The small village of La Turbie is perched high on a cliff along the Mediterranean Sea overlooking Monaco and Monte-Carlo. If you drive or cycle into the village from the west, along the Grande Corniche, just as you get into town you will be presented with a fantastic view of Le Trophée des Alpes (Tropaeum Alpium in Latin.) Straight in front of you, seemingly right in the middle of the road, rising high above the horizon, stands the remains of a huge 2000 year old Roman “trophy” celebrating the emperor Augustus’ victory over the various Gaulish tribes who populated the southern Alpes at the time. Only a portion of the original monument remains but what still stands is quite striking and imposing, dominating the landscape for miles around. One can only wonder how the original trophy must have looked and how it must have towered above everything in the region. A true monument to the power of the Roman Empire in its prime.
[more info after the photo gallery]
In 13BC the Romans began to build a new road along the Mediterranean coast from Italy into Gaul, what we now call Provence. Known as the “Julia Way,” the road became an instrument to help Augustus wage several military campaigns against the local tribes. He succeeded in defeating them all and in 6BC the Senate and people of Rome had this monument built and dedicated to him.
The trophy was built mostly of limestone from a Roman quarry that was located about 800 meters away, though some parts are made from Carrara marble. It’s still possible today to see traces of the carved columns visible in the stone of the quarry. As it stands now it is about 35 meters (115 feet) high. In its original form it was over 49 meters high (161 feet) and about 35 meters wide. The first platform, a square podium, was 12 meters high (39 feet.) A circular colonnade of 24 Doric columns then 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 these have been “reconstructed.” One of the stones at the base of the trophy is inscribed with a dedication to Agustus and the names of the 45 tribes that were conquered.
Situated on the highest point of the “Julia Way,” the trophy provides views to the east all the way to San Remo, Italy and in the opposite direction you can see the red rocks of the Esterel Massif which runs along the coast west of Cannes. It 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 and marked the boundary between Italy and “Galia Narbonensis,” the large Roman provence in southeast France.
After the Romans
The monument probably first began to fall into ruin near the end of the Roman Empire. Beginning in early 400AD the area was invaded by Visigoths, Vandals and other barbarians who destroyed much of what they encountered. 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. The Monks of Lérins first began the process of 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. In 1705 a war broke out between Savoy and France and King Louis XIV ordered that all forts and fortresses in the area be destroyed to prevent the enemy from taking advantage of them. Fortunately, the trophy withstood much of his effort to destroy it completely, though 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.
Around 1860 the Savoy royal family ordered the monument listed as a historic monument and for restoration to begin. In truth, they really didn’t do much, but they did prevent it from further destruction taking place. In 1900 a local scholar named Philipe Casimir began some excavations and attempted to clean up the site. Another archeologist named Jean-Camille Formigé also became interested in the monument but it wasn’t until 1929, when the wealthy American Philanthropist Edward Tuck provided funds for a partial restoration of the trophy, that real work began. 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.
There’s a small museum at the site named in honor of Edward Tuck that has a 1:20 scale model of the monument as it is thought to have originally existed. Some early 20th century photographs and drawings documenting the restoration work done at the time are on exhibit as well. There are also old fragments of the original monument, various plaster molds, statues and busts of Augustus and other artifacts.
Visiting the Trophy
It’s possible to get some very nice views of the trophy from the town of La Turbie. However, if you really want to see it up close and explore it in detail you’ll need to pay for entrance into the monument grounds. The trophy ruins are now situated in a wonderful garden like setting with fabulous views out over the Monaco bay. All around the grounds are box trees, rockroses, lavenders, bilberries, cypresses and more. It’s worth spending some time wandering around the grounds and taking in the views of the trophy from different vantage points.
There is plenty of parking near the site of the monument and throughout the village of La Turbie, though on busy days you might have to walk a little bit. Carole and I visited on a summer morning in June, which would normally be a quite busy time. However, the weather was very overcast on this day and we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. One of the staff saw us walking around the base of the monument and asked us if we wanted to climb up inside of it. Yes, we did! He took us on a little tour that was quite interesting. I don’t know if people are normally allowed inside the monument itself like we were that day or if this was just something special he did for us because things were so slow.
It costs 6€ for adults to visit the trophy. Children under 18 are free and there are special rates for groups and schools. You’ll want to plan to spend at least two hours here and I would suggest even more time to explore the village of La Turbie as well. It’s a beautiful town and well worth your time.