Corsica’s History & Filitosa

Corsica boasts a long, eventful and troubled history. Rarely has it ruled itself, often has it been fought over. The many powers that conquered Corsica ruled it without particular regard for its people or its prosperity. It has frequently been neglected, considered a Mediterranean backwater and treated with indifference. Its varied, multifaceted history has, however, left it with a wealth of treasures, including megalithic archaeological sites, impregnable fortresses, picturesque towns, gastronomic delights and rich cultural identity. Its inhabitants are proud of where they’ve come from, at ease with who they are and fiercely protective of their unique island home.

History of Corsica

The beautiful Mediterranean island of Corsica has a long history that makes it a compelling destination with much for the traveller to see and do. From the ancient Greeks to the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte to the events of the Second World War, the island’s past is both intriguing and moving.

Early settlers

Like many islands of the Mediterranean, the prehistoric era of Corsica dates back millennia and is shrouded in mystery. It is thought that the earliest inhabitants of the region made the island home during the Mesolithic period, with travellers from Sardinia crossing the Strait of Bonifacio around 9000BC. These early settlements endured undisturbed until the arrival of the ancient Greeks at Aleria on the east coast of the island in 566BC.

Such dominion over the island was only temporary. The steady growth of the mighty Roman Empire absorbed Corsica into its realm following the First Punic War in 260BC. From then on, the island was part of the Empire until the Middle Ages, when the eventual collapse of Roman rule led to successive invasions by the Vandals and the Ostrogoths.

Through the Middle Ages

Following the brief rule of the Byzantines, Corsica formed part of the Kingdom of the Lombards, before control was handed to Pope Stephen II. Over the next few centuries, and with the influence of the republic of Pisa, Corsica flourished, with many landmarks – in particular the churches – remaining to this day.

Conflict soon returned to the island, however, with the Genoese and the Aragons clashing over the territory following the end of Pisan rule. The eventual ceding of power by the Genoese to the Bank of Saint George triggered a period of peace lasting until the Corsican Revolution of independence in 1729.

Revolution and the Rise of Napoleon

Lasting 26 years, the battle for independence from Genoa was finally successful in 1755 and the Corsican Republic sat under the leadership of Pasquale Paoli. Later, in 1769, Corsica welcomed its most famous son to the world: Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born in the capital, Ajaccio. It was in the years that followed Napoleon’s rise to power that the Corsican relationship with France was solidified.

Corsica became a French colony in 1768. It had one of Europe’s earliest functioning democracies, but France brutally abolished that, shut down the university, and banned the indigenous language.

Modern Era

Over the next two centuries the island was rendered into a region of France. But resentment smouldered on. A common belief that the French government ignored Corsica because it was an “insignificant” colony led to the first stirrings of the separatist movement in the 1970s, when armed revolt broke out against Corsica’s perceived ‘colonial ruler’.  

The fighters made their mark and wore down the French state. A truce was declared with the central government in May 1988. In addition to formulating reforms designed to grant Corsica greater political and economic autonomy, the French Government released approximately 50 suspected FLNC terrorists in French prisons, and later extended the Bastille Day amnesty to include all convicted Corsican terrorists. The FLNC used the truce to rebuild its clandestine military apparatus.

In the early 1990s, two key nationalist movements formed after the Front national de libération de la Corse (FLNC) split due (partly) to difficulties in sharing the extortion racketeering income amongst its members. Each new formation had its own military and legitimate face: the ex-FLNC-Canal Historique with its A Cuncolta Naziunalista and the ex-FLNC-Canal Habituel and its Mouvement pour l’autodétermination (MPA). The ex-FLNC-Canal Historique had also a number of satellite legitimate organisations around it: such as the Trade Union of Corsican Peasants, The Federation of Independent Workers, the Union of Corsican Workers, etc. Nationalist movements also make significant use of companies to provide them with logistical support, and as way to launder criminal profits or raised funds.

The island is still known to be plagued by violent crime committed by organised gangsters who have been involved in illegal activities which have had huge impact on the islands construction industry, development, and infrastructure endeavours. Despite this, Corsica has become a tourism hotspot, with more than 4 million travelers visiting every summer.

Corsica’s Timeline

6,000 BC – the megalithic archaeological site of Filitosa testifies to the presence of settlements in Corsica at least 8,000 years ago.

c. 1,900 BC – the Torrean civilisation establishes settlements south of Ajaccio. Named after their penchant for building towers, they eventually disappeared in around 600BC.

566 BC – The recorded history of Corsica begins, when Greek colonists from Phocaea in Asia Minor founded the town of Alalia on the east coast. Carthaginians and Etruscans retain control of most of the island.

260 BC – with the end of the First Punic War, Corsica becomes a Roman province, along with neighbouring Sardinia. The Romans exploit the island for its iron and wood, plant vines and extend the salt marshes. The Greek town of Alalia becomes an important Roman colony under the name Aléria.

430 AD – with the Roman Empire in terminal decline, the Vandals attack and take over the island.

522 AD – Corsica becomes part of the Byzantine Empire for a brief time, but is repeatedly attacked by the Vandals, the Ostrogoths and the Lombards. Chaos reigns.

c. 725 AD – the Lombards finally take control of Corsica, but not for long.

774 AD – Charlemagne conquers Corsica and incorporates it into the Holy Roman Empire. It remains under Frankish control, with brief interludes of Lombard rule until the end of the 11th century.

1077 – after years of anarchy, in-fighting between the island’s noble family and wars between the Genoese and the Pisans, Corsica is transferred to the Papal States.

1090 – the Pope grants administration of Corsica to Pisa and so begins almost two centuries of Tuscan influence, the effects of which still survive today in the language, the food, and the way of life. Corsica is divided between the Tuscany-facing east, the so-called Banda di Dentro (or Cismonte), and the western-facing Banda di Fuori (or Pomonte). While the east side of the island thrives, the west remains isolated and relatively backward.

1282 – although Corsica has been under Pisan control, the Genoese have continued to attack the island regularly. Finally, in 1282, the Genoese deal the Pisans a fatal blow at the Battle of Meloria and take control of the island. They hold rule continue until 1450, though the legitimacy of their power is contested by successive Kings of Aragon.

1450 – in a hitherto unheard-of move, Genoa cedes Corsica to its main creditor, the Bank of St. George.

1553 – Corsica is invaded by a combined French and Ottoman fleet, but the great Genoese admiral Andrea Doria wins back the island. By the terms of the Peace of a Cateau-Cambresis in 1559, Corsica is restored to Genoa. It is following this event that the Genoese build a large number of towers along the coast to defend the island against marauding pirates.

1729 – the Corsicans revolt against their Genoese overlords, a struggle which will last for around 40 years before being fully resolved.

1755 – the Corsican Republic, led by Pasquale Paoli, is proclaimed. Pockets of the island, including the fortress towns of Calvi and Bonifacio, remain under Genoese control, however.

1769 – Corsica is conquered by France, who had bought the island from the Genoese in 1767. This purchase, an illegitimate act in the eyes of the Corsican Republic, is validated in the Treaty of Versailles of 1768.

1769 – Napoleon Bonaparte is born in Ajaccio.

1789 – Corsica is officially incorporated into France

1794 – Pasquale Paoli, erstwhile leader of the Corsican Republic, returns from exile in Britain and the Anglo-Corsican Kingdom is established. After two years, however, the British pull-out and French rule resume.

1797 – Napoleon Bonaparte becomes First Consul of the French Republic (technically the leader of France). He appears not to have much nostalgia or love for the island of his birth, however, and during his reign, Corsica is largely neglected.

1814 – As the Napoleonic Wars come to an end, Corsica is occupied by British troops but is returned to France once the monarchy has been restored.

1920 – a separatist movement calling for Corsican autonomy is founded. To confuse matters, another movement calls for annexation by Italy, a sentiment that becomes more popular after Mussolini seizes power in Italy.

1940 – Corsica is incorporated into Vichy France

1942 – Corsica is occupied by Italian and German forces

1943 – Free French forces liberate Corsica in October and the US establish numerous military air force bases there.

1958 – Opération Corse: French paratroopers from the Algerian corps land on Corsica as part of an army coup calling for the restoration of Charles de Gaulle as President of France. No fighting takes place, but the French government resigns on mass and De Gaulle duly becomes President of a new Republic.

1962 – Algeria wins independence from France and hundreds of thousands of “pieds-noirs” (people of French and European ancestry whose families have lived in Algeria for generations) move “back” to France. Around 18,000 are settled in Corsica, an act that stokes the slow-burning resentment of many islanders towards the French government.

1070 onward – Perceived slights against the Corsican people lead to the formation of an increasingly popular nationalist movement and criminal organization called FLNC, whose military wing clashes repeatedly with the police and the French armed forces. This marks the beginning of the era of violence that continues to this day.

Filitosa, Corsica’s Neolithic Treasure

Think of the moai, those famous statues on Easter Island, and you’ll get an idea of what you can expect if you visit the fascinating megalithic site of Filitosa, in southeastern Corsica. Unearthed only in 1948 the site continues to present archaeologists and historians with a great many unanswered questions about Corsica’s prehistory.

What is known, is that Filitosa was inhabited more or less continuously from the 9th millennium BC until the 3rd century BC, when Corsica came under Roman control. This long history of settlement is testified to by a wide variety of archaeological finds belonging to a dizzying number of different periods: simple wooden implements from the Mesolithic Age, flint tools, ceramics, megaliths and grindstones from the Neolithic period, and axes, stone-built towers and carved menhir-statues from the Bronze Age (to name but a few).

The most significant and mysterious finds are 16 sculpted granite menhir-statues, three prehistoric towers and an area of stone houses.

The menhir-statues had a double life. The original, plain megaliths date back to around 4,000 BC. Their significance is unfathomable, but in around 1,200 BC many of them received a makeover. Human features (faces, shoulders, arms, etc.) and weaponry (swords, daggers and helmets), were carved into their granite facades, transforming them into warrior heroes or possibly gods. Coming across these figures as you stroll around the site is a memorable experience.

The stone towers and houses, meanwhile, also date back to around 1,200 BC, and incorporated fragments of smashed menhirs. Archaeologists are still trying to ascertain the exact purpose of the towers but most believe they were either simple watchtowers, strongholds for storing valuables or harvests, or meeting spaces for religious rites.

A museum, opened in 2016, houses a variety of archaeological finds and information about the site, while an on-site brasserie-bar provides refreshments for those who have worked up a megalithic appetite or thirst.  

A visit to Filitosa is heartily recommended, not only for its unique historic significance – children will love the menhir-statues and adults will marvel at the sheer age of things, but also for the natural beauty of its setting amongst the undulating verdant hills of southeast Corsica.

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