As in Provence and the French Riviera, Greek navigators plied the coast of Languedoc-Roussillon in ancient times and set up trading posts, such as Agde. In 600 BC, they introduced grapevines to Roussillon. In 121 BC, the Romans invaded the region: they built the Via Domitia, a passage from Italy to Spain, and founded Narbone. Béziers and Nîmes became cities under Roman rule and roman buildings such as Nîmes’ Maison Carrée, the Arènes and the Tour Magne, as well as Aigues-Mortes’ fortifications still grace these cities’ skylines. The greatest architectural achievement of the Roman era, however, is the 35-mile long aqueduct that carried water from the region’s uplands to Nîmes. It crosses the Gard River over the spectacular Pont du Gard (www.lepontdugard.com), whose three tiers of elegant arches soar 158 feet into the air and stretch 900 feet across the water. It took the Romans 15 years to complete the edifice.
The Middle Ages gave way to a long period of instability. At the end of the 12th century, a breakaway religious sect, the Cathars, spread their doctrine throughout the southern part of the region, in defiance of Roman Catholic ideology. Several popes and French noblemen led a 20-year war against the Cathar heretics, rallying forces into holy crusades and capturing Cathar fortresses that can still be seen in Roussillon today. In the 13th century, Montpellier and Perpignan prospered under the rule of the Kings of Majorca, who later sold the two cities and the Roussillon to the French crown.
In the 17th and 18th century, there dawned a new era of peace: towns were enlarged and adorned with dazzling architecture and, thanks mainly to the development of the wine industry, large farms (or mas) were built, along with stately country residences and seaside villas.