Once upon a time a tiny village was created under a rock on the Mediterranean coast by Greek settlers from the city of Miletus, on the Turkish coast, at about the same time as the colonization of the neighboring cities of Massilia (Marseille), Nikaia (Nice) and Antipolis (Antibes).
This harbour was named ‘Herakles monoïkos’ (the lonely Heracles) after the Greek demigod, who killed a lion at Nemea and cleaned Augeas’ stables in the neighbourhood of Olympia. He has left his mark in the Mediterranean world, including the city of Herculaneum at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, but also Monaco.
Excavations near the port have found so many different Greek coins that it may be concluded that Heracles monoïkos was an important staging post for the merchant navy from the fourth century BC. There is said to have been a temple dedicated to Heracles in the bend of the port, on the position of the Sainte Dévote Church, but archaeologists have found no traces there.
The harbour is located in a bowl, which is shielded by mountains and hills, with the so-called Tête de Chien (Dog’s Head) and Mont-Agel as the most striking peaks a few kilometers inland, and of course la Roca (the rock) as a high peninsula in the sea. This natural circumstance offers the area a very mild microclimate.
The rock remained uninhabited until the twelfth century. The wild cliff mainly offers shelter from the strong winds, such as the mistral, for the ships in the natural harbour, which in the shape of a U lies between the rock and the mainland. Due to this situation, Monaco has traditionally been one of the safest ports on the Mediterranean.
Until the seventeenth century, the blue water mass was mainly an unsafe highway for international shipping. Due to the lack of accessible paths, contact with the hinterland was limited until the 18th century. Monaco was an isolated place, which could almost only be reached by sea.
Over time, Monaco grew into a strategically important shelter by the sea. Many great powers liked to use it in times of war to house their navy safely. These military interests often contributed to the neutrality of the country, whose ‘seigneurs’ and later princes possessed the qualities to play off the great powers against each other.
That Monaco remained one of the few dwarf states from the Middle Ages to the 21st century almost permanently (except for the Napoleonic period) independent is not only a twist of fate but also a matter of endurance and the diplomatic gifts of the Grimaldi
In this series I will tell the history from the origins to the accession of Prince Rainier III to make clear how special the history of this dwarf state is.
ILLUSTRATION: Heracles as a boy strangling a snake sent to kill him