The Greek port ‘Heracles Monoïkos’ used to be a shelter, which was located in a strategically important place on the Mediterranean Sea, but in Roman times the ‘Portus Herculis Monoeci’ was off the route because it was hardly accessible from the mainland.
Inland, the Via Julia Augusta was a busy road from Italy to Forum Julii (Fréjus) and Roman settlements were founded along this road, including Tropaeum Albium (La Turbie) and Cemenellum (in the higher part of Nice, which we now know as Cimiez). Ruins have been found in these places, with the Trophy of Emperor Augustus being the most famous.
Roman war veterans settled in this area to enjoy their retirement near the sea and the fine climate. They were actually the first tourists on what would later become the Côte d’Azur. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the community under the rock was mainly attacked by pirates from the sea, mainly Saracens. The port deteriorated and most of the inhabitants fled to the hinterland.
It was not until the twelfth century that the port became again of geopolitical importance, when it became situated on the border of two power blocs. The city-state republic of Genoa, which ruled the Ligurian coast from Ventimiglia to Portovenere, and the county of Provence.
Both countries fell under the authority of the ‘German’ Emperor Henry VI. When Genoa’s fleet helped the emperor subdue Sicily, the city-state received his permission to occupy the rock of Monaco and build a fortress there. This was mainly due to the fact that the Saracens had entrenched themselves in neighboring Eze, from where they attacked the entire coast. Genoa was tasked with putting an end to this situation.
In fact, from 1191 Monaco fell under the authority of the Republic, where a few families alternated as rulers. In Genoa, power was then divided between Guelphs and Gibellines. Of the first group, the Grimaldi family was the most powerful and of the other group the Doria family.
They would replace each other for centuries as relations in the city-state changed. The government authorised the construction of a solid fortress on the rock of Monaco and recruited people to settle there through a privilege, which did not require the people of Monaco to pay taxes for their fishing.
The Count of Provence, of Catalan origin, ordered an attack on the rock of Monaco in 1225. That is when Genoa started to seriously defend this place with the construction of sometimes nine-metre high walls on the side of the harbor. At the tip of the rock, a fortress was built with four high watchtowers, from which the soldiers could have a good overview of what was happening at sea.
At the end of the thirteenth century, the Gibellines took over and the Grimaldis in particular were driven out of the city. They sought refuge in the farthest regions of the Republic.
On a winter evening, the situation on the rock changed dramatically. The Gibellian consul had again exiled some Guelphs from the mother city, including the brothers Lanfranco (François) and Ranieri (Rainier) Grimaldi.
They devised a brutal plan to occupy the almost impregnable rocky outcrop on the border of the empire as revenge against those in power in the mother city (the Dorias). The adventure resembled an out-of-control student joke and had nothing to do, as is sometimes claimed in the media, with piracy. It was above all a political reckoning.
With a few henchmen, the brothers dressed up as Franciscan monks and searched in a rickety boat, supposedly as castaways, for a place to stay in the port of Monaco.
It drizzled when the monks reported to the gate thaat provides access to the rock. The unsuspecting night watch let the clergy in, but once they arrived at the fort, the monks turned out to be armed with swords and stabbed all the soldiers and gained access to the fortress.
It was January 8, 1297 and this can be regarded as the beginning of the Grimaldi’s power on the rock.
Lanfranco appointed himself the leader. He was knicknamed ‘la Maliçia’ and was immortalised in front of the palace by the Dutch sculptor Kees Verkade on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of the takeover. He is also depicted with his brother in the coat of arms of Monaco, as two monks with drawn swords.