Trier – Germany’s Oldest City

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Porta Nigra – built circa 200AD

Trier is located in the Mosel Valley along the banks of the Mosel River. It can trace its origins as far back as the first and second millennium BC, but it was with the conquest of the Treveri tribe by Julius Caesar during the Gallic Wars in 58-50 BC that Trier started to become a hub of the emerging Roman Empire. By the year 293 AD it was considered Roma Secunda, second capital of the Western Roman Empire. Always a coveted strategic and cultural center throughout history, Trier at times belonged not only to the Romans, but also to Germanic, Norse and French influencers and it was not until the end of the Second World War that full control of Trier was given to the Germans. The lives of some of the most fabled people of Europe, Julius Ceasar, Marcus Aurelius, Constantine the Great, Charlemagne, Goethe, Karl Marx, General George Patton, all played significant roles in the history of Trier.

So, with its many accolades as Germany’s oldest city, its ancient roots as an urban, cultural and religious center, a contemporary tourist magnet, and the site of the only Roman Imperial city north of the Alps, Trier has been accorded seven UNESCO World Heritage sites that bear testament to its Roman heritage: Porta Nigra, the Roman Imperial Throne Room, the Imperial Baths, the Amphitheater, the Roman Bridge, the Cathedral St Peter, the Barbara Baths and an eighth, Church of Our Lady that highlights the magnificence of later centuries. It doesn’t do justice to explore Trier in a day, but to get a taste of what future visits could offer, we did the eight World Heritage sites in a day…and we’ll be back for more not just once, but many times to really get a sense of the heritage that this city has to offer.

The physical footprint of Trier evolved over the years, but by the second century AD a wall surrounded Trier punctuated by five gates, of which the oldest surviving one was made of sandstone blocks each weighing around six tons. By the Middle Ages the sandstone had darkened and the gate itself had outlived its usefulness and Porta Nigra was turned into the double church St Simeons, so named for the Greek hermit who lived walled up inside.

The remnants of the double towers are still visible and as you walk through the gates of Porta Nigra the anticipation of the history lesson that is to come becomes palpable.

Constatine Basilica

The Roman Imperial Throne Room, also known as Constatine Basillica, was so named for the Emperor Constatine the Great who ruled in the early 4th century. It is difficult to convey the enormity of this single room edifice (220’ x 90’ x 110’) in a picture due to road construction all around the Basillica – itself also under construction the day we were there.

The building has been torn down, razed, and rebuilt many times over the centuries but this part of the church, the apse and two walls are original. It is now an active protestant church.

Imperial Baths

Construction on the Imperial Baths, ”Kaiserthermen”, began in the late third century, the same time as the Basilica of Constantine. It was the second largest thermal bathhouse in Trier and the fifth largest in the Roman Empire. Bathing was a huge pastime in the Roman Empire and the bathhouses were intricate buildings of hot and cold baths and elaborate meeting areas as well as sporting large exercise areas aboveground. As construction neared completion, Constantine left Trier to become the sole emperor of the Roman Empire and the building was never completed and not a drop of water ever flowed. Abandoned, the baths were later occupied by the military and then finally razed by subsequent countries that held power in the region. Bombed heavily during World War II, the arduous task of restoring the “thermae” has been going on since 1956.

Most impressively there does remain an extensive underground system of corridors that would have housed the sewer and heating system of the ancient baths.

Entrance to the Amphitheater

The end of the second century was a busy time in Trier, and the construction of the Amphitheater contributed to the rapid growth of the town. Serving as the second most influential city in the Roman Empire, grandiose buildings were built and the Amphitheater was no slouch in this arena. A popular meeting place, like its neighbor across the street, the thermal baths, huge spectacles were planned with great detail and pomp and circumstance.

Two entrances led to the arena measuring around 150’ x 210’ and shaped kind of like an oval. Tiered stone seating could hold up to 18,000 people who were there for shows with clowns, circus performers, fights between humans and fights between animals as well as fights between humans and animals. They were rowdy affairs and huge sums would often change hands. Public executions, music presentations, and religious festivals were also the norm.

The cellar of the Amphitheater

Numerous pits and wooded beams belonged to different lifting systems which would carry participants, animals and scenery into the arena through thirteen different entrances.

Constantine the Great renovated the Amphitheater when he was located in Trier, but when the end of the Western Roman Empire came in the 5th century the Amphitheater fell into ruins, its massive stones plundered for buildings in the other parts of town, and finally after a monastery from nearby Himmerod took a bunch of stone as well in the 13th century the Amphitheater remained buried in ruins until the 19th century when excavations and renovations began, continuing to this day.

Roman Bridge

The Roman Bridge is the oldest datable Roman structure in Germany. The bridge, originally wooden, was first built in 18/17 BC by Romans who were building a highway from Lyon, France to the Rhine river and needed to cross the Moselle river. At low water the foundation beams of the second iteration of the bridge can be seen. The stone piers of the current bridge date from 144-152 AD and the vaultings from 1718. If you look closely you can see the cross and statue of St Nicholas, a Christian bishop who helped the needy. In death the legend of his gift-giving grew and and that legend has evolved into the character Santa Claus…

The Latin inscription above the clock on the tower reads “NESCITIS QVA HORA DOMINVS VENIET” (“You do not know what time the Lord is coming”).

The High Cathedral of St Peter was ordered to be built by none other than Constantine the Great during his life in Trier. It is the oldest bishop‘s church in Germany and the actual construction was led by bishop Maximin and overseen by Constantine’s mother, Helena Augusta. From 329 to 346AD. It was the largest evangelical building north of Rome and as with a lot of the construction that took place in Trier it was razed and pillaged after Constantine’s return to Rome. It was rebuilt numerous times, with new additions and renovated interiors and today it stands as a testament to both the original Roman architecture and the ensuing era of Gothic and Baroque influences.

Obviously there have been many renovations done to the outside and to the interior of the Cathedral.. The picture on the left is the aisle that leads to the main altar and east choir where the Sanctuary of Christ’s seamless robe is found – the tunic Christ wore during and after the crucifixion- symbolic of one undivided church and the objective of pilgrims that have come to Trier for centuries. The second picture is a crucifixion altar and the gravestone for Archbishop Richard von Greiffenklan, one of the more progressive bishops of the early and mid sixteenth century. The photo on the right is the Golden Gate, Altar of the Holy Trinity, Epitaph of Johann Philipp von Walderdorff, another progressive Archbishop of the church during the latter part of the sixteenth century.

To the left is the baptismal font found in the west-end choir vault and the so impressive Baroque stucco dome. The middle picture is that of an elaborate burial monument and the picture to the right is where I got lucky with some light on a set of pews.

There are additional historical items in the church including part of a chain used to imprison St Peter and one of the Holy Nails used to hang Jesus from the cross.

Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady)

One of the entrances to the Church of Our Lady leads you into the oldest Gothic church in Germany. Built upon the southern ruins of the Romanesque St Peter in the 1200’s, the church was constructed in the shape of a Greek cross with a huge tower in the center. The overall floor plan resembles a twelve petaled rose, the symbol associated with the Virgin Mary. Unusual to have two churches connected by a cloisters right next to each other, each its own entity and each with its own identity.

Main altar with a gorgeous stained glass background

The huge central dome is supported by twelve pillars symbolizing the twelve Apostles each of whose image and creed is painted on one of the pillars – I could have done a better job with the camera but if you look closely you can kind of see them.

Flanking the west entrance to the church are replica statues that represent the Ecclesia, St Peter, Adam, Eve, St John and the Synagoga.

With its circular floor plan, the high ceilings and the stained glass, masses in this church are embellished by the optics and acoustics.

Barbara Baths

The Barbara Baths date from the second century making them the oldest and largest baths in Trier and the second largest in the Roman Empire. Only one third excavated, it is hard to see anything on the surface that would lead one to identifying this area as the largest bath west of Rome, but underneath the grounds there is a well preserved system of tunnels that lead to what were heated pools, hollowfloor heating systems, furnaces, drainage and water supply systems, testimony to the technology that the Romans used. It extended over an area comparable to six soccer fields, had heated pools, rooms for sport, body care, exercises, and other distractions that made the Barbara Baths a cultural center of Trier.

Guided by interpretive displays one can get a good sense of the amenities that the Barbara Baths offered. While the order of bathing was not set in stone, one would usually start by visiting the caldarium (hot water bath) followed by a dip in the tepidarium (lukewarm bath) and finally into the unheated frigidarium where the cold water would totally freshen the bathers.

If I’m doing my math correctly, the baths went through about 330 thousand gallons of water a day, with the water for the caladrium heated in massive boilers that stood over 36’ in height. There were two pools that measured 36’ x 65’ and were about 4’ deep.

This was the center axis of the facility with the caladrium, the hot water bath, lavishly decorated and lit up by large windows that helped trap heat along with the floor and wall systems. The facilities were used into the 5th century, after which the baths were plundered for building stones. The baths were broken up and dismantled to make way for the creation of the suburb of Trier St. Barbara, which was named after a monastery that once stood on the site. Excavations have made it possible to understand this vital part of Roman life and culture.

As I referenced a ton of info for this blog from the internet, the foodie in me started to think about what the ancient Romans ate, and if there are recipes that have been handed down and preserved. Hah – I was now into an ancient civilization endeavor and I was having a hard time with my BCE’s and CE’s and pronunciations of historical figures long since passed into the appropriate afterlife of gourmandise. I settled on a blog called Slices of Blue Sky mainly because the author had done a ton of research saving me from myself. Bottom line the attributed authority on Roman gastronomy and menus appears to be a Marcus Gabius Apicius who lived during the reigns of the emperors Augustus (27BCE – 14CE) and Tiberius (14CE – 37CE. He was a legendary character, a pseudo chef who aspired to be top culinary advisor to the Emperor of the moment. He had notes on over 500 dishes, not really detailed in recipe form but rather more of a reference guide. He was what one’s image of a fun-loving, toga garbed, orgy-worthy hotshot should have been back then. Such was his reputation through the years and long after his death that the definitive source for for Roman food history De Re Coquinaria, (On the Subject of Cooking), was attributed to him. The author of this blog mercifully came up with a recipe for a side dish that is simple and very tasty and old – Ancient Roman-Style Carrots. Enjoy!

Roman Style Carrots based on ancient Roman recipe in Apicius

One Reply to “Trier – Germany’s Oldest City”

  1. I had not heard of Trier. Interesting that it has such a long and varied history. As usual I forwarded the email to my sister for her to enjoy too. Keep ’em coming!


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