…The inscription from the trophy of the Alps… is as follows: To the emperor Augustus, son of the deified Julius Caesar, chief priest, supreme commander for the 13th time, holding tribunician power for the 17th, the Senate and the People of Rome [dedicated this] because under his command and under his auspices all the peoples of the Alps which run from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean were brought under the power of the Roman people… - Pliny the Elder (1st century AD).
Long-winded, isn’t it? Well in a roundabout sort of way this is an appropriate introduction to the grandiose monument at La Turbie, the Trophée des Alpes (‘Trophy of the Alps’). Perched high above the Mediterranean Sea in Provence (southern France - 6 Kilometres from modern Monte Carlo), it was founded in 7-6 BC by Augustus Caesar in order to commemorate the subjugation of the Alpine region (and its 44 tribes) in the north of Italy. The annexation of this region allowed the construction of the strategic Via Julia Augusta road (now known as the Corniche Moyenne). This was a particularly significant event, as Rome had long been isolated from its western provinces by the Alpine tribes and geographical separation. Gaul in particular owes much of its Romanisation to Augustus’ efforts.
While it was far from uncommon to raise great stoneworks in recognition of military victories in the Roman world, this particular monument served a dual purpose. Its construction, you see, was merely part of Augustus’ campaign of self-aggrandisement and may have been a kind of heroic shrine which was devoted to the emerging practice of emperor-worship (as the remnants of an altar have been discovered at the site). The view from La Turbie must have been spectacular as it was situated 480 metres above sea level and encompassed the Italian peninsula stretching off into the distance. The site was completely vandalised in the Middle Ages, but parts have been rebuilt (according to Pliny the Elder’s description) in modern times to capture some small part of its past splendour. The village surrounding the site is picturesquely and quaintly medieval; it has a population just over 3,000 and many medieval remains, including 12th and 13th century AD defensive stone walls). The town is, perhaps a little ironically, also very well known for its Renaissance festivals.
The monument itself was composed of a square base (32.5 m2), a circular drum surrounded by a portico of 24 Tuscan-style columns (8.8 m tall and 1.1 m wide), a stepped pyramidal cone (7.2 m tall and 16.6 m wide at the base) with a bronze statue of Augustus set atop it (estimated to have been 6 m tall). It is believed that it totalled 45 metres in height. The archetype of its design was the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and many (especially later) tombs are constructed in a similar style (including Augustus’ own tomb, the construction of which was undertaken in 28 BC). There is some speculation that the monument also owes some of its design and specific geographical location to the Pharos of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, insofar as it would have been a highly visible landmark for ships in the treacherous waters of the Côte d’Azur (although there is no specific reference to it functioning as a lighthouse).
The construction process was, of course, an arduous affair as the region was newly-annexed and fairly inaccessible. Before a building could be erected on the high rocky outcrop, the ground had to be levelled. By way of mollifying the architects, the solid substratum meant that foundation work could be kept to a minimum. The La Turbie monument is mostly composed of local limestone, either cut into ashlar blocks of varying weights (some were as heavy as 5 tonnes) for the facing or used as rubble set in lime mortar for the core. Unused stone blocks can still be found lying about the quarries at Mont de Justices (700 m east of the site) and both this site and a second (750 m to the north) still bear tool marks. These two quarries would have produced most of the 20,000 cubic metres of stone which would have been necessary to build the monument as it was described, but most of the ornamental stone (i.e. that which bears inscriptions, the sculpted reliefs of trophies and so forth) was of Cararra Marble, hauled by road from Cap Martin (500 m below the site) and the difficulty of this feat is evident in the fact that some of the marble was replaced with limestone; it appears that some trouble was encountered in transit. Nonetheless, the Romans are rightly acclaimed for their engineering prowess, in light of general success in the face of such a logistical challenge.
Sources:The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World: the Ancient Monuments and How They Were Built, Thames and Hudson.
http://www.beyond.fr/villages/turbie.html (La Turbie - ProvenceBeyond).
http://www.provenceweb.fr/e/alpmarit/turbie/turbie.htm (La Turbie, Alpes Maritimes Departement).
http://www.structurae.de/en/structures/data/str04234.php (Structuræ: Trophée des Alpes) - contains thumbnail images of the site both as it must once have looked and as it does today.