La Turbie & its Incredible Trophy
From a distance, it’s hard to miss the massive creamy-white limestone ruins rising up from La Turbie . If you’re not familiar with the town, La Turbie is the small, local village perched on the mountain overlooking Monaco, along the Grand Corniche. Unlike the nearby town of Eze, it is somewhat gritty and offers little excitement for tourists. But it hasn’t always been this way…
By 14 BC, Roman Emperor Augustus’ forces had asserted their power and conquered all of the many Ligurian tribes in a series of bitter skirmishes. The Roman Senate voted to celebrate this by building the victory monument which became one of the greatest artifacts of the Roman world: the Tropaea Augusti (Trophy of Augustus).
This trophy monument was built in the center of a village that would be renamed to La Turbie (the name derived from Tropaea, meaning ‘trophy’). The monument was completed in less than one year. At the time the trophy was built there were no houses or walls around the Trophy to impede the difficult task of transporting the limestone to the site from the Roman quarry just 800 meters away, but it still makes one wonder how they managed to accomplish such a task.
The triumphal monument had a square base, each side over 130 feet wide. Set in a walled enclosure, the monument was a magnificent tower some 160 feet high, clad in dazzling white Carrara marble, surmounted by a heroic statue of Augustus. Twenty-four Doric columns carried statues of the Imperial Family, and on the west face of the rectangular podium, the names of the forty-five conquered tribes who populated the Alps are inscribed on a plaque with figures of enslaved ‘barbarians’ on either side — as if daring them ever to make another attempt to resist Roman occupation.
Even today it’s not hard to imagine the fear this inspired.
Its impact was not instantly effective. Resistance from those tribes was a by-product of bullying Roman rule for over a hundred years more. Even so, the Roman tide flowed inexorably in. Rome was an ultimately irresistible force, and the Trophy was its symbol.
It was testament to the integrity of Roman construction and the skill of its craftsmanship that Augustus’s Trophy at La Turbie long survived the collapse of the empire whose achievement it symbolized. As the Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages, it saw other uses. In Saracen times it was a fort, in the Renaissance a castle keep and watchtower.
It survived until the Enlightenment and the arrival of modern civilization when, at the instigation of the Prince of Monaco, in 1705 maréchal Louis d’Aubusson de La Feuillade blew it up with gunpowder. The stones were then used to build houses in La Turbie and the 18th century church Saint-Michel.
Later, when the French troops invaded the County of Nice, the Tropaeum Alpium was further dismantled by order of Louis XIV, as were other castles and fortresses in the region (Nice, Èze, Sainte-Agnès), to erase signs of the Roman occupation. Napoleon III visited it and ordered that any remaining fragments bearing inscriptions be removed and displayed in the Museum of St Germain-en-Laye.
The Riviera – at first, as James Pope-Hennessy put it, ‘a rather uncomfortable corridor to Italy’ – was so rich in Roman remains that in the eighteenth century it gradually became an object of interest in its own right. When the first modern travelers appeared in the aftermath of the Seven Years War in 1763, they saw little more than the Trophy’s foundations. They were fascinated, though, by this ruined emblem of imperial Rome, because they saw their country as Rome’s successor.
Many of the earliest modern visitors came to La Turbie, then marveled in Cimiez and Fréjus at the crumbling aqueducts, amphitheaters, temples and baths. They were fascinated by these tokens of great civilization and by its fate.
In 1873, C.B. Black sang the praises of the view from La Turbie in his guide to the coast – a prospect that can have scarcely changed since Augustus came to inspect the great symbol of his achievement at about the time of the birth of Christ: “The whole coastline lies before us … as far as the hills above San Remo, headland after headland running out into blue water, white little towns nestling in the depths of sunny bays or clinging to the brown hillsides, villas peeping from the dark olive masses, sails gleaming against the purple sea.”
In 1865, the trophy was listed historic monument. In 1929, it was partially restored thanks to American financier and philanthropist Edward Tuck. He donated the funds that enabled them to tear down 32 houses to reclaim the stones from the monument. They recovered 3,000 fragments and reconstructed the monument as much as was possible, from those fragments. Many stones from the monument still remain in the old town and the church.
The Edward Tuck Museum was built next to the Trophy, and includes fragments, plaster molds, old photographs documenting the monument and its reconstruction. It also includes a 1:20 scale model of the reconstructed Trophy. Another 1:20 scale model is found in Room IX of the Museo della Civiltà Romana in Rome.
Today, it is La Turbie’s main tourist attraction and both the small museum and the monument’s stone remains can be toured (check this visitor information). From the highest point of the monument you can see across the entire French Riviera, from Estérel to the coast of Italy.
La Turbie also has a two-star Michelin restaurant located in the L’Hostellerie Jérôme. The inn mixes the character of old stones (from a 13C Cistercian refectory), spruce Italian-style decor in the restaurant area (with a vault painted in the Pompeii style), and revisited Southern French cuisine based on remarkable produce (local fish, vegetables from local growers). It also boasts a wine cellar with 30,000 bottles. Upstairs, there are three upscale guest rooms with upcycled furniture, Italian showers, and (of course) an excellent breakfast.
It’s worth taking an hour to visit La Turbie, see the remains, and walk through the narrow lanes in the old town (which is not accessible by car, so you’ll need to park in the lot in the center of town and walk into the old area). That said, if you’re not interested in the monument, your time would be better spent elsewhere as La Turbie is an otherwise uninspiring and poorly maintained town.