The small town that we now know as Vence has been built, destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again over and over and over throughout history. The streets that the tourists and visitors walk today, the houses where generations of locals have lived their lives, the shops full of local and regional products, the restaurants where families gather for an evening meal, the shaded squares where old men relax on benches and children play, the Cathedral and chapels where the faithful worship, the buildings that house museums, government offices, doctors, lawyers and so much more… all of this is a living testament to the enduring determination of the Vençois to not only survive but to prosper, expand and flourish throughout the years and centuries, no matter what obstacles and hardships they encountered and suffered through.
Down every street and alley that winds through the city are the ghosts of thousands upon thousands of souls who lived here previously. Many would still recognize parts of the city as it stands today, for in certain sections little has changed for hundreds of years. It takes less than ten minutes to walk around the ramparts of the old town but inside these walls lie countless stories that will never be told reaching back well over a thousand years. Before it was known as Vence it had names such as Vensa, Vencia, Vintia and Vintium.
Barbarians, plagues, sieges, famines, wars and more have, at one time or another, attempted to dominate or even end the life that courses through this unique and extraordinary town. In the end all have failed. Situated on a small plateau between the vast expanse of the Mediterranean Sea and the grand peaks of the Alpes, Vence remains today a vibrant jewel on the Côte d’Azur unlike any other city, town or village in the south of France. The history of Vence is long and distinguished, it has been celebrated in countless books and articles over the years. This is my small attempt to gather together some of the basic information and make it available to what I hope might be a new audience.
Most of my information comes from two sources:
Immortal Village by Donald Culross Peattie, a wonderful book that has been out of print for many years now, but which can still be found in used bookstores and on the web. It’s written in English, so it’s quite accessible for English speakers. I have digitized the book and you can download it in PDF form here on our website.
Histoire de Vence et du Pays Vençois by Georges Castellan and others. Written in French it’s a very thorough history of Vence and the area. You can download a Kindle version at Amazon and used copies can be found here and there.
This first article covers Prehistory through the Dark Ages. I will be adding new articles in the near future for other periods.
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While there is no archaeological trace of Vence before Roman times, it is clear that the land where the town now stands has been inhabited by man as far back as the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, which is thought to have begun nearly two and half million years ago. We can say, without doubt, that man has been here in this area for basically as long as man has existed. Neanderthal man was certainly here for many hundreds of thousands of years and some of his primitive tools have survived. Bones from early Homo Sapiens (who replaced and/or assimilated the Neanderthals eighteen to twenty-five thousand years ago) have been found, very well preserved, in caves near Grimaldi, Italy, not far from Menton (about a half hour away from Vence) and very close to the border of France. There are numerous caves in the great baous overlooking Vence and no doubt they have provided shelter for man for hundreds of thousands of years. Remains from the Mousterian Period (about 50,000BC to 40,000BC) have been found in caves near Vence.
A New Age of Sheep and Wheat
Neolithic, or New Stone Age, man were the first humans to begin domesticating animals (dogs, cattle and more), growing crops and weaving flax into linen upon a loom, approximately 10,000 years ago. Winter wheat which could be planted in the autumn, before the seasonal rains, and harvested in spring or summer was a primary crop. Some of the festivals centered around the sowing and reaping of wheat still exist today, though admittedly in different forms (Easter, Halloween, May Day, Midsummer’s Day). The days of hunting, drifting and roaming were now coming to and end. Communities grew around settlements where farming and tending herds was the norm. For thousands of years the Neolithic Ligurians lived here hunting, grazing sheep and goats, and farming wheat and corn. Historians have described them as “small in size, but robust.” Their lives were undoubtedly difficult due to the rocky ground of the area which made farming challenging and laborious. Sometime around 3000 BC, near the beginning of the Bronze Age, a warrior tribe known then as the Gauls (or Celts) migrated down from the north and the two tribes began to mingle and blend which gave us the Celto-Ligurians.
One of the new tribes born from these unions was the Nerusii, a small stone-worshiping clan who would occupy the territory for quite some time. Small fortified habitats from this era (often referred to as oppidums and castellaras) have been found all over the area and especially on the Baous Blanc and the Baous Noir where eleven such structures have been identified. An oppidum was generally a permanent place of residence, the home of a small tribe with a king or ruler. Other rows and circles of stones that may have once served as some sort of religious shrines can also be found today. The area that we now call Vence was situated on an ancient road (really more of a mule track) that connected the coast with the hinterlands beyond Vence: Coursegoules, Gréolières, Thorenc, the Col de Bleyne, St. Auban and finally the Rhône Valley. This location made Vence an important stop for travelers along this route.
Eventually Phoenician traders began to make their way across the Mediterranean and up into the hills around Vence, looking to trade, buy and sell their wares and goods that the Neursii had never seen: beads and iron pots, colorful dyed fabrics, mirrors made of polished bronze, iron knives and swords. They couldn’t have known at the time, but their isolation and innocence was coming to a quick and brutal end. More and more strangers would appear on the outskirts of Vence and for the first time the Nerussi are found in the records kept by more advanced civilizations. Though they traveled throughout the area on missions of trade the Phoenicians never settled or constructed any establishments along the Provencal coast.
The Phocaean Greeks were also active around this time, sailing west throughout the Mediterranean, some of the first importers and exporters of their time. As they pushed farther westward they established cities along the coast: Massilia (Marseille) sometime around 600BC and Antipolis (Antibes) and Nikaia (Nice) sometime around 340BC. There is no evidence to be found that the Greeks ever settled in Vence but it is quite likely they made numerous trips into the hills to trade with the Nerusii and other local tribes. They were responsible for introducing the region to olive trees, grape vines, fig trees and many other plants that we now take for granted and assume have always been here.
Encounters between the Greeks and the Ligurian tribes, including the Nerusii, were not always peaceful. There were numerous altercations and clashes over the years, resulting in the Greeks asking for help from the Romans in 155BC. Two battles not far from Vence, somewhere along the Loup River, saw the Romans defeat the Ligurians in what would mark the beginning of the end for the Nerusii.
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The Roman Empire Claims Vence
The great Roman emperor Augustus waged a series of battles, beginning around 25BC and ending in 14BC, to clear most of the Côte d’Azur of the Ligurian tribes and settle it with Romans. The Nerusii, along with over 40 other local tribes, were defeated during this campaign and there is no mention of them thereafter. You can find their name (along with forty-four other tribes) engraved on the Trophy of Augustus, the magnificent victory monument erected in honor of Gaius Julius Ceasar in La Turbie around 6 or 7BC.
The “province” of “Alps Maritimae” was thus formed and Vence became a Roman city, known as Vintium, and for hundreds of years it prospered as it lay on an important Roman road, the Via Julia, that connected La Turbie with Grasse and perhaps beyond. No sources exist today that can provide us direct information on what Vence looked like under Roman rule. Most likely at one time it was a “colony” and then later a “municipality.” Vintium had a senate, a famous temple dedicated to Mars, a forum (most likely located in what is now Place Clemenceau) and even an aqueduct. The location and climate induced many Romans to settle here. Evidence of the Roman city are everywhere, even today, with over twenty known Roman relics that have survived the ravages of time.
The archeologist Edmond Blanc spent a good deal of time completely and thoroughly researching all the Roman remains still to be found in Vence. At the entrance to the current cathedral there are two Roman “dedication” stones, one on the left and one on the right that date back to the early 3rd century. Embedded in the outer walls of the cathedral are stone funeral dedications and a stone that celebrates a “tauroble,” an old sacrificial ceremony. A dedication to the emperor Publius Cornelius Licinius Valerianus, again dating from the 3rd century, can be found embedded in the corner of a wall along rue Saint-Lambert.
One of the most beautiful of the Roman artifacts is what’s left of an ancient sarcophagus carved from Luni marble, part of which now serves as the front of an altar for the Saint Veran chapel inside the Cathedral. The central panel includes busts of a deceased couple, a child, a vine, a bird and some grapes. The two end panels of the sarcophagus have been sealed in the walls of the Cathedral very close to the chapel. They represent two Roman philosophers, one of which is holding a scroll in his hands.
Two Roman columns that also date from the 3rd century can be found, one in Place Grand Jardin and the other in Place Godeau. These columns are the subject of much historical debate with some theorizing they were part of an ancient temple, others that they were some type of mile markers and still others claiming they were gifts from the city of Marseille. Other stone artifacts are stored in the basement of the former castle and the Chapel of the White Penitents.
The Coming of Christianity
The story of how Christianity first came to Vence is not entirely clear. The Roman emperor Constantine was the first to officially recognize the religion (in 313) and convert to it. Gradually the power of the new church began to usurp the power of the Roman emperors. Profound changes occurred throughout the empire and led to its eventual collapse in the year 476. The centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire are notoriously known as the Dark Ages because so little of what happened in those times is now known to us. Legends, tales, myths and stories of martyrs and saints abound, but the truth is a mystery that will likely remain hidden in the shadows forever. What we do know is that over the next four or five hundred years the entire area, from the major towns and cities to the most remote hamlets and villages, was converted to Christianity. Most of the Roman cities, of which Vence was one, became seats of Christian dioceses. Saint Trophimus of Arles is generally thought to have first introduced Christianity to Vence and the surrounding areas.
St. Audinus is said to have become the first Bishop of Vence in the year 363. An ancient Roman temple to Cybele was torn down around this time and the first Christian church was erected in its place (possibly using the very same stones). Historical records show that in 376 St. Eusebius, the then Bishop of Vence, accompanied the bishops of Arles and Nice to a council in Aquileia. Honoratus founded a monastery on the Lérins Islands off the coast of Cannes which is still there today. Many of the Bishops who would eventually rule over Vence would come from this monastery. Though to date no concrete archaeological evidence has been found it is considered likely that Vence had a cathedral, a baptistery and an episcopal palace beginning sometime in the 5th century. It is thought that the cathedral was on the same site as the current one but there is no way of knowing for certain. Intricate carved fragments that have survived from a church in the Carolingian period (the late 700s to the early 800s) can be seen today attached to the inner walls of the current cathedral.
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The Barbarians Are At The Gate
Shortly after Christianity established a foothold in Vence (and throughout the south of France) disaster and catastrophe came following close behind. In 411 the Visigoths appeared on the landscape slaughtering, looting and destroying everything in their path. Though they were initially defeated in Marseille they returned in 420, 430 and 434. The Burgundians followed next in 443, arriving from the Rhône Valley and Vence, like all of the neighboring lands, submitted to their strong Christian rule.
One of the most important figures in the history of Vence, St. Veranus, a former monk at Lérins arrived on the scene as the new Bishop of Vence in 451. He is most famous for his encounter with Euric the Goth who marched into Provence in 476 intent on destroying all the vestiges of Christianity which did not comport with his. Euric was an Arian Christian, an intelligent, well educated man, but alas, Vence, its Bishop and its citizens were among those who held different Christian beliefs. The story is told that St. Veranus walked quietly to Euric’s camp near the mouth of the Loup River and calmly pleaded for mercy, sympathy and pity towards his beloved town of Vence. For reasons no one knows the great warrior assembled his men and moved away from Vence. To this day it is considered one of the great miracles in the history of Vence and St. Veranus is now one of the two patron saints of the town (along with St. Lambert).
In the year 510 the sovereignty of Provence was passed on to Theodoric, the king of the Italian Ostrogoths and the Burgundian and Visigothic rule came to an end. For over two hundred years the lands of Provence were part the Merovingian Dynasty. It is widely accepted that a church stood in the same place where the current cathedral does today, but there is no archaeological proof of this. In 537 Clovis the Frank purchased Provence and for a time Vence was ruled by the Frankish kings until the Lombards swept over the Alpes in 573 intent to destroy anything that was related to Rome: Roman bridges, theatre, columns, aqueducts, it didn’t matter. Vence was sacked and the residents retreated to the small fortress on the baou until Bishop Deuterus persuaded them to return and rebuild the town.
The next wave of invaders came not from the mountains but from the sea to the south: Saracens invading from North Africa through Spain. In 732 the monastery at Lérins was completely destroyed and over five hundred monks were massacred. The Arabian invaders settled into a long residence in Provence. They introduced the “abaran” olive trees to grow alongside the Greek ones, they brought rice, sugar cane, saffron, safflower, date palms and much, much more that we now take for granted. Windmills were introduced and the land was irrigated. Astronomy, geography, botany, poetry, music and much more blossomed and thrived under this new Arab rule.
We know the Carolingian Dynasty (named after Charlemagne) began consolidating power in the 8th century and reached its peak when Charlemagne was crowned the first Emperor of the Romans in 800. Sometime around this period the Merovingian cathedral was restored (or reconstructed) and we have actual physical evidence of the new Carolingian cathedral in the form of carved fragments which are now displayed on the interior walls of the current cathedral. In 843, at the Treaty of Verdun, the Carolingian Empire was divided between the heirs of Louis the Pious and his eldest son Lothair was awarded the territory of Provence.
Meanwhile the Saracens continued to threaten and terrorize the area. Nice was sacked in 813 and the Saracens enjoyed a particularly strong period between 838 and 869. After installing a permanent base in Freinet they continued to ravage eastern Provence for decades. Fréjus fell in 916. Little is known about the fate of Vence at this time. Some historians believe the inhabitants fled to fortifications in Saint-Laurent, others are convinced the city was never completely abandoned. The Saracens were finally defeated in 972 and the lands of eastern Provence were divided between Guillaume and Roubaud.
Coming next the Middle Ages and The Renaissance.