Hercules on the edge

Some thoughts about the structure immediately above, thoughts that I’ve needed to have, then park while I crack on with other, more urgent things.

You are looking at the Tropaeum Alpium, Trophy of the Alps, or Tropaeum Augusti, Trophy of Augustus, in La Turbie (which takes its name from it), a town on a rise above Monaco in the South of France. However we choose to call it, this monument is certainly concerned with both the Alps and the emperor Augustus. What interests me about it, though, is that it is also concerned, albeit more obliquely, with the hero Hercules, on whom one day I shall assuredly write A BOOK.

Unless I don’t.

The first thing to appreciate about the Tropaeum Alpium is that, while it was dedicated by the Senate and People of Rome in 7/6BC, what you you see in La Turbie today is really a confection dating back just a century. The Middle Ages were not kind to the monument (one story, if anyone reads Provençal, tells how St Honoratus miraculously destroyed it, the fortress of a giant named Apollo, but the reality wasn’t much less dramatic). Shortly before the First World War, and then again from 1929 to 1934, two architects, Jean Camille and Jules Formigé, father and son, undertook a very creative reconstruction, and the result is a landmark which probably tells us as much about French culture in the early decades of the Twentieth Century as it does about Augustus.

There is nevertheless a lot we know about the Trophy, not least the inscription it bore, which was recorded by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (3.136-7) and explained that the monument marked the conquest of the Alps by the emperor Augustus a mari supero ad inferum, from the higher to the lower sea, i.e. from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Sea. We’ll come back to Pliny, because his record of the Tropaeum is interestingly located within his own text. But what I’m most concerned with is the meaningful association established by Sophie Binninger (all citations are at the bottom) between this monument celebrating Augustus on the heights above Monaco and the hero/god Hercules — who was so important to Monaco that he seems to have given his name to the place.

We know that the port of Monaco, and apparently the heights above it, were perceived to have a special connection to Hercules. Strabo, for instance, informs us that “the harbour of Monoikos is a mooring-place for only a few, small ships, with a temple of Herakles ‘Monoikos’, as he is known” (4.6.3), while other sources give emphasis to the neighbouring heights. If there was a specific cult site, at any rate, we don’t know where it was. But the connection was established enough for the Hercules worshipped here, under that moody epithet Monoikos (“solitary; who lives alone”), to give the location a name today very familiar to us.

It is on this basis that Binninger makes the case, unanswerable it seems to me, that the placement of the monument honouring Augustus is designed to imply an assimilation with Hercules, and she suggests that treating Augustus as a Herculean figure suggests military prowess, divinity present or future, and a civilizing power closely related to the establishment of roads and communication. Ammianus Marcellinus (15.10.9) describes Hercules as the builder of the first road along the coast en route to dealing with the three-bodied giant Geryon, and adds that he also “consecrated the harbour and citadel of Monoecus to his own everlasting memory”. (The context for Hercules’ presence in the western Mediterranean, whether in Rome, Tangier or Monaco, is generally his mission to kill Geryon in Spain and drive Geryon’s superlative herd of cattle back to Greece.) Augustus’ Tropaeum seems to have been coordinated with the Via Julia Augusta, the road from Italy to Gaul recently constructed or renovated by Augustus.

But I think we can push the Herculean associations of the Tropaeum Alpium a bit further, and particularly that last idea of communication. Hercules was all about pathways and access, certainly, but by extension he promoted the meeting and mingling of peoples. Within Italy Hercules’ close association with the cattle trade, and the drove roads by which cattle were herded around the peninsula, had made him the agent of intermingling and unification described by Dionysius, who imagines a rationalised Hercules as the greatest general of his day, leading a great army with which, among other things, “he mingled barbarians with Greeks, and inhabitants of the inland with dwellers on the sea coast, groups which hitherto had been distrustful and unsocial in their dealings with each other” (Rom. Ant. 1.41.1).

Meanwhile, the story was told around the Mediterranean and beyond of peoples descended from Hercules and a local woman: see here on Rome, Herodotus 4.9-10 on the Scythians, and Plutarch, Sertorius 9.3-5 on the people of Tangier. This recurrent myth clearly encoded the establishment of reciprocal relations between Greek colonisers and native peoples, albeit by implication on Greek terms. In ancient France we find stories, collected by Jane Lightfoot in her edition of Parthenius, that make Hercules the ancestor of the Celts. As Parthenius tells it, when Hercules was driving the cattle of Geryon back to Argos, he came to the court of king Bretannos in the country of the Celts. The inevitable liaison with Bretannos’ daughter Keltine resulted in the birth of Keltos, ancestor of the Celts.

Hercules’ capacity to bring peoples together is one of his most remarkable characteristics, and at first sight hard to square with this club-wielding epitome of male violence. It no doubt has a lot to do with the ubiquity of muscular civilising gods across peoples. The Greeks encountered the Carthaginian Melqart and saw Heracles, and vice versa. Another illustration is the worship of Hercules Magusanus by the Batavians of what is now the Netherlands, as explained by Nico Roymans: the syncretism of a local and a Roman god, Magusanus and Hercules, facilitating the Batavians’ assimilation within the Roman Empire, resulting inter alia in one more Lysippan Hercules to join all the others.

Another illustration again is Virgil’s Aeneid, where Hercules the communis deus, “god who is common to all” (8.275), appears on both sides of the conflict between Aeneas’ forces and Turnus’ forces, as comrade or ancestor, in the second half of the poem, and seems to promise a unity in Italy when all the fighting’s done. In Virgil the tension between that peaceful outcome and the violence Hercules displays is quite deliberately drawn out, I think. (I investigated some of these Herculean associations as they were exploited by Horace in the article cited at the bottom.)

Well, if the monument to Augustus at La Turbie does indeed by its position provoke thoughts of Hercules, that position (which was clearly chosen very, very carefully) answers in various suggestive ways to these aspects of the hero. Monaco, as Binninger explains, can be seen as the end of the Alps, illustrating the claim of the inscription that the mountains had been pacified from sea to sea. But we are also here on a frontier, Hercules’ natural space: Binninger cites a medieval gloss on the Antonine Itinerary which remarks of this location usque hic Italia, hinc Gallia, “Thus far Italy; henceforth Gaul”. At Monaco Hercules presided over the meeting of Italians and Gauls as well as Greeks and Celts.

Photo by Berthold Werner: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Turbie_BW_1.JPG#mw-jump-to-license

But I think the most interesting implication of all arises from the text of Pliny the Elder which preserves the inscription that graced the Trophy, and indeed allowed the structure at La Turbie to be identified as the Tropaeum Alpium. Binninger again points out that Pliny’s reference to the Tropaeum comes at the end of a long account of Italy (3.38-138), just before his resounding conclusion, “This is Italy, sacred to the gods, these its races, these its people’s towns…” Pliny’s account is structured by Augustus’ organisation of Rome and Italy into regiones, a reform which may have been introduced around the time of the Trophy’s dedication. In other words, Pliny’s account of Italy, and its climax with the Tropaeum Alpium, may well follow an Augustan logic. Binninger talks of the idea in Pliny that the Alps (and the Trophy) “round off” Italy, and again I am put in mind of Hercules.

In the Aeneid, or at least in my reading of the poem, Hercules represents a kind of summation of Italy. All in Italy worship him, and in him, symbolically, is found unity between Italians, even as they fight each other. The paradox, which is also present to some degree at La Turbie, is that Hercules/Augustus stands for violent conquest, and yet also for equality and collaboration. Just maybe, then, there is an Augustan pattern of thought here, centred upon the mythical figure of Hercules and shared between Virgil’s epic and this monument on the heights above Monaco.

* * *

S. Binninger, “Le Tropaeum Alpium et l’Héraclès Monoikos. Mémoire et célébration de la victoire dans la propagande augustéenne à la Turbie”, in M. Navarro Caballero and J.-M. Roddaz (eds.), La Transmission de l’idéologie impériale dans les provinces de l’Occident romain (Pessac, 2006), 179-203;

Le trophée d’Auguste à La Turbie (Paris, 2009);

E. Bispham, “The Regiones of Italy: between Republic and Principate”, in M. Aberson, M.C. Biella, M. Di Fazio & M. Wullschleger (eds.), Nos sumus Romani qui fuimus ante… Memory of ancient Italy (Bern, 2020), 23-51;

H. Cornwell, “The King Who Would Be Prefect: Authority and Identity in the Cottian Alps”, Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015), 41-72;

J. Lightfoot, Parthenius of Nicaea: the Extant Works, Edited with Introduction and Commentary (Oxford, 1999);

I. Malkin, Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean (Cambridge, 1994);

Ll. Morgan, “A Yoke Connecting Baskets: Odes 3.14, Hercules, and Italian Unity”, Classical Quarterly 55 (2005), 190-203;

N. Roymans, Ethnic Identity and Imperial Power: the Batavians in the Early Roman Empire (Amsterdam, 2004), 235-50.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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