STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

The Marseille Columns of Vence

March 31, 2022

For over ten years, from 25BC to 14BC, the Romans waged a series of battles designed to clear the southeast coast of France from the indigenous tribes who had occupied the land for centuries. In the end they were successful and over forty tribes were almost completely wiped out. For the next five hundred years Vence was a Roman city known as Vintium. Today approximately twenty relics from this Roman period remain in Vence.

Two of the most famous and beloved Roman artifacts are the Marseille columns which date from the 3rd century, right around 212AD to be exact. They have a long and fascinating history and over the years there has been much debate about their origins. Were they originally part of a Roman temple? Or perhaps mile markers on the ancient Roman road that passed through Vence? Or maybe the remains of an ancient monument erected at the edge of the territories of Vence and Marseille alongside a road? For years they were thought to be gifts from the city of Marseille to the city of Vence. Some have even speculated that there was a third column, now missing.

Today one of the columns is located in the Grand Jardin, the large public square near the center of town, and the other in Place Godeau, a small public square in the old town behind the Vence Cathedral (once the town cemetery). As famous and revered as these columns are they are very easy to miss if you are not familiar with them. I’ve met several people who have lived in Vence for quite some time who had no idea they even existed, let alone the mysteries and questions which surround them. They play an important and unique part in the history of Vence so next time you are in Vence be sure to seek them out.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

The Origins of the Columns

As I said, there is a lot of speculation as to what these two columns were originally used for. Some historians believe that they were part of an old Roman temple dedicated to the god Mars which most likely stood where the current Vence Cathedral stands. Others think perhaps they were part of a triumphal arch which once stood near Castellane and separated the territories of Marseille and Vence. Or, maybe they were simply mile markers along the road. The truth is we don’t really know.

For more than a thousand years these two columns stood side by side, it is only in relatively recent years that they have been separated, probably sometime around 1770. For many years, probably centuries, they stood together inside the Vence Cathedral supporting the vaulting of the choir. When the cathedral was enlarged the columns were removed and temporarily abandoned.

The first mention of the columns can be found in a book by Raymond de Soliers entitled Antiquités de Provence which dates from around 1575. In 1620 Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc recounts the inscriptions on the columns and says that, “the two columns support the sacred vault of the church in front of the altar.”

Over the years several historians have speculated that there were originally three columns. In his book, Choreography or Description of Provence of 1664, Honoré Bouche was the first to suggest that indeed one of the original columns had been lost. Eugène Tisserand repeated this claim in his book, Histoire de Vence, published in 1860. However, there is no physical evidence to support these claims and other scholars have dismissed them.

What The Columns Tell Us

What little we do know for certain about the columns comes from the inscriptions carved in the top of each one, three lines on the Grand Jardin column and five on the Place Godeau column. The inscriptions continue from the left column to the right, so to read them accurately you must have the two columns placed side by side. It is here that the inhabitants of Marseille are expressly mentioned, but scholars and epigraphists can’t seem to agree on exactly what the inscriptions mean.

The column in the Grand Jardin contains contains three lines of Latin text near the top (compared to the other column which contains five) and over the years various scholars have speculated that perhaps a portion of this column was cut off at some point, thus removing the other two lines of text. The Latin text reads as follows:

CVRANTE AC
IVL. HONORATO
PP. PRAESID. ALP.

The five lines of text at the top of the column in Place Godeau read:

MASSILIEN
SIVM
DEDICANTE
PROC. AUG. EX
MARITIMARM

Taken together the text from both columns can be translated as:

“Limits of the territory of the Marseillais, by the care of Julius Honoratus, procurator of Augustus, one of the agents in the defense of the Alpes Maritimes.”

In an article on the Territory of the Province of the Alpes Maritimæ during Roman Antiquity, Stéphane Morabito talks about the columns: “The text engraved on the two columns preserved today in the town center of Vence, mentioning the Massilinenses and, perhaps, the Vintienses, is too imprecise for any reliable information to be drawn as to the administrative geography of this sector. These columns could have been placed in a monument located at the edge of a communication route, perhaps via Julia Augusta, at the passage of a territorial limit between Vintium and the nearest Marseille territory, namely Nikaia. The realization of this inscription under Caracalla by Julius Honoratus, procurator of the Alpes Maritimae also project manager of the repair of the way connecting the coast to Dinia, supposes the elevation of these columns and of the monument which included them during these works, road network, the use of a formula present on the mileage going in this direction. However, the mutilation of the text makes it impossible to define the theme of this inscription and to ensure its link with any territorial limit.” 

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

The Column of the Grand Jardin

This column is the most visible and well known, as its placement in the Grand Jardin means it is more likely to be seen by visitors and tourists. After it was removed from the Cathedral in the late 1700s it was moved to Place la Poissonnerie (now Place Surian), a small square located very close to the Cathedral. In 1808 Aubin-Lous Millin, the Grandmaison of France, traveled throughout the country surveying the land. In his book, Travels in the Southern Departments of France, he noted that while the Place Godeau column stood proudly where it remains today, the Grand Jardin column was found half buried in the courtyard of the City Hall.

In 1836 a new Halle aux Poissons (Fish Market) was built at the corner of Place Clemenceau and rue Surian. The decision was made to use the column as a roof support on one of the corners (see the old postcard in the image gallery above). In the mid-1920s the Fish Market was expanded into a larger, more general covered market. For many years it served in this capacity until one night in 1927 when the roof of the market collapsed. Luckily no one was hurt and the building was repaired almost immediately. The column was, however, moved to the Municipal Halls around this time.

During the 1960s the city of Vence embarked upon a project to revitalize the Grand Jardin, overseen by Mr. H. Teissère, an architect and municipal councilor. Flower boxes were installed, paid automobile parking was instituted and a small fountain from Place Antony Mars was moved to the Grand Jardin.

In 1970 and 1971 additional repair and renovations were carried out on the marketplace, including adding a door onto Place Surian and three steps to make access easier. It was also decided that the front of the building would be demolished and new entrance pillars would be constructed of stone from local quarries. It was sometime around this time that the column was moved to the Grand Jardin, though the exact date is unknown. In photos and on postcards from the mid-1970s (see the postcard in the first set of images at the top of this post) it is possible to see the completed work of the Grand Jardin and that the fountain has been moved. However, there is no column behind it. It is only in photos from a few years later that we now see the column in its current place.

When the column was moved the original pedestal was replaced with a new (and some say, less elegant) pedestal, a large rectangular stone from the Sine quarry. A Latin inscription was engraved on the new pedestal which is intended to correspond to the one inscribed on the barrels of the columns.

Engraved on the base of the new pedestal is the following:

MARTI VINCIO
RP MASSILENSIVM
CVRANTE AC
DEDICANTE
IVL HONORATO
PROC AVG VOV

It can be translated from the Latin as:

“The city of Marseille dedicated [this column] to Mars Vincius. Jules Honoratus, procurator of Augustus, took care of it and made the dedication.”

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

The Column of Place Godeau

The second column now resides in Place Godeau, which was at one time called la Place du Vieux Cimetière, as the old Vence cemetery was once located here. An iron cross (The Sign of Salvation) sits on top of the column, installed sometime after it was moved to this location. At the foot of the column there is a small fountain, introduced around the same time.

When the column was moved a new pedestal was installed which has inscriptions on two of the four sides. Engraved on one side is:

HIC OLIM
ET SVPERSVNT
CINERES PATRUM
M DCC LXXX

Translated it says, “Here, once, the ashes of our fathers, and they still are. 1780”

On the second side of the pedestal we find the following 13 lines of text. The stone has degraded significantly over time and the text is difficult to read, but scholars agree on the following:

TRANSLAT. HINC ET TOTA
HUJCE AREÆ AMPLITUD.
MAJORU CINERIB A M D CC
LXXIV NO OIB T N PRÆ NI
MIO COGESTU HANC
MASSILIÆ CONDITO
COLUMNA DONO UT PARE
ALTERA ADHUC EXTANTE
DEFIC. III NERUSIIS NOSTRIS
TRANSMISSAM SIGNO NUNC
SALUTIS CONSECRATAM
EREXIT ORDO MUNICIPII
VINTIENSIU A MDCC L XXX

“The complete ashes of our fathers were exhumed and transferred from here to the cemetery in the year 1774, after collecting them, not all, but many of them. In this year 1780, the citizens’ council of Vence erected this column, consecrated by the sign of salvation, offered by the founders of Marseille to our Nérusiens, while we keep a second column here and that the third is missing.” 

It is here that the theory of a third column comes into play. The writing on this pedestal reflects the opinion of Honoré Bouche who first proposed the idea in 1664. Eugène Tisserand would echo it his History of Vence published in 1860. It is important to note that there is no actual evidence to support this theory and it appears to be simply wishful thinking.

A Comparison of the Two Columns

The total height of the Grand Jardin column is 463cm from the base to the top (just over 15 feet). The height of the actual column itself is 302cm (just under 10 feet). The circumference is 148cm (just under 5 feet) with the average diameter being 47cm (about 1 1/2 feet). The top of the column is inserted into small, square, Roman style capital (19.6cm tall) making it impossible to know the true height of the column itself. There is some speculation that perhaps more text is hidden under this capital (which would explain why this column has only three lines of text compared to the other which has five).

The total height of the Place Godeau column is 419cm from the base to the top (almost 14 feet). The height of the actual column itself is 298cm (just under 10 feet). The circumference is 142cm (just under 5 feet) with the average diameter being 45cm (about 1 1/2 feet).

Between the two columns there is a difference in height of only 4cm. The top of the Godeau column features a small “bulge” which indicates to scholars that it is “complete.” The column in the Grand Jardin has no such bulge which fuels the speculation that either it was cut or that the capital is covering it up.

The space between the top of the column in the Grand Jardin and the first row of text measures 13cm. Each of the letters measure 6cm in height and the space between the lines varies from 3cm to 5cm.

The space between the top of the column in Place Godeau and the first row of text is also 13cm. The height of the letters differ a bit on each line from 7cm at the top line, to 6.6cm on the second line, to 6cm on the remaining lines. The space between the lines varies from 3cm to 10cm.

Where Does the Stone Used for the Columns Come From?

There is also some controversy as to the materials which these two columns are made from. Most historians and scholars agree that both columns are formed from a block of porphyritic granite (a type of granite with a mix of large and small crystals). They do not agree on the origins of these materials. Early writers thought that the stone was from one of the quarries in the Estérel (in the Var department, not far from Vence to the west). It is indeed known that a Roman quarry existed near Boulouris which produced stone with a blue gray color, speckled with white, exactly the same as the two Vence columns.

However, modern research has revealed that they were most likely brought from a more distant destination. The writer Cinzia Vismara wrote in 1922 that the two columns do not come from the same source, proposing that the one from the Grand Jardin originated in Asia Minor while the one from the Place Godeau came from the island of Elba. Another writer, Mazeran wrote in 2010 that the two columns come from Balagne in Corsica. So, for now at least, the exact origin of these relics remains a mystery.

Access

The first column is located in Le Grand Jardin (The Big Garden) in the heart of the city center. It may not look much like a garden now, but centuries ago the famous gardens of the Barons of Villeneuve (the Lords of Vence) were located here.

The second column is located in La Place Godeau, deep inside the Vence old town. The quickest way to reach it is via the Porte d’Orient on the west side of the walls.

Much of the research and information for this article was found in Les Colonnes Marseillaises de Vence by Jean-Louis Boutin. It appears to be a privately published hardback book. The only copy I’ve ever seen is in the Vence Public Library.

Juste les Faits:
What: The Marseille Columns of Vence
Where: Vence (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: All year round
Phone: Vence Office de Tourisme: +33 04 93 58 06 38
Website: vence-tourisme.com
Facebook: vencetourisme

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

Steve and Carole in Vence