STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

La Via Julia Augusta
The Ancient Roman Road Connecting Italy with Southern France

December 20, 2023

I parked my car next to the small chapel and opened the door for Myla, my seven year old border collie. She jumped eagerly to the road, ready for our next adventure. Together we were retracing an old Roman road from the Côte d’Azur border town of Menton to the perched village of La Turbie. At this stop we were looking for an abandoned quarry that once produced stones which the Romans used not only for the road but for other buildings and structures as well. In particular, much of the stone harvested from this quarry went into building the magnificent Trophée d’Augustus (Trophy of Augustus), a huge monument that towered above the entire region proclaiming Rome’s power and domination.

La Via Julia Augusta, constructed in the first century BC, is a Roman road that runs from current day Piacenza, Italy to Arles, France. Part of a vast network of roads throughout the Roman Empire, in its day it was an exceptional example of Roman ingenuity that played a crucial role in the development of what is now Southern France. Begun in 13 BC by the first Roman emperor Caesar Augusta (also known as Octavian) the road originally ran only to the small village of La Turbie, situated on a hill above Monaco. It was from this point that Augustus waged several military campaigns to essentially wipe-out the local indigenous tribes in the area. By 6 BC he had succeeded and a huge monument was built and dedicated to him, the Trophy of Augustus.

Later Roman emperors continued to extend the road and it eventually reached the town of Arles where it joined the oldest Roman road in Gaul, the Via Domitia. However, by the 5th century AD the road was in a state of ruin, neglected for many years and left to decay on the ground. It would not be until the time of Napoleon that large stretches of the road were repaired, restored and once again put into use.

In this article I’m going to look closely at a very small portion of the ancient road, the section that ran from Menton (on the Italian border) to La Turbie. I found a small fold-out brochure (created by the Communauté de la Riviera Française) about the road in the tourist office in La Turbie and it inspired me to follow the short route they have set up and to learn more about this old road.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Via Julia Augusta
The side of the folding brochure with the map outlining the eight stops on the route.
Courtesy of Communauté de la Riviera Française

You’ll need a car to explore these sites. The route begins in Menton at the far eastern edge of the town just next to the Italian border. It then continues into the Old Town of Menton, the Palais Carnolès in western Menton, up to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Beausoleil and finally La Turbie. The entire route is only about 20 kilometers long, but expect to spend at least 4 hours (maybe even more) traveling to each stop and exploring the area. This route is an excellent introduction to the far eastern portion of the Côte d’Azur if you’ve never spent much time there. Even if you think you are very familiar with the area I can almost guarantee that you will discover several new attractions you were not aware of previously.

Il était une voie… (Once upon a road…)

This small little brochure measures only 10cm by 10cm when folded and 30cm by 20cm when unfolded. It contains six panels. One side contains some background information about the road while the other side outlines an eight part journey along the route. At each stop there is a plaque with information and a QR code which you can use to watch a video online. In this article I have recapped the information contained in each plaque and included each of the videos with a full English translation.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Via Julia Augusta
The side of the folding brochure with information about the road and the route. Full translation below.
Courtesy of Communauté de la Riviera Française

Panel 1:

Community of the French Riviera
Once upon a way (road), in the footsteps of the Romans
Self-guided discovery trail & interactive signs

Panel 2:

The Via Julia Augusta, an exceptional Roman route.
Travel through the French Riviera and discover along the way the traces of a past life, that of the Romans.

Panel 3:

A route that crosses the territory and tells its story.
In Roman times, the Via Julia Augusta linked Rome to Gaul. Today, it reveals an exceptional history and heritage. Over the centuries, it has not disappeared, neither from our landscape nor from our lifestyles. Its initial purpose to unite people and communities is still present. Between the sea and the mountains, it marks out several remarkable sites on the French Riviera: the long street of Menton, the tomb of Villa Lumone on Cap Martin in Roquebrune, the oppidum of Mont des Mules in Beausoleil and the Trophée des Alpes in La Turbie.

Panel 4:

A tribute to the people who have marked the history of the route.
Following the Via Julia Augusta is an opportunity to dive into a period of history during which many characters have particularly distinguished themselves. Its name recalls the two emperors Julius Cesar and Agusta. On these 8 stages, you also meet Tiberious, the god of Mercury, the Mentonian naturalist Stanislas Bonfils and even the architect Vitruve

Panel 5:

A fun and interactive archaeological journey.
From the Italian border, the Via Julia Augusta route crosses the towns of Menton, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Beausoleil and La Turbie. On this route, 8 interactive panels equipped with NFC technology will help you discover the construction and history of the Via Julia Augusta by combining texts, photos and 3D animations to view on your smartphone.

Panel 6:

Information and details
French Riviera Community
Heritage Valuation Department
Cultural and Tourist
16 rue Villarey 06500 MENTON
04 93 41 80 30 – riviera-francaise.fr

This route was designed with the help of the municipalities
from Menton, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Beausoleil and La Turbie.
The 3D animated film Once Upon a Way, the Voyage of Antonius
was produced in partnership with the Departmental Council
of the Alpes Maritimes and the Center of National Monuments.


Stop One – Menton – Chemin du Bellochio : a road under construction

At 21 Promenade Reine Astrid in Menton you’ll find the entrance to the Jardin Maria Serena, a wonderful little garden, that is, unfortunately not very easy to visit as it is rarely open to the public. Next to the entrance to the garden is the first plaque. Titled Chemin du Bellochio : une voie en construction (a road under construction), this section takes a look at how these Roman roads were designed and constructed.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Via Julia Augusta
The first plaque on our journey, located in front of the Jardin Maria Serena in Menton.

This part of Menton is known as the Garavan neighborhood and there is a train station very close by, Gare Menton Garavan. Today it is almost impossible to follow the original route of the road, but traces can be seen here and there (if you know exactly where to look and have access). The road was originally about 1.2 meters wide in this section and was used extensively over the years. The sign features a reproduction of an old map from 1811 where the road is referred to as “Chemin de Nice à Vintimille” (Road from Nice to Vintimille). It ran very close to the coast following a path that was later used for the railroad.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Entrance to Jardin Maria Serena
The entrance to the Jardin Maria Serena where our journey begins.

How These Roman Roads Were Built

Some of the more famous Roman roads, such as the one known as Via Appia which ran from Rome to Brindisi, featured tight, interlocking stones that provided a very strong, flat surface. However, this was not the case for all the roads. This type of structure was mostly used only for the entrance into cities or for especially important sections. More often the roads were simply covered with gravel and/or dirt, as was the case with most of the Via Julia Augusta.

It took a lot of planning and work to construct these roads. First Roman engineers would map out the exact route using sophisticated measuring instruments. Then the track had to be completely cleared of all rocks, trees and other vegetation. Workers used shovels and pickaxes to dig down until a suitable depth was reached to ensure the stability of the road. This trench was then filled with various materials to create several layers of support. Finally a very slightly domed surface was used to help with water runoff.

Watch the short video below (in French) to get a better understanding of how the roads were built. Don’t worry, I’ve provided a translation of the video underneath it.

Il était une voie…
Chemin du Bellochio : une voie en construction

Video Translation: The 17th day of walking from the Golden Milestone, where all roads of Rome begin. I have crossed the Alps, and my feet finally touch the famous Via Julia Augusta, one of the many roads that make up the sturdy network of the Empire. Along the way, I made a stop near a road construction site. The surveyors verified the alignment of this road using a groma. Then, they ensured its levelness with a corobate. The laborers, on the other hand, have dug a wide trench in which they will arrange the different layers of materials that will allow the road to last for at least 1000 years. After a thick layer of mortar at the bottom of the trench, they place the stones, gravel, and then a layer of sand. After compacting the soil, they lay the slabs or stones, depending on the importance of the road section, then define the road’s edges and add drainage ditches.


Stop Two – Menton – Place Georges Clemenceau : the ford crossings

Follow the D6327 road west towards the Old Town of Menton. The road runs directly alongside the sea and there are beautiful views of Menton and the coastline. After about 2.5 kilometers look for signs indicating the Vieille Ville Parking garage (or park anywhere that is convenient). It’s a very short walk to the Place Georges Clemenceau, located at the foot of the old town. In the north-east corner of the square you’ll find the second plaque.

This part of the old town is full of shops, boutiques, restaurants, cafés and much more. If it’s convenient you might want to consider spending a little time looking around.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Via Julia Augusta
Plaque II, located in Place Georges Clemenceau in Menton.

The Via Julia Augusta ran through the center of what is now the Old Town of Menton, passing very close to what is now Rue Longue. Heading west towards Roquebrune-Cap-Martin the road passed in front of the current Place des Logettes and then continued alongside the current rue Saint-Michel, though a bit closer to the sea.

The Romans were forced to deal with many challenges along the way. Numerous rivers and streams emptied out of the Alps into the Mediterranean Sea and building a road over these obstacles was difficult, expensive and time consuming. Today a small road named Rue Trenca runs from the north to the south in Menton, ending very close to the Plage de Fossan. In Roman times a small river, the Fossan, flowed where the road is today. To avoid building a bridge here the Romans created an apparatus that was quicker and less expensive. Something we might today call a “ford.” These fords made it possible to cross small waterways on foot, on the back of an animal or in a small cart.

To create these fords a section of the river where the underlying rock was as hard and stable as possible was located. Flat stones were placed in the water to build a crossing and the land on either side was paved with a gradual slope. The stones might reach slightly above the surface of the river creating a relatively dry path or they might be slightly submerged in which case a shallow portion of water must be traversed. Though these fords were quicker and cheaper to build than actual bridges they required constant maintenance seeing as how they were built in the actual river and subject to the continual destructive flow of the water.

These fords were considered by the Romans to be similar to a passage between the world of the living and that of the dead. On each side a small votive altar stood with various devotions to the god for which it was dedicated. Travelers were expected to make an offering to insure safe passage over the ford. Coins, weapons and ceramics were the most common items, usually thrown into the torrent itself.

The most common god to which these fords were dedicated was Mercury, the son of Jupiter and the nymph Maia. The god of commerce and the protector of travelers, Mercury was also the messenger of the other gods. His name comes from the Latin “merx” which means merchandise. Visual representations usually show him with a purse, a traveler’s hat known as a “petasus,” winged sandals and a caduceus (a winged staff with two snakes entwined around it).

At least two other similar fords built by the Romans were still somewhat visible as late at the 1960s: one through the Gorgio River in Menton and another through the Vallon d’Arma in Beausoleil. The second plaque contains a reproduction of what the ford over the Fossan River would have looked like.

Watch the short video below (in French, but I’ve translated it) to see how these fords were built and used.

Il était une voie…
Place Georges Clemenceau : les passages à gué

Video Translation: I’m walking along the sea on the Via Julia Augusta, and aside from the fishing boats I spot in the distance, I’m crossing plains that seem to be occupied by farms and other houses. When I reach the river, I come across a somewhat unique structure. It’s a ford, a passage that will allow me to easily cross this watercourse. I know that the Via Julia has several like this one, all of which require a lot of maintenance. Judging by the wear on the stones beneath my feet, this ford must have been here for quite some time and known to travelers. To ensure my journey goes smoothly, I toss a coin into the river as tradition invites us to do.


Stop Three – Menton – From the Villa Rustica to the Palais Carnolès

It’s a short two kilometer drive from the Place Georges Clemenceau to the next stop, the Palais Carnolès Garden. Follow Avenue de la Madone west until you reach Rue Paul Morillot. The entrance to the garden will be on your right. There are plenty of places to park along the road in this area. You’ll find the third plaque at the entrance to the garden.

The “palace” here is the former summer residence of the Grimaldi princes of Monaco. The garden, originally constructed in 1725, houses the most important citrus collection in Europe (over 137 varieties). You’ll find lots more interesting plants as well a big selection of statues located in this one hectare reserve. If you have time I would highly encourage you to take a walk through the garden after visiting the plaque.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Via Julia Augusta
Plaque III, located at the entrance to the Palais Carnolès in Menton.

Villa Rustica

During Roman times, the area where the current Palais Carnolès exists was most likely the site of a large Roman agricultural estate then known as Villa Rustica or Maritima. Olive trees and grape vines probably filled the neighboring fields with the buildings of this estate lining the road. These old buildings are now long gone and the land where the crops grew is now home to hundreds of businesses and homes. There are, however, two items that remain from this time that give us a glimpse into life here in Roman times.

Tourist guides and historical documents from the 1800s talk about a funerary inscription found near the Galléani de Saint-Ambroise chapel which is located just behind the Palais Carnolès. The text from the inscription mentions a Roman citizen named Publius Metilius Tertullinus from the 3rd century. His family belonged to the high-ranking provincial officials who owned numerous agricultural properties in the area and he himself held a municipal office in Albenga, an Italian coastal city between Menton and Genoa.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Entrance to the Palais Carnolès in Menton
Entrance to the Palais Carnolès

It’s likely that this tomb was located near one of the properties his family owned, probably not far from the Via Julia Augusta. The inscription on the funeral tablet reads, “To Publius Metillus Tertullinus, son of Publius Laurens Lavinas, called Publius Metilius Tertullinus Vennonianus, his son placed (this monument) as a vow.”

The second piece of evidence we have from this era is a well which utilized a “noria,” a type of waterwheel with pots or buckets that was used to scoop water into a small aqueduct, most likely to irrigate the fields of grapes and olive trees.

Protection of the Gods

Most Roman roads were marked with small places of worship where people could stop and pay homage to the gods for safe travels. It was not just the protection of Mercury that they sought, but also the safety and security that could be provided by lesser known deities such as Lares Viales and Lares Compitales. Lares Viales was a Roman god associated with the protection of roads and travelers while Lares Compitales looked over rural communities.

It is quite possible that the nearby Chapel of the Madonna (la Chapelle de la Madone), which is known to have existed at least since the 11th century, was built on the site of one of these ancient shrines. Many Christian chapels and churches occupy the same space as a previous Roman structure that came before them.

The Noria Tower

Located just behind the Palais Carnolès is the Noria Tower, also known as the Saint-Ambroise Tower. This hexagonal tower houses a well. We don’t know a lot about this particular structure. It’s existence is first noted on Napoleon 1st’s 1811 communal cadastre (a plan outlining lots of property). The well certainly seems to predate the tour over it and it’s quite possible that this well dates back to Roman times.

Watch the short video below (in French, but I’ve translated it) to learn a bit more about these estates.

Il était une voie…
De la Villa Rustica au Palais Carnolès

Video Translation: Continuing on my way to the Trophy of the Alps, I stop along the Via Julia Augusta near a property that appears exceptionally vast. Its crops seem well-maintained, and given the expanse of this estate, it surely belongs to a magistrate of the region. I take this opportunity to pause and quench my thirst. These properties house numerous water sources necessary for irrigating all these crops, and travelers are fortunate to be able to stop there. Thanks to Mercury, the god of travelers, I can continue my journey along the road. I hope to come across more water sources like this one before I reach the Trophy.


Stop Four – Roquebrune-Cap-Martin – The Tomb of Lumone and Funeral Rites

Our next stop takes us out of Menton and to the edge of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. It’s a very short 3 kilometer drive from the Palais Carnolès to the corner of 41 Avenue Paul Doumer. There are usually a few places to park along the street here.

If you are just passing by in a car you might not even notice the small crumbling stone wall with three arcades and vaults that sits on the corner of the street behind some trees and bushes. It’s all that is left of what was once may have been a much larger Roman necropolis. Now known as The Tomb of Villa Lumone it is first mentioned in a very old travel manual from the 4th century AD known as The Itinerary of Antoine.

You’ll find the fourth plaque just in front of this structure.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Via Julia Augusta
Plaque IV, located at 41 avenue Paul Doumer in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.

The Tomb of Villa Lumone

This tomb holds the remains of a Roman individual whose identity has been lost in the winds of time, though it’s almost certain that he (or she) was a person of some importance. It’s believed that a funerary inscription (now missing), which would have certainly provided the identity of this person, was placed at the top of the structure, just above the central arch. You can see the rectangular spot where it was once displayed. Inside the arcades are traces of ancient frescoes.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Tomb of Lumone in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin
The tomb today.

The tomb, consisting of two floors, dates back to sometime between the end of the 1st century BC and the beginning of the 1st century AD. An entrance was located in the back. Very unique in its design and decoration this tomb is unlike almost all other surviving structures from the Roman era. Only the Porta Romana necropolis, a much larger group of tombs located just outside of Rome in the town of Ostia, is similar.

It’s believed that this tomb, and indeed other tombs if it was indeed part of a larger necropolis, remained largely intact for several centuries. There are at least two other graves near it, though these most likely date from a later period.

Survey of the tomb by Caille Germain from 1870

For many years the local population mistook it for some time of an old inn which had been located along the Via Julia Augusta. In 1862 the archaeologist Alfred de Longpérier was the first to confirm that this monument was indeed a tomb. Stanislas Bonfils, one of his contemporaries, drew the outlines of the structure and in 1870 Caille Germain, a French engineer with the Department of Roads and Bridges, made a detailed description and survey of the building.

Stanislas Bonfils

Born in 1823, Stanislas Bonfils was the founder of Menton’s first municipal museum in 1878. He donated almost 1,500 objects to create the initial collections of the museum. Now known as the Regional Prehistory Museum of Menton, the museum building was designed by architect Adrien Rey. The history and traditions of Menton and the Alpes-Maritimes region are explored and examined through various collections and reconstructions. Located in the center of Menton it is a well respected and highly rated institution that is well worth a visit if you are in Menton.

Roman Burial Practices

During Roman times the deceased were either buried or cremated. We can’t know for sure but it’s possible the Tomb of Lumone was used for both these methods of burial. Because of its size and design this tomb was not the final resting place of an ordinary Roman citizen. Those of more modest social classes were most likely buried by smaller, less extravagant means. Two subterranean tombs have been found along the Via Julia Augusta near Menton.

Many of the Roman tombs and graves that have survived the centuries are accompanied by small vials and containers that most likely were filled with scented oils or acted as lamps to symbolize eternal light.

The Romans observed many festivals during the year where the deceased where visited and honored including: Parentalia (from February 13 to 22), Ferialia (February 21), Lemuria (from May 9 to 14), Larentalia (December 23).

Watch the short video below (in French, but you have the translation) to learn a bit more about Roman necropoli.

Il était une voie…
Le tombeau de Lumone et les rites funéraires

Video Translation: I’ve been traveling along the Via Julia Augusta from Rome, and I finally arrive in a place called Lumone. I pass by a necropolis where I witness a ceremony in tribute to a deceased person. The procession stops in front of a tomb. It’s true that we’re in the midst of the Lemuria commemoration week, one of the times of the year when we honor our dead. Music and incense fill the countryside, and they’re making offerings by pouring liquids like wine through libation tubes into the tomb. I don’t linger, as I still have a long journey ahead, and I want to arrive at the Trophy before the day’s end to enjoy the sunset. It’s said to be a truly memorable spectacle.


Stop Five – Roquebrune-Cap-Martin – The Ramingao Valley: the Roman bridges.

It’s another short drive to stop five on our journey, just under 3 kilometers and you should find plenty of parking along the street, though you may to walk a short distance. Across the street from 4 Avenue Georges Drin you’ll find the fifth plaque. From this vantage point we have a view of where a Roman bridge built to cross a small stream in the deep Ramingao Valley once stood.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Via Julia Augusta
Plaque V, located across from 4 avenue Georges Drin (on the Pont du Ramingao) in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.

The Ramingao Bridge – Small but Sturdy

As we saw earlier, it was sometimes possible for a road to cross a small stream or river using a gué, what we would probably call a “ford.” Large rocks were placed on the river bed just high enough give passage over the water. However, this was not always possible. At this point on the Via Julia Augusta the Roman engineers faced a challenge: how to cross over a small stream located at the bottom of a steep valley. As was often the case the only solution was to build a bridge.

This particular bridge is actually fairly small, only 6 meters in length (about 20 feet) and 2.8 meters in width (just under 7 feet). It’s made of stone and comprised of a single arch. The design is very similar to another bridge along the Via Julia Augusta, located in Porto Maurizio, Imperia, Italy (about 65 kilometers to the east).

The first mention we have of this bridge in historical documents is from 1862 when it is listed in the cadastre (a plan of land ownership) of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin by Napoleon III. It was located next to a building with the name Molino del Ponte (The Bridge Mill). In 1870 a French engineer from the Department of Bridges and Roads, Camille Germain (see stop four above), made several on-site studies and produced a detailed drawing of the bridge with precise measurements.

The bridge is no longer accessible to the public. Trees and foliage obstruct the view from the road. I have been able to find one photo of it, see below, which I found on a website called Archeo Alpi Maritimi.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Pont du Ramingao - The Ramingao Bridge
The Ramingao Bridge (photo thanks to the Archeo Alpi Maritimi website)

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio – The Preeminent Architect of Ancient Rome

There is only one treatise on architecture which has survived from Roman times and it was written by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, otherwise known simply as Vitruvius. This multi-volume work, entitled De architectura, was written sometime during the 1st century BC and is generally considered to be the first book on architectural theory. In addition to providing essential knowledge about construction techniques he documented various methods for not only constructing buildings, roads, bridges and aqueducts, but also how to monitor and maintain them. He believed that all buildings should have three attributes: strength, utility and beauty.

De architectura was widely copied throughout the Middle Ages and today dozens of different versions can be found in various libraries and museums. It was “republished” as early as 1450 and then translated into English, French, German, Spanish and several other languages. Many early architects studied Vitruvius’ treatise and consequently his work played a significant part in the architecture of many European countries.

Bridges That Have Stood the Test of Time

The Romans viewed the bridges they constructed throughout their domain as a victory over the elements, and rightly so. 2000 years later these bridges are considered some of the crowning achievements of Roman architecture and construction technology. The bridges, sometimes single-arch and sometimes multi-arch, were frequent structures to be found along the Roman roads, mostly where it was necessary to traverse a stream or river. Today over 600 of these bridges can still be seen throughout the territory once inhabited by the Roman Empire, a testament to the skill and expertise that went into their development and construction.

Marking the Distance Along the Via Julia Augusta

Another object that could often be found along almost all Roman roads was a “borne milliaire” or “milestone.” These markers were placed along the roads to designate each Roman “mile,” the equivalent of 1000 Roman steps. This roughly amounted to about 1,481 meters or 4,858 feet (very close the US mile of today which is 5,280 feet).

The markers were almost always made of stone in the form of a small column with a height of two to four meters. They were often stand-alone fixtures but could sometimes be attached to a large rock or some type of construction. Occasionally they might even form the pillar of a villa. Many of these milestones have survived over the years though countless numbers were undoubtedly repurposed for other constructions after the Roman Empire fell. Several of the markers that were originally placed along the Via Julia Augusta can be seen today in the Archaeological Museum of Nice-Cimiez.

All milestones marked the distance from the Forum in Rome which officially began at the “milliaire d’or” (the golden milestone), originally constructed in 20 BC. In addition to noting the distance from Rome the milestones would also often provide the distance to the next large town. They would usually also mention the name of a magistrate who was responsible for the construction and maintenance of the road.

Watch the short video below (in French, translation provided) to learn more about Roman bridges and milestones.

Il était une voie…
Le vallon du Ramingao : les ponts romains

I’m approaching the vicinity of the 600th Roman mile. A long journey from the famous “golden mile,” the starting point of all roads on the forum of the city of Rome. Thanks to these milestones, I can assess the distance I still have to cover. I will reach the Trophy of the Alps once I have passed milestone 604. I still have quite a bit of road to travel, at least four more miles. The characters painted in red on the stone milestone also allow me to know who built or restored the Via Julia Augusta. But I must not delay any longer and now cross this deep valley thanks to the stone bridge that the engineers have constructed between the two banks.


Stop Six – Beausoleil – The Roman Road: An Inhabited Territory

From Roquebrune-Cap-Martin we begin the journey up into the hills towards the Trophy of Augustus, passing through the town of Beausoleil along the way. It’s a short drive of just two kilometers to the next plaque which is located at 2 Chemin Romain in Beausoleil. This sixth plaque is not easy to find and I almost gave up looking for it the first time I was here. Look for a blue pole at the corner of the street with a sign that says “Chemin Romain” and you’ll find the plaque there.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Via Julia Augusta
Plaque VI, located at 2 Chemin Romain in Beausoleil.

Beausoleil – The New Kid On The Block

Considering the age of most of the other towns we are passing through on this little journey, Beausoleil is a relative newcomer to the scene. Though the current town was established just over one-hundred years ago, in 1904, the area was certainly inhabited going back thousands of years. Ligurian tribes, Phoenicians, Greeks and, of course, the Romans settled on this land over the centuries.

Once a part of neighboring La Turbie, Beausoleil sits on the hills just above the Principality of Monaco. We don’t know a lot about the Roman presence here but it is certain that the Via Julia Augusta passed through on its way west and north. In 1872 an ancient cemetery was discovered nearby and in 1867 a fragment of a funerary inscription was found. Both of these discoveries, along with the discovery of other forms of habitation, attest to a significant human presence during Roman times.

The remains of an old Roman farm, known as the Rondelli Farm, can be found very close to where the road lay. This fertile land was well irrigated during the Roman occupation and the farm was no doubt home to not only a privileged family but many workers as well. It’s quite possible the farm also served as a “mansione,” a type of Roman inn for travelers.

The buildings of the farm had a bastide-like appearance with minor fortifications that helped to insure its security. In the ruins that remain today loopholes can be seen which provided protection for archers when the the farm was under attack.

Roman Artifacts

A variety of objects were uncovered in the area in 1965 which has led archaeologists to believe that at least one Roman-era villa existed in the area now known as Beausoleil. Bronze coins, a small helmeted female bust, Roman tiles, pottery fragments and lead pipes are just some of the items that suggest this dwelling was inhabited by a family and workers. These villas typically consisted of two buildings, a main building known as a Pars Urbana and a secondary building known as a Pars Rustica. The Pars Urbana was home to the family of the owners and the Pars Rustica housed the workers who cared for the property.

Roman Inns and Way stations

Traveling along the Via Julia Augusta two thousand years ago provided many challenges among which the most pressing was often where to spend the night. 40 kilometers was considered a good distance to travel in one day at the time and therefore certain accommodations were situated along the road at approximately this distance.

These inns, or mansiones, were managed by the local administration and a Roman officer was usually stationed at each one, assigned with the task of keeping things running smoothly. Dignitaries, officials and other travelers could find meals and a place to rest at each of these stops.

Another form of shelter was provided by the “mutationes.” These smaller, more frequent stops could usually be found every 10 to 15 kilometers. They were not intended to supply food or shelter but instead provided care for animals and carts used along the road. Blacksmiths, cart drivers, animal caretakers and more populated these way stations for the benefit of the travelers along the road.

Tiberius and Hadrian – Roman Emperors

Roman coins bearing the likenesses of two Roman emperors, Tiberius and Hadrian, have been found in the remains of a Roman villa known as Barbatti.

Tiberius (full name Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus) was the stepson of Augustus, who designated him as his heir in 4AD after the deaths of his two grandsons. Tiberius reigned over the Roman Empire from 14 to 37AD and was responsible for many significant political and economical reforms. He is remembered as a sombre and reclusive man who was not really suited to be emperor and, in fact, never really wanted to be. He took on the role with some reluctance and paled in comparison to Augustus who was so charismatic and self-confident. During the last ten years of his rule he moved from Rome and left most of the administrational duties to others.

In contrast, Hadrian (full name Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus) who ruled from 117 to 138 was known as one of the “Five Good Emperors.” He is remembered as a benevolent dictator who traveled extensively throughout the empire and was responsible for numerous civil and military constructions. Hadrian’s Wall, which marked the northern limit of the Roman province of Britannia, running from west to east across the entire width of what we now know as England, is one of his most famous legacies.

Watch the short video below (in French, translation provided) to learn more about shelters provided along the Roman roads.

Il était une voie…
Le chemin romain : un territoire habité

The journey has been long since the last milestone 600. I look forward to finding a “mansio” to rest for a meal before continuing my journey on the Via Julia Augusta. I finally arrive at Fonce Divina, where I catch sight of a magnificent rustic villa that might belong to a member of the Emilii family, a very prominent Roman family. I can distinguish a main building, which I assume is their residence, and a farmhouse surrounded by fields. I resume my journey, a steep climb, to reach the trophy.


Stop Seven – La Turbie – The Quarry of Justice : a Path of Construction Sites

Leaving Beausoleil behind we continue to climb up into the hills and mountains, moving away from the coast. The road winds up the inclines, twisting through a series of switchbacks until we arrive at the Saint Roch Chapel just outside of the village of La Turbie. The seventh plaque is located here, just in front of the chapel. From here we’ll have to continue our explorations on foot for a brief time.

It’s a short walk of only five minutes or so down a pedestrian only path that will lead us to one of the ancient Roman quarries from which much of the stone used to build the magnificent Trophy of Augustus came from. It’s fascinating to look at this small piece of land where so much rock was excavated and imagine how the Romans accomplished both the removal and transportation of these large stones over 2,000 years ago.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Via Julia Augusta
Plaque VII, located next to the Saint Roch Chapelle on Chemin Saint Roch in La Turbie.

The Quarry of Justice

Travelers from the 18th and 19th centuries often mistook this old quarry for the remains of an abandoned Roman city. Lying just a short distance from the Via Julia Augusta, the quarry allowed the Romans to extract and cut the stones needed for the Trophy of Augustus located just about 1 kilometer away.

In fact, the quarry provided stone for more than just the Trophy. Parts of the Via Julia Augusta itself probably benefitted from some of this stone. We know for certain that several of the surviving mile markers were carved from stone from this quarry. Mile marker 603 (which was originally found where we now see the Saint-Roch chapel) and mile marker 604 (discovered a bit further up the road) are at least two of those markers.

Roman soldiers who died in the area often wished to be buried as close as possible to the Trophy. Stone from the quarry was used for funerary steles which were placed alongside the road.

The quarry was put back into service in the late 1850s, once again supplying stone for the construction of numerous buildings and structures in and around La Turbie. The excavations continued until shortly after the Second World War when it was finally abandoned for good. Today you can see many remnants of the extractions such as abandoned stone blocks which were cut but never moved.

It’s likely that other quarries also contributed to the Trophy of Augustus. Located about five kilometers away near the tiny hamlet of Laghet are the remains of another Roman quarry known as Braousch.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Roman Quarry outside of La Turbie
The Roman quarry outside of La Turbie. If you look closely you can see the Trophy of Augustus on the horizon.

Transporting the Stones

Today moving the large stones that were used to build the Trophy of Augustus would be a relatively simple chore. Automated equipment makes it easy to lift the stones onto large trucks that can quickly and easily move them from one place to another. Of course the Romans had no such automated equipment and no powered trucks. They used carts and sleds that were pulled by animals.

The path from the quarry to the location of the Trophy is not terribly long, but it is steep. To keep the stones as light as possible they were cut on-site at the quarry. Rather than move large stones to the Trophy location and cut them there to the exact specifications needed, workers cut the stones as close as possible to the required size. This helped to keep the loads to the bare minimum necessary.

In addition to the stone from the Quarry of Justice, marble was imported from elsewhere to adorn the Trophy’s facade. These large pieces of marble were not brought to the Trophy site via the Via Julia Augustus but instead via the port of Monaco, known then as Portus Herculis Monoikos. From there they most likely took another path to the Trophy.

The Gods of the Quarry Workers

Roman mythology provided gods for almost all aspects of life. Those who worked in the quarries fell under the watchful eyes of two gods: Hercules Saxanus and Sylvanus. Hercules specifically watched over those who created the roads and pathways while Sylvanus was the god of both loggers and quarry workers.

Watch the short video below (in French, translation provided) to learn more about Roman quarries.

Il était une voie…
La carrière du Justicier : une voie de chantier

The sounds of hammers and chisels divert me from my path on the Via Julia Augusta. It’s irresistible. I must see if this is the famous quarry I’ve heard about, which partly supplies materials for the construction of the Trophy of Augustus. I take a detour, leaving the road, and come across a veritable hive of workers. Enormous blocks are being cut from the hillside, brought down to the base of the quarry to be loaded onto carts. The largest ones are moved using an ingenious system, also described by Vitruvius and known as the “machine of Metagenes,” allowing, for example, an entire architrave to be rolled with minimal effort using wheels on either side of the block.


Stop Eight – La Turbie – The Trophy of Augustus

Our final destination on this trip along the Via Julia Augusta is the Trophée d’Auguste (the Trophy of Augustus). It’s a very short drive of just around one kilometer or so from the Saint-Roch chapel to the Trophy which is located on the edge of the La Turbie old town. You’ll find several parking lots scattered around La Turbie where you can park.

Today the Trophy is part of the French Centre des Monuments Nationaux (Center of National Monuments). It’s open to the public every day but Monday from 10AM to 6PM, though times change during the year, so be sure to check the schedule on the official website before planning a visit. There’s a small fee for entrance with a gift shop and information area at the entrance. The last plaque is located here in front of the entrance to the Trophy.

On the site itself is a small museum named in honor of Edward Tuck, an wealthy American philanthropist who provided funds for a partial restoration of the Trophy in the 1930s. Nothing beats a close up look at this magnificent structure so if you’re ever in the area I would highly suggest a visit.

From this point high above Monaco the view extends as far as Sen Remo, Italy in the east and the red rocks of the Esterel Massif just past Cannes in the west. Below is a fantastic view of Monaco and its port. This is the highest point on the Via Julia Augusta, from here the road begins to descend towards Cemenelum, now known as Cimiez, just north of Nice.

All of these mountains which seem to creep right up to the edge of the shoreline in places have been inhabited by man for a very long time. Long before the Romans arrived there were dozens of indigenous tribes living here known collectively as the Ligurians. They built small fortresses known as “castellaras” and hunted and farmed the land.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Via Julia Augusta
Plaque VIII, located at the entrance to the Trophée d’Auguste in La Turbie.

The War Against the Ligurians

One of the stones at the base of the Trophy lists the 45 Ligurian tribes that were conquered and ultimately destroyed by the Romans in the later years of the first century BC. It was the construction of the Via Julia Augusta that proved crucial in Augustus’ attempt to overcome these tribes. Several military campaigns were waged over several decades but it wasn’t until around 14BCE that all of the tribes were finally subdued and peace settled on the region.

The period of peace that settled over the Roman Empire after this conquest is now known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) and it would last for almost 200 years. The Trophée d’Auguste was built around 6BCE by the senate and the people of Rome to celebrate Augustus’ victory and it was dedicated to him.

The Trophée d’Auguste

When it was first erected the Trophy served as more than just a monument to Augustus. It marked the general boundary between Italy and Gaul. No specific, clearly defined border existed at the time, but the Trophy symbolized the transition from one territory to another.

The Trophy originally consisted a huge square platform approximately 35m (115 feet) long and 12m (40 feet) high. Sitting on the platform was a circular rotunda with 24 Doric columns that gave way to a stepped cone at the top with a statue of Augustus. Niches in the colonnade contained statues of the various generals who took part in the campaigns. Today only four of the original columns are intact and in place and, in fact, these have actually been “reconstructed.”

Steve and Carole in Vence - The Trophy of Augustus
The village of La Turbie with the Trophy of Augustus towering above it.

The Trophy of Augustus was never meant to provide any military purpose or function, it was not designed as a fortress of any kind. Rather it simply projected and asserted the power and the protection of Rome to all that gazed upon it.

After the Roman empire fell in the early 400s the Trophy began to fall into ruin as well. Invasions by the Visigoths, the Vandals and other barbarians destroyed a fair amount of it. The religious dynasties that prevailed in the 700s considered the trophy to be a monument dedicated to the pagan god Apollo, something they did not approve of. It was the Monks of Lérins who first began the process of systematically dismantling it around this time.

Between the 12th and 15th century the villagers of La Turbie did put the monument to use as something of a fortress, building fortifications, walls and houses around it, using it for protection. Later it was looted to construct homes and buildings in the town. The town’s church, Saint-Michel, built between 1764 and 1777, is just one of the structures in La Turbie that was constructed with stone derived from the trophy.

An archeologist named Jean-Camille Formigé and his son worked for five years restoring and repairing the trophy, even replacing stones where they thought it appropriate. In 1946 a “protected” park was created around the monument and in 1953 an agreement was established between the village of La Turbie and the state to protect and preserve this historical landmark.

Roman Trade via the Sea

What we now know as Monaco was once a bustling trade center along the Mediterranean coast. The Greeks, the Etruscans, the Carthaginians and the Romans all used this port, known then as Portus Herculis Monoikos, to facilitate exchanges of goods with other countries. Travelers, merchants, fisherman and all kinds of other adventurers frequented the port looking to make their fortunes.

The Via Julia Augusta itself did not pass directly through the port, it was connected via a large network of smaller, secondary roads. Traces of those roads are still visible today.

Gaius Julius Ceasar Augustus

Born Gaius Octavius on September 23 63BC, Augustus is considered the founder of the Roman Empire. He reigned as the first Roman emperor for over 40 years, from 27BC until his death in 14AD. By making himself emperor Augustus ended what is known as the Roman Republic which lasted for almost 500 years (from 409BC to 27BC) and defines the era of classical Roman civilization.

Under Augustus the Roman Empire grew dramatically. Egypt, Dalmatia, Pannonia, Noricum, Hispania and parts of Africa are just some of the territories that were conquered. He was responsible for reforming the Roman system of taxation, creating a standing army and establishing official police and fire-fighting services in Rome.

He is perhaps best remembered though for two things: continuing development on the huge network of roads that extended throughout the Roman Empire and bringing peace (relatively speaking) to the Empire.

In addition to The Trophy of Augustus several other buildings were constructed during his lifetime to commemorate his role in bringing peace to the Roman Empire. The Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis) on the Field of Mars in Rome and the Arch of Susa in the Italian Piedmont are just two of them.

Watch the short video below (in French, translation provided) to learn more about The Trophy of Augustus.

Il était une voie…
Le Trophée d’Auguste

Finally, my efforts are rewarded. Both my soul and I are weary, but this journey is crowned beyond my expectations. At the summit of the hill, the trophy looms, its gigantic proportions enhanced by the perspective and the low angle of the late afternoon light. After a quick tour of the monument to admire its beauty and perfection, I engage in conversation with the stonecutters about their mission. They are going to participate in sculpting one of the victories: winged women intended to encircle the inscription that will soon be engraved. This meticulous yet exhausting work will be an unspeakable honor for them. Carved in this marble is a memorable part of our empire, marking the beginning of the Roman peace we all yearned for and that our beloved Augustus finally allows us to experience. A new era is dawning, and this monument is its worthy symbol.

Some Final Thoughts

If you’re staying anywhere along the Côte d’Azur and have a morning or afternoon to spare, I would highly suggest making this little journey from Menton to La Turbie. Our mild weather means you can easily do this at any time during the year. It’s a great way to some of the area and you’ll learn a lot about the Roman presence in this part of France. Even if you’ve lived here for a long time I’m pretty sure you’ll see some things you haven’t seen before. I never knew about the Roman quarry near La Turbie and that was one of my favorite stops on this adventure.

If you only have time for one thing than I would head strait for the Trophy of Augustus in La Turbie. You won’t be disappointed.

Juste les Faits:
What: La Via Julia Augusta the ancient Roman road connecting Italy with Southern France
Where: Menton to La Turbie (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: All year round
Phone: La Turbie Office de Tourisme: +33 04 83 93 95 31
Website: menton-riviera-merveilles.co.uk

Hey, we'd love to hear from you, leave us a comment!