Power centre of Empire

Founded circa 15 BC by Augustus, Trier is the oldest of German cities. Of all these cities it is today the most evocative of Roman times. Some indication of its importance and prosperity can be drawn from the fact that two thirds of all Roman mosaics found in Germany come from this Mosel region. There is no doubt that senior officers from the Rhine forces would have regarded Augusta Treverorum (Trier) as a star attraction.23 It was ravaged by a barbarian incursion in about AD 275, being only 100 km from the Rhine, but recovered to become a favoured residence of several Emperors, notably of Constantine. Serving as administrative capital for the province of Belgica, it lay within a great curve of the beautiful river Mosella (Mosel), forming a vital junction for roads linking Gaul with the Rhine frontier. A fine road bridge was built to span the river in the second century AD: its original stone piers, clearly visible, support the modern road bridge. The local Celts, who belonged to the Treveri tribe, gradually adjusted to the Roman presence and Trier developed an essentially civilian character. The region was famed for the manufacture of cloth, military weapons and equipment. Hundreds of villas and estates graced the surrounding countryside. The excavated site of a very large palatial villa can be seen at Echternach in Luxembourg. Founded in AD 60-70 and covering an area of 118 x 62 metres, it eventually had two storeys with up to seventy rooms.

Vineyards were established on the steep, slatey slopes on either side of the winding Mosella. They still flourish, despite the passage of marauding armies through the centuries, and their produce, cosseted in slender green bottles, is often acclaimed as Germany’s finest white wine. Fig. 18 shows a recently-built replica of the type of Roman vessel that once plied the Mosella. This 18 metre-long vessel can be propelled by either a crew of trained oarsmen or by two 55- horsepower diesel engines. It is a vivid reminder that the navigable rivers of the Empire very frequently provided the most economical means of transportation.

Fig. 18 – Replica of Roman ship (Neumagen, Mosel river).

In its prime, Trier boasted six-metre high curtain walls, monumental sandstone gateways, including the famous Porta Nigra, an amphitheatre for 18,000 spectators (Fig. 19), an oblong arena (circus) for chariot races, its own mint for coinage and two magnificent bathing complexes. The town walls and the Porta Nigra were built in 170-180 AD. An extremely large building, of Roman origin and known as the Basilika, is a prominent feature of modern Trier. Severely damaged by air raids in 1944, it was completely restored and now serves as a Protestant church. The walls are 2.7 metres thick and made of horizontal flat bricks. Bridged by a coffered timber ceiling, the enclosed space is breathtaking in its audacity. Devoid of any pillars or buttresses, it is 67 metres long x 27.5 metres wide x 30 metres high. Inside and outside, the building places a striking emphasis on vertical lines. Although it is difficult to gauge the extent of restoration, one is prepared to accept that it nonetheless recreates the atmosphere of the throne hall (aula palatina) of Emperor Constantine’s palace. The original was built in 310 AD.

Fig. 19 – Amphitheatre at Trier

  1. Edith Mary Wightman, Roman Trier and the Treveri (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1970) . []