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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 29, No. 1 (October 1933), 3‑12.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p3  Roman Trier​1
By William E. Gwatkin, Jr.
University of Missouri

The photographs on this page are not public domain, but © Jona Lendering; for further information about Roman Trier, with different photos, see his pages at Livius, Augusta Treverorum.

Just inside the territory of the German republic, six miles over the border of Luxemburg, and sixty-nine miles southwest of Coblenz by rail, lies the city of Trier, which contains the finest Roman ruins north of the Alps. Its French name is Trèves and recalls the name of the Celto-Germanic tribe occupying its site when Roman arms first entered this part of Belgic Gaul — the Treveri, whose cavalry deserted Caesar in the battle against the Nervii, and whose uncertain and rebellious spirit demanded all the attention and skill of the great Labienus to combat. At this time, however, there was no settlement on the site of the future city, and the Treveri lived in villages. Not till the time of Augustus was there founded a city, which became known as Augusta Treverorum. Under the first emperor the territory thereabouts was made part of Gallia Belgica, and through it ran the Roman road from Lyons to Metz and then on to Cologne. This road  p4 crossed the Moselle at Trier, and here (perhaps between 16 and 13 B.C., when Augustus was in Gaul) was constructed a city with a definite plan of streets intersecting at right angles.

Of the straight old streets the present visitor sees nothing, for the Roman city was approximately twelve feet below the present street levels. But he may think of the Roman road when he beholds the so‑called Roman bridge. Just a few yards downstream from this about ten years ago in a summer of low water there came to light the remains of a few wooden piles, either parts of an old wooden bridge or a scaffolding used in connection with repairs, and these perhaps marked the exact site of the earliest crossing. Of the present bridge the piers are Roman, though late, and are made of black stone which contrasts in a harmonious manner with the superstructure of local sandstone, red like the cliffs of the same stone which one sees across the stream of the Moselle. The present arched superstructure is not ancient, for the upper portion of the Roman bridge was of wood, as were subsequent superstructures down as late as the twelfth century.

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The (partly) Roman bridge of Trier; and, as mentioned in the article, notice the red sandstone of both the modern superstructure and the distant cliffs.

Photo © Jona Lendering 2007, by kind permission.

Beside the bridge the visitor may be reminded of a certain incident of the year 70, when the Roman commander Cerialis was cut off from his troops encamped on the other side of the Moselle and the enemy almost captured the bridge. And this incident will remind us also of the course of history in the district. For to the reader of the literature of the early Empire the territory of the Treveri appears as the center of a particularist sentiment, where the feeling for independence was strong and the natives none too friendly toward foreign domination. This came to a head under Tiberius in the rebellion attempted by Julius Florus in aid of Julius Sacrovir. But more serious were the great revolt under Civilis and an attempt to found an empire of the Gauls, of which Trier would probably have been the capital. But thanks to Petilius Cerialis and his troops the revolt failed, though not without some serious fighting.

But after the year 70 the spirit of rebellion died down, and there ensued a period of prosperity and activity in which the district of the Moselle became a center of wealth and one of the most  p5 flourishing portions of the Empire. Around the Roman city arose luxurious villas with all the appointments of country estates. And for the memorials of this period the visitor to Trier will go to the Provincial Museum, into which have been gathered and arranged in excellent order the mosaics and monuments collected from the vicinity. The most interesting are the sculptures known as the Neumagen monuments, grave monuments from the vicinity of Trier built at a later time into a Roman fort at Neumagen, a few miles away. Many of these represent scenes of daily life from the neighbourhood. One shows a family at meal; another represents a lady at her toilet, seated in a chair, looking into a mirror which a servant holds before her, while another servant dresses her hair. Still another shows a schoolroom, with a schoolmaster in the center seated between two pupils, each of whom unrolls a scroll. Another shows a banker or landowner receiving money from peasants. Interesting in all these are the small details which show the divergences from the practices at Rome; The family sits at meal, the boys in the schoolroom have Gallic shoes, the banker is clean shaven in the Roman manner, but the peasants are bearded, as natives.

Perhaps the best known of these monuments is the representation of a ship on the Moselle, transporting four casks of wine, rowed by six men with two steersmen, one at stern and one at prow, the latter clapping his hands to give the oarsmen the beat. Here we have evidence for the early development of vine culture in the Moselle Valley. The cloth trade, too, was a prominent one in the district, and as a reminder of that the visitor may view in the courtyard of the museum a copy of the monument which exists in the original in the village of Igel a few miles out from Trier. It is a grave monument, seventy-five feet high, of the Secundii, a wealthy family engaged in the cloth trade, constructed of the local stone and containing portraits of members of the family, mythological representations, and, more interesting for us, perhaps, scenes from the daily life on the villa which was the establishment of these wealthy capitalists.

I have spoken of the mosaics which one may see in the museum;  p6 and one of these, which represents scenes from a Roman arena, will lead the visitor to seek the amphitheater on the outskirts of the city, not too long a walk distant from the museum itself. Here we find something different from what we usually think of when we imagine a Roman amphitheater; for the builders at Trier utilized the side of a hill, and rather a steep hill at that, using the slope for seats on one side, and grading up the dirt taken from the arena area to make an embankment for seats on the side towards the city. Persons from any institution having a stadium built in a natural depression will understand the process exactly. So the result was an amphitheater seating about 8,000, and in measurements about the same size as that of Verona. It was built in the time of Trajan or Hadrian. Today almost all of its ornamental masonry has gone, there being only a few tunnels left. Yet the whole is well planted in grass and neatly kept. And what was of more interest to me, the under­ground area has been excavated and reroofed, so that one may go beneath the arena floor and, amid the darkness and the rain water which has drained in, realize the true condition in which the victims of the contests were kept.

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Trier: Roman amphitheatre.

Photo © Jona Lendering 2007, by kind permission.

Another result of the prosperity in the second and third centuries was the erection of baths on an extensive scale in a section near the bridge, at a considerable distance from the amphitheater. The district was known in the Middle Ages as "Sankt Barbara" and his given its name to the baths, now known as the "Barbarathermen". Of these only the foundations remain; and although the excavations are extensive, much of the site is still covered by buildings in the neighborhood. Because less imposing than the larger ruins of a later time the Barbarathermen do not impress the traveler's imagination so strongly. Yet from all indications they must have been of an imposing splendor, and a marble torso of a statue of an Amazon found in them and now in the Provincial museum shows that works of art from Italy and the South were imported for their decoration.

But after the first and second centuries came the third, and in that period of confusion and anarchy Trier felt the full fury of  p7 the invasions of the Empire. Especially after the Roman limes fell into the hands of the Germans the hordes of invaders swept down time and time again upon the Roman city. From this danger it was saved by a resurgence of the spirit of independence and the establishment of an independent empire under Postumius. The Empire of the Gauls succeeded in giving protection to the land when the Romans of the South failed it, and the capital of this empire was Trier. Coins were issued here, and military forces guarded the city. Around it were built walls for the protection of the inhabitants, utilizing the amphitheater at one point, and enclosing an extensive area, much larger than that of the mediaeval city. From such walls there remains what is the most important ruin and the symbol, as it were, of the entire city — the Porta Nigra. There is, to be sure, some question as to its exact date, and some would place it later. But at any rate it is to the visitor a reminder of the troubled times of the third century.

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Trier: the Porta Nigra.

Photo © Jona Lendering 2007, by kind permission.

The Porta Nigra was the north gate of the city, and the side usually shown in photographs is the outer one, facing toward the enemy. On right and left are two towers, rounded out in semicircular fashion and originally four stories high, though now the top story of the east one is gone. The two theirs are connected by a structure in the same style, three stories high, through the bottom of which runs a double roadway with two archways side by side. The whole is in the upper parts a mass of engaged columns interspersed with openings, but the observer will note that in the lowest or ground story there were never any openings and the spaces between the engaged columns are walled in. The archways were guarded by portcullises, and what the photographs often fail to reveal shows more strongly than ever that the true purpose was a military one. For the inside is an open court, uncovered, with two stories of the upper structure looking down upon it, both practically all openings, from which the defenders could rain down missiles upon any enemy that might have passed the first barrier. And once inside this court the enemy must still fight his way past another hindrance on the city side, where a second pair of archways below the upper stories joined the towers.  p8 In fact, the gate detached from the wall was a fortress in itself; and so it survived long after the wall had passed away, though the iron clamps which bound its blocks were removed by despoilers. Its sandstone blackened, and hence its name. Yet not its massiveness saved it, but the devotion of a holy man, a St. Simeon, who, coming back from Palestine, chose it as the place of his residence. Upon his death it was consecrated as the place of a church; and the visitor today sees the decorations of the ecclesiastical structures carved on the inner walls of the two inner stories, for the lower story was covered by the rising ground level and by steps. And there is still left attached on the east side a three-story rounded structure which served as the apse of the Christian buildings.

The Empire of the Gauls lasted only about fifteen years. But Trier did not lose its importance after the great Aurelian had won back the western half of the Empire. Twelve years later its position was enhanced, for when Diocletian called Maximian to be his associate, the latter took up his station at Trier. From this time begins the most glorious period in its history. And after 293, upon the selection of the new Caesars, the German city began to surpass Rome itself in importance and was equal in power with Milan, Sirmium, and Nicomedia. Flavius Constantius took up his abode here as Caesar, as did his more famous son, Constantine the Great, before he entered Italy to win his victory over Maxentius.

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Trier: the interior of the basilica.

Photo © Jona Lendering 2007,
by kind permission.

Trier is, in fact, the city of Constantine. He rebuilt the bridge over the Moselle, erected a great circus, and enhanced the appearance of his capital with stately buildings. Of these, one yet remains — a basilica, a massive brick structure, with an apse at one end, and the side walls broken by two rows of windows beneath brick arches which join shallow pilasters that run up almost to the roof, ninety feet above the base. The marble veneer and the decorations are all gone, and the building looks bare at the present time; but it is a massive structure yet. And appropriately enough, this market hall or court building of the first Christian  p9 emperor is used today as a church, restored rather simply in 1856 and handed over to the Lutheran congregation for its uses. The interior is unobstructed by columns, the higher floor level at one end, where perhaps the judges sat, is preserved, and a square tabernacle perhaps takes the place of the emperor's seat. The whole gives an impression of spaciousness; and here, the better where an ancient building is in present-day use almost without alteration, I think one can best gain a sense of the importance of the city when it was in reality the head of Western Europe.

Before the basilica in Constantine's day extended an entrance hall with colonnades on either side, and before that a spacious forum. But this was some twelve feet below the present level. Yet the space is clear today; for the electors of Trèves continued to occupy the same region of the city, and the electoral palace, a building in the French style, extends before and impinges upon about one-half of front of the basilica, though the Roman building far overtowers it. And the site of the Roman forum became the garden of the electors, and later a parade ground. So today in this open area the visitor may imagine himself in the imperial forum.

At one end of this space begin the remains of another great building, which at the eastern end, several blocks away, become most striking. Rising high into the air are the remains of immense vaults and arches of stone and brick work. These, after the Porta Nigra, are the most impressive ruins in Trier, and were for long known as the imperial palace, but quite erroneously, for they are the remaining portions of the caldarium of an immense Roman bath, built about the end of the third century. Only the brick work is left, the outer veneer having perished long ago; but the massiveness and immense proportions combine to create a most powerful effect. The caldarium itself was large enough to contain the whole Porta Nigra, and the other rooms were in proportion. But of these only the foundation walls remain.

Over where the palaestra used to be, adjoining Constantine's forum, the excavation is not complete. But at present a high  p10 board fence surrounds it; and when I was there, behind the board fence two teams of German boys seemed to be playing a game of soccer football, with the vocal exhortations of their supporters ringing out in the same place in which the shouts of the athletes sounded in the days of the late Empire.

Yet the space was not a palaestra always, even under the Romans; for under Gratian, some forty or fifty years after the completion of the great baths, extensive changes took place. The open court was greatly enlarged by the demolition of the central buildings — hence only the foundation walls survive in that portion. The exact purpose of the remodeling is not definitely known. Some think the buildings may have become a basilica and forum for Gratian adjoining the forum of Constantine. Other suggestions, too, have been made. But whatever the use, the old caldarium became the main portion of the new structure; and so its remains still stand at the junction-point of two beautiful streets, while in the Provincial Museum near by excellent models are arranged to show the visitor the form of the building at its successive stages.

The cathedral of Trier has a mediaeval west front, but it is built around a center which goes back to Roman times; and its chief treasure, the Holy Cloak worn by Christ at the time of his crucifixion, was supposedly brought to the city by Helena, the mother of Constantine. The purpose of the original building on the site is uncertain, but its conversion into an ecclesiastical edifice at an early period is indicative of the shifting emphasis from the temporal to the spiritual, and of the eminence which Trier was later to have as the seat of an archbishop destined to acquire temporal significance as an elector of the Holy Roman Empire. Ere the Romans left, Trier was the seat of a bishop. And around the court and the church grew up a center of culture and schooling, along with Bordeaux one of the two intellectual centers of the Roman world in the fourth and fifth centuries. Here Athanasius visited, and the bishops were involved in the Arian controversy. Here St. Jerome studied and worked. But perhaps some of us will think first of all of Ausonius, the tutor of the Emperor  p11 Gratian, whose famous poem, the Mosella, describes the scenery in the neighborhood.

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Photo © Jona Lendering 2007, by kind permission.

The epitaph of Ursicinus: not mentioned in the journal article, but too interesting to pass up.


Here lies Ursicinus, who lived 50 years, 9 months and 6 days. His brothers, Ursinus and Ursus, to whom he was very dear, laid his titulus to peaceful rest.

Notice the unusual form of the letter Q in line 2; the ambiguous use of titulus (properly, "inscription" — were the chi‑rho and "in peace" not interposed, the translation would be the much more straightforward "erected this inscription") for the body, tomb and memorial of a Christian, its best-known use being to designate the earliest churches in the city of Rome; and the passive use of dulcissimi, typical of Late Antique funerary inscriptions. It ought to mean "very dear" and be applied to the dead man, but the sense has migrated to the feeling for him elicited in the living.

Down into the fifth century lasted the city's glory, though the increasing pressure of the barbarians was ominous and indicative of the future. The seat of administration of the Gauls was moved to Arles about 400, and some ten years later the last Roman troops left Trier. Then came the Franks to take up what the Romans had abandoned, to sack the old capital time and time again, until about 470 the city was definitely Frankish.

But still it remains, says one writer, "a thriving city of fifty thousand people, prosecuting its trade with vigor and giving scant attention to its monuments of antiquity save to preserve them for the present-day visitor and for posterity."

And it is a lovely city. When one leaves the Hauptbahnhof there stretches before him a beautiful allee — a wide parkway of trees, with flowers, grass, and winding walks between two roadways — leading straight on to the Porta Nigra and beyond that almost to the Moselle. Similar allees extend on the east and south sides, almost equally beautiful. Although they do not exactly coincide with the line of the streets in the Roman city, yet they suggest to the visitor the old rectangular plan and mark out in a rough way the extent it comprised.

And occasionally there is a suggestion of the city's ancient glory. At least during my visit, there was being held one of the gatherings of the German youth. Banners were flying, the streets were crowded, and frequently there came marching down the streets a group of the Jungen, in costume, accompanied by their leader, with a fife or flute, the whole group bursting into song now and then.​a The city was literally overrun. And I could not help wondering how often in the old days the Roman legionaries must have passed through the streets in the selfsame fashion. Following one group out one morning I came to the river, but on a subsequent walk I got slightly off the usual street and looked up at a street sign, to find myself on Ausonius Strasse. What better way, thought I, to be led to the Moselle than under the spiritual guidance of such a name?

 p12  There is painted on a house near the market place in Trier a Latin motto:

Ante Romam Treveris stetit annis mille trecentis

Perstet et aeterna pace fruatur. Amen.

"Ere Rome, stood Trier a thousand three hundred years.

Stand may it still, and eternal peace enjoy."

In fidelity to a certain respect for historical accuracy I must smile at the naïveté of the legend which inspired the first line.​b But when I think of a pleasant sojourn of a few days there in June, 1931, I can only reëcho the "Amen" of the second.

The Author's Note:

1 Read at the twenty-eighth annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Cincinnati, March 25, 1932.

Two convenient books for those interested in Trier are: Daniel Krencker, Das Römische Trier: Berlin, Deutscher Kunstverlag (1923); and Kentenich, Trier, Seine Geschichte und Kunstschätze: Trier, Jacob Lintz (no date). Both contain illustrations, as does Paul Steiner, Römische Landhäuser im Trierer Bezirk: Berlin, Deutscher Kunstverlag (1923). Excellent illustrations are contained also in Friedrich Koepp, Die Römer in Deutschland3: Leipzig, Velhagen und Klasing (1926). For the history of the city, cf. the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum CIL XIII I, 2, pp582‑86, and Edward A. Freeman, "Augusta Treverorum," in Historical Essays, Third Series2: New York, Macmillan and Co. (1892). Interesting sketches of the city by recent travelers are: Hilaire Belloc, Towns of Destiny: New York, McBride and Co. (1931), 182‑86, and Robert M. McBride, Towns and People of Modern Germany: New York, McBride and Co. (1930), 32‑36, from which a quotation in this article is taken. Cf. also M. Rostovtzeff, Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire: Oxford, Clarendon Press (1926), Plates XX, XXX, and LVIII.

Thayer's Notes:

a The article was published after the Nazi coup d'état; the new régime arrived to power on the backs of such exhilarating, singing German youth, and would make expert use of that youth thruout its existence. Our writer's attitude is much the same as that which led Chamberlain, a man deluded by his own decency, to declare peace in his time.

b The legend referred to is that which opens the Gesta Treverorum (1105 A.D.): Trier would have been founded by one Trebeta, son of Ninus, king of Assyria. Many European cities have such absurd legends. Mind you there were indeed people living near Trier a long time ago: Stone Age pottery has been found in the area.

The house in question, the Rote Haus, still stands, despite the WWII bombings: Irene Hahn's Roman History Books And More has photos.

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