no Ligurian king. The highest form of organization was the tribe – which is easily understood once we look at the terrain. High mountains separate the deep valleys -carved by powerful, seasonal rivers. Until the 19th century, east–west traffic was only possible by boat. We know the Ligurians in their small sailing boats were excellent fishermen. There was no need to build larger ships though. This would explain why Ligurians were so hospitable when the Greek settlers arrived. The Greek had means of transportation, a written language and goods which the Ligures had never seen before.

For centuries, small boats and larger ships were built on the Beaches of Noli

The Greek also brought olives and wine to this part of the world. Not wanting to get into an argument with other Italians, I refrain from praising the Ligurian olive oil as the best in the world. The combination of rocky soil, foggy mornings and hot summer days seems to do miracles. Believed that I have one of the best olive oil ever but I may be beaten by Ligurian. Of course, there is no ocean in the Ardèche.

Olive Trees high above the Sea on the Ligurian Coast

But in the first millennium BC, the Ligures did not trade olive oil yet. This came later. Their key products were copper and high-quality timber which the Greek sailors loved. In the warm, humid climate of the Ligurian mountains, oak and chestnut trees grow well and supply high quality, hard wood. Much of my furniture in my house in the South of France is made from chestnut. It is excellent quality. Cut in the higher regions, the wood was floated down river to the pebble and sand beaches. Until 100 years ago, boats were built on these beaches. Difficult to imagine today when umbrellas and beach towels cover the area every summer. But before the time of tourism, sand or pebble beaches had no value. Nothing was growing. It was a piece of desert next to the sea.

The Ligurians had another export article which was very sought after: young and physically fit soldiers which were hired as mercenaries. The story reminds me of Switzerland in the middle ages. For those sons who did not inherit the farm, there was no work. They emigrated as builders or were hired by the Pope, the Dutch and the French. 2’000 years earlier, the story on the Ligurian coast must have been the same. Written records mention Ligurian mercenaries in the service of Sicilian rulers and Carthage. The latter got the Ligurians later in troubles with the Romans.

We know all about this thanks to Greek writers like Strabo. The Ligurians had no use for a writing system and there is little evidence of the culture they left behind. We do not know their language except that most surviving words for their mountains and rivers have no roots in the Indo-European language. But we do know from excavated graves how they worshipped Gods living on the snowy mountain peaks (reminds me of the Greek and Mount Olympus) and from carved stelae a little about their culture of war. But is very little.

Remains from a Ligurian Grave found in Genoa

Stuck away in their mountain villages - as picturesque as they were a few thousand years ago - the Ligurians were left to themselves. Nobody was interested in controlling their territory until some Ligurian tribes allied themselves with Hannibal, Rome’s nemesis. Being situated between Roman Gaul (Gallia Narbonnensis) and Italy, the Ligurian coast was too important to be left in the hands of Rome’s enemies. The Ligurian tribes allied with Carthage were worn down in an 80-year war. Romans never penetrated far into the mountains though but settled in a string of coastal ports which served both as military garrisons and market places. Over the centuries, Liguria was Romanized. Almost nothing of the old Ligurian culture and language remained. The Ligurian Museum for Archeology in Genoa is charming, but it has really few items to exhibit.

Apricale, a typical Village nestled high up in the Ligurian Montains

What remains are the Greek or Ligurian names when we sail this summer. Antipolis became Antibe, Nikaia Nice and Monoikos Monaco

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